A new documentary called Spanish Lake that will premiere at select theaters throughout the country on July 10 looks at the white flight that has transpired in the town of Spanish Lake in the northeastern part of Saint Louis, Missouri, within the last couple of decades. The exodus of white families who had been living there since after World War II was spawned in part due to the dismantling of the public housing project known as Pruitt-Igoe in another part of St. Louis. With fresh Section 8 vouchers in hand, many of the thousands of low-income, high-risk residents of Pruitt-Igoe proudly moved to brand new accommodations in Spanish Lake, which caused fear in the residents there, many of whom were also scared off by real estate agents, looking to make a fast dollar.
A nearby town called Black Jack had been incorporated, so the people of Spanish Lake had no choice but to begrudgingly welcome their new neighbors. A former resident of Spanish Lake, Phillip Andrew Morton, wrote the documentary Spanish Lake and interviewed scores of people, mainly former white residents about their varied reasons for leaving Spanish Lake, after they had all grown up there and, as well, raised families of their own. The same old, time-tested phobias—that of co-existing with those who are different; living on the same block as people who have different skin color; and allowing people who make less money than you to set down stakes and have the same opportunities for their families as you have—were at play in what most of the former white residents of Spanish Lake says was the destruction of their childhood homes.
The documentary shows somewhat angry former residents at a town reunion, spinning yarns about the good old days spent in Spanish Lake and how they say the town gradually became so crime-ridden that they had no choice but to move.
While it can be argued that when the federal government decides to build low-income housing, it is often concentrated in one place, and this comes with disastrous results. In the case of the Pruitt-Igoe projects, things started falling apart, after initially people lived side by side, even calling the project an “oasis” in the midst of surrounding slums. When the tide turned, there were no incinerators to dispose of trash, residents just started to burn trash on the concrete; crime skyrocketed and the buildings were occupied with more single-mother led households, many with more babies on the way. And when the government decided to tear these buildings down, they looked to Spanish Lake for replacement properties.
Spanish Lake vividly shows the loss of white residents in Spanish Lake over a few decades, until none were left during the 1990’s. It is an “in-your-face” documentary, not for the faint of heart. Given that, however, I think more blacks should have been interviewed for the documentary. Certainly there were more blacks who finally settled into the new Spanish Lake area who were striving to maintain, as opposed to those who were content to just rest on their laurels on the government dole.
*I also reviewed the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: http://www.filmmonthly.com/film/video-and-dvd/the-pruitt-igoe-myth. Check it out for further reference.