For our documentary, we chose to focus on Mill Creek Valley, a historically black neighborhood that was gentrified in the mid-20th century to make way for the interstate, St. Louis University, and other “urban renewal” projects. While the media and government painted the area as a dilapidated slum, Mill Creek Valley was a thriving community built upon the generosity and unity of black families and businesses. In order to encapsulate the truth of Mill Creek Valley, we were privileged to have Ms. Lois Conley and Mr. Kenya Ajanaku recount their personal experiences in the community, while Dr. Andrew Hurley provided his perspective as a scholar and local historian on the rise and fall of the neighborhood. These recollections were given further emotional impact through the use of archival film and footage in contrast with images of the present-day area.
The history department of the University of Missouri – St. Louis has taken a keen interest in the urban history of the city for many years. This documentary is merely one facet of our commitment to shining a light on the overlooked and forgotten people, places, and events of St. Louis. Several projects surrounding Mill Creek Valley have developed over the years, including a walking tour of famous landmarks (both torn down and still standing) and a digital history exhibit concerning the culture and way of life in the neighborhood. In addition to acting as educational tools for the public, these projects also provided us with inspiration for our overall theme and narrative.
During the process of creating this documentary, we pulled information and concepts from numerous sources in order to give the audience the most well-rounded look into Mill Creek Valley that we could. With the exception of our narrators, the most valuable resource we had was the archival footage of the community both before and during gentrification. We used the contrast between the past and the present to accentuate the idea that not only is the past vital to our understanding of our city, but also that by noticing the patterns in past actions we can better view the actions of those in power today. Mill Creek Valley is only one notable example of urban gentrification in St. Louis’ long and ongoing history of harmful public projects. Through the visual aspects, we emphasized what was being chronicled by our storytellers.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of making this film was deciding what we wanted viewers to walk away with after it was finished. While the majority of our understanding and empathy came from speaking with Ms. Lois Conley and Mr. Kenya Ajanaku, the true gravity of our topic was cemented upon a visit to the Griot Museum of Black History. At the Griot, we were met with an overwhelming amount of history that had barely been touched on in the modern historical narrative. From this intense experience, we grew to understand that, while we were not going to be capable of featuring every valuable detail of Mill Creek Valley in the final product, we still needed to convey the emotions of those who lived in the neighborhood and loved the community even after it was destroyed.