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.

A lot of McRee Town's symptoms, like those of many urban neighborhoods nationwide, can be traced to when it was amputated from the rest of its neighbors by an interstate highway. After a swath was cut through the middle of the area in the early '70s, the land sat fallow for several years before the highway was finished. More than one observer thought that some sort of legal action should have been taken to ameliorate the aftereffects of the interstate. Hemmed in by the new highway to the south, railroad yards and light-industrial firms to the north and west, and hospitals along Grand Avenue to the east, McRee Town started to fade.

The worst of McRee Town's criminal activity appears to have passed, as a result of depopulation and arrests, but when it was flaring up, it was as bad as it gets. Police blamed an internal feud among a gang called the Darkside for eight killings and 20 shootings during a 19-month period in 1993-94. That's within an area of less than one square mile.

Though violent crime seems to have diminished, horrific violence continues to occur on a more sporadic basis. On April 7, 1998, during a fight between two feuding groups of girls, 14-year-old Maneabra Pryor was fatally shot. In November 1998, a 17-year-old unloading his .45-caliber semiautomatic gun accidentally shot 6-year-old Porsche Champion in the head, critically injuring her.

Ed Roth, an attorney whose office is in the Shaw neighborhood, is also the president of the Garden District Commission. "We have a better handle on absentee landlords than we did 10 years ago," says Roth. "Absentee landlords who neglect their properties know that the people in Shaw are going to kick their ass."
Jennifer Silverberg
Ed Roth, an attorney whose office is in the Shaw neighborhood, is also the president of the Garden District Commission. "We have a better handle on absentee landlords than we did 10 years ago," says Roth. "Absentee landlords who neglect their properties know that the people in Shaw are going to kick their ass."
Jim Roos, a veteran in the effort to provide decent housing to low-income families in the McRee Town area, expressed initial concern
 that his clients will be displaced because they were left out of the planning process for the redevelopment of the newly configured 
"Garden District."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Roos, a veteran in the effort to provide decent housing to low-income families in the McRee Town area, expressed initial concern that his clients will be displaced because they were left out of the planning process for the redevelopment of the newly configured "Garden District."

So when residents of Shaw look across I-44, they might think they're seeing storm clouds headed their way. Also, metropolitan pundits see an area like Shaw as a barometer for the urban climate, suggesting that as Shaw goes, so might the city. And if American society can best be described as a tossed salad rather than a melting pot, where people of various backgrounds and classes live in proximity but don't often interact or agree, then Shaw is a working microcosm of that metaphor.

Shaw is racially mixed, with about a 50-50 split between African- Americans and whites. In some 60 square blocks, it has about 160 Section 8 federally subsidized rental units and houses on Flora Place that often sell for more than $200,000. In a recent South Side Journal, the "What Did It Sell For?" column listed houses in the Shaw neighborhood that sold from $15,000, at 4132 Shenandoah, to $184,000, at 7 Shaw Place.

Anton knew this when she moved to Shaw. The mix of realities is one of the main reasons she picked the corner of 39th Street and Shenandoah Avenue. But finally, enough was enough.

"The Shaw neighborhood is just a bunch of paradoxes," says Anton. "I find that all very interesting, the diversities and paradoxes of class and race and people having different points of view — it's really exciting. But if it's always polarized and everybody goes to war and draws the line and there's no compromise and there's no discussion, that's what wore me out."

Fear and loathing in Shaw

In the end, when Anton decided to sell her building, she set off a maelstrom of controversy that exceeded anything she had experienced. In March, she decided to sell to Covenant House, an international child-welfare organization that Anton describes as serving youth ages 16-21 "who really get totally lost in the system." That much sounded good to Anton. "They can make a huge difference in those young people's lives," she says. "They give them an alternative."

Covenant House Missouri was not going to be a shelter, and it would not be open all night. It was planned to offer educational and vocational assessment and counseling to youth, giving them employment guidance and, possibly, help getting high-school equivalency degrees.

An initial discussion at an April 19 board meeting of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association went well for the idea, with a 12-2 vote in favor of Covenant House's move to Shaw. But the vote was contingent on the approval of the "affected blocks." That's when the process headed into the ditch.

"Then, again, we had this fear-and-loathing-in-the-Shaw-neighborhood tactic. There was a group that was absolutely, totally dedicated to, at all costs, preventing Covenant House from being there," says Anton. "To them, having Covenant House there would prevent other residential development on the corner, it would lower property taxes, it would increase crime, it would cause traffic jams — it was awful, horrible, terrible. And, again, there was going to be no compromise."

Rich McGovern, who lives at 3860 Cleveland Ave., didn't see it that way. Covenant House would be moving directly behind his house; in front of his house was the Benedict-Joseph Labre Center, a transitional residence for homeless and mentally ill men run by Peter and Paul Community Services. For McGovern at least, this was not so much a NIMBY — "not in my backyard" — complaint, it was a backyard and frontyard concern.

"I've been here since 1980, and nothing's ever bothered me," says McGovern. "But at some point in time I don't think I should have to take my residential neighborhood and have a Peter and Paul in front of me and a Covenant House in my backyard. At some point I consider all my work on my house — I'm throwing it away.

"What family, what mom and dad with two kids are going to see my "For Sale' sign some day and say, "Hey, I want to live in this house. I want to live across from schizophrenic men, and I want my kids in the backyard, when they're playing, to be looking at the comings and goings of troubled youth between the ages of 17-21.'"

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