Monday, October 18, 2010

From the Ville to the Hill

Historian Peter Kaleta with Historic Figure
Yesterday, after a lazy day, we got a preview of Wednesday's agenda, when we drove to dinner in very roundabout way.  People who've been to St. Louis know that Blueberry Hill and The Pageant are on Delmar, a street of restaurants, small shops, and theaters just north of huge Forest Park (the "Central Park of the Mid-West").  Just north of Delmar is The Ville-- the African American neighborhood where Chuck Berry grew up, began performing, and became a star.  We're going to tour some of the monuments of Chuck Berry land in a couple of days, but we took a detour on the way to dinner and found a couple of them by accident!  The first was his old office-- a place I'd read about in his Autobiography, but knew visually from Peter Kaleta's myspace page.  For those of you who don't know Peter, (I've never met him, but I know him), he's from Sweden but knows American music intimately.  And he researches.  And he documents.  So when he came to the U.S. he knew exactly where to go to find the recording studios, and houses, the bars, the clubs, and the luminaries themselves.  (There is a photo of him towering over Fats Domino, who looks about the size of a domino when standing next to Peter.)  Anyway, from Peter's photo I knew three things:  I knew the office was painted purple and yellow, and I knew it was on the eastern end of Dr. Martin Luther King (Avenue?  Drive?  Sorry-- don't know).  So as we drove accross Martin Luther King, heading east, I kept my eyes open.

And there it was!
Photo by Peter Kaleta
Why should we care?  Because he recorded "Memphis, Tennessee" there-- all by himself!  (I've recently had some experience with home recording that makes this accomplishment seem even more improbably impossible!)

We had to do a U-Turn so that my brother could take a look, and after that we headed north a bit through the neighborhood.

If you're from the west coast of the U.S., like I am, some of these midwestern cities can be pretty hard to look at.  As the U.S. industrial base disappears (replaced by low wage service jobs at Wendy's, Church's, and Wall-Mart) formerly proud cities have gone through incredibly tough times.  Back in the early to mid-1990s I travelled frequently to Detroit and saw huge neighborhoods wiped out, with nothing but empty lots, half burned buildings, and the occasional house or small business sitting alone.  A lot of The Ville looks just like that now.  There are beautiful, big, brick houses falling in on themselves.  Forests are returning where homes used to be.  Here and there are places people live.  I'm told it can be violent.  It looks like it's a place where you can "enjoy" country living and big city fear all in one place.

But it wasn't always like that.  I don't have his book with me, but as I recall Chuck Berry described a pretty good life in The Ville, with middle class and even upper middle class families living constructive, decent lives despite Jim Crow and all that brought.

They had jobs in the U.S. back then-- real ones, building cars, building buildings, building bridges-- stuff like that.  Now the buildings are falling in on themselves, the bridges are rusting, and the jobs are all related to bad food and imported products from China.

But even in The Ville there are pockets.  We got to one of those-- a place where there seemed to be some  hope, and I saw a sign for "Cottage" (Street?  Avenue?  don't know.)  I knew that was a street we'd be looking for in a day or two-- a street where there was a Chuck Berry home and also--and we turned a corner, and there it was-- Sumner High School.

Photo by Peter Kaleta

This picture is the street he ran down to.  How can you beat that?  This is a school that has produced an incredible number of famous figures.  There's an article about it somewhere on this site-- use the search tool.  Not long ago Chuck Berry surprised people there by showing up at a rally to save the school.  (When you don't have good jobs, you don't have tax revenue, kids don't have hope, and schools go down hill.  God help us!)  He even played a song on a borrowed guitar.

It's an interesting place.  Detroit has an East Coast feel to me; this place, driving along the central part of Dr. Martin Luther King, has touches of Clarksdale, too.  Maybe someday it'll be back in lights.  I hope so.

(Vote!  And remember whose party Chuck Berry is trying to bring to town!)


Anonymous said...

Peter, I don't deserve to be on your frontpage again. I wish I were inside that studio :-)Driving around St. Louis is a wonderful feeling. I have to do it again ! Have You been to East St. Louis ?


Peter said...

Peter- I was trying to squeeze you in a little lower, but the technology defeated me. Maybe you were just to tall.

Anonymous said...

I always like seeing Peter's picture's I wish he and I and a cast of other Chuck Berry Fans were Riding along with you in your automobile taking in the sights of St. Louis - I know I about fell out of the vehicle when we accidently went right by The Fox Theater!! Marilyn wouldn't stop the van for me to get out and take it all in, she just drove on by and informed me the trip was not all about Chuck!! Well you could have fooled me.... I bet its beautiful weather in St. Lou - Here in Iowa the past few weeks it has been the best days we've had all year... Thank You for taking us along on your trip with you as it happens.
Hope Your Having Fun,
CB Forum ID - Busseybootlegger

Peter said...


I went to the Fox but had to hoof it from the metrolink. I need a Ford, or Coupe DeVille-- but I'm just not cool.