The first time I heard about Chesterfield was in Third District juvenile court in the hushed setting of a hearing on a child-abuse issue 10 years ago. A mother was talking about how she lived in a shack by the Jordan River with dirt floors, and how one morning when she got up, a large rat was eating a fish on her living-room floor. Welcome to Chesterfield, the subject of this week's cover story
As a recent immigrant to this country, that story was a shocking reminder of a poverty I'd thought I'd left behind in Argentina, my prior country of residence, where life in the villas emergencias
displayed similar tones of desperation and brutal poverty.
I filed it away, only to retrieve it three years ago while having breakfast with a law-enforcement source who suggested that I do a story called "What is Chesterfield?" He'd worked Chesterfield several decades before and said I'd write a story about the people who live there, rather than it's colorful criminal history, which involved a plethora of methamphetamine labs—matchbox labs, so-called because a key ingredient came from the striker plates of matchboxes.
But getting to know the people of Chesterfield proved challenging. I'd drive around there on occasion one summer after the next, marveling at the dirt lanes, the animals grazing in people's yards and the shacks that spoke to another era. That is, in between long, pointed stares from folks sitting on their porches or visiting in their gardens in the afternoons.
Two years ago, I attended the Khadeeja mosque at the northeast corner of Chesterfield as I was doing research for a story on a war between two Afghani families that left one son dead and another incarcerated and deportated. At the mosque, I struck up a conversation with one member of the congregation who shared my enthusiasm and fascination for Chesterfield. Mohammad Jbailat and I went on an impromptu walk around its streets for an hour, the first of a half-dozen tours I did with city officials, ex-law enforcement and locals, each sharing their own insights into this hidden community.
Not all the receptions were friendly. I'd ID myself as a reporter and I'd get a stony stare, silence, a shake of the head. I tried to interview the current owner of United Foundry, one of the most storied addresses in Chesterfield, but got nowhere. Still, generally people were willing to listen, if not always to talk.
But the interview that truly helped me understand what Chesterfield was involved a 72-year-old lifer of the neighborhood called Louise Griggs. I found her through the recommendation of another woman I interviewed several streets away, who said I should visit with Louise and Ellen [her longtime friend]. As I sat in her front garden and she talked about growing up in Chesterfield and spending a life there with her animals, it was as if I could hear in her voice the struggles and the charm of this small clutch of streets beneath an enormous blue sky.