Ohen Major League Soccer decided to build Centene Stadium in St Louis, the first priority was to honor the “harsh truths of the past”. The 22,500-seat football-specific stadium is designed with a canopy and sits 40 feet below street level. It also sits on the same block that was once part of Mill Creek Valley, the predominantly black neighborhood on the southwest end of St Louis that was once home to 20,000 residents, 800 businesses, and more than 40 religious institutions. In addition to Madame ‘CJ’ Walker, America’s first black woman millionaire, Mill Creek was also home to Josephine Baker, Scott Joplin and General William Tecumseh Sherman. Even poet Walt Whitman was known to visit the thriving black community. But in the summer of 1959, the residents of Mill Creek Valley were relocated and the neighborhood demolished in the name of “urban renewal.”
Now, embryonic MLS club St Louis City SC and Great Rivers Greenway use the stadium as a platform to tell the story of Mill Creek Valley.
“It really set a precedent by starting out as a community-driven brand and a community-driven club that was actually rooted in the community in so many ways other than the sport,” said Khalia Collier, Vice President of community relations for St Louis City. SC.
Mill Creek Valley, as it once was, spanned the western district of downtown St Louis. Today, the one-mile stretch of Brickline Greenway connecting Centene Stadium to Harris-Stowe State University, the city’s HBCU, will be a permanent tribute to the community that was lost. Artist and St. Louisan native Damon Davis says Mill Creek Valley is a virtually unknown part of black history that he was previously unaware of.
“I heard about it during the research phase of preparing the application,” says Davis. “I was a little embarrassed. Growing up, we learned about black history and I knew all these people around the world, but I didn’t know this place existed.
Davis has the offer to design the artwork for the Counterpublic civic art exhibit in 2023, and after learning about the neighborhood, he wanted to know more. As a result, Davis was driven to create a monument that he believes will never be forgotten. The greenway and public art installation stretches from 20th to 22nd Streets and is made up of eight pillars or hourglasses that represent time — or a collective history that Davis says has been glossed over. In each hourglass is a pyramid symbolizing earth or sand when stationary.
“If the sand doesn’t fall, that means time doesn’t move, so the idea of the pyramid being in the upper chamber, is the idea that we’ve stopped for a second to commemorate and respect those stories that have been deliberately concealed,” Davis said. “There was intent behind removing these people from the St Louis story and now there must be the same intent behind resuscitating their stories.”
Between the pillars in front of Centene Stadium and Harris-Stowe State University, there will be interpretive signs and individual pillars connecting the few remaining buildings in Mill Creek Valley along the greenway. Davis interviewed past residents, then inscribed quotes inside each of the individual pillars.
“The quotes will tell you a story about Mill Creek,” Davis says. “St. Louis wouldn’t be what it is without these people.
Mobilize the black community
From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, St. Louis was considered the soccer capital of the United States thanks to a large immigrant population from Germany, Italy and Ireland which produced more local soccer players than any other state. Currently. St Louis has acres of football grounds stretching into the north western suburbs of Chesterfield, Fenton and St Charles, but as Collier says. once you cross the Daniel Boone Bridge, you hardly know the sport exists.
St Louis City FC’s headquarters, training facility and stadium are strategically located within a 10-mile radius of the downtown West Quarter. Location makes it easier to prioritize resources and gives sustainable infrastructure where none existed, Collier says. Currently, the expansion club is working on an infrastructure plan to make the game more accessible. Areas of impact are youth development – which prioritizes black and brown children with access to soccer – community investment, social justice, health and well-being.
“You can say that bridging the gap in the game of football is really noble, but the way we’re going to do it is incredibly intentional and we’re calling on community members, to see these opportunities to integrate technology and sports innovation in a way that just hasn’t been done,” said Collier.
The St Louis City SC app features stories about Mill Creek Valley, where fans can learn how the current landscape represents the townhouses that made up the vibrant community. On the stadium grounds are the black granite outlines of the three houses that once stood there. The stadium also incorporates plaques into the landscape in the form of hedges representing houses and within the landscape is the address of each house. Because St. Louis is a predominantly black city. Collier says it’s important to share the history of the neighborhood and also include the community in what St Louis City SC does off the field.
Equity and economic development
The fledgling club is eager to engage the next generation on career opportunities in the sport. MLS is the youngest and most diverse sports league in the country and the City of St Louis wants to reflect that at every level. Before the stadium opened, the club had the most African-American participation on any major project in the city of St Louis. The club also recruited staff from the local workforce to stimulate economic development in black and brown communities. Collier says this is just the beginning as they continue to hire ahead of the game’s official start in March 2023.
In addition to the greenways, the Brickline connecting St Louis will serve as a catalyst for growth and partnership. Great Rivers Greenway and Brickline Greenway are focused on equity-based community engagement and economic development, said Susan Trautman, CEO of Great Rivers Greenway. Brickline Greenway’s vision is 20 miles of trails that connect 17 neighborhoods including Forest Park, Gateway Arch National Park, Fairground Park and Tower Grove Park. While the area along Mill Creek is largely developed, GRG is partnering with several organizations in an equitable economic development working group whose goals center on people, power, places and systems. Trautman says it was critical the task force received community input on how to revitalize divestment areas in North St Louis.
“It’s about using the voice of the community to make decisions about how land and real estate is developed,” says Trautman. “And working in tandem with our nonprofit partners, we will have an economic equity director who will encourage and support needs-driven development in the community adjacent to the Greenway.”
GRG recently released a RFP for the design of the Brickline North section. The organization then organized a blender to allow small businesses owned by people of color to be part of the design team’s major effort. GRG focuses on design and construction in the North St Louis area where “there aren’t as many opportunities”. and real estate development is focused on the 500 foot perimeter a quarter mile from Brickline, where economic development is more likely to occur.
“The biggest part of making sure community members are engaged is educating them on how they can be engaged and presenting them with opportunities where they may be a sub-consultant to begin with so that maybe they can grow their business,” Trautman says.
From Davis artwork to economic initiatives, St Louis City SC strives to be a new spirit in St Louis through the power of sport. And for the club, acknowledging the past is part of building a better future. Collier says the monument to Mill Creek Valley’s history goes beyond the fan experience, but he pushed St Louis amid a national conversation.
“Not only are we educating the people of St Louis, we’re educating the world,” Collier says. “But it’s going to be a national landmark in St Louis and there’s nothing like it in sports.”