Meet the McCloskeys: How Private Places Act as a Form of Spatial Anti-Blackness in St. Louis

Two white homeowners threatened the lives of Black Lives Mater protestors in on a private street in St. Louis yesterday, raising questions about anti-Black racism in pseudo-public space.

Source: Screenshot from  The Hill
Source: Screenshot from The Hill

Two St. Louis-area personal injury lawyers, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, became the subject of a media firestorm — and more than a few biting memes — when they brandished guns at a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters marching past the couple’s palatial mansion on Sunday evening. But less scrutiny has been trained on the backdrop for their act of racist aggression: a gated, private street with an explicitly anti-Black history, located in the dead center of a major city.

The incident occurred during a protest demanding the resignation of Mayor Lyda Krewson, who faced public outcry when she used the platform of a public Facebook Live event to read the full names and addresses of 10 protesters who wrote her letters calling for the defunding of the St. Louis Police. (One quick aside: The mayor has since apologized for the incident, which was widely deriding as a form of doxxing, but claimed anyway that her actions were legal since the protesters’ information were a matter of public record the moment they sent a letter to a government official. Activists have countered that a formal “sunshine” request is usually required to obtain such records, and her actions exposed her citizens to danger from violent counter-protestors, including the attendees of a white supremacist rally scheduled for the very next day. But let’s move on.)

Expect Us, a local protest group heavily associated with Black Lives Matter, organized a march from the city’s tony Central West End commercial district to the mayor’s home in the nearby Skinker DeBalivere neighborhood; the incident with the McCloskeys occurred when the marchers passed the couple’s home on Portland Place, which is located in a gated private subdivision.

As for how the protesters actually got into the exclusive enclave, Mark McCloskey alleged that “a mob of at least 100 smashed through the historic wrought iron gates,” and shared images of a badly mangled gate with local media as proof. But several videos on social media showed protesters walking through an undamaged gate — and one protestor who was present confirmed to Streetsblog that the gate was not in that condition they entered the street — suggesting that the gates were damaged sometime later. Some speculated that perhaps someone other than the marchers was behind the vandalism.

Another subject of hot debate was the fact that protesters were, technically, trespassing when they included the private Portland Place in their march route, leading some to wonder whether the McCloskeys were within their legal rights when they brandished semi-automatic rifles against the marchers for simply walking on the sidewalk past their property. Defenders have argued that because the homeowner’s association to which the McCloskeys belong pays for the maintenance and upkeep of the roadway, the McCloskeys themselves have the right to deny the public the right to use that road — even if it’s located in a central area of the city street grid that should be available for the mobility of city residents.

Unlike the outer-ring suburban neighborhoods that many Americans might associate with the word “subdivision,” Portland Place is actually located in the heart of one of St. Louisan’s most urbanized areas, just blocks from the region’s largest employer (Barnes Jewish Hospital), one of the region’s densest commercial corridors (Euclid Avenue), and the region’s largest park, which is itself home to most of the city’s free cultural institutions (Forest Park).

The state of Missouri allows homeowners to use lethal force to defend themselves from an intruder on their property under the Castle Doctrine. But many legal experts believe that that the doctrine doesn’t apply beyond the homeowner’s property line, even if the homeowner technically co-owns the street beyond that line. Moreover, there’s no evidence that unarmed protesters posed any threat to McCloskeys’ well-being — which would make their show of force an act of escalation, rather than self-defense.

“They were absolutely furious to see us,” said Micah Hainline, who was one of the marchers. “They had no reason to fear, leadership was actively moving people away from them, they were just incensed to see people dare to be on their private street. There were no weapons in evidence that I saw other than theirs. Mark came out very quickly and pointed his rifle at protesters. Maybe four people saw that and ran to the sidewalk from the street, hands in the air yelling “don’t shoot!” but never reached the grass. This all took place before they called cops.”

Prominent local attorneys agreed that the video evidence of the incident did not support a legal argument that the McCloskey’s actions were justified.

“You cannot control the comings and goings of citizens on your private street,” attorney Eric Banks, former St. Louis City Counselor, told St. Louis Public Radio. “I don’t care if you have gates there. I don’t care if you have off-duty police officers as security. It’s just not possible. That is a myth that the private street residents frequently want to put forth. But you cannot act with impunity, come out of your house with an automatic weapon, and point it in the direction of people who are walking down the street. It’s just beyond the pale.”

But even readers who find the McCloskeys’ behavior outrageous may not fully grasp the outrageously racist history of Portland Place itself, not to mention the many  subdivisions just like it in cities across America. And some argue that the very concept of “private places” reinforces spatial anti-Black racism, to quote a term coined by planner and activist Amina Yasin — and that it’s past time we begin the work of dismantling them, along with all other forms of white supremacy in the street realm.

It bears repeating that Portland Place itself is just one of hundreds of private streets in the St. Louis region, some of which date as far back as 1851. The pre-zoning land-use concept allows wealthy St. Louisans to combine their money to build homes on roads that they collectively own and maintain — and use design features like iron gates and curvilinear streets to cut off access to populations who might otherwise want to use their streets for travel. The vast majority of private places in St. Louis used racially restrictive covenants to explicitly bar would-be Black homeowners from purchasing properties in these neighborhoods. (A notable exception is Lewis Place, which successfully voted down its whites-only covenant in the 1940s, when a collective of fair-skinned Black St. Louisans who actively chose to “pass” for white lied about their race in order to buy enough homes in the neighborhood to gain voting control of the owner’s association.)

“The idea, explicitly, was that the police power of the street should be private — that homeowners should be able to enforce both belonging and disbelonging,” said Michael Allen,
senior lecturer in Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. “When Portland Place was built in 1888, people thought they were escaping the poor and the ‘wretched’ — at the time, that was code for immigrants and former slaves — and locking them out. It was designed to be isolated from anything we consider urban today.”

But as the region around Portland Place urbanized, homeowners made no move to open their street for public use — or to allow non-white St. Louisans to be their neighbors.

“After racially restrictive covenants were voted down by the Supreme Court in 1948, there were efforts to integrate many of these private places. But nothing like that really happened on Portland,” Michael Allen said. “To this, day, I honestly can’t tell you if anyone who lives there is Black.”

In addition to design features like gates, many private places hire private security firms to patrol the regions in search of “trespassers” on the street and sidewalk; many such firms exclusively employ armed, off-duty police offers. In an incident that made national news in the wake of the Ferguson protests, an off-duty cop who had been hired by residents of another private place, Flora Place, killed Black teenager VonDerrit Myers, Jr. in 2014.

But in practice, of course, even the most violent means of spatial exclusion are often not always enforced — and who is spared falls along racial lines. Full disclosure: I’m a white St. Louisan, and I’ve personally walked down Portland Place countless times without incident. For many years, I worked at a bookstore nearby, and it was a lovely place to go for a stroll on my lunch break, because there were virtually no cars. The now-smashed gate directly adjacent to the McCloskey’s driveway was frequently left unlocked.

There was one time I did find that gate locked. There was a peaceful “die-in” event scheduled for the street outside the bookstore where I worked for later that evening; after the event was announced, several of our wealthy, white customers expressed fear that protesters would turn violent. (They didn’t, but a racist counter-protester did run over several of them with his SUV before brandishing a gun.) On my walk, I’d entered Portland Place from Lake Avenue, a connecting street that isn’t gated. I hadn’t counted on finding a padlock on the Portland Place gate I’d used countless times, and backtracking on Lake would take the better part of half an hour and make me late to my register shift — something I could ill afford at my low-wage, hourly job. So I looked around, hopped the fence, and hustled back to the store.

Mayor Krewson lives on Lake Avenue — which most St. Louisans now know, of course, because her own address appeared in the comments of countless news stories after she exposed the personal information of protesters online. And like mayors, governors, and powerful people across the country, she participates in the protection and perpetuation of violent white supremacy in countless ways. Some are egregious, like using a live broadcast to read the complete home addresses of 10 constituents who oppose her stance on police funding, the very day before white supremacists have announced a rally in her city’s largest park. Some may not register as easily, at least to those who have never had to consider the violent history of something as “neutral” as the curvilinear design of a street, a low iron gate, a small, calligraphic “No Trespassing” sign — or how these design features can so easily become a pretext for state-sanctioned violence against a Black body.

“The argument in favor is that the privatization of that space ensures a greater physical preservation of that environment — high quality landscaping, beautiful historic restoration, scrupulous maintenance,” said Allen, who is a noted historic preservationist in the region. “But that argument falls apart when you consider that many historical places — including many gorgeous homes right across the street from Portland Place — are located on non-gated streets, and they’re not falling into disrepair. They’re not being robbed blind. These houses are not being torched, even during large protests. To me, private places are a vestige of a past social order, and I don’t think these arrangements are necessary to protect people, property, or a sense of place. At this point, they’re an impediment to the larger work of making everyone feel included in cities. And a lot of them are using historic preservation to defend a racist status quo.”

8:00am CST: This story has been updated with additional quotes from those present at the time of the incident. 

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