Promised Land

Ever since the city of St. Louis' airport authority wiped out much of Kinloch, the remaining residents have been hoping for a miracle to save the town. Others have been trying to turn a fast buck.

People used to live here. Most came up from Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. The town grew piecemeal, looking like so many nameless places down South. But Kinloch had a name, and it had another distinction -- people here owned their own homes.

There is nothing nostalgic about dirt roads, shotgun shacks and outdoor privies. Early residents migrated north to work in factories, trading one hardscrabble existence for another. They left poverty and racism -- and poverty and racism greeted them. Yet they endured, and successive generations built and improved a community that lasted for the better part of a century. Tens of thousands of people have called Kinloch home.

"It was a beautiful community," says 64-year-old Helen R. Fryer Jones, who moved to Kinloch from Laurel, Miss., as a child. "We had drugstores, we had furniture stores, we had bakeries, we had a high school and a grade school. We had all these things. You didn't have to lock your doors, because your neighbors watched out for your home, your children. It was like one big lovely family. We took care of each other. That's what this town is built up on -- Southern people that wanted their own. They got here, and they got their own."

Much of that city is gone now. Up and down Monroe and Scudder avenues, over on McGuire and McHenry, too, the residences have disappeared. Part of the abandoned area looks more like a park than a ghost town. The grass is cut, and ornamental trees still grow where backyards used to be. Just the people and the dwellings are missing.

The view from Freiling Avenue, one block west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, is far less bucolic. A local entrepreneur has opened an unofficial junkyard in the middle of the street. A minivan is tipped over on its side, and other derelict vehicles haphazardly line the narrow thoroughfare. Debris and broken glass are everywhere.

This empty part of southwest Kinloch, where houses once stood and families lived, has been owned by the city of St. Louis for nearly 20 years. The 175 acres of prime real estate, near the junction of interstates 70 and 170, was acquired by the St. Louis Airport Authority, ostensibly for noise mitigation, beginning in 1982. The Kinloch buyout cost upwards of $50 million, according to an airport spokesman, with most of the funds coming from the Federal Aviation Administration. But residents who sold their homes received only a fraction of this largesse, says former Kinloch City Attorney Richard Wier. The rest of the money presumably went for real-estate consultants, administrative costs and other related expenses.

"I know what the average price of the homes were selling for, and, in Kinloch, it was under $25,000 a house," Wier says. "They bought out land in Kinloch, partially because Kinloch was cheap and because the folks in there were poor black folks."

Half of the residents of Kinloch reported in the last census that they had an annual income of less than $10,000. For the residents and property owners who did not sell, the buyout progressed like a slow, invasive cancer. About 500 parcels are still in private hands, but many of those are vacant lots. Much of the remaining half of the city is now littered with the burned-out hulks of abandoned buildings. On lot after rubbish-filled lot, yellow signs are nailed to any available surface, identifying the Airport Authority as the owner.

But the squalor belies the true value of the land. Kinloch's proximity to the airport and the interstate makes its an ideal location for commercial and industrial development. With its population vastly decreased -- perhaps 1,000 people live there now -- and its tax base eroded, Kinloch's very survival depends on redevelopment of the land taken by St. Louis. That was something Kinloch and St. Louis recognized in the early 1980s, when the buyout began, but that is no longer the case.

Today, leaders of the area's oldest all-black city accuse St. Louis of turning its back on their plight. After negotiations with the Airport Authority failed earlier this year, Kinloch filed a lawsuit to regain control of the buyout property. The suit, filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court, alleges that St. Louis willfully engaged in the destruction of the town by reneging on earlier commitments to convey the land to Kinloch. The suit specifically cites a 1982 St. Louis ordinance that vowed cooperation with Kinloch's plans to regain and develop the land. The suit accuses St. Louis of misrepresenting the goals of the buyout to the FAA -- that the real reason for the land acquisition wasn't to address the noise problems caused by Lambert but, rather, to force the disincorporation of Kinloch and allow St. Louis to profit from the sale of the land to developers.

"I think what offends me the most is that St. Louis apparently believes that it has the right and the authority to decide which communities surrounding the airport survive and which don't survive," says Al Johnson, Kinloch's current city attorney. "I find it offensive and the height of arrogance that they come out here and criticize our city, essentially telling us, 'Kinloch, we don't think you can govern yourself -- so we're going to buy you out, and we're going to take control of your land.'" St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon refuses to comment on Kinloch's plight, saying that it is the subject of current litigation.

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