That was then, this is now
Reflections on where I grew up—and what's there today
This has been an emotional week. It started with my visit to a childhood home—or where it used to be—and midway through, culminated in Russia’s attack on Ukraine, where a number of my colleagues live.
On the latter topic, on which I may have more to say soon—I heard from one colleague very early this morning. She let me know she was in Kyiv and (at least for the short term) staying put and safe. Things are changing so rapidly that I’m not even sure that’s still the case. The company I work for is doing everything they can to help everyone in a situation that is highly fluid and unpredictable, which is wonderful, but the news tonight (as I’m writing) that a rocket crashed into a civilian building has me worrying for them all. Of course, Kyiv is a city of 2.95 million people, larger than the St. Louis metro area, so the odds are still good that everyone I know is safe. But it’s still scary for them and for the greater geopolitical issues now at play. For now, I can only say that I stand with Ukraine and hope that order and peace are restored soon, with minimal destruction and loss of life.
But for now, a little about my childhood.
Growing up in Ferguson
When I was born back in 1967, my parents were living in a townhouse apartment in Ferguson, MO (yes, that Ferguson—I grew up 2.5 miles away from where Michael Brown was shot in 2014).
This, I believe, was my very first home as an infant:
This apartment complex is on Torii Dr, with two I’s, and still stands, though there were potholes in the streets deep enough to plant trees. (And ‘Torii’? The only reference I could find for that name is to Torii gates, which according to Wikipedia are “traditional Japanese gate at Shinto shrines, symbolically marking the transition from the profane to the sacred.” There are no other Asian-themed streets in the area, though the next street over is Dragonwyck, so who knows? But whatever—a great street name for your first home!)
The property manager at my first home promptly told my parents that no kids were allowed, so they loaded up the
truck (MG) and moved to Beverley Wyndhurst, a brand-new complex across the highway, tucked away in a little corner south of Maline Creek and just off Hern Rd.
Wyndhurst was a complex made up of 36 boxy four-family buildings—all two-story, many/all with two bedrooms and a full basement—on 12.4 acres. The complex was built in a U-shape, with lush lawns and shrubbery encircling each building—lots of space to run and play. Next to one side of the complex, and closest to our building, was a massive forest (actually just a small stand of trees between our complex and the next) but to a kid, it felt like it went on forever. There was also a long slope that ran downhill in front of the imposing forest, which was great in the winter. To the east, as the crow flies, beyond the bottom of the U, was Hanley Road (though our road was actually a giant cul-de-sac), and then just past that, Lambert-Field airport.
It wasn’t a fancy complex, but it was a great place for a kid. I spent many hours roaming around the area of my home and the two that were directly to the east and west, meeting a few other kids, riding a metal riding tractor that I think my grandparents gave me (which was a lot like the one in the photo above, but green), picking clover and dandelions, helping my mom plant marigold seeds along the sidewalk in front of our home, and imagining the railroad ties that made up the retaining wall between us and the next building was actually part of a castle.
The woods were my favorite part. I was equally fascinated and terrified by them. They had been left wild and you couldn’t see through to the other side, and I imagined going in and getting lost, so I never ventured very far into them. But to this day, when I picture kids in stories going into the woods, it’s almost always those trees. (In fact, they inspired a scene in my first novel, though much disguised now.)
The apartment itself was pretty standard two-bedroom issue. I had the front bedroom, which faced west, giving me the chance to see many sunsets, and the big window was great to watch thunderstorms at night. Here at Wyndhurst was also where we got my first dog, a Scotty named Heather, and my first cat, an orange tabby with the exceptionally-original name of Morris. Over the years we also had numerous saltwater fish tanks (housing, among other things, an Oscar named George), parakeets, gerbils, and a guinea pig.
One thing I’ll always remember was how close we were to the airport—it was maybe a half-mile away and we were directly in the flight path. So when jets flew over, everything stopped for a moment. In the 30 seconds of jet noise, we couldn't talk to each other in person, we had to freeze our telephone conversations, and we missed whatever was happening on TV. But as loud as it was, it was just part of life, and even being outside it never felt onerous as a kid.
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How things changed
In 1978, after dealing with some problematic neighbors and a burglary, my parents moved us away from Wyndhurst and to a house owned by a family friend in south St. Louis (that’s a story for another time!).
It was probably a good decision. From what I could find from a review of newspaper reports, Wyndhurst Apartments fell into decline in the 1980s, with a sharp uptick in crime. Eventually, the complex was torn down in the mid-1990s as part of airport noise abatement. Sadly (though not surprisingly), its passing didn’t merit a mention in the local paper.
After that, from what I could tell, the property then sat vacant for many years. Indeed, below is a photo of how the property looked in 2012. The red “danger” sign warns of construction equipment. Note the old fire hydrant at the far right of the image, which I assume was once at the corner of the entrance, though all signs of the road are long gone.
This photo shows the land after it was graded. When I lived there, there was a huge dip in the middle of the property that required terracing for the buildings, as it was considerably higher at the street and then at the rear of the complex than in the middle. (Of course, as a kid, the hills made it that much more fun!)
This is how the same land looked last weekend:
These warehouses—and there are a number of them—are all part of NorthPoint development. The one that stands where Wyndhurst used to be is the SKF/Lincoln machine lubrication factory and/or distributor. There are also Amazon, Schnucks (a local grocery store chain), and PepsiCo distributors in the immediate area.
Here’s a map that helps place everything:
As you might imagine, what it looks like now has absolutely nothing in common with how it used to look, or how I remember it. It’s so different, in fact, that it’s rather shocking.
How this impacts me and my stories
To be honest, I was a bit shocked to see all of the industrial development where I used to live, especially since all the houses across the street are still there. But I think it’s better than having found buildings in serious disrepair, or as an empty and unkempt field, as has happened in many other places around the city (including the former Crestwood Mall, where my family and I used to shop, which falls squarely into the latter category).
As a writer, I am intrigued by how it felt to drive roads I hadn’t been on in over 40 years and how clearly I remembered everything. Over on S. Florissant, I could still remember the gas stations and the donut shop that we used to go to, and I remembered houses and other landmarks. Remarkably, even as I looked over the parking lots and warehouses, a part of me could still ‘see’ Wyndhurst. Even now I can see it in my head superimposed over what was once there.
Memory, especially from childhood, is a powerful thing, and it’s something that I like to incorporate into my fiction.
In fact, in my current Favor Faeries series, the faerie world maps over our own, with the faeries choosing which bits and pieces of human construction to use or discard. Having these different moments in time overlapping in my head helps me better understand how that works—in my mind, Wyndhurst is still there, just as I remember it. It’s never going to be warehouses to me, even if I stand there and stare at them. The ghosts of the trees still call to me, and I can still see the lightning from my window.
As an aside, while researching the area (and trying, but failing, to find a photo of the complex), I stumbled across an intriguing—and infuriating—bit of history, something that happened not a quarter-mile away and something that neither my dad nor I knew before. That will be the subject of my next article on my other Substack, Unseen St. Louis, which will be done in a few days. I encourage you to subscribe and check it out.
As always, thanks for reading. If you’re not a paid member of Story Cauldron, you might be excited to hear that my second novel, The Boy Who Can Taste Color, is now on Kindle Vella as well as here. If you’re new to Vella, you will get free tokens to start reading and see if you like it!
Finally, in the comments, please tell us about a place from your childhood that was magical or mysterious to you.