Tombstone Blues

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

Holding out until she was clear about the forgivable-loan home-improvement program was what she needed to do, Smith says:

"I try to leverage resources because I'm not in the good graces of the administration. But God has blessed our ward. People are coming to me like I don't know what. And I know why: We're close to the highway; it's a good area. On Sundays, speculators are riding all through my area. I know that. I have to be vigilant and work with people."

Smith and Troupe did what they thought was their duty -- protect the interest of their constituents, maximize the benefits of any offer and make sure 1st Ward residents knew that was happening. Though their suspicions about speculative buyouts and condescending developers didn't turn out to be justified, to them, taking the precautions made sense.

Jennifer Silverberg
The nightmare property owned by first-time landlord Sonja Wooten is undergoing a gut rehab so it can be resold as condominiums.
Jennifer Silverberg
The nightmare property owned by first-time landlord Sonja Wooten is undergoing a gut rehab so it can be resold as condominiums.

Explaining the motivation of the donor group is not easy. Some suspect its members are driven by the need for tax write-offs or that they are patronizingly playing a game of inner-city Monopoly, buying Baltic Avenue and putting up houses only to make themselves feel good. Hentschell thinks it's something else.

"I think it's the challenge," he says. "Some of them are quiet activists. I think it was the challenge of showing the world that you don't need all these subsidies from HUD and CDA and all this stuff, that you can do a good job privately, without subsidy, and make it work. They were never aware of the kind of blank stare you get when you try to do something in the city. It's just so difficult. You have to be patient. You're dealing with St. Louis."

But despite delays and distractions, the benefactors from the county have stayed the course. The project continues. The war stories the donors tell about how their noblesse oblige efforts were greeted in the city will probably raise eyebrows at the St. Louis Country Club, but they appear to be taking the bumps in the road and the detours as part of the ride.

Sonja Wooten, the buyer of the jinxed property on Rosalie, does not share their persistence.

Her experience with the apartment building from hell has discouraged her from even driving from Jefferson County into the city.

"Anytime we go down [Interstate] 55 into downtown and I smell that smell, I get choked up," she says. "I can hardly breathe, thinking about the memory. You smell the city, y'know? You know you're getting close to the area. The brewery, Monsanto and the river, all mixed in there, and Pillsbury: You smell all those smells, and you know you're getting close to Rosalie."

That memory of Rosalie Avenue may persist, but the reality is changing.


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