First I was nervous. I did not want to see a once-vibrant community self-destruct in an agonizing documentary that eats away your optimism. I was also mad as hell. Mad at the undercurrent of racism, mad at the way residents of that community were shafted and fed a load of manure by real estate companies and then discarded and dismissed as ‘bad community.’ I also was nostalgic for the mornings spent fishing with my dad at Spanish Lake.
The Spanish Lake of my youth was a spirited community of hard working suburbanites who went about their daily business without really worrying about problems like ‘white flight’ or urban decay. Like most of that region of North County, it was a place where baby boomers went to carve their own way in the world and raise a family.
But as the film went on I began to feel better. A little. That’s because as the film unfolds we see a municipality that despite being written off and left as a rotting dead carcass has seen its residents, black and white, work to revive the community while shedding the label it has earned. Sometimes the worst of times brings out the best in people.
As Morton points out, Spanish Lake was once a model for suburban living. Its location was tranquil and idyllic, nestled by the convergence of two rivers, Fort Bellefontaine and the aforementioned Spanish Lake Park. For postwar St. Louisans it was the perfect place to raise a family. From the 1950s to the 1990s, it was a vibrant, unincorporated community filled with generations of middle class families.
Its decline peaked in the early 1990s as longtime residents packed their bags and set out to St. Charles and other environs. This diaspora was fueled by a fear of crime, unemployment, poverty and racial divide. Without a proper mayor or proper civic community Spanish Lake didn’t have a chance as the mass exodus of white middle class residents created an economic shift that saw local business leave and the housing market collapse.
As the former citizens of Spanish Lake point out, the issues, if addressed sooner could have been prevented. Especially if the community had incorporated itself when it had the chance.
The departure (or ‘white flight’) of the middle class white residents created a population shift and Spanish Lake became primarily an African American community. This change led to some horrific new dynamics for the area as culturally fueled paranoia and increased violence danced in symmetry to create a tense and uneasy situation.
This sets the table for Spanish Lake now, a decimated and dreary place where all hope seems lost. But as Morton is quick to point out, not everyone is throwing up their hands and leaving. Instead they are rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it.
As the rest of St. Louis County glares and sneers at Spanish Lake, many wonder what happened. This forms the meat of Morton’s film. He hangs out with Lakers, former Spanish Lake residents who regularly get together to reminisce and revisit the past. He talks to current residents about how the neighborhood is now and how it can change. But most importantly he puts the decline of Spanish Lake in its proper historical context. He traces the origins of Spanish Lake, laying out how its heyday as a tranquil community for baby boomers put it on the map and how the HUD act of 1971 started the doomsday clock
He explains how the mess created by Pruitt Igoe and the need for affordable housing served as catalysts for what unfolded in Spanish Lake and its neighboring communities. Breaking down the complex problems that germinated the ‘white flight’ movement. As he encapsulates the problems of housing and urban development and how they apply to Spanish Lake, Morton boldly illustrates how the region’s economic depression is something that should not be ignored or taken lightly.
As a documentary it does everything it needs to do. It informs, angers, entertains and alerts its audience to the issues and problems around us. With the demise of Spanish Lake there are a lot of contentious issues in play and everyone is chomping at the bit to make them heard rank and file politicians, citizen blowhards, long time residents, former residents and activists. The alumni of this downtrodden community have even formed a band to share their story through music.
They say you can never go home again. Well if Morton, a former resident of Spanish Lake as a teenager, had not done this in 2007, the trials, travails and hardships of this township may never have been brought to light.
Spanish Lake is an engaging and thought-provoking documentary that is at times uncomfortable to watch for all the right reasons. It’s not a pretty picture. While the racism, economic abuse and erosion of middle class is indicative of our times. It does not need to define us. The film also brings to the surface some ugly truths about how St. Louisans perceive and interact with each other.
Spanish Lake is now playing at The Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Blvd. in the Loop.
For information call (314) 727-7271