"West Cabanne Place is in the 5900 and 6000 block of Cabanne Ave, at the end of a grim, gray street where the police come frequently, the prostitutes occasionally, and the building inspectors as seldom as possible. The drabness reaches to the base of the stone entrance columns guarding the private place, and there it stops. Beyond the pillars, as suddenly and unexplained as alchemy, the world glows green." Florence Shinkle, "Life in the Old Places," St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday Pictures, 11 September 1977, p. 4
I don't remember having read that description when we bought the house at 5959 West Cabanne Place a year later. But I don't think it would have stopped us. It was a three story, turn of the century beauty set on a semi-secluded street amid other turn of the century beauties. With the exception of three or four houses at the end of the block, which were newer additions from the 1950's or 60's, the 39 houses were stately, mainly brick, but some shingled, with big porches, slate sidewalks, old gaslights, mature trees, and rose bushes growing in the front yards.
Each carried a story. Some were built by renowned architects of the time who also built some of the pavillions for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Some had historical significance for the style they were built in. And some had been lived in by near famous people like a U.S. Senator, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway, and the manager of the St. Louis Browns who finally integated the team.
We were only the third family to live in ours. It came with the original blueprints and working papers and remained virtually unchanged from when it was built. It still had the original stained glass windows, lighting fixtures and woodwork, and still shared a sidewalk that curved to both our house and the smaller house to the East that mirrored the style of our own and was originally built as a Mother-In-Law house, but was now owned by one of many of our good neighbors.
The street wasn't private, or guarded by gates, but it wasn't a through street, and the stone pillars at the entrance gave a suggestion of privacy and safety. As did the fact that it was called a Place.
We were just out of law school, with no savings and only entry level or non-profit jobs, and considered ourselves lucky to have found such an affordable beauty. The boarded up apartments and overgrown empty lots of the surrounding streets didn't bother us. Neither did the iron bars on the windows of the occupied houses we passed on our way home nor the small local grocery stores with armed guards and expired foods on the shelves.
The highest crime rates in the city were in our police district and, although I don't have the figures, I would guess that we probably also headed the categories for poverty rates, vacant lots and condemmed buildings.
Not on our block though. Our block was an island of well-kept homes with a rich mixture of newcomers and families who had lived there for years, white and black, professionals and non, old and young. By the time we moved in, there was no one more famous than a City Alderman. But the diversity of the street across racial and economic lines was wonderful. As noted in an article in the St. Louis, Review, "A modest integrated island thrives in West Cabanna Place." 7 January 1966, feature page.
The location made it affordable. One of the houses sold in 1892 for $20,000. We bought ours 86 years later for just a few thousand more, at a cost slightly less than the Lexus that my husband would buy over my objection a few years later.
It was the perfect house for two twenty somethings who liked old houses and antiques and newel posts, and who paid little attention to the statistics of nearby crime and little heed to echos or reports of nearby gunshots.
It was a block that took you back in time, where it was easy to stand by the light post in the front yard and invision trolley cars taking neighbors to the 1904 World's Fair in nearby Forest Park.
And, indeed, there were trolley tracks running directly behind our back yard, unused by then and overgrown, but likely the same tracks remembered by Sally Benson when she wrote a series of semi-autobiographical short storeis about growing up in St. Louis in a house that sat eight blocks East of ours. Her house has since been torn down, but her stories, and the fictional "Smith" family, live on in the movie, "Meet Me In St. Louis."
My oldest daughter grew up loving that movie. She had such an attachment to it that her husband rented out a movie theater and had the movie playing when he proposed.
She didn't, however, grow up loving the Cabanne house which stood so close to the Smith's house, where happy endings abounded.
When she was born, the possibility of gunfire echoed louder and took on new meaning, and we started paying closer attention to the crime reports. The love of our house and neighborhood didn't dim, but the grim, gray streets surrounding it seemed closer.
And so we moved, five year later, soon after her first birthday. To another old house in a different neighborhood of the city where guns didn't seem so prevalent and where it felt safer to play in the yard. Where it felt safer to venture outside of our block to go to school, and church, and movie theaters.