University City

You know you made it when you move to University City Hills


I grew up in University City, Mo., a municipality next to St. Louis. It is a diverse community with a rich cultural and architectural history. It remains a racially diverse community with an incredible diversity of wealth, but has remained cohesive unlike other communities where the gap between the haves and haves not continues to widen because of growing and historic income inequality in the United States. The swankiest subdivision in this town is University City Hills, located on the south edge of the city next to much more affluent Clayton, Mo., a mini-financial hub for the St. Louis area. Homes date from the first half of the 20th century and span a wide variety of European styles. It exudes money and power, even though it is quaint as moneyed neighborhoods go.

Growing up in areas far less affluent than University City Hills, I always knew a giant gulf separated me and the kids who lived here. Many of them are the type of kids who went to the best private schools, whose parents were professional and upper-middle-class, and who had better opportunities and health then the less well-off in my community. Yes, many of the kids who grew up here went to my public high school, which was a bit rough and tumble, but many more went to private schools and never experienced the world just outside their leafy suburb. One of my college classmates grew up in one of these homes. We had absolutely nothing in common, and I do not think he ever had to worry about college loans, not doing holiday ski trips, and even thinking about what a security net means to success. He was a lot like many young people I knew at my private college.

I still love how pretty the homes are in University City Hills. I know many of the people who live here are likely good people. But they still remain in a place that is worlds apart from the lower-income areas about two miles north. However because these homes are in St. Louis, prices are ridiculously low compared to, say where I have lived, in Seattle. A three-story brick beauty here is actually less than a single story wood shack in parts of Seattle.


Black and white in black and white, 25th University City High School reunion


I attended University City High School from 1980 through 1983. There is so much I can say about it, and I already have on a couple of posts about the value of public education and the importance of learning from adversity.

I cannot say it was a golden period of my life. In many ways, it challenged me and I could not wait to get away from the St. Louis area as soon as I could. However, the best part of that period of my life, through my graduation, was learning how to confront and respond to aspects of race relations that impact our country, but really most of the world. I do not claim I am a better person. I just think I have a more nuanced view and can appreciate different perspectives better because of this experience. And trust me, I have some perspectives that do not fit traditional narratives, but make sense for me. My later photo-documentary projects were very much inspired by going to a place like University City High School.

I have been thinking about University City lately in light of recent events. For the past two years, the country has been roiled with the latest chapters in our race-related debates over criminal justice, policing, immigration reform, and firerms-related violence.

The most prominent stories focussing on the black-and-white dimensions have come to a boil over the recent grand jury decision in St. Louis County not to indict Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer, for shooting an unarmed African American man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson this summer; the exonneration of Latino George Zimmerman (often mistakenly called white throughout the proceedings) for the 2012 shooting death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in a Florida suburb over a “stand your ground” case; and this week the failure by a New York City grand jury to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo over the choke hold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner in July 2014.

Dr. Martin Luther King once reportedly said Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America. I personally think the more hours you spend with people who have a different set of experiences than you, the wiser and more thoughtful you will be. I have pretty much thought that since I left University City. My hope is that there can be individual efforts by ordinary people in their own way to get to know each other better, while working on bigger problems that continue to impact communities everywhere in this country.

(Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

University City seen through my GoPro

I grew up in University City, Mo., a municipality due west of St. Louis. Its roots date to the turn of the 20th century. Today about 35,000 people call it home. It has undergone a lot of changes over the years, but during that time the Loop area has remained the community’s heart and soul. One can find former synagogues converted to cultural facilities, beautiful stone churches, my now-abandonned elementary school, eateries, shops, the world-famous Blueberry Hill club and restaurant, and the St. Louis Walk of Fame–stars with the names of famous St. Louis area residents cast into the cement.

University City also is home to a good chunk of one of the nation’s wealthiest private universities, Washington University in St. Louis, with assets valued at more than $9 billion. As a 501(c)(3) corporation or non-profit, the school pays no property taxes to University City, and is engaged in a development strategy to acquire and develop property in University City and the surrounding area. Washington University recently completed a beautiful student housing facility and store in the heart of the Loop that provides a strong anchor of stability. This also has created friction in the past. The school remains the bedrock that provides the wealth to the area, and which draws many people who want to live and settle in the community. It is the penultimate golden goose that makes the place a beacon to the world.

Finally, University City is home to many houses of worship, including Bethel Lutheran Church, where I attended with my family until I was 18 years old. This church is famous because of its role in a divisive controversy that split faculty at the nearby Concordia Seminary, pitting conservatives against progressives and leading to the departure of faculty that were in the Bethel circle. Today it is an ELCA Lutheran church, and I always have great affection for the beautiful building and the good people who I got to know there.

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)