TEARING DOWN THE GARDEN WALL

The Missouri Botanical Garden teams up with the Shaw Neighborhood, infamous for its feuds, to reach across I-44 in an effort to rescue McRee Town. All that's needed are a few miracles and about $50 million.

In many ways, Jane Anton got what she wanted, although in the end it didn't turn out as she had hoped. Back in 1983, Anton, a psychologist in private practice, was looking for a building where she could live, have her office and provide "incubator" space for women wanting to start their own businesses. She wanted to be near either Tower Grove Park or Forest Park. The building on the northeast corner of 39th Street and Shenandoah Avenue, which once housed Whitey's Tavern, fit the bill. It was a historic building, and it was in the Shaw neighborhood, a city enclave that was being revitalized. It had apartments attached, it was just three blocks from Tower Grove Park, and it had a grocery store, not a supermarket, across the street.

Anton is from Iowa but had lived in New York and California before coming to St. Louis in 1974. She wanted an urban feel to her home and business, and she knew she had found that in Shaw. The roots of that feel went back to 1857, when that incredibly rich gardener Henry Shaw began to plan the residential area immediately to the east of what would eventually become the Missouri Botanical Garden, more commonly called Shaw's Garden.

"They really laid it out so it had multiple classes built into its housing structure — from Flora Place in the middle, which has large single-family homes; then on the sides of it you run into smaller but substantial single-family homes; then the two-families begin working in; and then a street like Shenandoah has almost all two- and four-families and then some larger apartment buildings," Anton says. "It used to be the end of a trolley line."

The sale of the building at 2256 S. 39th St. to Covenant House Missouri sparked a brush fire typical of the ongoing turmoil of the Shaw neighborhood, called by some the "Balkans of St. Louis."
Jennifer Silverberg
The sale of the building at 2256 S. 39th St. to Covenant House Missouri sparked a brush fire typical of the ongoing turmoil of the Shaw neighborhood, called by some the "Balkans of St. Louis."
The sale of the building at 2256 S. 39th St. to Covenant House Missouri sparked a brush fire typical of the ongoing turmoil of the Shaw neighborhood, called by some the "Balkans of St. Louis."
Jennifer Silverberg
The sale of the building at 2256 S. 39th St. to Covenant House Missouri sparked a brush fire typical of the ongoing turmoil of the Shaw neighborhood, called by some the "Balkans of St. Louis."

The structure that had just a few years before housed the rambunctious Whitey's Tavern, known for fights in which someone might fly through the bar's plate-glass window, was renovated into office space for women to use part-time for their start-up businesses. A career-consulting firm run by Anna Navarro was part of the mix. Anton's business thrived, and for 11 years she lived and worked at 2256 S. 39th St.

That total immersion in a neighborhood that seemed to be in permanent transition made those 11 years far from dull. Eventually Anton tired of the bickering, the neighborhood feuds, the class conflict and, to a lesser extent, the crime. One tenant of an apartment of hers was shot in a drug deal gone bad. So in 1994, she kept her business in Shaw but moved less than a mile away, deciding to live on the other side of Shaw's Garden.

"I had become pretty discouraged and disillusioned with the leadership of the neighborhood. Shaw has been notorious for being contentious and having feuds of various sorts," says Anton, citing the spat that led the city to fund two housing corporations — St. Margaret of Scotland Housing Corp. and the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association — to work the same area. There was also the ongoing war against licenses for liquor and beer. When the owner of the Tom-Boy across the street, Leuther's Market, died and his son and widow eventually decided to sell the market, the new owners, who were immigrants, wanted to maintain the store's liquor license.

"The neighborhood association went into its no-compromise mode," recalls Anton. "I had people stopping me on the street, saying, "Oh, I understand Leuther's been bought by Palestinian terrorists who are going to turn it into a liquor store.' They said they heard it at their block meeting. People are scared anyway. There's an edge of fear in living in the city. If you just start fanning those flames and play on people's fears, they get pretty hysterical and animated. There was just no room for compromise; we tried to negotiate." The new owners had wanted at least to be able to sell beer and wine to go along with their deli trade, but it was not to be. When Leuther's Market was sold five years ago, there would be no liquor license.

As it turns out, Anton's choice — living elsewhere but continuing to work in the Shaw neighborhood — would only last a few more years. Considering her experience with the fractious nature of the neighborhood's politics, perhaps Anton should have known that she could not go quietly when she made the decision to sell her building and move her business.

The decision by Anton to leave comes at a time when the neighborhood association in Shaw has banded together with three other neighborhood associations to concoct a redevelopment plan for the combined area, which is to be called the Garden District. So despite a history of turmoil and an image as the Balkans of St. Louis, Shaw neighborhood residents have closed ranks to launch what looks to be the most ambitious attempt in the city to resurrect a neighborhood. The fact that the plan has the backing — financial and institutional — of the Missouri Botanical Garden greatly increases the odds that it may come to fruition.

The main objective of the plan is to salvage McRee Town, an economically depressed and socially troubled area north of I-44 and west of 39th Street. That Shaw, which doesn't have to look elsewhere for grief, would be ambitious enough to attempt such a renewal shows that its leaders are not faint of heart. It also shows that they are pragmatic enough to know that only I-44's eight lanes of concrete separate Shaw from McRee Town, a neighborhood with half the population and half the median household income of Shaw.

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