The McKinley Neighborhood

The following story, graciously contributed by Tom Kiske, is a nostalgic morning walk to McKinley from the Soulard neighborhood where he grew up. It is a walk similar to the ones we have all made hundreds of times throughout our memorable years at McKinley.

Tom, a 1961 graduate of McKinley, is the author of numerous published articles, stories and essays. His recent book, "Time Has Its Own Terms", includes many poignant reflections on life in the old Soulard neighborhood of the fifties and sixties. For more information about Tom's book, please click on the picture of the cover of his book to the left.

The McKinley Walk

I have been long away from the neighborhoods around McKinley - decades away - and yet whenever I return I feel instantly at home. In the Spring of 2002 an extra day tacked on to a business trip back to St. Louis afforded me a rare opportunity to spend a leisurely morning walking the weathered brick sidewalks of my youth. In a reflective moment, enjoying coffee and a blueberry muffin at an umbrella table outside the Soulard Coffee Shop on Geyer Avenue, it dawned on me why, although I live a thousand miles away, this place remains my home.

It’s because there’s a history carried deep in the bricks of this place. Oh, not the kind of history we studied back in those 50-minute periods back at McKinley. There’s that, too, of course, a history even behind the names of the streets we walked. Geyer, for example, was named after Henry S. Geyer, a lawyer in the Dred Scott case, who fought a duel in 1816 in which he killed a merchant named George Kennerly (another street name). Russell, where McKinley sits, was named for William Russell, an early landowner in the area. The streets flanking Russell - Ann and Allen - were named for his daughter and her husband.*

But it’s not the academic history that seeps from the sidewalks and the buildings, nourishing the soul. It’s personal history. It’s what these places have meant, and still mean, to you and me.
Sitting there outside the coffee shop, I was only a block away from a nicely rehabbed two-story corner structure tourists pass and no doubt admire daily. But those few of us who really know this neighborhood see that building differently than the casual passerby. We see that building not so much for what it is, as for what it once was - the Lagunas corner grocery, above which Angelica and Gloria and their family lived. The grocery where their dad once tricked me into tasting that incredibly hot habanero sauce he sold, and then laughed uproariously at my discomfort and embarrassment. Forty years later that episode seems funny even to me.

Walking. Part of the reason we remember these streets so well is that we walked them. Few of us had cars back then, so getting around was by “Shank’s mare.” There’s much to be said for this slower mode of transport. You notice things, and over time, they become fixed in your mind. Bricks and mortar become linked with people, with things that happened. With your life.

I’m thinking now about walking to McKinley, a journey I took every morning, nine months at a stretch, for four years. Your trip no doubt was different from mine, but perhaps, looking back, you remember it in the same way. Leaving my house at 11th & Victor - in the words of Chuck Berry, Up in the Mornin’ & Off to School - I’d walk north, past the Spengleman’s flat and the little house where my first girlfriend, Judy, once lived, before the neighborhood turned bad and her family moved out to the suburbs. Along the curb line of 11th street, occasional depressions in the brick sidewalk marked the locations where huge Elm trees had once provided shade and hiding places for hide-and-seek.

Crossing the street and heading west on Barton, I passed the corner where my old man’s favorite tavern used to be, the tavern where he and our upstairs neighbor got their beer buckets filled in the pre-TV summer evenings when family entertainment meant just “sitting out” in front of the house and visiting with neighbors.

Up at Twelfth was the first “supermarket” in the neighborhood, a National Food Store that took over a building previously occupied by a Pentecostal church and before that probably some sort of theater. One block north, at Twelfth and Lami, I walked past the iron gates of the imposing mansion that looked like Dracula or the Addams Family might lurk within - a place that a few Halloweens before had instilled in me a delicious blend of attraction and fear as a trick-or-treater. The truth, of course, was far more mundane: the place had been the residence of a prominent turn-of-the-century physician, Doctor Artz.**

Crossing Twelfth at Shenandoah, I walked past Fay’s house, past the recessed entry where later she and I would sit on stone stairs, holding hands and talking late into the evening. Then, at Ann Avenue, I swung west again, stopping at the half-flounder house where Mike lived. Most of the time he’d be waiting for me on the stoop, and we’d continue our trek together, talking about last night’s homework or, more likely, critiquing the charms of some female classmate who nicely filled out a skirt and sweater, thereby, in the parlance of our time, qualifying as “tough.” Sometimes, in harmony with a transistor radio, we’d Wonder, Wonder, Who Wrote the Book of Love.

We walked past Jacovac’s bowling alley, where some of our friends found work as pin spotters (yes, pin spotters used to be people, not machines), and then, at Dolman we unknowingly passed the house where, a few years later, Evonne, who was to become Mike’s wife, would live. Up towards Gravois we went, oblivious to the fact we were treading ground that would soon literally disappear, becoming the giant trench of I-55. Crossing Gravois we could see the Pork House, where other friends worked after school. Friends whose pranks included gathering bones from their employer’s butcher shop, waiting at a bus stop and then, when the unsuspecting driver opened the door with that familiar hiss, tossing the bones into the bus and running like hell. Why would kids do something like this? For the sheer goofiness of it, that’s why. Reason enough when you’re fifteen.

Finally, we reached McKinley, going in the east side entrance, greeting other friends as we wandered through bustling crowds of classmates to our lockers. For a year or so, another buddy, Mitch, and I arrived early, worked in the cafeteria setting the stools atop the tables so others might mop the floors. It earned us enough chips to buy lunch and not one of our friends thought the job odd or demeaning. I can still recall the compelling aroma of Shepard’s Pie and the rolls they baked fresh each morning as we worked.

It was a simpler time and perhaps it is the innocence of those days that warms our memories, calling up a nostalgic longing in our hearts. McKinley’s halls were friendly ones and the streets around our school were our streets, home to friends and family. There were few blocks without at least one house where, if you knocked on the door, someone you knew would answer with a smile and a friendly hello.

This, I think, is the legacy of McKinley High School and the reason why, through the years and decades gone by, it calls to us still. It’s why, no matter how far we may roam, and whatever else we may have become, somewhere deep within we will always be Goldbugs.

Tom Kiske, '61

* from Streets of St. Louis, by William and Marcella C. Magnan
** from Soulard, St. Louis, by Albert Montesi and Richard Deposki