Laura Hughes

Laura Hughes speaks at the development project ground-breaking ceremony on Friday, February 12.

Laura Hughes’ memory of growing up in the Ville neighborhood of St. Louis is mapped out by the neighborhood’s sidewalks. She remembers walking first to Simmons Elementary, then to Sumner High School – and sometimes walking to drop-off meals with her mother as she worked at Homer G. Philips Hospital. 

“These little sidewalks, they’re everything to me. That was my map of how I got around this neighborhood,” she said. Now, as the 4th Ward’s master developer and CEO of the Fleur De Lis Development Corporation, Hughes hopes to restore the historic area to its former health. 

The $80 million project, which was approved for construction last October, will entail the restoration of 20 historic homes and construction of 300 new ones. 

Hughes, along with several local government officials and St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams, symbolically “broke ground” on the development project in a freezing-cold ceremony on the morning of Friday, February 12. 

The Fleur De Lis Development Corporation intends to restore several properties in the 4th Ward, and then construct several new homes on the ward’s many vacant lots. The first phase of this project, Fleur De Lis said in a press release, will be the creation of Maffitt Matters, in the 4200 block of Maffitt Avenue. This project will rehab several homes. 

The project connects to the current controversial schooling situation in the city of St. Louis, too – in that it is located in the 4th ward, where Sumner High School, Hickey Middle School and Farragut Elementary were recently slated for closure by a vote of the St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education. 

The location of the Maffitt Matters sector of the project, according to a Fleur De Lis Development Corporation press release, is just a short walk away from where Hughes grew up and attended Simmons Elementary School, which is currently closed. Should closure be the call of nearby Sumner High School, Hickey Middle School and Farragut Elementary, the ward will be without a single school.

“We owe it to our ancestors and our descendants to return [the Ville] to its past grandeur,” said Hughes. And the area is rich with history: in the early 20th century, restrictive housing covenants prevented Black St. Louis residents from finding housing in other areas of the city. As a result, the African American population of St. Louis became heavily concentrated in the Ville area. The Ville then became home to many landmark institutions of Black St. Louis: Homer G. Philips Hospital and Annie Malone Children’s Home, for example, as well as Stowe Teachers’ College (one day to become part of Harris-Stowe State University). 

Now, the neighborhood, which is 97% Black as of the 2010 census, is still home to the yearly Annie Malone May Day Parade. It is still home to a new clinic and is a local historic site. But much of what Hughes called the “grandeur” of the Ville is gone, as it has filled up with abandoned lots and decaying buildings – more abandoned lots, according to 72-year Ville resident Julia Allen, than any other neighborhood in the city. 

Allen hopes that the Fleur De Lis project will restore the Ville to the place that she fondly calls “my small town” – “A place where you had access to healthcare, education, groceries, commerce, equitable employment, home ownership, recreation, worship, and entertainment for everyone. My small town had homes. Filled with families, where neighbors knew and helped one another.” In the 1970s, Allen recalled, redlining and economic depletion meant that parts of her “small town” began to disappear, replaced with “high unemployment, spotty city services…and vacant lots.”  

Advocates of the Ville hope that the new housing and community development project will help offset the trajectory Allen described, and bring her “small town” back. 

“At a minimum, we need to build healthy, amenity-equipped communities in which all residents have access to quality education, safe and healthy homes, and access to quality healthcare,” Hughes said. The new homes built through this project will be selling for $180,000 to $250,000. 

At the February 12th groundbreaking ceremony, many recalled former 4th Ward Alderman Samuel Moore, who served as a mentor to Hughes and an advocate of the Ville until his death at age 71 this past year. 

“He believed in me,” Hughes said. “It’s because of him that I’m here today. And so it is a great honor to be here, because he’s watching all of this. Alderman, step by step, brick by brick, we are getting it done.” 

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