Hill and Ville

NOTE: The following post was originally created in Fall 2011 during Community Building. Some of the text refers to specific things that occurred in class at that time, however the overall point remains apropos.

~ Andrew

Reflecting on the music and discussion we had in yesterday’s class. The students worked on drawings representing of The Ville and The Hill. The comparison almost seems too cute in the way they rhyme but there’s certainly a logic involved in making the comparison. Certainly contrasting stable communities with strong cultural institutions in North and South St. Louis is a legitimate, worthwhile exercise.

One of the things about the two tours that strikes me is that I felt our visit to The Hill tended to preference the built fabric and the vernacular sense of continuity that makes for a very compelling and cohesive neighborhood. The insistent repetition of the overall house forms had an almost numbing effect in some areas despite the individuality of each home not just architecturally, but also in the way each family ornamented and presented their homes to the public.My suspicion is that it might have been possible to visit The Ville and take a tour with a similar sense of architectural continuity. Our tour favored the larger institutional buildings and organizations over the urban fabric of the residential community. To some extent, the fabric and texture is simply missing or lacks cohesion. When we did look at homes, they tended to be unique for historical reasons and due to the residents who grew up there rather than for their architectural or urban content.

There’s nothing wrong with this difference between the tours, but it does lead to a varied perception. Clearly much of the difference  was noted related to the general comfort and ease with which we generally feel in visiting The Hill and the greater sense of unease we might have felt visiting The Ville. Part of that has to do with the “branding” of the Southside neighborhood as a source for Italian culture and food that is widely known and appreciated in Saint Louis. Also, the neighborhood itself makes a particular point of reminding visitors (and residents)  they are in the “Italian” section of the city by regularly referencing the Italian flag in banners and fire hydrants as well as through other visual reminders.

Bob’s explanations have made it clear that while Italians were among the original residents of the area, it wasn’t a monolithic culture that dominated the area in the way that’s suggested by the constant reminders (flags, banners, fire hydrants, etc.). Many of the early settlers of the area who came to work in the clay mines and brick factories were German and African American. In fact, the branding of the present neighborhood has been such successful as a strategy for promoting local restaurants and bakeries, there seems to be a much higher concentration of such businesses in the area than could be supported by the local economy. The great number and variety (and expense) of many of the restaurants clearly seem to reflect the increased business opportunities based upon attracting customers from the wider metropolitan St. Louis region.

This dominance of branding neighborhoods has been so successful that it tends to suppress many other features of the community that are beneficial, but not publicly understood to be connected with The Hill. It would be interesting to take photographs of less typical sections of The Hill that might be suggestive of other cultures, traditions, practices and locations and to present them to a group and ask them to identify the neighborhood in which they were taken.

It would be possible to find buildings and sites and locations in The Hill that could be suggestive of the industrial riverfront areas, Soulard, Wellston, The Ville, Clayton and West County. In a similar way, I suspect one could take photographs of various locations around other parts of the city to that would reflect the image commonly accepted for The Hill and have people identify them as having been taken there, when in fact they represent restaurants, homes, churches, parks and businesses are located in other parts of the city entirely.

So what does this mean? Does it mean that the representations of The Hill we have ingrained in our minds are false? I don’t believe that’s the case, however it does suggest that we’re somewhat brainwashed in the way we understand segments of the city. I wonder to what extent our preconceptions determine our reactions? The characteristics that predominate in a given context that are associated with it don’t exist only in that locale, rather they can be found and identified throughout the wider city. Instead of viewing this fact in a negative light, we should realize that there is an identifiable common architectural culture in the historic core of St. Louis proper.

Another thought experiment might be to take students on a drive blindfolded and then arrive somewhere without knowing where they are going in advance. Then they would be forced to really “read” the city they find themselves in for clues and information about its condition, history, demographics, prosperity, density, etc. Understanding the city through direct observation as an archaeologist or ethnographer might without a tour guide providing a set of mental frameworks within which to appreciate our experience of the neighborhood. To what extent do such descriptions short circuit our appreciation of a place as a direct, personal experience?

Our conversation about the drawings of The Hill and The Ville was instructive, but also revealed some things about our own ideas and how we project them on to situations. Someone commented, “Well of course we feel more comfortable going to The Hill, since we all have a European background.” I felt this statement was, at a minimum, insensitive. Considered more deeply, it is taking a Euro-centric based privileging of Western culture and civilization as the dominant mode for understanding and interpreting American culture, deciding what matters and is worthwhile versus what is less valued and more readily accepted as land to be redeveloped through urban renewal or other types of “erasure urbanism”.

Part of the intention behind our class relates to overcoming stereotypes and preconceptions we have about people and places. Such preconceptions can tend to cause us to distort reality and prejudice us from really seeing things as they are.

After writing this post, I decided I ought to go ahead with my thought experiment and take still frames from the video I shot during our visits to The Hill and The Ville. Can you identify which are which?

















Test yourself and put down whether you think each photograph was taken in The Hill or The Ville.

This entry was posted in economics, history, housing, St. Louis and tagged , , , , .

One Comment

  1. Andrew 1 December 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    Feel free to copy and paste the series of numbers below and then write your own comment by pasting them and placing an “H” and a “V” after each numeral.