Update: I’ve gotten a fair amount of mail about this post recently, and in particular some readers have expressed concern about how I have portrayed Kinloch. For the record, this post is a very early visit to the town, when I was quite frankly very ignorant about Kinloch’s rich history. A reader contacted me, and offered to give me a tour of the town, explaining its historic and cultural significance. You can read those new posts here. I want to stress that I see the fate of Kinloch as an example of how we as a society have a lot to learn from how we treat African-Americans and the disenfranchised. Kinloch’s decline is largely the result of outside factors which transformed a healthy, vibrant community into a shell of its former self. But there are still many proud residents left, and their tenacity and passion for their community should be acknowledged.
Despite my better judgment, on Saturday I headed out to Kinloch, the famous first African-American community incorporated in Missouri. I had my preconceptions; a policeman I once had as a student told me Kinloch was the one place he ever felt scared while working, and he had worked in some pretty dangerous neighborhoods. Bud, my student, is about the size of Arnold Scharzeneggar, so I was intrigued that he would be scared of anywhere in the metropolitan area.
So I hopped on I-70, got off at N. Hanley, and hung a right onto Martin Luther King Blvd, the main thoroughfare–if you can call it that–of Kinloch.
I was immediately pleased that I had come to visit Kinloch myself, as it is totally different than what I had expected. I felt like I had stepped into a rural community, yet I knew I was still surrounded by the suburbia of North County. Kinloch has always been isolated; there are still very few streets that go in and out of the community.
But what is so striking, driving around the hilly terrain of the town, is just how desolate the town is. I think I read that five hundred people live in Kinloch, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out where they all live. Most of the town was demolished for an aborted airport expansion, so there are only a few pockets of dense settlement in the entire town.
The houses look like your standard rural St. Louis County vernacular–the standard shotgun house as well as a few commercial buildings. The writing on these stores has long outlasted the businesses they once advertised.
There is a fairly large apartment complex in the center of town, and it looks like it burned a while ago, despite sitting across the street from the fire station. I am not sure how old the buildings are, but they look like old HUD housing, and perhaps date to the 1970’s when much of the town was deemed “obsolete,” necessitating the demolition of five hundred structures.
A friend related a story of giving a coworker a ride home one night years ago. As the coworker was giving directions, he nonchalantly told my friend to stop two doors down from the burning couch in the street. Apparently it was such a regular occurrence that you could give directions by it.
One thing I strive to accomplish with my photography is to give an honest assessment of any area I photograph. After driving around Kinloch for awhile, I asked myself, “Am I missing something? Is the whole town one gigantic wasteland? There must be some stable, occupied streets left somewhere?” I am a little hesitant to post nothing of Kinloch except abandonment and desolation, but I quite frankly could not find any part of the town that wasn’t largely abandoned or demolished. Looking at satellite images, you can see that there is very little left; where civilization begins again is when you reach nearby communities such as Berkeley.
The future of Kinloch, quite frankly, does not look good; its reputation is one of the worst in the area, and despite witnessing signs of life, I came across a large group of young men blocking the street in front of me. I turned around, as I had no idea where I was, and was not about to go driving through a crowd of people who had assembled in front me. I don’t know if they were hostile, but the whole situation gave me that bad feeling that I never second guess.