Meredith took Diyami on long drives around town so he could see what SD looked like. He had a million questions. Why are there so many parking lots everywhere? Why are the sidewalks so empty? Can I get another of those flavored coffee drinks? Other than frequent trips to Starbucks, she didn’t have good answers for him.
On a breezy afternoon, Diyami and Meredith were eating lunch in the Delmar Loop, an entertainment and shopping district near Washington University. Meredith snapped a selfie of the two of them in front of the Chuck Berry statue.
Out of the blue, he said, “Let’s go see the monuments.”
“You know the big columns, towers, and statues north of downtown.”
“Never heard of them.”
So, here was another aspect of St. Louis, which Diyami took for granted, that didn’t exist in SD.
“Let’s drive up Grand and I’ll show you.”
Meredith hesitated. “I’ve never gone
there. It’s dangerous.”
That was another question Meredith didn’t know how to answer. Since childhood, she had absorbed the belief that most white people in St. Louis held—north St. Louis, populated by Black people, was a scary place. A blank terra incognita on the map.
“There’s a lot of drugs and crime. We could get carjacked.”
“If you haven’t been there, how do you know it’s dangerous?”
“It’s all poor people. Black people.” Meredith knew it wasn’t cool to admit to prejudice, but her fear was genuine.
Diyami pondered this strange concept. The idea that there was a huge swath of the city where only Black people lived was something he had not experienced.
“Why do they all live there?”
“I don’t know.” She had never considered that question.
“Now I most certainly want to see it. We’ll be fine.”
As they headed north on Grand past the Fox Theatre, Powell Hall, and the VA hospital, there were more and more vacant lots, interspersed with occasional fast food restaurants and gas stations. Diyami looked in both directions at every corner to see as much as he could. It was hard for him to make sense of this place, which was so unlike the Grand Avenue that he knew—a bustling, tree-lined boulevard with wide sidewalks and pedestrians at all hours of the day and night.
Meredith also glanced around as she drove the car north, but she was searching for signs of danger. She had crossed into an entirely unfamiliar part of the city, one where she had learned that sensible people didn’t venture into. It wasn’t only specific warnings from parents and other adults, but also hushed and unspoken assumptions about a place that was rarely mentioned by white people. When she was a teenager and watched the ten o’clock news with her father, North St. Louis locations only came up in the context of burning buildings or crime scenes with flashing police lights and distraught Black people describing some frightening event.
The street became emptier the further they drove in search of Diyami’s monuments. On some blocks, there were only one or two buildings left standing. Many of those were boarded up or showed signs of recent fires. Diyami looked up a side street to see a house where only the front wall remained, with a pile of bricks behind it. The second floor windows framed nothing but sky. Diyami was horrified. This part of the city looked like a home whose inhabitants had suddenly fled, leaving behind only pieces of random junk they didn’t want. SD St. Louis was stranger than he could have imagined.
“There’s a monument!” Diyami said, pointing to a slender structure ahead in the distance. “I knew they were here.” It was the Grand Avenue Water Tower, a 154-foot tall white Corinthian column, which had been built in 1871 to hold water in vertical storage to provide pressure to pipes in the area. As Meredith and Diyami approached the SD version of the water tower, the street was eerily still. There were few cars and no pedestrians. The water tower stood in the center of Grand Avenue, which flowed around it to form a graceful traffic circle. Here, the tower’s paint was peeling and the circle was bordered by grass-covered vacant lots. In HD, the water tower was the center of a busy neighborhood, known for rowdy street vendors and eccentric artists.
“Stop the car,” Diyami said. “I want to take a picture.” He had gotten the hang of using the iPhone camera and was quickly becoming a frequent photographer, just like everyone in SD. Meredith pulled over. She waited inside the car and checked her Facebook feed. After a few minutes, she looked up and saw Diyami on the sidewalk. He was talking to two Black men, who looked to be about twenty years old. One was gesturing and pointing. He looked upset. Uh-oh, Meredith thought.
A hand pounded on the driver side window. Meredith startled. A young Black woman with braided hair and large hoop earrings gestured to her to lower the window. A jolt of fear shot through Meredith. This was exactly why she shouldn’t be in this part of town. Against her better judgment, she rolled the window down a bit.
“Come join us. I’ve got a J if you want to share.”
Through the windshield, Meredith saw Diyami waving for her to come over. She got out of the car and was careful to lock it.
“I’m Jasmine.” The girl offered her hand for a shake.
“Your boyfriend is amaaazing! Where did you find him?”
“At a club.”
“Take me to that club,” Jasmine joked.
Diyami was talking with two young Black guys. They wore hoodies, baggy pants, and baseball caps.
“Everybody, this is Meredith, who brought me here. Meredith, this is Jamal and Wesley. You already met Jasmine.”
Smiles and greetings were exchanged. At six foot three, Diyami was taller than all of them and his facial tattoos and straight black hair down to the middle of his back were unlike anything they had ever seen.
“Your tats are legitimately sick, man.” Wesley said.
“Is he really an Indian?” Jamal asked Meredith.
“Yeah,” Meredith said.
“I thought Indians only lived out west. You know, chasing wagon trains and shit.”
“Diyami is from Cahokia, right near here,” Meredith said.
“No way!” Jasmine said. “I went there once with my school. They made this big hill out of dirt.”
“My ancestors built that about a thousand years ago,” Diyami said. “Many people call it a mound, but to us it’s a temple.”
“Your people been here that long?” Jamal asked.
“Off and on.”
“That is so dope.”
“They also built temples near here, but they were torn down when St. Louis was built.”
“What were they for?”
“They were holy places and sometimes the kings lived on top of them. Others were mounds where they buried people.”
“Here? You mean we’re living on top of an Indian graveyard?”
“Maybe there’s a curse, like in the movies.” Wesley said. They all laughed.
“That explains it,” Jamal said.
“This place. It sure looks like it’s cursed,” Jamal waved his hand to indicate the empty neighborhood.
“Diyami wants to build a new Cahokia, a city people can live in today,” Meredith said.
“Cool!” “I’m ready!” “Count us in!”
“What’s going on around here,” Diyami asked.
“Nothing. What you see is what you get,” Jamal said.
“I’m leaving as soon as I can get my shit together,” Jasmine said. The others agreed with that idea.
A short, sharp blast from a siren surprised them. A police car with flashing blue lights stopped a few feet away. Two officers, one white and one Black, got out. The white officer had his hand near his holster.
“What are you trouble makers doing this time?”
“Nothing, sir. We’re just talking.” Wesley said.
“You’re not allowed to block a public sidewalk.”
“There’s no one else around. It’s not like we’re in anybody’s way,” Jasmine said.
The cops gave them cold, impassive looks, then turned their attention to Meredith and Diyami.
“Do you have business in this area, ma’am?”
“My friend and I came to see the water tower. These people are telling us about the neighborhood.”
“May I see your ID?”
Meredith handed her driver’s license to the officer. He glanced at it, gave it back to her, then turned to Diyami, studying his tattoos and long hair. “Who are you?”
“Diyami Red Hawk.”
“What the hell kind of name is that?”
Diyami looked him straight in the eyes. “Native American.”
Meredith jumped in. “He left it at home, sir. I’m driving, so there’s no problem. We’re leaving in just a minute.”
“I’ll let it go this time, but don’t come around here again without ID. You should be more careful.”
“We will be.” Meredith said. Diyami and the officer stared at each other with barely disguised contempt. Meredith put her arm on Diyami’s shoulder to gently pull him away from the cop.
The white policeman turned to the others. “Move along now. I don’t want to see you here when we come back.”
“Yes, sir, officer.” Jamal said.
The cops returned to their car and drove away.
“That’s exactly why I want to get out of this dump,” Jasmine said.
“They were nicer than usual because you were here,” Jamal said. “We meant it when we said we want to help you with Cahokia. Don’t forget us.”
They all exchanged phone numbers, then posed for group selfies.
Meredith and Diyami waved one last time as they got in their car. “Dammit, Diyami,” Meredith said. “We can’t take a chance on you getting arrested. You have no way of proving who you are. You could be in so much trouble.”
Diyami watched the three young people walking away. “Those kids have good hearts, but they’re trapped in a dark place. They need a Cahokia, too.”