Tombstone Blues

Wealthy investors spend millions to resurrect the neighborhood near Bellefontaine Cemetery. They discover that money can't do everything.

Geisman did not return phone calls for this story.

With a roadblock at the ward level and no help coming from City Hall, the donors were stymied in their effort to buy vacant land from the city. Hentschell and Whitfield considered their options. Without city, state or federal funds and without aldermanic approval, Hentschell and Whitfield decided to find out what they could do with private money and a plan.


Lawyer Harold Whitfield (left) was brought in to resolve the impasse. Architect Jim Hentschell was the project manager. "We were coming in to spend this money," says Whitfield. "You've got all this vacant land available. We thought our proposal was reasonable and that we shouldn't run into any kind of stumbling blocks."
Jennifer Silverberg
Lawyer Harold Whitfield (left) was brought in to resolve the impasse. Architect Jim Hentschell was the project manager. "We were coming in to spend this money," says Whitfield. "You've got all this vacant land available. We thought our proposal was reasonable and that we shouldn't run into any kind of stumbling blocks."

When word spread slowly that big money was destined for the small slice of the 1st Ward bounded by West Florissant Avenue, Kingshighway, I-70 and Shreve Avenue, there were obvious suspicions about who was signing the checks.

"I believe that the donors emanate out of Bellefontaine Cemetery, and I don't have a problem with that," Smith says. "That was just my suspicion. I don't care. They have money. They have endowments."

Thinking that Bellefontaine's trustees would want to stabilize the area around the 310-acre cemetery makes sense. Founded in 1849, the cemetery contains many famous tombstones and monuments, not the least of which is the one for William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Making sure the neighborhood around the cemetery is safe and respectable-looking for visitors seems a reasonable goal.

The other major suspect, naturally, was the Danforth Foundation, which has used its debit card to support St. Louis 2004, various school-desegregation efforts and the nearby school at the Mathews-Dickey Boys Club.

But neither the trustees for Bellefontaine Cemetery nor the Danforth Foundation is the source of the money. And as for who signs the checks, it's Steven Jones of Armstrong & Teasdale, a big money downtown law firm. Jones signs the checks and is listed on the Union West Florissant Housing Solutions' corporate papers. Jones has met with Smith and other representatives from the target area. Jones did not return phone calls for this article.

In addition to Jones, the public face of this project consists of Hentschell, Whitfield and Faye McFadden, a Realtor who was brought in to facilitate the purchase of the four-family flats that face West Florissant. That represented the front of the targeted area. Most of the other lots have 25-foot fronts and contain smaller homes than the brick bungalows along Kingshighway.

The four-family flats are being converted into two units per flat and being sold as condos for $87,500, about half the cost of the rehab. The donors do not plan to be landlords in any manner. They want to buy, rehab or build and then sell the units, either as houses or condominiums.

Once it was clear that the LRA lots would not be available soon for side yards and the construction of new houses, the emphasis was switched to buying the flats across the street from the cemetery. Several were boarded up but had not fallen into LRA hands. Previous attempts to find the owners or negotiate a sale had failed. McFadden solved those problems and proved a catalyst in getting the project moving.

"The biggest part of what I faced was trying to track down who the owners were," says McFadden. "Then there were misconceptions when people got the word that I was trying to purchase properties, that I was trying to force folks out of their home. I've never approached a homeowner who actually lived in their home. A lot of people came and approached me that they wanted to sell their homes, but they weren't realistic about the prices they wanted to sell their homes. A lot of homes were in disrepair and they thought they were going to get stuff like $80,000, $90,000 or $100,000 for a three-room house. It's just not feasible."

Because of the rumors that had circulated as the development started, stalled and limped forward, McFadden worked the neighborhood.

"The experiences I've had since I've been here have been extremely positive because I went and knocked at people's doors and I introduced myself. I let them know what was going on," says McFadden. "They got a chance to know me. They got a chance to recognize my car. They found out I wasn't a threat, that I wasn't the big bad Faye wolf that was coming over here to scare folk out of their property."

McFadden sensed that residents had healthy suspicions about strangers bearing gifts, particularly when there seemed to be too much talk about home-improvement loans and not enough action.

"You got people who are already distrustful. All they saw was a bunch of white folks coming over here all of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky, talking about what they wanted to do in the neighborhood," McFadden says. "It was 'Who in the heck do you think you are, come over and tell us what we need in our neighborhood when you made some promises you didn't fulfill? Fulfill your promises.' Once that happened, everybody calmed down."

Following through on some promised home repairs for existing homeowners and explaining the forgivable-loan program for current homeowners was the key, McFadden says. She also had to remind the donor group to be patient.

"I kept trying to school them on that," McFadden says. "Periodically I'd have to pull their coattails to let them know 'OK, we see it this way, but the reality is it may be this other way because you think you've got this pipe dream that things are going to happen overnight.' Sometimes anything that happens overnight is destined to fail.

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