My first relationship with a black man in Saint Louis began in 1994 and ended in 1997, for reasons not related to our ethnicity. During the time we lived together we had a house in Lafayette Square, an upper middle class enclave about a mile from the Arch. Residents of the Square are mostly, but not entirely, white. The surrounding neighborhoods were mostly lower income and black. I never felt any personal hostility from our upper income neighbors, and if Kurt did he never mentioned it to me. Outside the Square, though, it was a different story. Just walking together was enough to draw stares, sometimes hard, hostile stares. Blacks and whites share public space in Saint Louis, but they don't often share it together. Usually blacks pair with other blacks and the same applies to the whites. I'd been introduced to this traditional segregation shortly after my arrival in Saint Louis in 1992.
At my new job, I'd sat outside my workplace, taking a smoke break with a black female coworker. As we chatted and smoked, she suddenly stopped talking to me and glared off into space. "I don't like you either, you old bastard," she said. She was looking at a man about 50 feet away, in line for an ATM at the bank next door. I was surprised to to see that his face was twisted in furious hatred as he stared at us. "What's that all about?" I asked her. "He doesn't like to see a black woman and a white man sitting together and talking like friends." I was dumbfounded.
Soon, though, I realized Saint Louis was a very tense place. There were stories in the Post-Dispatch that exposed the troubled relations between the races. One in particular sticks in my mind. It was about a black burglary suspect who police chased up to the top of the building he broke into, and how he then jumped off the roof to his death. Except that the autopsy report found he had been beaten to death before he jumped to the ground. The police were the only witnesses, and they all said he jumped. And that was that. No charges ever filed.
When different races encountered each other, they usually avoided each others eye. On a couple of occasions, I passed groups of three or four young blacks who glowered at me. Once, while waiting at a traffic light, I glanced idly out my car window at a black man on the other side of the busy street. Noticing my interest, he directed a stream of obscenities at me. Oftentimes, Kurt would be the only black when we were in a group of whites, or I would be the only white when we were with blacks. Talk about feeling like a potted plant.
I got a new perspective on my Lafayette Square neighbors shortly before Kurt and I broke up in 1997. The city had suddenly decided to remove an old basketball court in Lafayette Square Park and replace it with--nothing. Some people in the Square had objected to the cursing that accompanied the pick-up games there. The court was next to a child's playground that the neighborhood association and the city had spent considerable money improving. It didn't seem to matter to them that there were no other nearby public courts. Of course, the fact that the players were almost always young black men had nothing to do with the decision, they said. There were a couple of wild neighborhood association meetings that failed to bring about any change in the city's plans. The intensity of the racial fear, though, and the willingness of Square residents to shelter their bigotry behind their children's innocence, seemed evident to me.
When I entered into a new relationship in 2007, it was again with a black man. This time though, he was not a native of Saint Louis. Mike is from California and, like me, came to Saint Louis for work reasons. He was quick to tell me how uncomfortable he was in the racial atmosphere of Saint Louis, and since we were both retired, we decided to find a more agreeable place to live. In 2010 we finally sold both our houses and left town the day after the last closing.
Portland has its own racial tensions. Everyplace in this country does. But it's nothing like Saint Louis. Here, mixed race couples, straight, lesbian and gay, are a common sight. They don't bring stares. The police have been problematic here. They seemed in the past more ready to shoot than is always justified. That's not just my opinion, it's shared by the FBI. The black community has major problems with the way they are treated by police.
During the Occupy! movement, however, it was my personal observation that police used great restraint in situations that were very tense. Only two weeks ago, I witnessed a black man wielding a butcher knife in the street who was dealt with professionally and without lethal force. It was a near thing. Most important, the city's new mayor and political leaders are committed to improving relations between police and the black community. It isn't happening quick enough. But they seem to be trying.
It's all so different from what I experienced in Saint Louis. I'm glad I don't live there anymore.