White Privilege in a Black & White City

I live near St. Louis, Missouri, USA and I do my social justice work within that city.  It is a very strange city because time has frozen there.  It froze, for the city as a whole, in 1865, because the actual “city limits” were set down in stone in the State of Missouri’s new Constitution after the Civil War.  These limits have not and, to all intents and purposes, cannot be shifted at all.


This placed huge constraints on how and where people can move to in the area.  Missouri has always had both actual, the “Jim Crow Laws” most often associated with the Deep South, and the socioeconomic segregation that is more prevalent today.  Though I promise to get into the “North of Delmar” Divide, Pruitt-Igo Housing, and other not so lovely things about the city I work in.

Back in “the day”, there was a thriving black middle and even upper class within an area of St. Louis called “The Ville”.  It’s still there, it’s just not anyplace anyone would want to live.  Most of the houses are abandoned, neighborhoods blighted, and small businesses are few and far between.  A lot of the blight is due to one developer, Paul McKee, who’s been able to get both the city and the State to pay him to take over “abandoned, blighted properties” in hopes of “someday” they’ll be developed.  Into what?  No one will say, especially Mr. McKee.  I’ve lived here nearly a decade and not one single new thing has gone up on the North Side of town where his “redevelopment” is planned.  Well, except for the Boys & Girls club that is too expensive for 98% of the residents of the area to pay dues to join!  And this B&G, in the heart of the ‘hood, won’t even hire folks that live there!  I personally know of women and men who are traveling 30 miles one way, in a place where transportation is scarce, to go work in the county B&GC.

Lived In                                           Abandoned



Lived in    Vacant Lot    Abandoned

I got into this community following my godmother’s request through her eldest son.  You see, about 60 years ago, the part of N St. Louis she grew up in was still a ghetto, it’s just it was the poor Irish ghetto.  I went to take a picture of her childhood home.  It looked like a bombsite.  So did most other houses on that street.  Then I noticed people were living in some of these burnt out, tumbled down shells.  Then I noticed they had kids living there too.  Another thing they had was lots and lots of abandoned, empty lots.  Post Occupy, I was looking to find a small project I could do, with a few allies, that might make a difference in just one persons’ life.  I’ve always had gardens so I knew I could do that and I began knocking on doors.

Firstly, I knocked on the doors of extant organizations that are rooted in the community, ie. The Dream Center, The Organization for Black Struggle, NAACP, Urban League down into the neighborhood levels of “block captains” and “community reps”.  Slow and no were how it was going until I met a young black man who was willing to take a chance on someone like me.  Yes, like me, I look like my Danish/English father not my Heinz 57 mother that we know has AmerInd blood.  I guess he honestly listened to me and realized I was not there to take anything at all away from their community, but rather hoped to bring something to it. I was also Very clear on what I could and couldn’t do and how long my commitment was for…originally, one year.  So, he and the neighbors got 6 gangs to truce out over a corner.  I was looking for a “safe space”, they designated it “sacred space” and all the gangs pitched in to make the garden happen.  Talau organized the first planning meetings and seed sortings.  Why plant what folks won’t eat right?

It was fantastic when we started, all sorts came to help, only about 5 “outsiders” stuck it out though.  I could understand, giving up every single Saturday for a whole growing season and in a drought year was not exactly “fun” but it was fruitful and beautiful relationships, as well as gorgeous fruits and veggies were the result.

Since I am in the city for work on most Wednesday’s and hate driving out in traffic, I started to stop by the garden for the rush hour and do weeding etc.  Fairly soon, the kids on the block started to come by and help then too.  We turned it into an impromptu tutoring and gardening club.  These children really took ownership of the garden and kept it clean and drug/drink free when “the gardeners” weren’t there.  It was becoming much more than anyone had ever foreseen.  Heck, the local Assemblyman tried to shut us down and then got served with over 30,000 signatures from all over the world and over 10K from that area alone.  He backed off.  Now that’s self-empowerment!

We made it through our first winter too and plans were afoot, in 2013, for a better year than ever.  Then, well, some of the allies decided that perhaps they should get in on these “free land” grabs for themselves or at least to their own profit.  Others, though only one from the ‘hood that I know of, began writing for grants based on our garden.  Using photos and events etc. as if they had sponsored them when they’d never even set foot in the garden let alone carried water or planted a single seed.  It got ugly, but the garden struggled on because the people IN the neighborhood wanted that garden to stay!

The end of my personal involvement in the garden came about a year ago when I was told that the white people that I’d brought in as allies, didn’t want to work with me anymore and, if I insisted on still gardening, they’d leave the garden to rot.  I’d just had 2 shoulder surgeries and was not fit for a physical fight against them. I listened to the ethos of “the good of the many outweigh the needs of one”.  I knew that the kids and the people of the neighborhood still liked and respected me, so I left a message that I’d be out for the season do to health issues.  Now, I wish I’d have just told the folks who threw me out, to get stuffed.

It seems, according to things I’ve heard in the past few days, that the politics are ramping up over the original garden, as well as other gardens that are being put in by outsiders i.e. those who don’t live in the community.  These gardens are for the personal gain of whomever is paying the $5.00USD for a 5 year gardening lease, to the city coffers.  This is exactly how Paul McKee started gobbling up the land there too.

A retired teacher started a Peace March, that takes place in April, and I’d been in on the planning and facilitation, since I’d been doing my Wednesday Kids Club at the garden.  The march is in memory of all the children that are killed due to violence of one kind or another in that schools’ area.  Now some outsiders are trying to take over the Peace March. Yes, it’s about money too.  Seems you can write grants on most anything these days, including Peach Marches.

Here’s the horrid part of all this, at least for me.  If I had given up sooner, not met Talau and he’d not introduced me as a “real person” who happens to look white.  If I’d not brought others into the project with me that didn’t have the purest intent and they hadn’t brought even more white people in who are definitely in it for profit.  Then, perhaps, this wouldn’t be happening.

What’s happening?  Well, some of the original people from the neighborhood who used to help, have actually moved away because of all the crap going down about a little 3300 sq. ft. garden.  Yes, seriously, they’ve moved.  One other reason they’ve moved is that, with a profit motive in the mix, greed and gentrification are rearing their ugly heads in the hood.   I can understand, it’s Very affordable to live in the North Side, but some of those houses are on their third or even fourth generation of ownership by the same Black family.  Their houses are well kept as they are able, but the property values are severely depressed due to the blighted McKee owned homes.  This generation doesn’t want to stick around just to be used and abused by “whitey” again.  Can’t say that I blame them.

The saddest part is that I wanted to do something good, provide fresh fruits and veggies in a food dessert as well as some informal tutoring for the kids and now, well, now it’s coming back at me with these words, spoken by a dear friend to me the other night, “Arianna, you know we love you and you do good things, but girl, why did you ever tell them where we lived?”

To which all I can say is this, “I didn’t mean to do harm.  I had to come up with “a string” in order to convince folks here to let me in and you all know what that was.  I wanted to change ONE persons life for the better, and I had that the first day when we cleared the weeds out by Miss Cookie’s fence.”

I’ve always known what “white privilege” is because I was raised in a poor, brown family.  I held no “white guilt” because of who my POC people were.  Now, I feel guilty, not about my own perceived “whiteness” but about what those privileged whites are doing to my friends.

What’s your experience where you live?  Black, brown, white, pink polkadotted, we all have a story.


4 thoughts on “White Privilege in a Black & White City

  1. What a story. In the end, I believe, the most important thing is that we did all that we could to fill the purpose that we have. Rather we are successful or purpose thrives is relevant to the situation but is not relevant to us having no regrets because we did our very best. Good for you.


  2. You did what you could out of the goodness of your heart. You weren’t asking for anything in return. It’s a shame if I’m reading this right that some are using your gardens for their gain. Acting like they planted them. The neighborhood people know who put the garden there. And they won’t forget what you did for them.. Hold your head up high.

    I lived in an all black neighborhood and we were one of maybe three white families. We went to school together, laughed together. I went to each others homes We ate at each others homes.We were all just neighborhood kids. We looked out for one another. I felt safest in my neighborhood .

    And When asked where I lived, when I told them 8th street. I saw the ignorance in them raise it’s ugly racist head. I wasn’t raised that way. There is good and bad in all races. and In every neighborhood.


    • I know it’s never easy, perhaps I fooled myself into thinking it should be easier than it is/was. This is most likely due to the fact that I still, after a decade dealing with this, somehow believe that someone, somewhere should have realized, oh so long ago, that the Civil War is OVER……but not here, not here.


  3. I know you are right, but I also know that I can’t say it doesn’t hurt my heart. The violence and vengefulness was gone, for the most part, for one glorious year. A year of cooperation, and relative peace. I know I went with my heart clean, I just wish I’d been a better judge of character. One of my biggest faults is believing people are better than they actually are.


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