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The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

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A searing portrait of the racial dynamics that lie inescapably at the heart of our nation, told through the turbulent history of the city of St. Louis. From Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition to the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, American history has been made in St. Louis. And as Walter Johnson shows in this searing book, the city exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capita A searing portrait of the racial dynamics that lie inescapably at the heart of our nation, told through the turbulent history of the city of St. Louis. From Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition to the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, American history has been made in St. Louis. And as Walter Johnson shows in this searing book, the city exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation's past. St. Louis was a staging post for Indian removal and imperial expansion, and its wealth grew on the backs of its poor black residents, from slavery through redlining and urban renewal. But it was once also America's most radical city, home to anti-capitalist immigrants, the Civil War's first general emancipation, and the nation's first general strike -- a legacy of resistance that endures. A blistering history of a city's rise and decline, The Broken Heart of America will forever change how we think about the United States.


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A searing portrait of the racial dynamics that lie inescapably at the heart of our nation, told through the turbulent history of the city of St. Louis. From Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition to the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, American history has been made in St. Louis. And as Walter Johnson shows in this searing book, the city exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capita A searing portrait of the racial dynamics that lie inescapably at the heart of our nation, told through the turbulent history of the city of St. Louis. From Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition to the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, American history has been made in St. Louis. And as Walter Johnson shows in this searing book, the city exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation's past. St. Louis was a staging post for Indian removal and imperial expansion, and its wealth grew on the backs of its poor black residents, from slavery through redlining and urban renewal. But it was once also America's most radical city, home to anti-capitalist immigrants, the Civil War's first general emancipation, and the nation's first general strike -- a legacy of resistance that endures. A blistering history of a city's rise and decline, The Broken Heart of America will forever change how we think about the United States.

30 review for The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

  1. 5 out of 5

    Evan

    A 4.5 rounded up for breadth of vision, scope of scholarship, and the overwhelming love of labor it entails. Is it exhausting, as one of the other reviewers put it? Absolutely. And incredibly depressing? Affirmative. It's possibly the saddest book I've ever read, heartbreaking page after heartbreaking page. If, like me, you're a local or grew up in St Louis, you'll want to cast it into the fire on many occasions. But press on! You owe it the city's forefathers and mothers to do so. Hats off to W A 4.5 rounded up for breadth of vision, scope of scholarship, and the overwhelming love of labor it entails. Is it exhausting, as one of the other reviewers put it? Absolutely. And incredibly depressing? Affirmative. It's possibly the saddest book I've ever read, heartbreaking page after heartbreaking page. If, like me, you're a local or grew up in St Louis, you'll want to cast it into the fire on many occasions. But press on! You owe it the city's forefathers and mothers to do so. Hats off to Walter Johnson: this is the book I've been waiting to read my whole life.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Clif Hostetler

    This book focuses on St. Louis and surrounding area and provides a historical direct connection that begins with Lewis & Clark, leading to Indian removal (i.e. genocide), followed by black suppression, then setting up labor strife between poor whites versus blacks, white flight plus black removal in urban development, and by the time the end of the book is reached with the 2014 death of Michael Brown it is not unexpected because it is only the continuation of over two hundred years of presumed w This book focuses on St. Louis and surrounding area and provides a historical direct connection that begins with Lewis & Clark, leading to Indian removal (i.e. genocide), followed by black suppression, then setting up labor strife between poor whites versus blacks, white flight plus black removal in urban development, and by the time the end of the book is reached with the 2014 death of Michael Brown it is not unexpected because it is only the continuation of over two hundred years of presumed white hegemony (a.k.a. supremacy) and economic capitalism that thrives on an unorganized and divided underclass. St. Louis is located at the juncture of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers which historically placed it at the northern edge of the slave states and the administrative center of Indian Removal which cleared land for white settlement (freed slaves not welcome). Thus St. Louis was at the heart of the two original sins of America, slavery and Indian genocide. This is reflected also in the overlapping phrases within the book's title with “broken heart” referring to the nation’s failure to live up to its ideals of liberty and freedom and “heart of America” referring to its geographic and strategic location. This is a big book with a lot of history so there's no way for this review to acknowledge its full scope. Thus the following paragraphs are my comments on portions of the book that were either new to me or notable in some way. Black Hawk War The expansion of white settlement required the displacement of the American Indians, and there are numerous instances in American history where this involved actions that are arguably genocidal. For this book the author tells of the treatment of the Sauk (a.k.a. Sac) Indian tribe and their allies. It ends in 1832 with whites shooting grapeshot from a riverboat cannon at Indians swimming across the Mississippi River trying to reach the west side, some of them mothers with babies strapped on their back in an frantic effort to survive. The irony is that the war was caused in the first place because of their reluctance to move to the west side, and they ended up being shot at while doing so. Elijah Lovejoy In 1827 this Presbyterian minister arrived in St Louis, and overtime became involved in the abolitionist cause. Proslavery mobs destroyed his print press on several occasions so he moved to southern Illinois (a free state) to avoid the violence. But the proslavery people attacked him there and murdered him. Here's a link to an NPR interview with the author of the book First To Fall which is a biography of Elijah Lovejoy. Civil War Missouri was a slave state that did not secede from the Union during the American Civil War. However, after reading this book it's clear to me that had it not been for the sizable German community that had settled in St Louis in the decade prior to the war that there would have been no way for the Union to prevent them from joining the Confederacy. The new German immigrants were generally anti-slavery in sentiment and provided a source or military recruits when the Union needed to prevent Confederate organizing at the beginning of the war. 1917 East St. Louis Race Massacre I had heard of Wilmington, Tulsa, and Rosewood, and thought I was reasonably well informed on the history of these so-called “race riots” which were usually white mobs killing as many African Americans as they could find. I was surprised to learn of one more such incident in this book, the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre. With the help of Wikipedia I have compiled a list of instances of racially motivated violence from 1873 to 1923. I’ve also provided links to the corresponding Wikipedia article. Since this list is not part of this book being reviewed I’ve decided to place the list inside this (view spoiler)[ 1873 Colfax massacre 1885 Rock Springs massacre 1887 Thibodaux massacre Spring Valley race riot of 1895 1898 Phoenix election riot Wilmington massacre of 1898 1899 Pana massacre 1900 Robert Charles riots (New Orleans) 1903 Evansville Race Riot 1906 Atlanta race riot Springfield race riot of 1908 1910 Johnson–Jeffries riots 1912 racial conflict in Forsyth County, Georgia 1917 Chester race riot 1917 East St. Louis Riot 1919 Elaine massacre 1918-1919 Red Summer Chicago race riot of 1919 1920 Ocoee massacre 1921 Tulsa race massacre 1922 Perry massacre 1923 Rosewood massacre (hide spoiler)] Urban Renewal From the description given in this book St. Louis is an extreme example of destroying large sections of Black neighborhoods to make way for highways and commercial development. Of particular interest to me was the example given by the author of grassroots organizations that tried to fix up houses rather than tear them down. The following excerpt is talking about activist Macler Shepard and his efforts to rebuild one of the city’s oldest Black neighborhoods. The reason I've included the following excerpt is because of the mention in the second paragraph of some of my co-religionist, the Mennonites. A number of other organizations and individuals worked alongside ACTION in these years. In the Northside neighborhood that came to be known as Jeff-Vander-Lou (referring to the names of the streets that border and bisect it: Jefferson, Vandeventer, and St. Louis), the activist Macler Shepard led an effort to rebuild one of the city’s oldest Black neighborhoods amid the dislocations and destruction of federally funded Mill Creek Valley—style urban renewal. Shepard, whom had moved to St. Louis from Arkansas as a child and attended Vashon High School, was an upholsterer by trade. In 1966, having already been bulldozed out of two downtown homes, he decided to try to make a stand on the Northside by creating a community-based alternative to urban renewal. Rather than tearing down the old neighborhood, he would fix it up. “We roped off a city block and played a game called “Trade-off,” he explained. “We put different kinds of boxes around the block and asked people to choose whether they liked the boxes that stood for new houses, or high rises, or their old houses. They all seemed to want the older houses fixed up. So that’s what we decided to do.” It was as simple as that: he asked the people in his neighborhood what they wanted it to look like, and then he tried to make it happen.” Out of all the places he looked for support, the most consequential response came from what must have seemed like one of the least likely sources: the plainspoken, earnest, peace-loving, white Anabaptists of the Mennonite Disaster Service, to whom, among many others, Shepard had applied for assistance. They stood out on the Northside, to be sure, with their cowboy boots and formal carriage, hands folded in front of them as they spoke, almost as if in prayer. But, like Shepard, they listened. And they learned. As Hubert Schwartzentruber wrote of attending his first protest march, of standing, fearfully and uncertainly at first, and then proudly with the people whom he had come to serve, “We may never keep people guessing as to whose side we are on. Nor can we wait till we have all the answers before we can walk with and stand beside those who are oppressed. "The answers come while we are walking.” All told, Shepard’s Jeff-Vander-Lou, Inc. (JVL) built or rehabilitated over six hundred homes and apartments on the Northside. Then it rented and sold them to Black people on favorable terms. It built, for a time, a thriving neighborhood where there had only recently been a scattered population living in an array of broken-down and boarded-up brick buildings. At the heart of it, and existing to this day, was Bethesda Mennonite Church—a majority Black Mennonite congregation in the heart of the Northside.”The following is a link to a NYT article on freeways and how some communities are considering removing some of them. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/21/st... There was a saying at the time: “white men’s roads through Black men’s homes.” In the examples where freeways were removed, city life subsequently improved.

  3. 5 out of 5

    S.J.

    I have few words for how engrossing and immersive this book is. As a white millennial transplant, I’ve moved around this region with little sense of the blood and tears saturating the soil. And it just so happens that as an American, Saint Louis’ history is instructive of the National history more broadly. It’s hard for me to imagine many Saint Louisans reading this book and not understanding that we must talk about reparations, policing, eliminating TIFs, and centering North STL NOW. Our region I have few words for how engrossing and immersive this book is. As a white millennial transplant, I’ve moved around this region with little sense of the blood and tears saturating the soil. And it just so happens that as an American, Saint Louis’ history is instructive of the National history more broadly. It’s hard for me to imagine many Saint Louisans reading this book and not understanding that we must talk about reparations, policing, eliminating TIFs, and centering North STL NOW. Our region can no longer be a cookie jar for white capitalists. Broken Heart of America should be required reading in local high schools. I will be thinking about this book for a very long time.

  4. 4 out of 5

    James

    I used to teach high school U.S. History to teenagers in North St. Louis. Before Ferguson. I cared a lot about the city but I couldn't live there any more. Violence becomes too normal. Segregation become too normal. It shouldn't be normal. But I also resented telling people that I lived there, because they thought I was either a hero or a crazy person for doing what I was doing. I was neither, and the people who continue to live in St. Louis aren't heroes or crazy people. The genius of this book I used to teach high school U.S. History to teenagers in North St. Louis. Before Ferguson. I cared a lot about the city but I couldn't live there any more. Violence becomes too normal. Segregation become too normal. It shouldn't be normal. But I also resented telling people that I lived there, because they thought I was either a hero or a crazy person for doing what I was doing. I was neither, and the people who continue to live in St. Louis aren't heroes or crazy people. The genius of this book is that it neither excuses or exoticizes St. Louis. Johnson is right: it's a critically important city for understanding the dispossession of Native Americans, the spread of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, the maintenance of segregation, the brutalization of labor movements, and the creation of modern suburban whiteness. Everything you want to know is there, and in a much more convenient package than Chicago or New York. He gets any of the details that I know about right. He gets the North side right, he gets the Northwest counties like Jennings and Ferguson and Florissant right, he gets Kirkwood right, and he gets the people who struggle for justice in modern St. Louis right. Many of the most committed radicals and change agents for anti-racism that I've ever met lived in St. Louis before Ferguson. Ultimately every major American city has the problems that St. Louis has, because every major American city was built on stolen land, has a racial wealth gap, has nearly all-white suburbs, uses TIFF money to attract big corporations, and finally, almost always, has a repressive police department. I will shout out the Cincinnati Police Department here for getting close to being not repressive. I lived in Cincy after Ferguson and the difference in policing there versus St. Louis was unbelievable. Go look up Timothy Thomas and the consent decree if you want to know why this was. If you want to find a combo of the activism of Percy Green and ACTION and the work of the women in Pruitt-Igoe on the rent strike, go look up IrisRoley and get informed. She has made a huge impact on that city and continues to demand that the police do better. Anyway, I have to admit that I was somewhat suspicious of Johnson's totalizing framework of racial capitalism before starting the book, but his articulation of the logic of white frontiers and the zero-sum politics of turning poor whites against black and brown people is convincing. Capitalism is not going to solve a problem it created. We're going to need different solutions and I'm open to them.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mikey

    very highly recommend this for all St Louis folks

  6. 4 out of 5

    Greg Brozeit

    “Can do no wrong, perfect American” Sufjan StevensWalter Johnson’s lessons on the seminal importance of race and violence in America are convincingly connected by seemingly random events in St. Louis's history. His narrative is at odds with most of the stories we were taught as children and want to believe. But it gives voice and structure to recognize misunderstood historical currents and how they flow to fundamentally shape the world. It is not too much to claim race and violence might well be “Can do no wrong, perfect American” Sufjan StevensWalter Johnson’s lessons on the seminal importance of race and violence in America are convincingly connected by seemingly random events in St. Louis's history. His narrative is at odds with most of the stories we were taught as children and want to believe. But it gives voice and structure to recognize misunderstood historical currents and how they flow to fundamentally shape the world. It is not too much to claim race and violence might well be more consequential to the American creed and identity than the words after We the People… American history is told with a vocabulary of sanitized euphemisms that often don’t fit nicely with objective reality. Take, for example, Columbus, de Soto, de Leon, and other “explorers” who “discovered” new, “virgin lands.” The fact that civilizations existed for millennia in those places was never really considered. It interfered with the narrative of progress. The Civil War became “the war between the states,” or even worse, one “of Northern aggression.” Or take manifest destiny, which Timothy Snyder argues served as the precedent for the Nazi concept of Lebensraum. In popular lore, it was a mystical compulsion to settle the West, fulfilling God’s plan of American exceptionalism. These are tales of progress, sacrifice, and building a new civilization. They are largely convenient myths. Violence, the brutal murders of men, women and children, the taking of tribal, communal lands was better left to John Wayne westerns. They were sanitized, easier to understand for the the simplicity of their black/white, either/or morality. And they were easier to manipulate, distort, hide, lie and erase. That, in essence, is the argument Johnson makes so well. Its unlikely beginning is as the embarkation point for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Soon after William Clark became the administrator who helped make St. Louis “the administrative center of midwestern Indian removal”. With an emerging empire built on wealth that “was extractive rather than productive”, all the while “calling their actions progress, justifying them by race, and enforcing them by violence” because “the West was there to be used as the standing reserve of white freedom.” The “positive good” defense of slavery fit perfectly with the slaughter and persecution on Native Americans. Slavery, they rationalized, “channeled [slaves'] feral energies into productive labor and introduced their heathen hearts to the gospel truths of Christianity.” The pre-Civil War Supreme Court ruling that St. Louis-based slave Dred Scott did not acquire rights of freedom in a free state because slaves were “so inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” fit as well. It was one of a continuous line of laws and decisions—still alive today—in which laws were aggressively enforced or ignored depending on which better limited “the possibilities of Black citizenship” which, in the groundless fears of white, “posed a threat to public safety.” Mendacity openly crept deeply into the language and the framing of public issues. Slavery’s brutalities and cruelness became “the peculiar institution.” Reconstruction’s end and “the possibilities of Black citizenship” that died with it became “Redemption” for ruling whites. Even the term “race riot” could sanitize to some extent, as in published descriptions of the murderous reign of terror of whites against Blacks in East St. Louis in 1917. Consider the fate of one young boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The child, …hired to go to the butcher was set upon by the mob. He had been riding a bicycle, and the mob knocked him off if and threw it over a fence. He ran into the house of some white people who lived on the street, but the mob threatened to burn the house down if they did not send the child out. “The tenants picked him up and threw him out in the street to the mob [w]here he was kicked and stamped on and beaten until they knocked out his teeth from his head and killed him.”Race riot doesn’t seem an adequate term for such utter horror and the legacies it creates. It was much more. “It was an attack on the possibility that Black people might have a future in East St. Louis, might have families and leave a legacy for another generation.” According to W.E.B. DuBois, who documented the riot, “What they feared was not a deprivation of the things they were used to and the shadow of poverty, but rather the definite death of their rising dreams.” Their fears were deliberately and consistently codified into laws that would marginalize them legally through today. “The racism that had for so long served capital as a way of both separating and disciplining white workers—with the promise of a share in the spoils, the hollowed collegiality of shared skin, and the episodic threat of banishment and replacement with Black workers” (emphasis added). The lie was aided by the “hare-brained magical thinking” of conspiracy theories “that has so often been the hallmark of white supremacy in the United States.” It’s not unique in time or place. Then it was about free Blacks moving in waves from the South to, as they were conditioned to see it, take their homes and work. Today it’s QAnon, fictional stolen elections, and the oldie but goodie, “immigrants taking our jobs” line. I’ve come to the conclusion that the resurgence of these malignant myths is due in large part to the success of the relentless creation and enforcement of discriminatory laws that were much more consequential than Jim Crow. Harlan Bartholomew, the nation’s first-ever urban planner, had unfettered power for decades beginning in the 1930s to write and implement zoning laws with racially-motivated blueprints.It was Bartholomew’s particular malign genius (one historian has termed it a form of “administrative evil”) to be able to translate the terms of existing institutional racism—the “segregation ordinance” and the “restrictive covenant”—into the notionally color-blind terms of liberal white supremacy—“property values” and “the public good.”Considering the impact he had on national policy trends, Robert Caro might have been better advised to focus on him rather than Robert Moses. As he oversaw the post-World War II development of the city and county, he became a mid-20th century, St. Louis version of Paris’s Baron Haussmann, tearing down and displacing wide swaths of black communities all in the name of “Progress.” He was assisted at the federal level.Before long, the same pattern that took hold elsewhere in the United States took hold in St. Louis: federal money was used to subsidize white flight to the suburbs and the sequestration of Blacks in housing projects—racially and spatially distinct approaches to the question of “urban renewal” and economic “development.”Benefits of the G.I. Bill were largely restricted to race. The “New Deal, the charter document of postwar suburban America turn out to have had a whites-only codicil.” Federal Housing Authority loans, colorblind on paper, were essentially beyond the reach of virtually all Blacks while terms were eased for whites in suburban communities. “Long after the end of restrictive covenants and redlining, the pattern of racial discrimination remained structured into the transportation system (interstates everywhere, but no buses) and the single-family suburbs.” If you ever have the chance to drive from the St. Louis airport to the city center, try this: avoid the freeway and meander toward your destination. You’ll be struck by the sheer number of small municipalities with different police forces and fire departments. As they moved out of the city, they found new ways so make sure their tax dollars did not travel wide to benefit others in the greater St. Louis community by creating their own communities, essentially removing themselves from taxpayer responsibilities to the city of St. Louis. “Of the ninety-two municipalities in St. Louis County today, over half were established during the single-family suburban land rush between 1943 and 1954.” Driving through some of the poorer, mostly Black communities on the north side, one sees the perverse outcomes of “reform at the federal level have curbed some of the abuses in the payday and title lien loan business, canny capitalist entrepreneurs have invented new ways to monetize their neighbors’ desperation.” The extraction of what little wealth exists in poorer communities also comes in many creative guises, some that fit state and federal laws and trends a bit too conveniently. To cite just one example, as Diane Ravitch and others have clearly documented over the past two decades, billionaire-led schemes to privatize, and ultimately kill, public education into profit-making ventures have captured many state legislatures to act for them. In St. Louis and countless other communities around the nation, one of the outcomes has been the shifting of state funds from school districts to each individual student, often paying significantly more to the charter and virtual schools students (or more precisely, their parents) choose over public schools. In essence, when a student leaves an “already cash-strapped, already struggling” in their district, they “subsidize schools” in wealthy communities. The proliferation of communities has them wooing multi-billion dollar corporate clients, foolishly exchanging the promise of imaginary jobs in their communities for potential tax revenue. It’s a game that plays out state against state and community against community throughout the nation, all competing to give corporations the most generous tax breaks, zoning waivers, and free land. “‘Economic development’ in the United States turns out to have the bare meaning of ‘getting large businesses to locate their buildings within the city limits’” leading to “the indenture of municipal government to corporate development [with] misaligned incentives and priorities.” This leads communities seek new ways to extract funds from its citizens in order to pay for municipal government. And the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a northern St. Louis suburb, was a perverse lesson in the logical conclusion of this situation. While a small majority of the general public—correctly—sees the Brown murder as just another example of racism and lack of political accountability, Johnson sees something much deeper, more engrained in the community and, by logical extension, the nation. The fate of Brown was the culmination of a history of obtaining wealth and power from extracting it from the most vulnerable people for whom government support can literally be the difference between a brutal life and an ignominious death. Ferguson refined it. It had long been a “white flight” community that became poorer and Blacker over time. Yet its police force and municipal government officials were white. Most went to live in the white suburbs, after having worked in modern facility at odds with the crumbling, poor community around them. Although they had enticed a multi-billion dollar corporation to locate within its boundaries, they gave so many concessions with no strings that few, if any, local residents were hired and no money was returned to the city’s tax coffers. So instead, zoning managers issuing fines and gave police financial goals to use the powers they had not to serve the citizens of their community, but manipulate them as sources of income. Some citizens might have had as many as ten citations a year for petty offenses. Add to that two other issues that were fundamental to maintain the status quo, the first being the most obvious and widespread around the nation: the inequitable rate of property tax in poorer, Blacker communities as compared to white ones. The end result is that Blacks in certain zip codes who do have property pay much more as compared to those in others. Exacerbating this is the disincentive deliberately built in and interpreted in many communities to promote speculation,Rather than the absence of investment, many of the decaying houses along the routes that children walk to school every day represent a particular form of land-banking speculative investment in poor neighborhoods across the nation: long-game bets on development and gentrification.This can easily be seen on any drive between the airport and downtown. Although Walter Johnson tries to salvage some optimism to end his narrative, it is in vain. That’s not to say this book shouldn’t be read by as many Americans as possible and its message needs to be understood. It should. Knowing that would be bound to make some right-wingers’ heads explode provides a little short-term comfort. And that’s why his intent is futile, in my view. The logical conclusion is disturbing. It portends the end of the American experiment in exchange for continued dominance of a dwindling but powerfully persistent majority. The future of the U.S. will look, I think, remarkably like China today: economic development at the expense of human and minority rights with a strong, authoritarian leadership that can dole out favoritism through public funds and corruption with a strong policing infrastructure. And a new and improved favoritism and impunity for ruling, monied elites. As much as we may want to deny it, we don’t have to look far to get a sense of where we’re going. St. Louis is right there for every American to see. It’s an example Benjamin Franklin might have selected to ask if We the People… are capable of keeping a republic. Finishing this review just a few days after Kyle Rittenhouse got off for murdering two and wounding one gives me further evidence why I have no reason to visualize a hopeful future for this nation. Although the people he shot were white, it was the preconceived fear of unknown Blacks, born of the certainty of ignorance combined with the toxins of race and violence that motivated the pulling of the trigger. As much as things have changed in the 164 years since the Dred Scott decision, the history of St. Louis demonstrates one thing hasn't: many Americans still believe Blacks to be “so inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Addendum: Here’s a nice, short interview with Walter Johnson about the book with a St. Louis radio station.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Cris Edwards

    Like the author of this book, historian Walter Johnson, I am a middle-aged white male American. While I spent the first 42 years of my life in the South [Texas mostly, but also Virginia and Mississippi] and Mr. Johnson is a native of Missouri, I would wager that what we both learned in our grade-school American History classes was nearly identical. Anyone my age or older knows it well. Many of us still cling passionately to it. Before moving to the St. Louis area last year, I knew little about th Like the author of this book, historian Walter Johnson, I am a middle-aged white male American. While I spent the first 42 years of my life in the South [Texas mostly, but also Virginia and Mississippi] and Mr. Johnson is a native of Missouri, I would wager that what we both learned in our grade-school American History classes was nearly identical. Anyone my age or older knows it well. Many of us still cling passionately to it. Before moving to the St. Louis area last year, I knew little about the city. I had driven through on a college road trip and had seen the Arch. I knew that St. Louis hosted the World's Fair in 1904. I knew that it had once been one of the most-important cities in the country but now is no longer. So, when I decided to move to the area [North St. Louis County], I wanted to learn more. I learned the travel-friendly facts: It has the largest city park in America; bigger than NY's Central Park! The museums and zoo are free! But then I learned some things that were confusing. I found a chart of St. Louis's population since the late 1800s. It shows a meteoric rise in population that skyrocketed upwards until the 1950s, at which time it completely reverses course and plummets consistently to today. The city is built to house a million or more residents and today contains less than a third of that number. I also learned that St. Louis is recognized as The Murder Capital of America. Clearly, something happened to St. Louis. Upon my arrival in the area, I asked any people I could who were from the area: "What HAPPENED to St. Louis?!" No matter who I asked, regardless of age, race, or gender, the answer was, verbatim, always the same. "Racism." I was confused. I needed to know more. Mr. Johnson's book more than thoroughly explains it for me. But there is more to it than that. He brilliantly uses the history of St. Louis as a metaphor for the country as a whole. St. Louis's story is a microcosm of America's story. This book is a very difficult read in the same way that a recovering alcoholic will find it difficult to recognize and admit to their own hurtful wrongdoings as a necessary step in staying sober. Some people are not willing to see a problematic pattern of behaviour and will instead minimize, deny, and blame it away and nothing changes. If the American Dream is anything like getting sober, this book will work well as the nation's Fourth Step Inventory. I've come to love the St. Louis area and its people. This book ends with the seeds of optimism, which is tough, given the pain that the people here have felt for 200 years. Even if you live in America but have no interest or connection to St. Louis proper, I still highly recommend this book. It's shocking, infuriating, shameful, and heartbreaking, but necessary reading.

  8. 4 out of 5

    I Be Reading

    I am a third generation St. Louisan and this is the history about my city that I have been waiting for. Highly recommend.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Johnny

    I first came across Walter Johnson on the Red Nation podcast. It was a rambling conversation with Tef Poe and the podcast host. One point stuck with me: Johnson, while talking about his own Missourian status as a white man born and raised outside of Columbia, MO (which, in the grand scheme, is outside of St. Louis), said that imperative in his work was understanding all the ways history had congealed to make the who of who he is in the now of the immediate now. I’m not a historian, and I don’t I first came across Walter Johnson on the Red Nation podcast. It was a rambling conversation with Tef Poe and the podcast host. One point stuck with me: Johnson, while talking about his own Missourian status as a white man born and raised outside of Columbia, MO (which, in the grand scheme, is outside of St. Louis), said that imperative in his work was understanding all the ways history had congealed to make the who of who he is in the now of the immediate now. I’m not a historian, and I don’t read that much history, but part of what sets this apart is the ways Johnson is so clearly interrogating his own biographical backyard--he says as much in the intro, acknowledging the custom of bubbling out from history and writing about it from a space of shelter. Even Greg Grandin’s End of the Myth, which I loved and which certainly pairs with Broken Heart, is detached. The other side of the spectrum would be to swing into Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, but there the total investment in the lives of the subjects of the book removes it from history into the totally here and now, focused more on the congealed material than the history itself. My point: Broken Heart is more of a compendium of secondary sources, but it is still an honest, revelatory, visceral, maddening, at times warm and beautiful, and sprawling story of an epic history of racial capitalism. From the first pages, we all have a view of the moment where this is going: the murder of Mike Brown, but as readers we are lost in what, from our vantage point, is a wilderness. The wilderness is figurative--Johnson starts us off in 1700’s St. Louis, a cultural space dominated by indigenous people that is totally removed from our world today. The “wilderness” is literal--St. Louis also occupies a land that looks different, not just for the sprawl today, but also as the river itself has been reshaped by floods and dams and the first areas of settlement now exist as mostly parking lots. And Johnson walks us from there to today. Even though the book clocks in at over 400 pages long, it could easily be longer--each chapter is essentially its own book review, tied in with Johnson’s connections between the chapters and eras as he weaves the narrative of how the eviction and extermination of Indigenous Peoples in the West in the name of building White wealth and American Empire refracts into the exploitation of Black labor, eviction of Black people, and extraction of Black wealth from St. Louisan’s, with the pushback against reconstruction, the 1904 World’s Fair and 1917 massacre in East St. Louis serving as the evolution towards a system of violent policing and fucked housing practices--increasingly obscured by strange legalese and “colorblind” municipal maneuvers--that looks surprisingly static in St. Louis since the early to mid 20th century. The last chapter hits a fever dream pace with the desperation of municipalities to hoard and extract, alongside billion dollar companies that float like haunting ghosts above 250 years of routinized, banal theft and bloodshed. Parallel to all of this and equally if not more important, Johnson is constantly outlining the radicals and visionaries that helped set the pace for what it meant to jam the system. He’s done his work in resurrecting some seriously heavyweight individuals and groups that--surprise--I’d never learned about in my first 18 years in the St. Louis area and often only heard about in passing in the years I spent back in St. Louis from 2011 - 2016. Without the concurrent exploration of how people were standing against, the book would be nothing more than a voyeuristic catalog of All The Terrible Things That Have Happened, which is where so much journalism in general, but ESPECIALLY about the rust belt, goes wrong, as the actual subjects of the history are flattened and infantilized in an attempt to speak truth to power that becomes more of just gazing at the power in awe (I’d be the first to admit to this). The two most interesting sets of activists involve communist German immigrants around the turn of the Civil War, many of whom complicated the dash for Native lands west of St. Louis, and wildcat striking Black women working in St. Louis factories in the early 20th Century. There is a serious joy in this book--it is not a doom and gloom book, and it is not a book that fetishizes pain. I think that is what tips it over the edge into being something great. It’s overwhelming to try to write this review. It is a book thick with immediate relevance inside and outside of St. Louis, and trying to talk about it right now, the morning after finishing it and 10 years after realizing where I’d grown up and 31 years after having started the process of growing up there feels a bit like Lucille Ball trying to eat all the chocolates. To read this book as a St. Louisan is to dream through your past, and I think that would apply to anyone who grew up in any Rust Belt or Midwestern city of suburb in the late 20th and early 21st century, as the world prepared to flip. The act of reading this is an almost physical act: the interstates, the “blighted” corner, the leafy trees of Clayton, W. Florissant Ave. There are so many things to uncover here, all well connected by Johnson but also discrete. For each of the 11 Chapters, I would think of a new set of people who I’d say “Oh, they would dig this chapter...I should just pdf this chapter to them.” Sometimes the heart of a book isn’t in the book, but in the Introduction and in the Acknowledgments. On the latter, Johnson writes 5 pages, and is effusive and thankful and so obviously grateful to so many people. That’s a good sign. It’s the intro that completely sold me. He spends several pages of briefly explaining the geographical and cultural importance of St. Louis and his takes on criticisms of capitalism (he is sharp to frame “the notion of racism and capitalism as organically related but not identical...helps us understand the excessive pleasures of white supremacy” and pushing past exploitation and production into Empire building through eviction and extraction [think land seizures through to payday loans]). And he ends with this: “Having grown up just two hours to the west, I had been to St. Louis countiless times to visit family, to go to the universities or the museums, even to do historical research for other books I have written. I came to this book less as a professional historian than as a citizen taking the measure of a history that I had lived through but not yet fully understood. This is a history that I have resisted, but also a history from which I have benefited, as a white man and a Missourian. I offer the result, not in the spirit of academics’ too-common conceit that injustice is everywhere but in their own biographical back yards, but rather in the hope that we may all seek to do better--to walk humbly, to act justly, to love mercy.” Maybe I’m just a sucker for Micah 6:8. But you can feel that in here, in this grand humble, just, merciful work of heartbreaking and hopeful history.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tanya

    Maybe you live in STL and want to better understand this place. Maybe you’re wondering why anyone cares about STL and how it might possibly be relevant to the US today. Read this.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Miguel

    Though I haven’t read it in over 25 years, I kept thinking back to Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” as I listened to this one. That’s high praise. The difference being of course that instead of a nation sized epic, this book focuses on one city and covers it in a way that one is not likely to find in local civics history textbook. The history of St. Louis here is covered from its Native American beginnings to the first white settlers. From first setting foot, the white majority wou Though I haven’t read it in over 25 years, I kept thinking back to Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” as I listened to this one. That’s high praise. The difference being of course that instead of a nation sized epic, this book focuses on one city and covers it in a way that one is not likely to find in local civics history textbook. The history of St. Louis here is covered from its Native American beginnings to the first white settlers. From first setting foot, the white majority would rule in a manner that advanced their interests. While the book celebrates the many important figures that emerged from the area especially in the first part of the 20th century, it documents the hardships faced by the minority community in spite of efforts to organize who were time and again repressed. It eventually gets to the riots in Ferguson, but not before adequately explaining the structural issues in place that led to the demonstrations. The author does an exemplary job explaining State and local tax incentive financing which have been disastrous for the communities not benefitting from the local businesses being supported. Overall a great microcosm of why so many things are broken in the US today and how it got here.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ankur Singh

    SDGJKBKASDGB WOW!!!! I don't normally write reviews, but had to for this book because holy fucking shit I learned a lot. This book draws a clear historical arc from the founding of St. Louis as a staging ground for native american removal and genocide in order for the capital and colonial interests in the US to move west following the Louisiana purchase, to slavery and and the expansion of racial capitalism, segregation, redlining, European immigration and the creation of whiteness to "economic d SDGJKBKASDGB WOW!!!! I don't normally write reviews, but had to for this book because holy fucking shit I learned a lot. This book draws a clear historical arc from the founding of St. Louis as a staging ground for native american removal and genocide in order for the capital and colonial interests in the US to move west following the Louisiana purchase, to slavery and and the expansion of racial capitalism, segregation, redlining, European immigration and the creation of whiteness to "economic development" and corporate welfare and how all these events compounded and led to the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson. I'm astounded by the layers and complexity of history. For example, the history of the Missouri Compromise and the abolition of slavery was largely due to white supremacist interests in not wanting slaves competing for jobs with working class white people. Or how a half mile away from where Mike Brown was killed is the headquarters of a corporation that made billions in revenue each year brought to Ferguson through tax breaks, and TIFS. The author captures the intersections of the US' history of imperialism, colonialism, slavery, labor exploitation and more all through the formation of the city of St. Louis. It's amazing. Read this book. Can't recommend it highly enough.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Olivia

    This book is phenomenal. So much STL history bursting forth from these here pages. The book does a telling of the racist and violent history in St. Louis -- from settlement to present day. I am sure this book could be written about many other cities all over America, but there is a certain poetry centering the focus on St. Louis, Missouri-- the center of the country, straddling North and South, East and West. The book is a history, but it is not sugar coating anything for you. And unlike your hi This book is phenomenal. So much STL history bursting forth from these here pages. The book does a telling of the racist and violent history in St. Louis -- from settlement to present day. I am sure this book could be written about many other cities all over America, but there is a certain poetry centering the focus on St. Louis, Missouri-- the center of the country, straddling North and South, East and West. The book is a history, but it is not sugar coating anything for you. And unlike your history text-books, if someone is racist or policies are racist, the author will plainly tell you how racist it all is. So, that being said, he's not trying to politely and carefully show you the light. There is so mUCH in here, talking about it all will take pages. I think that there are definitely many sections I will have to revisit a few times as there is as much depth as there is breadth , and to be honest, some of the policy and the latter chapters gets a bit complicated-- though also, was explained better than I've ever had those policies explained to me before. So def lots to learn-- whether to learn for the first time, relearn, or reframe STL history, this book had a little bit of all of that for me.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    This was tough. Johnson's descriptions of how imperialism, racism, and capitalism are intertwined to form the backbone of today's enduring systemic racism make this an eye-opening, informative, and heart-breaking read. This was tough. Johnson's descriptions of how imperialism, racism, and capitalism are intertwined to form the backbone of today's enduring systemic racism make this an eye-opening, informative, and heart-breaking read.

  15. 5 out of 5

    John Yunker

    The cover of The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson features a nearly complete St. Louis Arch, known as the Gateway to the West. It was completed about six years before my family moved to St. Louis and my memories of it consist of squeezing into an egg-shaped elevator and tilting our way up to the top, then gazing down at the muddy Mississippi: Missouri on one side, Illinois on the other. I loved visiting the Arch, but I never thought much about the land underneath the arch. I did not know The cover of The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson features a nearly complete St. Louis Arch, known as the Gateway to the West. It was completed about six years before my family moved to St. Louis and my memories of it consist of squeezing into an egg-shaped elevator and tilting our way up to the top, then gazing down at the muddy Mississippi: Missouri on one side, Illinois on the other. I loved visiting the Arch, but I never thought much about the land underneath the arch. I did not know that the land was once known as the Greenwich Village of the West, a dense neighborhood of manufacturing, dive bars and cheap rentals. Home to the poor, minorities, creative types and those agitating for social and political change. An area that the leaders of the city saw fit to bulldoze in 1939 under the auspices of progress. The Arch itself, which came about many years later, was more afterthought than motivation. The Broken Heart of America tells a sobering history of St. Louis, beginning in 1764, when fur traders first set up shop along the Mississippi, through to 2014, when Michael Brown was fatally shot on the streets of Ferguson. While this book may not seem at face value to be a book about the environment, it is very much a book about the land. The story of St. Louis, and America as a whole, is the story of land taken and land denied. And how land functions as a foundation for structural racism. Structural racism, unlike so many other structures that comprise a city, is not so visible to the eye; it can be found in exclusionary deed covenants, capricious zoning laws and, when all else fails, eminent domain. To be fair, exclusionary covenants were by no means unique to St. Louis. But St. Louis does have a unique and fascinating history, first as the staging point for the fur trade, followed by countless homesteaders. It was also the city from which the US Army waged its brutal war against Native Americans. A city that saw some of the first battles of the Civil War, including one that featured the future generals Grant and Sherman as spectators. And a city that in 1877 separated itself from the county, a divorce that remains to this day, and has fostered massive inequalities between those who live in the city and those who simply work there. And, today, as the Missouri governor does battle with St. Louis over the prosecution of the gun-waving McCloskeys, I am reminded that in the early days of the Civil War the governor went to battle, quite literally, with the city of St. Louis. What we don’t resolve we reenact. Walter Johnson, was inspired to write this book after the death of Michael Brown, noting in the introduction: "From the Lewis and Clark expedition to the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 and the launch of Black Lives Matter, many of the events that we consider central to the history of the United States occurred in St. Louis." Johnson does an admirable job of covering (and uncovering) hundreds of years of history. For example, many Americans are now well aware of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921. But there was a race massacre in East St. Louis in 1917, one that left 6,000 blacks homeless and as many as 250 dead. And it was corporations that actively inflamed white versus black hatred, all in the interests of suppressing wages. At the time, companies such as Monsanto and Alcoa had established their own private towns along the banks of the Mississippi, free from environmental regulations, taxes, as well as any qualms over pitting white workers against black workers. Johnson documents again and again how racism was used not only to suppress minorities but laborers as a whole. As one raised in St. Louis, I can’t help but wonder why so little of the history in this book was not taught to us in school. I was told many things about William Clark but I was not told that he was complicit in stealing vast swaths of land from the natives. I was not taught that in 1916 St. Louis became the first city in the country to pass a racial segregation ordinance by voter referendum. Details like this matter. Because structural racism is all about the details. And it is by knowing these details we can begin righting the wrongs. Johnson documents the many ways that St. Louis neighborhoods used rules and blurry legal maneuvers to punish and exclude people they did not want around. There’s the 1956 case of Dr. Howard Venable, an African American doctor who built a home in Creve Coeur, a white suburb of St. Louis. The neighbors hired lawyers to try to buy him out, multiple times, but each time he refused. So the locals formed a committee, led by John Beirne, who got the city to threaten to condemn his property unless he sold it, which he ultimately did. The land was turned into park, named after, who else, John Beirne. The park was renamed the Dr. H. Phillip Venable Memorial Park just a year ago. Better late than never. But I also believe that small steps such as this really do matter. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it and we can resolve to do better. And there are many hopeful moments in this book. Stories of resilience and persistence, stories of blacks and whites uniting in the first organized strike in the history of the United States. Stories of Dick Gregory, Chuck Berry, Maya Angelou and others who grew up in the city, persevered and succeeded. Stories of activists like Ora Lee Malone, a woman who led a successful rent strike against the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe complex in 1969. And Percy Green, who fought tirelessly to create a more equitable city; he and a white accomplice, Richard Daly, climbed the under-construction Arch in 1964 to protest the lack of minority hiring on this federally financed project. And, yes, local issues sometimes have national enablers. Time and again Johnson documents instances where St. Louis leaders used federal dollars in the name of eradicating “blight” only as an excuse to line developer pockets and raze poor neighborhoods. The federal government, in its lack of oversight, is just as complicit in maintaining this toxic structure. Sometimes I think the best thing to come out of smartphones was that little camera. A camera that has shed light on the violence toward minorities that so many white Americans had long believed was a relic of the past. Like those cameras, this book shines a light on the darker recesses of our history, but in ways that can help us move forward. Like paying close attention to what goes on in our city council meetings. Asking who benefits and who loses when a new development is proposed. Asking if the police are incentivized to write tickets simply to help pay the city’s bills (a major factor behind the deep-seated issues in Ferguson). These are questions that people in St. Louis (and many other cities) are asking. And there are many people in St. Louis working to unite the city and county once again, which will go a very long way toward not just erasing a border but erasing long-held misconceptions about neighborhoods and one another. This is a book I wish I had when I was living in St. Louis and I hope it becomes required reading now. Because it would go a long way towards righting the wrongs of this city and, perhaps, our country as a whole. It’s long past time we resolved to do better and to stop reenacting the past. NOTE: This review first appeared on EcoLitBooks.com

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jenn Fields

    This is not the history I learned growing up in St. Louis, going to schools in South County, going on field trips to the Arch and the art museum. Grant’s Farm! I had no idea. The VP parade! Cringe. Truly eye-opening.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    I wish this was required reading for every white resident of St. Louis. Definitely a depressing lens to view the history of the city through, but really well-written and researched. I listened to a few chapters on audiobook and couldn't get as engrossed in it that way, but highly recommend the physical book. I wish this was required reading for every white resident of St. Louis. Definitely a depressing lens to view the history of the city through, but really well-written and researched. I listened to a few chapters on audiobook and couldn't get as engrossed in it that way, but highly recommend the physical book.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Anton Frommelt

    This is a must read for St. Louisans, but I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to understand how much seemingly distant history can affect the present and future. St. Louis' history is an unfortunate paradigm for the rest of America in terms of imperialism and racial capitalism. I'm not sure my core perspective has changed after reading this, but it has certainly been deeply informed and cemented. Johnson's history is comprehensive, detailed, and somewhat horrifying. It objectively but explic This is a must read for St. Louisans, but I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to understand how much seemingly distant history can affect the present and future. St. Louis' history is an unfortunate paradigm for the rest of America in terms of imperialism and racial capitalism. I'm not sure my core perspective has changed after reading this, but it has certainly been deeply informed and cemented. Johnson's history is comprehensive, detailed, and somewhat horrifying. It objectively but explicitly shows how segregationist policies throughout history still dramatically affect black (and indigenous) communities today, and the subtly sinister way that racist ideology has propagated and adapted over time. It really dismantles the notion that certain oppressed people just "aren't working hard enough" or "don't have the right mindset." This is racist ideology to its core, but it is grounded in a belief that everyone has equal opportunity in present day America, and that is simply, unabashedly false, as anyone who explores our racist history will observe. My last main takeaway from reading this is my further belief that American history in education needs to be adapted. We need to avoid the rampant beautification of the ugly, violent, and deeply oppressive parts of our history as a country, and have more explicit dialogues about how historical problems (like racism) still persist today.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Yates

    This book! Incredible, thorough accounting of the history of St. Louis and the racial capitalism and violence that built the city, covering a huge span of time from pre-Louis and Clark through the Ferguson uprising. Thankful to be unpacking this one with a book club, because every chapter is packed full of infuriating yet familiar policies, actions, white excuses and even political catchphrases that parallel ones we still see today. This book covers, among many other things: the spread of empire This book! Incredible, thorough accounting of the history of St. Louis and the racial capitalism and violence that built the city, covering a huge span of time from pre-Louis and Clark through the Ferguson uprising. Thankful to be unpacking this one with a book club, because every chapter is packed full of infuriating yet familiar policies, actions, white excuses and even political catchphrases that parallel ones we still see today. This book covers, among many other things: the spread of empire and the genocide of indigenous Americans, the human zoo at the World’s Fair, the General Strike and subsequent VP ball to celebrate the quashing of worker’s rights, the East St Louis Massacre of 1917, the strike at Funsten Nut led by Black women, systematic looting and razing of Black communities in and around the city (again and again and again), the racial capitalism leading up to the Ferguson uprising, and even an analysis of civic finances and how TIFs are used to steal capital from its poorest citizens. I can not recommend this book highly enough.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Alissa

    So much to unpack in this book. If you are from or live in STL, it is a must read. I hope many will read it gaining understanding and our area can move forward from its racially divided past and do better.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Nostalgia Reader

    Frustrating, eye-opening, and essential reading.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Abigail Pankau

    A Harvard historian takes the example of the history of St Louis from its beginning as a French trading post and the Lewis and Clark expedition all the way to the present day, and uses this to explore the various forms of racism and segregation that have been pervasive throughout US history. It really shines a light on how white supremacy is used for social stratification; to drive division between races in order to distract from class division, and to help line the pockets of the wealthy and ma A Harvard historian takes the example of the history of St Louis from its beginning as a French trading post and the Lewis and Clark expedition all the way to the present day, and uses this to explore the various forms of racism and segregation that have been pervasive throughout US history. It really shines a light on how white supremacy is used for social stratification; to drive division between races in order to distract from class division, and to help line the pockets of the wealthy and major businesses. It also shows how groups of force (army, militias, police) have been used to enforce this social hierarchy; and protect property over human lives. And even once racial segregation or discrimination has been outlawed, the upper classes have found other ways to separate and profit off of Black communities, even if it hurts poor white communities too. This was eye-opening and obviously very well-researched. It puts into perspective how much capitalism has been a driving force behind many major events and policies, and it pulls no punches detailing the horrible things that have been done in the name of progress and profit. I knew some of the events, like how we treated the Indians in the name of “Manifest Destiny,” and the human zoo at St Louis Worlds Fair in order to prove white racial superiority, but there were so many things I didn’t know before, including how important of a city St Louis was for much of tis history. It’s heart-breaking all the hurtful events of the city’s history, and how they are hobbling the city from growing today. Very much recommend, especially if you want an eye-opening look at US history. ************** For anyone interested, here is a list of things I didn’t know before this book: - how much Native Americans were involved in both sides of the War of 1812. - that Missouri’s original state constitution forbid free Blacks from moving to the state. - that a portion of the anti-slavery movement came from many whites not wanting to have Blacks at all in the US. - how much German immigrants were involved on the side of the Union in Missouri during the Civil War. - that the first Veiled Prophet parade was a celebration of the city’s elite to mark the anniversary of breaking up the St Louis General Strike. - how much trade Missouri had with Mexico after the Civil War. - that prostitution was legal in St Louis from 1870-74, but continued well into the 20th Century - that ragtime started in St Louis’s red-light district. - that East St Louis and surrounding municipalities were started basically as company towns, with low taxes and municipal governments bought by the factory owners. - that the 1917 East St Louis Massacre started with white union workers angry that the factories had hired Black workers as strike-breakers, and ended with burning down Black homes, killing them or driving them out of town. - that in 1949 in reaction to a few black kids swimming on the first day at a recently integrated pool, thousands of whites roved the surrounding neighborhood that night and attacked any Black people they found. The pool was closed for the rest of the summer. - that Black women lead some of the most successful workers strikes in St Louis in the 1930s. - that the city bulldozed the riverfront for redevelopment (which just happened to mostly be Black businesses and houses), but then left the land undeveloped for 25 yrs before doing anything with it. - that home loan red-lining was just the tip of the iceberg for all the various ways to keep Blacks from buying property in white neighborhoods; there was also zoning, neighborhood covenants, agreements amongst real-estate agents, clauses in closing contracts, stipulations on deeds, and even cities outright buying land to turn into a public park so that Blacks could not build their home there. - that the first Nazi march in the US after WWII happened in St Louis in 1978. - that the Jefferson Bank protests were a game-changer for how protesters organized and how they focused their demands. - that Pruitt-Igoe not only was a notorious housing project, but that funds that were supposed to be used to maintain it were funneled away to other civic projects and that police canine units were first used there. - that the army did aerosolized chemical experiments on poor Black neighborhoods and the early ‘50s. - that through tax abatements, city ordinances, TIF bonds, etc, money that is supposed to help redevelop poor neighborhoods ends up being funneled to wealthy neighborhoods or businesses.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sasha (bahareads)

    Using St. Louis as a jumping-off point, Walter Johnson shows how the racial dynamics of America have helped to shape the country. Seeing the microcosm example, the reader is able to see racism, capitalism, and Imperialism has created and destroyed America. The Broken Heart of America is a labour of love, but also an apology. As a white man who lives near the St. Louis area, Johnson uses his work to show his privilege while simultaneously bringing to light how white America has prospered. I fou Using St. Louis as a jumping-off point, Walter Johnson shows how the racial dynamics of America have helped to shape the country. Seeing the microcosm example, the reader is able to see racism, capitalism, and Imperialism has created and destroyed America. The Broken Heart of America is a labour of love, but also an apology. As a white man who lives near the St. Louis area, Johnson uses his work to show his privilege while simultaneously bringing to light how white America has prospered. I found Johnson's narrative thread to extend too far back, especially in the beginning of The Broken Heart of America . The narrative could have started farther up in the historical timeline. It was a good read but too widespread at times.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rob Kerth

    It's sort of weird to write a "People's History of the United States" style companion volume for the history of St Louis, given that most of us would need a history of STL as a grounding in the first place. But that's kind of what this is. Has some interesting stuff but I can't say it really holds together. It's sort of weird to write a "People's History of the United States" style companion volume for the history of St Louis, given that most of us would need a history of STL as a grounding in the first place. But that's kind of what this is. Has some interesting stuff but I can't say it really holds together.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Hailey M

    Essential reading for anyone from or living in St. Louis.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Bob Entwistle

    Can't really remember the last book I read that was this good. (Maybe Evicted several years ago.) But admittedly, I'm not remembering as well as I used to! I got into this from the St. Louis angle. I have never lived there but did countless business trips where I would explore around the city after work or on weekends. There were a lot of curious things encountered and this book explains them all. But I would say this book is just a microcosm of what happened in all urban areas in the 20th centur Can't really remember the last book I read that was this good. (Maybe Evicted several years ago.) But admittedly, I'm not remembering as well as I used to! I got into this from the St. Louis angle. I have never lived there but did countless business trips where I would explore around the city after work or on weekends. There were a lot of curious things encountered and this book explains them all. But I would say this book is just a microcosm of what happened in all urban areas in the 20th century and by focusing on one locale, the story is more understandable. So about those oddities. St. Louis seemed to have way more suburbs than other cities. The book explains this as a result of white flight and how many suburbs defined their own rules to keep out undesirables. A club membership required. Or a requirement that properties must have a large minimum acreage. Or prohibitions against multi-family dwellings. I often rode mass transit when in St. Louis. People at the home office thought that was crazy. Most had never ridden a bus ever. Later there was light rail that might be used just to go to sports events in town but otherwise was a no-no. Johnson discusses mass transit and lack thereof as a function of keeping the black population confined to the inner city. And roads that are a well developed network as a way for people to live in suburbia and easily get to/from the city for work. I once got a book on St. Louis music (blues/jazz) and tried to find some of the locations discussed. Nope. Nothing there. All gone. So way more than most cities, black areas of the city were erased, newer sub-standard housing put in place or in some cases, no provision for where they would be moved to. Large swaths of the city just unoccupied as well. Again not unique to STL but if you look at Chicago or New York, not everything is gone. Went to a basketball game at St. Louis university and started walking the wrong direction from the light rail stop. Walked over a bridge spanning a central valley that seemed to not have much in it. Was it industry that had departed? Johnson explains that this was an entire valley settled by the black population that was razed with big plans for future development that never materialized. St. Louis and suburbs have a plethora of dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs. In places, this may even make walking around neighborhoods difficult but certainly impacts driving. Apparently this was a scheme to try and mimic the security of gated (white) communities that existed in many St. Louis suburbs. East St. Louis across the river is pretty much a wasteland. Lot of news these days about the destruction of Tulsa's black community. Never knew of the similar events in East St. Louis at the same time. Apparently after WWII when black labor was no longer needed to run the economy and blacks were being employed sometimes as strikebreakers, there was a violent reaction by the white community which basically set East St. Louis on its path to decay. To call these events a race riot is somewhat misleading; certainly this was no "black uprising" but it definitely was race-based violence. This book starts a little slowly, going back as far as the removal of Native Americans from the West and St. Louis' role in that. But it really heats up from the 1840s onward as we learn a great deal about the systematic repression of marginalized communities. Can't recommend this enough!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Luke Johnson

    Disclosure: I'm a white guy who lives in St Louis County. I wasn't born here but have spent the last decade here. Walter Johnson's "The Broken Heart of America" is an incredibly indepth look at some (at times shocking) examples of the way racism and American Imperialism has played out in Saint Louis, MO and East Saint Louis, IL. It starts a little slow in my opinion, as it goes back to the days of Lewis & Clark in a time when early Americans were busy "discovering" all the land had to offer. Unle Disclosure: I'm a white guy who lives in St Louis County. I wasn't born here but have spent the last decade here. Walter Johnson's "The Broken Heart of America" is an incredibly indepth look at some (at times shocking) examples of the way racism and American Imperialism has played out in Saint Louis, MO and East Saint Louis, IL. It starts a little slow in my opinion, as it goes back to the days of Lewis & Clark in a time when early Americans were busy "discovering" all the land had to offer. Unless you live under a rock I'm going to assume you already know how white American settlers viewed Native Americans as "noble savages" and thus had no qualms about murder and displacing so many of them. But as the book goes on into the years around the Civil War, and then the late 1800s and early 1900s the book relates so much history I was unaware of (and certainly was never taught in school) which has all played a part into the ever increasing state of racial inequality we live in today. In this book, Walter Johnson covers The World's Fare in 1904, Pruitt Igoe, the murder of Mike Brown, and a whole lot more. Some I knew, but what I didn't know (which, admittedly, was a lot) left me aghast. This is not a happy book, and it made me feel sick to my stomach on several occassions as similar tactics of Imperialism / Manifest Destiny / Imminent Domain that were used against Native Americans 200 years ago are still being used to oppress people of color today. The reason I'm only giving the book 4 stars instead of 5 is because I sometimes felt that the author was saying these stories are unique to and explicitly Saint Louis issues. Yes, the history in this book is STL based but you think other cities don't have streets named for racist military officers? That other cities don't have parks, swimming pools, or other public places that barred African-Americans or were segregated? You think other places don't group minorities into certain neighborhoods or haven't had their white citizens flee to the suburbs? These are national problems, these are worldwide problems. STL just seems to have more than their fair share. Still, highly recommend this if you live in STL like I do. Or if you care about the way structural racism is sown into so many aspects of business and daily life. Hats off to Mr Johnson for a deeply researched and strong linear narrative that takes us up to nearly present day where the killing of unarmed citizens by police, unjust business practices, and racist leaders (on both the local and nation level) are daily headline news.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dani Guanciale

    A heart breaking book that takes a look at the horrors of America by taking a magnifying glass to the heart of the United States— St. Louis, Missouri. This city that only in my adult life that has become my home, is examined all the way from the days of Lewis and Clark to the 2020 BLM protests. I believe this book should be read by every white person in America. It breaks down the extremes of which the United States has been layering its racism into every crack and crevice this country has. “The A heart breaking book that takes a look at the horrors of America by taking a magnifying glass to the heart of the United States— St. Louis, Missouri. This city that only in my adult life that has become my home, is examined all the way from the days of Lewis and Clark to the 2020 BLM protests. I believe this book should be read by every white person in America. It breaks down the extremes of which the United States has been layering its racism into every crack and crevice this country has. “The historical patterns of white privilege and black disadvantage, of residential segregation and police harassment, of municipal fealty and corporate subsidy, are old enough, deep enough, and entrenched enough to channel and subvert the actions of even the most well-meaning officials.” Although this book focuses on St. Louis— it’s contents are not a St. Louis problem but many cities have the same laws and history running through them that have tried to destroy and keep the marginalized “less than”. The author ends his book with a chapter dedicated to those that fight the injustices in recent history— so I will end my review with a quote from that chapter “And yet I have never been to a more amazing, hopeful place in my life… All over the city, people are finding new ways to live, to connect, to cultivate new sorts of spaces, to grow into new sorts of people. Perhaps they will be too late to change the course of our history. Or perhaps they will be just in time”

  29. 4 out of 5

    Dave Courtney

    If you are a someone with an attachment or connection to St. Louis, this is without a doubt a must read. The research and detail is impressive. I do think that if you don't have a connection the book might land with a little less force. Its not that it doesn't paint an accessible narrative of the city, rather the intimacy of the details requires that insiders perspective to fully appreciate, especially since much of this leans towards cold facts rather than entertainment. For myself, the reason I If you are a someone with an attachment or connection to St. Louis, this is without a doubt a must read. The research and detail is impressive. I do think that if you don't have a connection the book might land with a little less force. Its not that it doesn't paint an accessible narrative of the city, rather the intimacy of the details requires that insiders perspective to fully appreciate, especially since much of this leans towards cold facts rather than entertainment. For myself, the reason I picked it up is because of my love for the midwest and my interest in St. Louis in particular. I live in Winnipeg, Manitiba Canada, and I have always felt some similarities between the two cities on a number of levels. We are both the gateway to the West, both occupy spaces as the center of our Countries, both were largely forgotten in the face of history and left to fend for themselves. Both have lengthy histories of racism, with Winnipeg revolving around a relationship with the indigenous peoples and St. Louis including a problematic relationship with slavery and POC's. We both have long histories in the fur trade too, and both were chosen as testing sites back in the 50s for Russias chemical warfare (go figure). Both too wanted to be Chicago and got overtaken by Chicago. And both are defined by a clear dividing line, with St. Louis being a street and Winnipeg being a rail line. Maybe the most interesting aspect of this book was just hearing how a city, ones seen as the center of the world could deteriorate so quickly. The book maintains that to understand the problems in America at large, one needs to understand the story ot St. Louia, as this is where we find the roots and the framework for capitalism and racism and empire. And there might be no better book to do just that

  30. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    This was in many ways a tough read, though not in ways that I might have expected when I first cracked it open. I grew up in St Louis in the 1950s and '60s but have rarely returned since I left to attend university. However, those few visits combined with national news coverage over the years left me wondering what had happened. This book goes a long was towards explaining it in a virtual textbook on "How to Ruin a Major Metropolis" in a few easy lessons. It also makes it clear that my perceptio This was in many ways a tough read, though not in ways that I might have expected when I first cracked it open. I grew up in St Louis in the 1950s and '60s but have rarely returned since I left to attend university. However, those few visits combined with national news coverage over the years left me wondering what had happened. This book goes a long was towards explaining it in a virtual textbook on "How to Ruin a Major Metropolis" in a few easy lessons. It also makes it clear that my perceptions that St Louis has become less a midwestern urban city and more of a southern town were not far from the mark. Clearly folly, prejudice, hubris, greed, and simple incompetence are all part of the explanation. Provided with a number of maps, many echoing memories of long bike rides as a car less teenager (and even hikes and a few bus rides), the geography of the explanations are also here as their roll in the city's collapse is clearly spelled out. Many aspects and elements of the explanation can be found in other cities over the past century or more, but with St Louis it's more personal even in a town that I long spoke of being from rather than of.

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