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.

As new houses are built and worthy ones rehabbed, Wright believes that the "long-suffering tenants have first right in the new housing."

And if at any point during the process Wright smells a rat, he knows what to do. "Everything so far has been quite aboveboard, and if it ever wasn't, I would quit," he says bluntly. "If I felt it wasn't aboveboard, I wouldn't be part of it."

But though the Garden seems to have come to its senses about its surrounding environment, city government and its agencies appear to be missing in action in McRee Town. The Garden District plan itself is almost proof of that.

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."

"Waiting for the city to do something, to show leadership on an isolated pocket of blight, is a lost cause," Wright says in a matter-of-fact, everybody-knows-this-is-true tone of voice. "But the city will support a local initiative, a Garden initiative."

Deputy Mayor Jones admits that the city had no plans for McRee Town.

"Or most places," Jones says. "It's not like McRee Town got picked on because everyone else had a plan and they didn't." The city has had no planning agency for more than 20 years, ever since the Community Development Agency (CDA) was created, in part to serve that purpose. That aspect of the CDA's mission faded, and the city "quit doing planning of any serious nature," Jones says. Under the new reorganization of the St. Louis Development Corp., a department of planning and urban design has been reinstituted.

Jones promises that the city will do what it can to help implement the Garden District plan, but he credits the Garden as being an "institutional leader" by becoming involved in the surrounding community. "The Garden taking this approach to Shaw and McRee Town is critical," Jones says. "It's interesting that they decided to cast their bucket in the neighborhood that needed help the most. Lots of times, people pick the easiest one to do. In McRee Town, they picked the toughest to do. From my standpoint, they get four stars. You need people to step up and take responsibility for the hard stuff."

Roth doesn't think that waiting for city money, or action, is a good idea.

"In the city of St. Louis, even the most committed people have looked at revitalization efforts only in terms of what kind of government funding that they could get," says Roth. "Then they look at McRee Town and say, "There's not enough money in the world.' I used to be one of them, saying, "You're nuts — there's not enough money in the world to correct the problems there.' Everyone is sort of jockeying for a little slice of a small pie. People spend untold hours trying to angle for $2,000 to get a computer for the neighborhood association — you know, those kind of crumbs. What distinguishes this effort from the kind of scrambling that neighborhood people do to get a small amount of resources is the fact that the Missouri Botanical Garden is interested in this. They have the capacity, if they have the will, to tackle a project like McRee Town."

So the often contentious Shaw neighborhood, no stranger to internal civil strife, has joined forces with the guardedly suspicious but recently converted Southwest Garden neighborhood to back what appears to be a good-faith effort by born-again Missouri Botanical Garden leadership to do the difficult, if not impossible, job of bringing back McRee Town from the brink.

Wright, a veteran skeptic, is hopeful.

"The whole philosophy is to let Jonathan Kleinbard help develop the neighborhood rather than walling the garden off from the neighborhood," says Wright. "The attitude is completely reversed from what it was in 1991."

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