The day after Mark and Patricia McCloskey made national news, they lost in court.
The Portland Place couple, now known for pulling out a pistol and rifle and pointing them at protesters who walked by their mansion on the way to Mayor Lyda Krewson’s house in the Central West End, said they were scared. They said they were defending their property.
That’s what the two attorneys have been doing in St. Louis Circuit Court since 2017, defending a sliver of property in what they call the “private place” of the tony neighborhood where they live. The defendants in the case are the trustees of Portland Place, who say a triangle of land that the McCloskeys claim as their own actually belongs to the neighborhood.
On Monday, Judge Joan Moriarty ruled against the McCloskeys’ motion to end the case without a trial. So the three-year battle rages on.
As the nation debates whether it was appropriate for the wealthy couple to aim their weapons at the protesters on a sidewalk and road that was designed to keep outsiders away, the McCloskeys are suing, in part, over the placement of the very sign that indicates the road to their house is a “Private Street.”
It’s a battle that is personal to the McCloskeys. So much so that this isn’t the first time one of them has pulled a gun on someone. In fact, the McCloskeys offer that action as evidence that they have owned the section of land near the pedestrian gate on Kingshighway that borders their property.
“Between the time of acquisition of One Portland Place and the construction of the above-referenced ten foot wall, the McCloskeys regularly prohibited all persons, including Portland Place residents, from crossing the Parcel including at least at one point, challenging a resident at gun point who refused to heed the McCloskeys’ warnings to stay off such property,” states an affidavit in the lawsuit.
The McCloskeys and the trustees have bickered over seeding and landscaping, over tiles and tuckpointing, and, yes, even over the “Private Street” sign. According to the lawsuit, “Mark McCloskey dug up the sign and reinstalled it on the south side of the sidewalk.”
Such it is in Private St. Louis, where the trustees of Portland Place say the sliver of land belongs to them, as it was described in assessor’s documents more than 116 years ago, and the McCloskeys say the legal concept of “adverse possession” means they own it.
The dispute recalls the protest chant that has been prevalent in the St. Louis region since 2014, whether uttered by protesters or (in 2017) by police: “Whose streets? Our streets?”
Historian Walter Johnson, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, says the fact that streets such as Portland Place, and entire neighborhoods, have been blocked off is a reminder that the city’s historic racial segregation and division continues to this day.
“I think the gated neighborhoods represent the cordoning off and hoarding of the wealth and privilege drawn out of the history of empire, expropriation, and exploitation,” Johnson says. “In that sense, they are both the mirror images and the products of the serial devastation of Indian Country, East St. Louis, the Riverfront, Mill Creek Valley, Pruitt-Igoe, North City and North County.”
Johnson’s recent book, “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” walks readers through that entire sordid history, when the city built segregation into its laws, and later housing covenants.
In his book, Johnson examines the beginnings of such segregation, built right into land use policy, and how St. Louis set a trend that was modeled in other cities. Meanwhile, entire black neighborhoods were wiped out in the name of “redevelopment.”
This is the story of St. Louis, and it’s why the McCloskeys, and the privacy of their neighborhood, continue to highlight a festering wound of racial division that still segregates Blacks and whites today.
At least on one issue, though, the McCloskeys and the protesters seem to have common ground. Neither want a “Private Street” sign planted in the dirt of a tiny plot of land contained in City Block 4908 whose ownership is in question.