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"We have a better handle on absentee landlords than we did 10 years ago. Absentee landlords who neglect their properties know that the people in Shaw are going to kick their ass," says Roth. "As a result, we are doing much better, with people taking better care of their properties and making sure their tenants are respectful of their neighbors. We haven't solved the problem, but we've really gotten a handle on it."
As for reaching out to McRee Town, Roth sees the eventual reopening of the Thurman Avenue underpass of I-44 as a symbolic rejoining of the neighborhoods. Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association president John Merideth says that blocking the underpass was a bad idea.
"There was discussion at the time of actually concreting in or cinderblocking in the whole underpass so there wouldn't be an underpass, the idea being, basically, build your barrier as high as you can build it and don't allow the traffic back and forth," says Merideth. Closing it made it worse because burglars and robbers on foot could escape Shaw and, if they were pursued, "the police would be stuck; they'd have to go all the way to 39th Street or all the way to Tower Grove Avenue, and by then you never could find anybody."
Crime, and the perception of crime spreading from McRee Town, has been a concern for a long time. Earl P. Holt III is a former school-board member, a strident opponent of the voluntary-desegregation program and the archconservative host of Right at Night on WGNU (920 AM). He is glad that something is being planned for McRee Town. And he does not mince words.
"Anything they do to redevelop McRee Town has got to be good, because it's probably the highest concentration of violent crime in the entire city of St. Louis. So anything they do there, from gardening to carpet bombing, sounds good to me," says Holt. "If the Garden is really going to bulldoze everything from Blaine to Lafayette, it'll save me a lot of money in ammo I won't have to buy." Holt admits that crime has eased a bit in the last few years. "My neighbors used to be routinely held up with shotguns and have their doors kicked in," says Holt, who lives on Shaw Boulevard. "That does not seem to be happening anymore."
Winning Floyd over
Had the Missouri Botanical Garden been successful in its plan eight years ago, the current Garden District plan would never have materialized. The Garden's myopic goals would have been realized, and the neighborhoods would have been left to their own fate.
Back in 1991, the Garden's board wanted to issue $7.5 million in bonds to buy its way to the highway.
What the Garden, which receives a tax subsidy through the Zoo-Museum District, had planned to do was to buy all the land between its entrance and Interstate 44, thereby closing off Shaw Boulevard. If attempts to buy the land failed, eminent domain was an option. The roughly one-block-by-two-block area contained 42 buildings and was home to some 250 people, both renters and homeowners. The board had approved the sale of $7.5 million in revenue bonds to buy the land and finance the increased parking and improved access to the interstate. They had even received permission to dismantle the front section of the Garden's stone wall, erected in 1859 under the supervision of Henry Shaw, so that the front entrance could be expanded to I-44.
If that vision had been realized, visitors to the Garden could have steered clear of any funky city scenes by exiting the interstate directly into the parking lot and touring the grounds without having to mix with any of the locals. The plan wasn't leaked to those in the buyout area until the Garden's board had decided to do the deed.
Floyd Wright, who lived on DeTonty Street and led the opposition to the move, thinks that both the plan and the closeted way in which it was devised showed that the Garden folks were out of touch with the nearby neighborhoods. "We were unwilling participants. We had no warning of the expansion to bulldoze and demolish our area," says Wright. "They didn't have any idea who lived over here. They just thought there was a bunch of lowlifes."
Whatever the Garden planners at that time thought, they had to rethink it, because of the vocal and effective protest launched by residents of the Southwest Garden neighborhood, the small sliver of land to the north and west of Shaw's Garden and to the south and east of I-44, Kingshighway Boulevard and Vandeventer Avenue. They hired an attorney, Shulamith Simon, to represent them. Eventually, amid threats of legal action, protest picketing of the Garden and a media feeding frenzy, the Garden backed off from its plan.
When all the turmoil surfaced, Wright was in the midst of a 30-year career as a teacher of remedial reading at Fox High School in Arnold. He describes himself then and now as an "urban pioneer," a term that, when used by Wright, sounds fitting. He moved from the suburbs, buying and living in a four-family flat that he fixed up as he lived in it. He gradually bought other buildings as they became available, including several on one block when news of the Garden plan went public.
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