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.

Now that the Board of Adjustment has ruled, perhaps the most emotional scenes are over. At one earlier meeting, an opponent got in Anton's face.

"He says, "I know who you are — you're the one who's making them close this deal. If it weren't for you, they'd go away, and we want them to go away, so it's all up to you. And you're just doing this because you're greedy.' He says this to my face. I said, "You don't know who I am. You don't have any idea what I'm about.' He says, "Yes, I do. Where do you live? Are there social-services agencies where you live?'

"It doesn't make any difference to these folks," Anton says. "He was whipped into this shape that he was saving his neighborhood from the evil Covenant House."

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."

As it turns out, after living for 11 years in Shaw and several more years on the other side of Shaw's Garden, in the Southwest Garden neighborhood, Anton has moved to Pacific, where she lives on 5 acres and commutes to her practice on Union Boulevard near Forest Park. She says one of her main motives in selling her building was that she was tired of being a landlord. Had she found a buyer who would have let her keep her office there, she would have stayed as a tenant. When it came to Shaw, she was simply sick of living there.

"I thought I was moving into an urban neighborhood that would be revitalizing, that was going to be coping with its problems, that was diverse but that was all sort of working together," she says. "I didn't have any Pollyanna notion that you didn't have neighborhood fights, but I thought that there was some common interest that the neighborhood could perceive and rally around — and the Shaw neighborhood doesn't have one and can't do it. As soon as there becomes a common interest, instead of getting a consensus, it draws a line down the middle and chooses sides."

"This is as hard as it gets"

If Anton's theory is correct, that Shaw is so splintered and hell-bent on process and confrontation that it can't perceive a common cause and work toward it, the Garden District plan is doomed. If she's wrong, the plan has a chance of turning around McRee Town, one of the city's most beleaguered areas, while at the same time bolstering the image and reality of the Shaw, Southwest Garden and Tiffany neighborhoods. If all that happens, then the anxieties at the Missouri Botanical Garden — that it will be corralled by a smutty urban streetscape of the sort that many of its visitors might only see on the 10 o'clock news — will be eased.

Ed Roth, a lawyer and president of the 17-member Garden District Commission, is a point man for the plan. He thinks all the contretemps in Shaw are a sign of health, not sickness.

"These neighborhoods are robust in their citizen involvement and place a premium on process. When any new initiative is introduced that could have a material effect on the neighborhood, or a part of the neighborhood, the pros, the cons, the critical path, the timeline, the who, what, when and where are thoroughly thrashed out by involved citizens," says Roth. "Thus, unlike other parts of our region, where initiatives are shepherded through by insiders, pols, rabbis or power brokers, here people get involved, often in passionate ways that defy Robert's Rules of Order but almost always in ways that, because of freewheeling involvement, ultimately yield the best result for the larger community."

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Garden District plan is that everyone, or most everyone, seems to be kicking in on the chorus. The neighborhood associations of Shaw, Tiffany, McRee Town and Southwest Garden and the powers that be at the Missouri Botanical Garden are backing the plan and have representatives on the Garden District Commission. Ald. Stephen Conway (D-8th) and Deputy Mayor Mike Jones pledge support from the city.

The entire plan might take about $50 million to pull off, but Jonathan Kleinbard, the Garden's deputy director and a commission member, believes the first phase is more in the several-million-dollar range. That first phase includes a privately run community center, similar to the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club, surrounded by softball fields and new housing. The four-square-block area to be cleared for that is bounded by Blaine, Lafayette and Thurman avenues and 39th Street.

In the first five years, the goal is to construct about 100 single-family homes, 75 townhouses and 60 units of elderly housing around the community center. The housing units in the area west of Thurman would be rehabbed when possible, or new "infill" units would be constructed.

So far the money has come from the Danforth Foundation, which kicked in $1.5 million and $250,000 in Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits. The Garden has helped pay for some planning expenses, but, more important, it has pledged to use its influence for future fundraising.

Though the early stages of the collaborative process appear to be going well, progress has not been made without glitches. The first bump in the road was when a mailing was sent out detailing the May 25 Garden District Commission meeting. Enclosed was a 12-page "Report to the Community" that explained the plan. Roth admits that the mailing service hired to send this out mistakenly left much of McRee Town off the mailing list.

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