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How did the Central West End, a St. Louis neighborhood once on the brink, come back?

Patrick Murphy and Candace O'Connor have tracked the rise and fall and rise of St. Louis' Central West End neighborhood in two recent documentary projects.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Patrick Murphy and Candace O'Connor have tracked the rise and fall and rise of St. Louis' Central West End neighborhood in two recent documentary projects.

The Central West End, considered by most to be a vital neighborhood in the City of St. Louis was not always viewed that way. In the 1970s, it was considered a symbol of blight. What happened in the space from then to now to transform the neighborhood?

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, two documentarians who recently explored the history of the Central West End joined host Don Marsh to discuss the subject. Nine Network Producer Patrick Murphy recently completed a documentary called “A Place Worth Saving: The Story of the Central West End,” which will air on Nine PBS in June.

The hour-long documentary will soon be accompanied by a book from Reedy Press, written by author Candace O’Connor.

The neighborhood was very sparsely populated into the late 1870s, said Murphy, but began picking up speed in the lead up to the 1904 World’s Fair. Moneyed people of the late 1800s moved to the area for its clean, pastoral look, he said. It was solidified as a neighborhood by 1915 when the Washington University Medical School and Barnes Hospital moved to the neighborhood.

“From the very beginning, they are buddies, the neighborhood and the medical school,” Murphy said.

The neighborhood fell into trouble during the depression and World War II, said O’Connor when wealthy families who built the large homes synonymous with the neighborhood could no longer afford the servants to keep the houses running.

The 1960s were a time of turmoil for the neighborhood, when retailers that had peppered the Maryland Avenue Plaza began to leave the strip, the Chase Park Plaza was falling into disrepair and the future of the Washington University Medical School was up in the air. Ultimately, the hospital and school stayed in the neighborhood, creating an anchor for the community.

By the 1970s, when the neighborhood started to reemerge, Murphy said people bought those large homes for “practically nothing,” and put a lot of sweat equity into the homes.

Listen as O’Connor and Murphy discuss the history of the neighborhood, its relationship with the hospital and efforts to revitalize the community:

You can see the documentary for yourself when it screens on Nine Network’s Nine PBS on June 5 at 8 p.m. and June 26 at 8 p.m.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.