Reclamation Project

Youth Build works to rebuild lives as it rebuilds the city

Youth Build executive director Bob Brandhorst sits in the Youth, Education and Health in Soulard (YEHS) lunchroom. It's not the most attractive setting, rows of long tables in a room with no windows, the walls covered with dreary wood paneling. But it's a room that serves its utilitarian purpose as a place for 20-25 area senior citizens, most of Eastern European descent, to receive a square meal -- another 72 meals are delivered each day. Martha Moore, who provides transportation for the seniors, is in the kitchen. She knows what to do when she sees a reporter's notebook open. Apparently the RFT had done a story about YEHS a few years ago and was instrumental in helping the organization get a much-needed stove. "We need a freezer now," she says.

Brandhorst is amiable, squarely built; he sports a well-trimmed white beard, but there's not much hair left on top. He has the energy that's found in those who've committed their lives to helping the underprivileged -- a healthy combination of enduring optimism with a leavening of irony.

Brandhorst remembers the Soulard of the early '70s, when YEHS began, when the now-popular historic neighborhood was yet another poor, neglected section of the city. Then he witnessed the area being threatened by gentrification in the late '70s and early '80s. He became a developer of moderate-income housing out of necessity, he says, back when the city could receive bonus dollars from the federal government for knocking old houses down. He's worked closely with the Landmarks Association's Carolyn Toft through all these years to preserve neighborhoods, keeping the bulldozer away until the city attained enlightenment and redevelopment began. Now they're working together with Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th) to get the Bohemian Hill project moving, 119 new homes adjacent to Soulard designed by architects Jo Noero and Don Royse ("Shelter from the Norm," RFT, March 3).

Youth Build, Brandhorst explains, was begun 20 years ago in East Harlem. Through Youth Build, high-school dropouts ages 16-24 take part in rebuilding the city. They learn construction skills as they rededicate themselves to their educations. Students spend a week on the work site -- for which they receive a stipend -- and a week in the classroom, studying for their GEDs. Members of a class of citizens who might otherwise be shunted into service jobs are shown that broader opportunities are at hand -- jobs far beyond minimum wage. Eventually, says Brandhorst, "some of them make more than anybody who works here, which is wonderful."

Potential students find out about the program by word of mouth, juvenile courts, probation-and-parole boards, various social-service agencies. Brandhorst says that when radio station Majic 105 broadcasts the Youth Build PSA, "we're swamped, even if it goes on at 3 o'clock in the morning. If we were here at 3 o'clock, they'd be calling."

The students participate in the program for at least 10 months, sometimes as long as 24. "It's a short time to turn someone completely around," Brandhorst admits. "There are a lot of family issues, peer issues in their home environment. It's a lot to overcome in a year."

One asset is the neighborhood itself. "Coming to our neighborhood is exciting to them because we don't have gangs," Brandhorst explains. "We don't have shooting galleries on the corners. This whole issue of 'colors' is gone. They can relax. They don't have all that potential violence to contend with."

To enter the program, applicants must test at a sixth-grade level. Fifty percent of applicants test below that level. "That's tragic," Brandhorst comments. "That's a function of our educational system." A pre-Youth Build program has been established to tutor those who fail. Remarkably, some people advance three grade levels in six to eight weeks. "It's because of the small student/teacher ratio, which has a lot to do with it," Brandhorst says. "But it can change that fast, which tells us a lot about dealing with these issues. In a relatively short time, you can make some dramatic progress."

Brandhorst is especially optimistic these days because -- as rarely happens -- the laws of supply and demand are working in Youth Build's favor: There's a lot of construction slated for this spring in the region but a shortage of workers.

The prospect of the Bohemian Hill redevelopment is especially exciting to Brandhorst. If the entire project were to get financing, it would provide a single site where students could concentrate their training. It's not a done deal -- far from it. "To do a development takes five years," Brandhorst says, "to acquire the property, to design, to finance -- then it takes months to do the project."

But many of the hurdles have been crossed. Brandhorst lists the possible financing sources: the Carpenters Union, Fannie Mae ("They would like to be the savior, so we have to figure out what Fannie Mae has done in other cities to save neighborhoods -- haven't found very good examples yet, but there may be one"), Source One Mortgage, Legal Housing Services, Catholic Charities, Mercantile Bank -- Brandhorst can name these off the top of his head.

"Not only do we want to build attractive, energy-efficient, desirable contemporary homes -- compatible with historic buildings -- but we also want them to be as cost-effective as possible. One of the problems the city has had is, whether they renovate an apartment or a house, they're spending $165,000 a unit. For most of the programs they work with they can't sell the house for more than $80,000, which means the taxpayers have to provide a gap of $85,000. That is not cost-effective."

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