Above: Bob Reuter’s boyhood home in the Fairgrounds neighborhood.
I always go back and take a mental inventory of where I was when a friend of mine passes away. What was going on, and did I feel anything different? I know exactly where I was when Bob Reuter tragically fell to his death in an open elevator shaft at his new loft on Washington Avenue; I was coming out of a memorial service for the mother of a close friend in Sunset Hills. Did I feel anything different at that moment? No, and I never do, despite wanting to find some cosmic link. I had just talked to Bob a week or two before, and I could tell he was excited to move into his new place after living only ten or so blocks away from me on Shenandoah Avenue in Fox Park, ironically in the apartment below another friend of mine.
I had just finished reading his most recent book, Tales of a Talking Dog, an unvarnished and honest autobiography Bob had written about growing up in North St. Louis, as well as his life over the last several decades. Bob was born in 1951, when North St. Louis was a much different place than it is now, and I was always asking him questions about what it was “really like” to grow up there in the 1950′s and 60′s. Bob’s, and others’ stories about living in the most tumultuous time in St. Louis’s and the United States’ history are rapidly disappearing, and I fear we are losing an important oral history of one whole half of our city. Unlike what the ideologues like to say, the decline of North St. Louis was not the result of one cause, but was really the result of a myriad of social, economic and government policy changes that combined together to create the malaise that began to destroy the North Side in the 1960′s. When asked what year he knew his neighborhood would never be the same, Bob remarked it was 1967; crime had exploded, and another phenomenon that is poorly documented, arson, began to savage buildings around his Fairgrounds neighborhood. He said that people stopped going to watch the firefighters when people’s houses began to be burglarized when everyone was away down the block at the fires. You don’t read about this in history books. He also spoke about another undocumented aspect of St. Louis history: the arrival of thousands of poor whites from the South in the 1960′s. Many of them still live in North St. Louis, in little pockets here and there up in Hyde Park or the North Riverfront. They also changed the makeup of the city, and I was hoping to pick Bob’s brain more about this often forgotten migration. Perhaps what impressed me most about the book is how Bob vividly and honestly captured the downright terrible state much of North St. Louis had become in the Twentieth Century, and that the hundreds of thousands of people who fled to the suburbs during that time were not necessarily bad people, not just simply bigots as so many would like to believe, but regular people who had tried their best to fix their neighborhoods and were finally exhausted from all of the crime and mayhem. Looking for greener pastures, moving to Jennings and Florissant seemed the perfectly logical, and responsible, action to take for one’s family. I remember telling Bob several weeks ago that I liked his book, and in particular because it was so politically incorrect, in my opinion.
“What does ‘politically incorrect’ mean?” Bob replied, with a big grin on his face.
Still shocked and saddened by his death, I felt the need to seek out the places that Bob talked about in his book, so I grabbed my camera and headed up to the Fairgrounds neighborhood, the area that surrounds Fairgrounds Park on the north and east. It was a dark, gray day, and it shows in my photographs. I found his family’s house is still standing and occupied, though I can’t say the same for the rest of the neighborhood. If you’ve read my site for a long time, you know I’m always railing against the stereotypes of North St. Louis and the city in general, but I must say I was very sad to see what a devastated hulk of a place this portion of the Fairgrounds neighborhood is on the east side of Grand Boulevard. While the house below shown in a photograph from Bob’s book is still standing across the street from his family’s house, the other two buildings are completely gone. In fairness, most of the buildings in the area are still standing, but they are largely abandoned, partially collapsing or looking just sort of rundown.
Even more annoyingly, the neighborhood’s street grid, which originally provided openness, has been sliced and blocked off to pieces, giving the whole area an isolated, foreboding feeling. Of course, the neighborhood’s criminals know all of the one-way streets and dead-ends, and use them to their advantage to commit crime and escape quickly after. Bob said he hadn’t been up to his old neighborhood in years, and I don’t blame him. I left his block feeling truly depressed; while there are many great things happening around St. Louis for the first time in decades, other parts are so sadly devastated that I see little hope for them. Who is aching to revitalize Bob’s old neighborhood? No one with the financial and political means.
Holy Name Roman Catholic Church, now long since closed and its name given to a suburban usurper church, was where Bob’s family attended church.
I was intrigued by DeAndreis High School, which Bob attended in the 1960′s. It was the only Catholic high school left in North St. Louis, and it closed after only a thirty year run. I realized I had driven by only recently and had not noticed it; it’s in an isolated part of North City. The Archdiocese sold it to St. Louis Public Schools, and it became some sort of “international studies middle school,” which is now clearly defunct as well.
I think everyone can agree that Bob Reuter died far before his time, and with his passing an unbelievably incredible source of knowledge, wisdom and talent are gone forever. I haven’t even spoken yet of his amazing photography, whose grainy, soulful images adeptly captured the essence of many of my friends and others living in St. Louis. In the age of Instagram where anybody can now take an “old fashioned” photo, Bob’s photography required real talent and technical ability, something that is sadly dying out in today’s America. If I can ever take a photo with 1/10 of his ability, I will be content.
And that’s not even mentioning Bob’s gifts as a musician, fronting his band Alley Ghost and reinventing South City’s musical scene. I remember a show at Off Broadway where he had some guest guitar players playing with his regular band. It sounded like a train barreling through the middle of the building, and it was amazing. I caught what I think was his last show ever at the Schlafly Taproom downtown a couple of Saturdays ago; I went home and sent a message to Bob on Facebook saying that it was easily the tightest, most energetic and enthralling performance I had ever seen from him and his band. He replied with an enthusiastic “thank you” and that is the last time I heard from him.