“Be proud of the history and work together”
Aaron Williams grew up in a historically Black neighborhood not in St. Louis, but Kansas City. He attended the first Black high school in the city, which stood as a standard of academic excellence. When Mr. Williams moved to St. Louis, he was drawn to The Ville and the parallels it held to his hometown. Determined to bring about positive change, he co-founded 4theVille with Julia Allen and Thomasina Clarke. The goal of 4theVille is to “educate people and leverage the opportunity of community-based tourism” to become its own driver of development for the neighborhood. They operate tours of St. Louis centering Black history to show people that this story is bigger than just one neighborhood, or even one city. 4theVille is also working towards establishing a cultural trail in the neighborhood which will allow people to explore the history and culture on their own. This would improve mobility in the neighborhood and create safe public spaces that the community can be proud of. It would also be an economic driver, creating a taxing district around the trail that would attract investment. He states that, “The cultural trail can be the catalyst for transformation.” Despite rather quick success, establishing 4theVille has not been easy. Mr. Williams cites politics as one of the greatest challenges, as the “greater political climate and region of St. Louis” neglects the unique needs of The Ville. Additionally, “People just don’t care enough, or they don’t have the courage to just try something. They’re stuck on what the market tells them about the neighborhood.”
Mr. Williams is also a board member at Northside Community Housing with Michael Burns. Their efforts to “preserve the physical form of the neighborhood” have met with much success, “but affordable housing development alone cannot bring the neighborhood back - we’ve got to save the school, continue to build housing, and then be intentional about our economic development.” In this spirit, Mr. Williams started a young professional group called Young Friends of The Ville “to add some flavor.” He noticed that there weren’t many Black young professionals in the area and “if we wanted the history to live on, I thought it important that my generation, and the next generation, start to pick up that history and do something with it.” YFV, a committee of Northside Community Housing, has annual community events such as a 5K hip-hop run called Trap Run and a trivia ‘day party’ to present the neighborhood in a way that is appealing to other young professionals.
Mr. Williams also shared one of his biggest concerns at the moment; defending Sumner High School. As the first Black high school west of the Mississippi, Mr. Williams states that “You don’t just let this type of history be erased and neglected.” He sees efforts to close the school as rooted in racism; “St. Louis has a special type of racism, and that’s what has brought Sumner to its knees.” However, Mr. Williams has big plans for Sumner. He hopes to repurpose some of the space for community use. And in conjunction with other arts & cultural organizations, he has been working on ways to bring in arts, activism, and history to supplement the student curriculum with enrichment pathways. This program would change the last two classes of the day to be focused on the student’s pathway of choice, ultimately leading to a capstone project in their senior year.
One of Mr. William’s most important missions is to connect The Ville with the greater St. Louis region, where he works as a full-time construction project manager; “I position myself in a way that I can bring in more resources, otherwise the Ville gets ignored.” As more people both within and outside of The Ville are drawn to the heritage in this neighborhood, Mr. Williams expects to see great change in the next 5 years. He admits that it is a long road to “full transformation,” but he is filled with hope. He simply asks that people step out of their ‘silos;’ “Be proud of the history and work together.”
Written by Audrey Feldman and Clare Armstrong,