The color line is alive and well right on into the twenty-first century, and in St. Louis, it's not an abstract concept, shifting this way and that in the sand.
It's Delmar Boulevard.
Here's some homework, for the next time you need a little project: head up Euclid and make a left onto Delmar. Find a parking space, and get yourself onto the north side of the street. Right near that intersection, there's a great buffet-style restaurant called Delmonico's Diner. Go there for lunch (the sweet potato pie is highly recommended), and take note of what you see.
I had the occasion to do just the above about two weeks ago, when six friends miraculously found ourselves all free to meet and have lunch together. I had heard of Delmonico's as a great soul food restaurant and suggested it for our rendezvous. The food was fantastic, the atmosphere was relaxed and casual, and the people were friendly...although perhaps a bit curious about us.
The six of us are white, and Delmonico's customer base is black. Not exclusively, mind you, nor likely intentionally I saw no signs on the door indicating that whites were not welcome. Instead, it was just another instance of the self-enforced St. Louis proclivity towards separation of the races.
I hail from Memphis, Tennessee, and most of my family for generations back has been from the dirt farms of Arkansas and Mississippi. (Thus my longing to discover a restaurant where I could get good turnip greens and cornbread, and where macaroni and cheese shows up on the vegetable list.) When people here in St. Louis and other places I've lived hear my hometown, it usually isn't long before they mention that it must be a very racially charged place, or that they've heard that race relations aren't that good "down there."
In fact, although it's by no means perfect and has a devastating legacy of racism, I find the South to be much less racially tense than St. Louis. And although it's easy to find "black" and "white" areas of town in Memphis, people there of all races are more likely to live near each other, shop in similar places, socialize in the same bars. It's simply not unusual for folks of different races, particularly whites and blacks, to know and be known by each other.
Enter Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis. I've never lived in a place where there was such a clear delineation between the worlds of blacks and whites. Delmar marks one of the boundaries of "North City," St. Louis shorthand for "black." With few exceptions, when I drive north over Delmar, I can instantly look around and be the only white person I see from that point until (and including) the time I reach my destination. At elementary schools, in small bars, in nightclubs and in stores, I am surrounded by people who I don't look like, in the one most instantly recognizable way: the color of my skin.
The factors and reasons and exceptions are many, but it strikes me hard, nonetheless, that until we all get over that line literally, and for whites, not as tourists or gawkers or hey-pat-me-on-the-back-I-went-to-a-black-bar patronizers any dreams of a revitalized St. Louis will keep shimmering before us like an unattainable mirage.