In 1964 we moved from Creve Coeur into the heart of the city, in Mill Creek Valley, to the new housing development called LaClede Town. Our mother, Rita, recently widowed, needed to relocate closer to her work at St. Louis University a move contrary to the urban flight that was beginning at that time. My first time there was prior to our move.
Rita took me (and Benet?) to go swimming at a friend's apartment complex. That was in LaClede Park, which was at the southwest corner of LaClede Ave. and Compton. LaClede Town was just being constructed on the adjacent corner. It was my first time in a swimming pool, and as soon as I stepped into it the water went over my head and I began to panic. I was quickly whisked out by the lifeguard on duty, Greg Burger, son of Jerome Burger, the manager of LaClede Park. A decade or so later, I would be one with the job of pulling people out of what we would call "The Peanut Pool." During the drive home I remember looking at brochures and newspaper articles about a new housing development that would be our family's new home.
3151 Laclede Avenue. That was the house our family lived from 1964 to '73. Occasionally when I'd mention to someone that I grew up in LaClede Town they'd don a quizzical look as if to say, "and you're proud of that?" More often than not the statement is met with a blank stare. But there have been magic moments when people reply, "Wow I did, too!" When these occur with people I have never met it makes me realize that the whole "concept" of the community was real and not just some utopian dream of a seven-year-old.
The zeitgeist of that era was one of wrenching social change, and Jerome Burger's sense of community building was at the crest of that change. Bringing a diverse population to live together in LaClede Town black, white and Hispanic; artists, musicians, poets; people from all walks of life was his goal. And he achieved it, for a time.
In LaClede Park, there were two-story apartments that surrounded a courtyard with benches and a rectangular fountain, where there were often gatherings or parties, like bar-b-ques after softball games played by the LaClede Town Losers. The new "Town" was two- and three-story houses with courtyards around which neighbors would gather, though there weren't any events held at them like the Park courtyard hosted. But LaClede Town had The Circle.
Running east/west, from Compton Ave. to Ewing St. through the middle of the Town, was Lawton Ave. LaClede Town was built in two phases; the first portion ran from Laclede Ave. on the south to Olive St. on the north. The western border was Compton and Channing marked the east. "The Circle" was at the corner of Channing and Lawton. It was to act as "town square." With the Coach and Four Pub and the Circle Coffeehouse, The Circle became the cultural heart of the town. There was also a barber shop, two laundromats, and the General Store a small grocer where I remember buying a Twinkie and a soda for 25¢! Some of the people who lived there in the early years were holdouts from Gaslight Square, bringing with them an interest in the arts and giving the place a "counterculture" feel. In retrospect, it's humorous to think that Burger, who called everybody "babe" and had a vocal style not unlike a beatnik, would designate a "circle" as opposed to a "square."
The Coach and Four Pub was where the grown-ups gathered, with its sidewalk cafe. The Coffeehouse was for the younger set. A rock band called the Crystalline Silence Band practiced upstairs. As young kids, we could hear them practicing above the Coffeehouse from the sidewalk and were even invited up once or twice when they took a break. This was the time when The Beatles were breaking new ground with albums like "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver." The so-called youth movement was gaining momentum on the West coast and there was a feeling that music, more specifically rock-and-roll, could "change the world." Having the Crystalline Silence Band in LaClede Town brought this home. We were impressed so impressed that some of the kids living there at the time pursued a life in music. My brother Benet and I have been working musicians for the better part of 25 years as a result. Another among our group of close friends, Ike Willis, became a guitarist/vocalist of international renown as the front man for Frank Zappa. Before he died, Zappa met with Ike and personally "handed the torch" to Ike to carry on playing his compositions a request that Ike faithfully honors to this day.
Jazz and poetry also found a home among the people of LaClede Town. Oliver Lake, J. D. Parran, Julius Hemphill, Floyd LeFlore and his wife, poet Shirley LeFlore, performed regularly as Black Artist Group (BAG) at the Circle Coffeehouse. They were highlights of the Spring/Fall Festivals that were held in The Circle featuring music, arts and crafts. Even the kids were able to perform. I remember seeing Ike playing the drums with Oliver Lake's group. In the early- to middle-'70s, the bands that us kids formed would also play the festivals.
LaClede Town was indeed utopian in those early years. Like many things that start out small and work well, the obvious next step is expansion. The more people wanted to move in, the more sections were built. In 1973, LaClede West and LaClede East were added. LaClede East was a high-rise apartment complex and Laclede West were prefabricated houses. These new areas held true to the community feel that Jerome Burger had striven for, but in 1976 things changed. Jerome Burger had left, and though his brother managed things for a few years after that, it was never the same. Things went downhill from there... and fast.
But there were so many great things about that time and that place. Unfortunately, the abandoned, boarded-up houses stood far too long, leaving the impression to those passing by that it must have been a failure, "the end of an error." But to those of us who were there, it was by no means a failure. Far from it. And the next time I mention to someone that I grew up in LaClede Town and get that quizzical look, I'll say, "and yes I am proud of that!"
Dominic Schaeffer would like to refer those interested in learning more about the early years of LaClede Town to this article at the "All About Jazz" web site.