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.

When Jim Roos got a copy of the report, alarms went off. Roos is the head of Neighborhood Enterprises Inc., which he describes as a "self-supporting business/ministry" that manages about 75 buildings comprising about 225 rental units, about half in McRee Town and the rest in the surrounding neighborhoods. Most of the units are modest apartments occupied by low-income families. He owns or manages 12 buildings in the area to be bulldozed during the first phase.

Roos is a veteran of the area, working at 2752 Lafayette Ave. and living at 3012 Lafayette, about six blocks east of McRee Town. A graduate of Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Roos has a John the Baptist zeal about his work. Once, when showing a friend bullet holes in his back door, possibly put there by an angry tenant, his friend asked him, "Why don't you leave?" Roos answered, "They missed."

So when he saw the plan and interpreted the lack of a mailed notice as an intentional slight, he printed up letters to "owners and tenants in 3900 and 4000 blocks of Lafayette, McRee and Blaine," that told them, "The Garden District plan has an EVICTION NOTICE for all of us." Roos went on to state, "We have been excluded from the development, implementation and conclusion of this plan."

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."

Since that broadside in May, Roos' relationship with the Garden District folks has eased. Though Roos and others still have major concerns about the displacement of low-income families, the two sides are talking.

"When we circulated the conceptual plan, Roos came on like gangbusters, as though this came out of a star chamber, that this was all secret and all this kind of business," Roth says. "We reminded him that this was a well-publicized process and that if he had attended a neighborhood meeting over the past year he would have known about it."

Both Roth and Conway believe a role exists for Roos in the process, particularly in renovating and salvaging some of the buildings west of Thurman, outside the initial target area. "Jim has a mission in his heart, and there should be a role for him, a bona fide role, in this," says Conway.

John Pachak, one Shaw resident who works with Roos as part of Sanctuary in the Ordinary, a nonprofit corporation that owns properties designed to meet the housing needs of low-income people, is also concerned about what will happen to the disadvantaged in McRee Town. He says that, often, such developments are "an assault on the poor."

Pachak, who is also program director of Catholic Community Services, at 1202 S. Boyle Ave., says the Garden District Commission is not representative of the affected area, because it has no renters or low-income residents of McRee Town. "The plan that's been passed out shows a lot of greenspace where people are living now,"says Pachak. "McRee Town needs to be redeveloped, but our hope is that it would be inclusive of the people who are living there rather than forcing them out to make it look prettier for people going to visit the Garden."

Kleinbard, who was hired by the Garden after working for more than 20 years in neighborhood development for the University of Chicago, is aware of that criticism. He wants to ease those fears and to admit the underlying basis for them. "The first thing that happens here is to provide decent, affordable housing for an underserved population," says Kleinbard. "There are 40-50 households that will have to be relocated. Our commitment has to be to provide them better housing in the same area, if that's where they want to stay."

And, yes, the Garden is concerned about how it looks from the highway.

"If people drive down I-44 and they see boarded-up, devastated buildings along DeTonty and Lafayette, they're basically not going to the Garden," says Kleinbard. "If they drive down Shaw and they see boarded-up windows and lots with abandoned cars parked in them, who the hell is going to come here? Ten years from now, that'll be it — unless you reverse it."

So Kleinbard set out to get the neighborhoods to take the lead, with the Garden behind them. "There's nothing altruistic about it. It's totally self-interest," says Kleinbard, who lives on Flora Place. "Just like you want folks who live here to say, "Hey, this is in my interest to have my street look good.'"

That some suspicions have been raised early is no surprise to Kleinbard, who was a catalyst in the renewal of the Woodlawn, North Kenwood and Oakland neighborhoods in Chicago. "There are people who are not for this. The knives are out; that's OK. That's good. I just like them to be in daylight."

Pachak is suspicious that what passes for inclusion where he lives in Shaw doesn't always mean any more than mere coexistence. "It's a liberal idea of diversity," says Pachak. "You talk about living next to somebody else, but it's really only because you're already there and people who are different are moving in and you're not leaving. It doesn't mean you're making contact with those people or making connections with them."

Roth begs to differ. He stresses the All Shaw Choir as an example of an activity that involves a wide range of residents. Also, Roth believes that the decibel level of recent spats has diminished: "I think there's more unity in the neighborhood. There's less conflict than 10 years ago among various factions in the neighborhood." Part of that is the result of action against problem properties.

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