Interview with Eric Sandweiss

5500 block of Delmar (1930); Swekosky Notre Dame College Collection, Missouri History Museum Archives. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society:

Máire Murphy, posted on May 24, 2017

Interview with Eric Sandweiss: Here Eric discusses his study of the history, geography, and public image of Delmar Boulevard, a street that more than any embodies St. Louis’s long racial divide.

 How did you choose your site? What intrigued you about that particular place?

Delmar is not a site, per se, but a way of defining a thousand possible sites--a street that most St. Louisans, myself included, are accustomed to using as an orientation device when they think about class, race, and geography in the city. So I was intrigued by Delmar as a collection of many sites but also as a unifying device in people’s minds and possibly in the historical record. Delmar would have intrigued me, anyhow, because I lived most of my life in St. Louis within a few blocks of either side of it. This gave the street a personal significance and sense of familiarity that allowed me to juxtapose my own memory and impressionistic sense of segregation in St. Louis with an opportunity to pursue a broader historical perspective. The street lends itself to bringing those two perspectives together.

What kinds of questions do you find yourself asking about the site, and how are those questions shaping your exploration of the place?

Some of the questions that I faced in getting started simply related to understanding the history of the street itself - its actual planning, its eventual improvement, and then ultimately its unification from a number of smaller but related roads (first Morgan Street, then Delmar, but also stretches once known as Enright Avenue and Old Bonhomme Road) into a straight line running from the Mississippi waterfront to Ladue.

A second set of factual questions related to the presence, absence, or movement of different groups along and on either side of this line, from the nineteenth century to the present day.  These questions led me to some basic research sources, including tract-level census data, which were for social and historical reasons often bound by Delmar on either their north or south side. So among the initial questions that I pursued, and then presented at the symposium this spring, were questions about the racial composition of neighborhoods on either side of the street during those decades.  This inquiry helped me to get a better sense of the reality--or the misperception--of St. Louisans’ habit of describing an African American side of town north of Delmar and a white side on the south.

What challenges are you encountering with site-based study?

It is all challenging, but not unfamiliar to me or to anyone who studies urban landscapes, which is what I did even before I called myself a historian. Site-based study, in particular along Delmar, is in a way something I have done since I was a kid wandering up and down the Loop. But in terms more particular to this study, one challenge is simply familiarizing myself with the ways in which the street and its adjoining neighborhoods have changed since I last lived in St. Louis, fifteen years ago. Also challenging is understanding the street’s many sites in a way that goes beyond my remembered understanding as a resident with admittedly limited and biased perspective on the street. So being able to picture Delmar as intimately through downtown,  Midtown, and the West End as I can in its more familiar stretches in University City is important for me, as is learning how to study it from a historical as well as an impressionistic standpoint.

What were your expectations about the project and site, and what have you found that has surprised or even shocked you, and forced you to revise those expectations?

I have not had too many surprises, or been too shocked--not to date. What I expected to find was a more nuanced version of the oversimplified common conception held by many St. Louisans--both black and white--of Delmar as a racial dividing line. Indeed, I have found both some of the fundamental truths behind that preconception, and the complications that shake out that truth. I have been able to see, at a more granular level, the decade-by-decade impact of racial turnover, or, “tipping,” as it was long called in the real estate world. I have seen at a block-by-block and decade-by-decade level the incredible power of the vicious cycle of anticipated property-value decline as it creates its own fulfillment. This was true as early as the passage of the 1916 segregation ordinance, which directly implicated Delmar and its adjoining streets. It is equally true of the changes in my own lifetime, as African-American families, tenants, and home owners, forced out of demolished or declining housing, found their way into new neighborhoods north of Delmar, while existing white occupants moved out. Delmar is a good place to observe that dynamic taking place in microcosm. One of the pleasant surprises of my recent research, on the other hand, is the continued conversation of Delmar as a healing line. It is a scar, but a scar that can heal. The discussion it gets by people who are interested in St. Louis reviving, seeing it as a point of intersection between white and black, seems to me a conversation well worth having. It surprises me how actively it is taking place.

How has collaboration played a part in your research process?

Collaboration played a role primarily in the initial stages, while working with Heidi and Iver and other members of the team as they shaped the MWMS project. This work helped me to feel involved and to be influenced by their interests and conversations. So this is a project I would not have thought to do but for the kind of collaborative atmosphere that they and the whole team put together. I pursued the early research stages on my own, but the chance to come to the symposium and listen and learn from others has given me a new impetus to collaborate and continue to learn from other contributors. I look forward to that collaboration, as well as some kind of public collaboration, as it seems to me that would be an essential part of the new paradigm tested with this project – it really should be taken back out in the streets and engage with St. Louisans about the world they experience. They are the contemporary experts who can inform us as to the state of segregation in the city we live in today.

Delmar shoppers
Delmar shoppers, c.1920 Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society:

Delmar shoppers, African American

5500 block of Delmar (1930); Swekosky Notre Dame College Collection, Missouri History Museum Archives. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society:

How do you plan to incorporate visual content into the publication?

I hope that the photographic and cartographic record of Delmar can help to bring home some of the points that interest me about the street’s relationship to the overall geography of St. Louis and to its development (or undevelopment) over time. Juxtaposing photographs from different decades—such as the picture showing affluent-looking white shoppers along Delmar and the image of middle-class Black shoppers on the street some twenty years later, helps to make a point about the city’s changing demographics. It would also be great if the project could use moving images to illustrate the experience that strikes visitors and St. Louisans alike when they drive on Delmar: the graphic change in architecture and streetscape as one travels from the south to the north side of the street.  Newcomers to St. Louis might think to themselves, “Why does crossing sixty feet of concrete lead to a different social experience? It does not make sense.” A visual record could help to capture that paradox.

How do you see your research going beyond an academic contribution?

I have not designed something that would respond to that question yet, but I certainly think, based on my years as a public historian (most of them in St. Louis) that a project like this would seem incomplete if it did not include interviews, discussions, public programs, or some other means of taking the conversation beyond my particular research-based perspective and bringing it to a wider group with a stake in the same questions--and potentially with the ability to help me shift those questions to ones that are more interesting and vital, to them and to me.

Read more about his site here. Learn more about Eric Sandweiss by visiting the Contributors page. For additional information about the MWMS project please go to our main page.

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