No Place Like Home

Public housing is going upscale, and it's the new "mixed-income" mantra that's doing the trick. At Darst-Webbe, "upscale" won't house everyone who's poor, but it'll sure make poverty invisible.

The sun's close to setting here on Chouteau Avenue, just south of downtown. That little Amoco gas station on the corner of 14th Street is the closest convenience store around, and those white boys who don't get out of their fancy cars are coming here to shop. But not at that Amoco. It's the wares sold on the sidewalks that they want. Just across the street from the gas station, on the other side of Chouteau, are rows and rows of apartments, carved into hotdog-shaped low-rise buildings organized in some semblance of a linear pattern -- think arbitrary parallels and perpendiculars -- from Chouteau to Park Avenue. Good people live in these apartments, and those white boys who won't get out of their fancy cars might believe it, too, if they tried to meet 'em instead of use 'em. These are the Peabodys. Or, in St. Louis Housing Authority nomenclature, the Clinton-Peabody Public Housing Development. Or, in the language of public housing, simply a density of poverty. Once upon a time, those low-income reservations -- the Pruitt-Igoes, the Cabrini Greens -- were touted as the wisdom that would solve the riddle of housing the poor. Later, the wisdom itself -- the high-rise clusters, the low-income densities -- would become the riddle.

And so, directly adjacent to Clinton-Peabody's eastern boundary, again on 14th Street but catty-corner to the gas station, stands a lonely sign crying hope. It's a sign standing sentinel for the 30-acre Darst-Webbe high-rise site, now reduced to a dreary expanse of broken dirt where the Webbes stood, developed into nearly completed homes with vinyl siding and street-facing brick façades where the Darst buildings were. Together, until they were finally demolished in 1999, the high-rises loomed as a paradigm (much more so than the squat Peabodys) of public housing's densities of poverty.

But the feds are wiping the slates clean, and now deconcentration happily walks hand in hand with public housing's future -- manifested in the newest of wisdoms, labeled HOPE VI. The wisdom now behind the plans for Darst-Webbe. Mixed-income housing replaces densities of poverty. Riddle solved.

Construction worker Jim Johnson walks through the Darst-Webbe high-rise apartment complex, just before its demolition in 1999.
Construction worker Jim Johnson walks through the Darst-Webbe high-rise apartment complex, just before its demolition in 1999.
Construction worker Jim Johnson walks through the Darst-Webbe high-rise apartment complex, just before its demolition in 1999.
Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Construction worker Jim Johnson walks through the Darst-Webbe high-rise apartment complex, just before its demolition in 1999.

The sun hasn't sunk yet back on Chouteau, and there's a plucky 19-year-old named Versus McBride on the sidewalk who seems content to pass the time until it does. Dressed comfortably for a mid-June evening in red sweatpants and a cut-off black T-shirt, Versus has just graduated from Vashon High, he'll proudly tell you, and he's fixing to go to college in Arkansas. He has a head for numbers, and this teenager with his scraggly beard contemplates being a teacher someday or maybe even getting into computers. That's where the money's at, after all. He's a handsome enough kid, but right now he's the source of amusement for a gaggle of teenage girls from Clinton-Peabody. Versus lives there, too, but he's a transplant, relocated from Darst-Webbe. And tonight he's busy grinning off such sass as "They shoulda just knocked down the Webbes with the people still in them."

Versus, though lettered in life and not policy, is already well aware what HOPE VI can translate into -- for him and for the neighborhood that's always been home. Fewer low-income homes mean fewer low-income families -- and fewer low-income families where there were once more low-income families.

"There's no way we gonna move from here," says Versus, his stare suddenly gone from playful to intense. "We enjoy the shit down here. They can't take that from us. If you right here, every day a Cardinal game go on, right on the riverfront, the VP Fair, hockey games. We like that type of shit, too. We like waking up in the morning and looking at the Arch, looking at the businesses downtown. I'm not gonna move from downtown. It's a beautiful-ass sight, waking up in the morning, sun coming up over the Arch."

Versus pauses as if to catch his breath. His dark eyes peer north, toward downtown, then south again, and he jerks a lanky arm toward the defunct City Hospital: "A lot of people born in that hospital. That hospital damn near home to them. People love the projects; this is their home. Second of all, they the one who said ..." Versus fumbles for the right words. "It was they choice to move to the county. Now, they like it here close to the city" -- which means replacing the needy with the not-so, or what St. Louis' own Bertha Gilkey, public-housing resident turned queen of the elder President Bush's HUD policy, has dubbed "urban cleansing." "They can't just move us like that," Versus says, fidgeting uneasily. "We pay taxes, too. We got rights, too. These are low-income houses. We used to have five projects in one place. This is ours. We were here when they was raggedy, falling apart. Now we gonna stay when they new. They can't make us move like that. I ain't gonna move. Away from here, I can't see the Arch unless I had binoculars."

Darst-Webbe held 256 families in August 1993, according to the St. Louis Housing Authority's monthly activity reports. In July 1994, there were 224 families. By 1995, 187 remained. In 1996, 134. Finally, in February 1998, just months before the development was emptied for demolition, just 116 were left. The attrition rate at Darst-Webbe, in fact, was almost double that of neighboring Clinton-Peabody. The people -- where did they all go?

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