Mo Speller is a PhD candidate in History at Johns Hopkins University whose research is focused on 19th and 20th century U.S. History. Mo is a recipient of one of the Department of Special Collections Travel Grants. In this post, University Archivist Sonya Rooney interviews Mo regarding his research at the University Archives.
Q: How have you used the University Archives in the past and what topic(s) did you research?
A: I have pursued a variety of research projects using the University Archives. I am most interested in the historical and social dimensions of the built environment. Broadly speaking, my research at the University Archives has focused on the streets of the city. My favorite collections pertain to past mayoral administrations in St. Louis, in particular the Raymond Tucker, Alfonso Cervantes, and John Poelker collections.
Q: How did you get interested in the topic?
A: Streets broadly have interested me because they are, as Jane Jacobs has attempted to explain, sites of so much activity in cities. I was first interested in streets as spaces where activists engaged in public discourse. My current interest in private streets stems from the fact that I’ve lived in a number of cities and private streets (or “Places”) are something I’ve encountered in St. Louis that I’ve found in few other places. However, as I’ve studied private streets I’ve come to realize that while they are in some ways outliers, in other ways they provide a useful lens for examining more nationally-pervasive conflicting ideas about urban life, property value, and community. The moment I’ve focused on, 1950s to 1970s, is particularly interesting in this regard because it is a moment when privatization, particularly in response to fears of crime and rioting, became a more dominant aspect of city governance.
Q: How did you find the University Archives’ collections?
A: I started emailing many St. Louis historians and reference librarians when I was planning a research visit to St. Louis. They all recommended the University Archives because you have so many planning documents and city administration materials available.
Q: Did the original collections you researched lead you to other collections? If so, which ones?
A: Yes. In my recent research, I focused on the collections of Mayors Tucker, Cervantes and Poelker, but I also looked at the papers pertaining to Mayor Aloys Kaufmann and Joseph L. Badaracco. Kaufmann’s papers were helpful because I wanted to learn more about proposed changes to the city charter from the Kaufmann to the Tucker administrations. Badaracco served as the President of the Board of Aldermen from 1972 to 1975, under both of these administrations. Badaracco’s papers contained a lot of correspondence from the Board of Aldermen and the City Plan Commission that was not collected in the Cervantes and Poelker collections.
Q: What is the most useful material you have found?
A: I’ve found directly relevant material, for example lawyers consulting with officials about constructing a private place from a previously public street in the late 1950s. However, in aggregate, I think the most useful material I’ve found has been gleaned from letters written by ordinary people—sometimes with limited education and poor handwriting or typing skills—complaining to city officials about daily problems like finding housing, zoning designations, or street repairs. The letters from lawyers involved correspondence from a number of city officials, they describe matter-of-factly the legal process of making streets private, but the “everyday” letters are more fun because they lay out many conflicting ideas and interpretations of law and the ways in which city and state powers should impact collective and individual lives.
Q: What is the most surprising material you have found?
A: I had hoped to learn more about private streets outside of the most famous ones in the Central West End, and suspected these other private streets might offer surprises. I knew also that many private streets, particularly from the 1920s onwards, asked the city to maintain their streets and open them for public use. However, I was surprised to find a number of private street residents from outside of the Central West End who desperately wanted the city to maintain their streets but the city stubbornly refused to improve their streets—either because residents were conflicted about whether the street should remain private or, more often, because private street residents didn’t want to pay the special taxes required of residents on publicly “improved” streets—that is, streets following city standards for curbs and grading.
Q: Where else have you conducted research for your project?
A: I have also conducted research at the City Recorder’s Archive, City Hall; The Mercantile Library and the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, both at University of Missouri-St. Louis; the Missouri Historical Society; and in digital archives.
Q: What has the Department of Special Collections Travel Grant meant to you?
A: When I first applied for the Department of Special Collections Travel Grant, I had hoped it would provide me with the time and resources to flesh-out an article this summer/fall looking at private streets, boarding houses, exclusion and differing concepts of property value in post-war St. Louis. However, I think now that this summer’s research has also provided me with a real foundation for a number of my dissertation chapters as I go forward in my PhD program.
The Department of Special Collections Travel Grants is a program that started in 2009 and provides financial support for faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and independent scholars to visit any of the five units of the Department of Special Collections: Film and Media Archive, Manuscripts, Modern Graphic History Library, Rare Books, and University Archives. Applications are accepted from January to March, with announcements of recipients in May. For more information, please contact the Department of Special Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mo’s Master’s Dissertation in Human Geography from University of Bristol, UK, “Stuck in garbage at the Gateway: race, politics, and refuse in 1967 St. Louis, MO” is available in University Archives (ARCHIV REF F474.S29 N475 2012a) http://catalog.wustl.edu:80/record=b4875294~S2%20
St. Louis Mayors’ collections Research Guide: http://libguides.wustl.edu/stl-mayors
Westminster Place, a private street created in 1959. Their unofficial website, maintained by resident Dan Landiss, has some interesting historical anecdotes, http://westminsterplace.info/.