Remembering Brentwood’s ‘Garden of Eden’

More than 20 years ago, residents of Brentwood’s historic Howard-Evans Place were displaced to make way for The Promenade at Brentwood, one of mid-St. Louis’ County’s busiest retail centers. Few who shop there regularly remember the neat frame homes that made up the property for nearly 90 years. Soon, however, they may get a new reminder.  

The City of Brentwood is working with a group of former residents and the property managers of The Promenade to design a new commemorative monument that would be placed prominently within the retail center so that those who visit will know the property’s long history. The only evidence that a long-standing African-American neighborhood once stood there is a stone boulder with a commemorative plaque at the Promenade’s rear entrance off of Hanley Industrial Court. 

The residents of Howard-Evans Place, formerly at the intersection of Eager Road and Brentwood Boulevard in Brentwood, were remembered and honored in late February as part of Brentwood’s Centennial celebration taking place throughout 2019. The residents remember their neighborhood and community fondly, though not without some sadness. They remember a vibrant neighborhood in which doors were not locked, children felt as at home at a neighbor’s house as at their own, and extended family lived around the corner. Some even called it their “Garden of Eden.” Though they have not been neighbors for more than 20 years, they still maintain their sense of community.  

That community began in 1907, predating the Great Migration. In the first half of the 20th century, Howard-Evans Place blended African-American residents born in the Deep South and Missouri; and whites from Europe, primarily Italy. Nearly all of the men —black, white and some as young as 13— worked at the Evens & Howard Fire Brick Co., located in what is now Hanley Industrial Court. Work at the brickyard was hot, dirty and hard. Black workers had the dirtiest jobs and separate eating areas. Many Italians boarded workers in their small homes, and some African-American women worked as maids or laundresses for white families in wealthy St. Louis County neighborhoods. 

Since most workers needed to live near their workplaces, Evens & Howard built small bungalows and duplexes nearby, first in Howard Place, established in 1907. Some of the earliest homes built for its workers were called “two by two,” — duplexes with two rooms on each side without a basement, indoor plumbing or electricity. In 1917, a home building company began building a subdivision called Evans Place in the area surrounding and adjacent to Howard Place, which became part of Evans Place in 1923.  

L’Ouverture School

Howard-Evans Place had everything a community needed: four churches, cafes, barber and beauty shops, a semi-professional baseball team, confectionaries, and a school for its children. L’Ouverture Elementary School opened in 1925 for children from kindergarten through 8th grade and remained open through 1963. Before schools were desegregated in 1954, high school students went to the African-American Douglass High School in Webster Groves. 

The economic status in Howard-Evans Place stayed relatively stable through the decades, and its residents were part of the black middle class. Unemployment was low, and the neighborhood included teachers, physicians, and attorneys in addition to bus drivers and postal service employees.  

Most who lived in Howard-Evans Place referred to it as a family. Residents used this term literally, as many had grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins or adult siblings in the neighborhood, as well as figuratively: Word spread quickly when someone was ill, when someone lost a job and needed a few dollars to get by, or when kids were getting into trouble.  

Former residents say Howard-Evans Place was one of the earliest neighborhoods in the St. Louis area where African-Americans could buy a new home. J. Edward Holt, a 55-year resident and president of the Evans Place Improvement Association for 17 years, said his parents purchased their two-bedroom frame home on Darling Avenue in 1941 for $2,900 when Holt was a toddler.  

“For my parents, the neighborhood was the American Dream,” he said. “How many subdivisions in 1941 were being built for black folks? None.” 

When Holt moved out of his family’s home, he purchased a home in the neighborhood.  

“I stayed not because I couldn’t afford a better home, but because of the location and the school system,” he said. “It is a great place to live. Out of the 55 years I lived there, there was never any crime. It was the county’s best-kept secret.”  

One of the streets in Evans Place, early 1990s

It was the best-kept secret, but it also was a big target.  

In 1977, Howard-Evans Place residents fought a St. Louis County proposal to take 52 homes for new highway ramps. 

In 1982, they fought a plan for a $6 million office building on Brentwood Boulevard near Eager Road to complement the proposed $200 million redevelopment in Richmond Heights that became the Saint Louis Galleria.  

In 1988, they fought a state plan to improve the Highway 40 interchange, taking 105 houses and two of its churches.  

In 1993, they fought another state plan to extend 170 south to Interstates 44 and 55, widen Highway 40 and add a second MetroLink line that would displace up to 400 residences and businesses in St Louis County.  

In 1995, the Sansone Group proposed a $166 million commercial development, including $27 million in tax increment financing, to replace Howard-Evans Place.  While some residents fought the buyout, the Evans Place Neighborhood Association, headed by Holt, coordinated homeowners and initiated the sale. It was the only time in the U.S. in which a minority neighborhood was proactive in its desire to move, Holt said.  

Most homeowners got three to four times the value of their homes, or between $131,000-$160,000. All but a few residents left Brentwood for north St. Louis County, Olivette and University City. 

The buyout of Howard-Evans Place follows a pattern of other St. Louis-area African-American neighborhoods that were displaced in the 20th century, including Clayton, Mill Creek Valley, the former Pruitt-Igoe site and nearby St. Louis Place, Meacham Park, and parts of Wellston. Its location made the property’s value simply too great to overlook. The City of Brentwood valued the property of Howard-Evans Place at $3.6 million before the buyout. After the 300,000-square-foot Promenade “power center” was developed, it was valued at $30 million. Sales at the Promenade are $90 million annually. Brentwood’s TIF for the Promenade was retired in 2010.  

The Promenade indirectly brought even more value to Brentwood as it spurred an additional $300 million in development projects over the next five years, including the redeveloped Brentwood Square Town Center, which also included buying out more than 60 homes; Brentwood Pointe, anchored by a Dierberg’s Market; the Meridian, an office and retail development with a MetroLink station; and the Villas at Brentwood apartment complex for which 21 single-family homes and 13 duplexes were razed for 323 luxury apartments. 

As Brentwood celebrates its 100 years as a city in December 2019, it is only fitting to remember this group of African-Americans who are a rich part of Brentwood’s history with a new monument. While the location of their community may have made it inevitable that someday it would be replaced, it is still our duty to remember their contributions to making Brentwood a diverse, desirable place to live and do business.