Valley Park to Mexican immigrants: "Adios, illegals!"

A small-town mayor's plan creates one big controversy.

The mayor got yet another boost when a bipartisan bill meant to crack down on illegal immigration in Missouri was introduced last month by state senators Chris Koster, a Harrisonville Republican, and Tim Green, a St. Louis Democrat.

"I think we've started a little trend," Whitteaker says with a giggle.

Subdivisions off Vance Road have wooed new ethnicities to Valley Park during the past two decades.
Jennifer Silverberg
Subdivisions off Vance Road have wooed new ethnicities to Valley Park during the past two decades.
The Lower End has a long history of industrial use.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Lower End has a long history of industrial use.

Be careful what you say about somebody, because chances are the person you say it about, and to, are probably related," goes one saying in Valley Park. "You can have a secret," warns another adage, "or you can live in Valley Park."

A clannish little place, Valley Park residents identify themselves as "third-," "fourth-," even "fifth-generation." The town retains its own school district, having fought to save it from a merger with the Rockwood system in the 1980s. Until recently, all high school students had to take a Valley Park history course to graduate.

Rob Voss, originally from Kirkwood, can attest to Valley Park's cloistered culture. The convivial small-engine repairman, who lives and owns a business in town, says, "I've been here eleven years, and I'm still an outsider."

Or as Charlie Ford, a former municipal judge, puts it: "I'm never leaving. I told [my wife] I already have a spot picked out for her to bury me in the basement."

Valley Park began as a hamlet of 300 citizens. It burst to life in 1901 when the St. Louis Plate Glass Company built a factory on twenty acres abutting the Meramec River. The factory's immigrant labor, according to one historical account, came from all over Europe "in such numbers that no housing was available, and they lived in tents on Marshall Road."

The town soon became a recreational mecca, its shoreline teeming with weekend homes belonging to the well-to-do patrons of the Paddle & Saddle Club. Just fifteen years later, however, a flood and subsequent fire demolished most of the glass factory, putting hundreds out of work and ending Valley Park's short-lived heyday. (The ruins of the factory were only razed in 2002, after a resident raped and murdered his six-year-old neighbor on the wooded premises.)

Valley Park later welcomed varnish, cotton and concrete plants, and with them the town acquired a rough-and-tumble reputation. It became known as a haven for motorcycle gangs, the capital of bar-fights and the home of Jimmy Huskison's Madhouse of Fun, a must-see 1940s watering hole notorious for its "wired" stools that shocked patrons when the bartender flipped a switch.

With a precarious perch a dozen feet above the Meramec, Valley Park has been washed over a dozen or so times in the past century. In 1982 and again in 1993, the fiercest floods uprooted many dwellings in the oldest part of town, the Lower End, forcing out many of Valley Park's most faithful. Other citizens, remarkably, were too proud to give up on their motherland.

"I remember people were coming in to see Dubman (a furniture seller) with wads of money as big as my fist, begging him to sell them stuff," says 80-year-old Glenn Moon, recalling the days following the 1982 flood. "This furniture, this stuff, it had been under water. It was drenched! And there they were, shaking their wads of money. They wouldn't go away."

The Valley Park of today is the place to rent karaoke equipment, browse the exotic bird shop or visit the Whittle Shortline Railroad toy-train factory. A 53-year-old family-owned restaurant called Young's is said to serve up the tastiest fried chicken in all of St. Louis County. On Sundays there's the "meat shoot" at American Legion Post 439, where men of all ages, and the occasional gal, aim their twelve-gauge shotguns at tiny targets in a competition to bring home a twelve-pound package of pork steaks.

No longer a blue-collar backwater, Valley Park is in the midst of a socioeconomic makeover. "We've developed a pretty large — I don't know what the politically correct term is — but Asian contingent: Japanese, Chinese, Korean," explains Alderman White. "And we have a large Indian and Pakistani contingent, too. They're all out walking the streets. They're all nice, and you can talk to them."

Well beyond the river's reach, on a hill overlooking city hall, the Tea Room in the Valley caters to a west-county ladies-who-lunch crowd. To the north, a strip mall with a Starbucks and a nail salon watches over the building boom transpiring at the Dougherty Ferry and Big Bend intersection.

And, at long last, a 100-year, $50-million levy protects the Lower End, the old flood plain, home to contractors and assembly-line workers of nearby Daimler-Chrysler. For decades federal law had prohibited new construction in this 200-acre area, a motley collection of old homes mingling with smoke-spitting factories.

By day a tour of the area reveals a neighborhood obsession with lawn ornaments. At night the stench of nail-polish remover emanating from the Reichhold chemical company saturates the air.

City officials now hope to see big-box retail and condos replace these relics of the Lower End's characteristic grit. "I think the backwater stigma is just about gone," boasts Mayor Whitteaker. "I think Valley Park is one of the last places in west county that has developable land. It's the prime piece of property that people will be fighting for."

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