Recently Mister and I watched a documentary called “Spanish Lake” and it was, well, personal.
Spanish Lake is a north county suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. As a teenager, I lived smack-dab in the middle of it. Mister lived just outside its (technical) border. We both had friends living in Spanish Lake, and the high school we attended was located there. Spanish Lake is where we met. Years later, it was where we married.
So Mister had read about the documentary and we dialed it up. We settled in and watched. Neither of us had any idea what we were in for. We do that sometimes with movies and it usually turns out okay. On this occasion, it was eerie.
Not only did we see familiar places and hear familiar street names, we also saw things that used to be, things that no longer exist. We learned more about the area than we ever did while living there and not all of it was good. And while we didn’t actually know any of the folks who appear in the film, we definitely recognized them as mid-westerners.
White-Flight is a big topic of this documentary. So are Economics, Government Representation, Section 8 Housing, Race, Community and Preservation. And let’s not forget the People. Without them, director Phillip Andrew Morton would have no film. I won’t lie – you see all types of folks in “Spanish Lake” and that’s probably fair. Decent folks. Folks with no opinion. Racist folks. Movers. Shakers. Idlers. I suppose that little hamlet’s demographics have always been about the same. And maybe always will be.
I liked the documentary, I did. I’ve read it’s been banned in St. Louis theaters, and that’s too bad. Because sometimes we’re just too close to a thing to understand it. While living there, I certainly never knew any of what I learned from watching “Spanish Lake.” I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of people in the area don’t know any of it either. Seeing the film might educate some folks. Maybe they’d see themselves and their town with a broader vision. Maybe, like me, after watching the documentary they’d wonder how representative it is of about a jillion other towns in the US. I mean, the reasons may differ, but aren’t there other dying towns out there? Aren’t other communities losing businesses and residents? And no matter the reasons, aren’t we sad to see our histories disappear?
A few years ago, Mister and I were in the St. Louis area and on one warm, sunny afternoon we decided to drive around the old stomping grounds. Spanish Lake, while vaguely familiar, wasn’t the same. The stately old restaurant where our wedding’s rehearsal dinner was held was shuttered. So were a pizza joint and a Taco Bell. A lot of the houses, once lovingly maintained and cared for, didn’t look so great. Yards were ignored and trash was blowing around the lanes. Some homes were simply abandoned. We saw a large police presence (in the middle of the day, mind you) and as we cruised past our buddy Jack Daniels’ childhood home, we witnessed what seemed to be an arrest. The local supermarket, Schnucks, had been leveled. Only rubble remained. When we drove by the Catholic church Mister had attended as a child, it too was shuttered. We were feeling pretty low about the old neighborhood, but thought we’d drive down Mister’s old street before heading out of town. As we drew closer, a lot of what we saw was the same as in my old neighborhood. And then we turned down the actual street where Mister’s family had lived most of his life. The lawns were trimmed and free of debris. A few places could have used a paint job, but they were otherwise cared for. When we reached the end of the cul de sac, we parked the car and decided to walk to the small pond Mister had known as a child. It was terribly overrun with algae, but also teeming with life. Just over a small hill, Mister spotted the crab apple tree at the edge of his old yard. He told me stories about crab apple fights with his siblings and neighborhood kids. Just then, a gentleman appeared from around the corner of the house and walked toward us. Mister told him how he’d grown up in the house and that we were just visiting. Before we knew it, we had taken a tour of Mister’s old home and were sitting on the deck with the new owners, sharing stories. It kind of made the rest of the day’s depression disappear.
Yes, Spanish Lake has changed. Maybe forever. But those mid-westerners who live their lives there remain. The same sweet souls, the same hard-working folks who mow their lawns and wash their own cars are keeping the home fires burning. The very people who care about their roots, care about their neighbors – they are the soul of Spanish Lake. Even now – that suburb’s got a little soul left.