The Greening of McRee Town

There was nothing wrong with the Missouri Botanical Garden's downtrodden neighbor to the north that a bulldozer couldn't fix

Jim Roos lowers the tailgate on his black Chevy pickup and orders his dog, Indie, into the back. He pushes rags and tools from the passenger seat to the floorboard and rolls the window down to a sticky August morning. It's eight o'clock, but Roos, the president of a property-management company that leases apartments in McRee Town, has been at his office since four.

The streets of McRee Town are quiet as Roos turns onto the 3900 block of Blaine Avenue. The smell of trash hangs as thick as the humidity. The buildings, most of them boarded and burned, are broken-down monuments to a neighborhood that lost hope long ago. Yet behind the shadows of neglect are arched doorways, stately turrets, brick front porches -- simple architectural reminders of a place that once was beautiful and elegant.

McRee Town is still waking up. In a few hours, drug dealers will be waving their arms and yelling at passing motorists, especially those who are white, hoping to make a sale. Cops say most buyers tool down Interstate 44 from the suburbs, take the Vandeventer exit and score some crack in McRee Town, then pop back on the freeway.

Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Roos manages two dozen buildings in McRee Town that are slated for demolition
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Roos manages two dozen buildings in McRee Town that are slated for demolition

At 3941 Blaine, Roos lets himself into a brown brick building that has been converted into three large townhouses. The vacant apartment reeks. Evidently someone broke out a new thermal-insulated window and used the toilet. He didn't flush.

"This is one of our best buildings," Roos says. He walks through the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath townhouse, pointing out the new carpet, new ceilings, new insulation, new windows and newer kitchen countertop and sink. It's not fancy but it's livable, and it rents for $540 a month. (A three-bedroom with similar features in the Shaw neighborhood, right over on the south side of Interstate 44, rents for at least $700.)

"This is what they are going to tear down," Roos protests. He's about to launch into another indignant monologue but stops himself, perhaps because the stench is overwhelming.

At 3949 Blaine, John Minner is about to go to work spreading the Gospel as a volunteer for the St. Louis Powerhouse Church. The church rents the building from Roos' company, Neighborhood Enterprises, for use as a men's shelter. "This is a house of God," Minner says, pointing to a pretty, two-story home of white brick with blue trim. "This is the only form of light in this neighborhood. You know, this neighborhood is known as the Dark Side."

Next door Jackie Ingram is toting her one-year-old while her three-year-old pulls on her arm. Her five other kids are watching TV in her bedroom (which is actually the dining room). "People in this neighborhood are crazy," Ingram says. "It's so black here at night you can't see nothing. They shoot out the streetlights, and as soon as they come and fix them, they shoot them out again."

Ingram has been packing boxes, getting ready to move out of McRee Town and praying the next place will be better. Her relocation expenses, along with those of all of her neighbors, are being paid by the Garden District Commission, a nonprofit corporation whose goal is to tear down six square blocks of McRee Town and build new homes with prices ranging from $120,000 to $180,000. The plan, which was spearheaded by the Missouri Botanical Garden, located a quarter-mile south down Tower Grove Avenue, aims to transform McRee Town from an urban hellhole to an inner-city oasis for middle-class and upper-middle-class professionals.

No one, especially those living in McRee Town, disputes that the neighborhood needs emergency surgery. In fact, most renters and homeowners are clamoring to get out. But Roos, along with a group called Citizens for a Fair McRee Town, questions why the garden, with its "recycle, recycle, recycle" mantra, is sponsoring a plan to tear down 300 historic buildings, many of which provide affordable housing to poor St. Louisans.

Roos and others claim the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation and the Garden District Commission are abusing their eminent-domain authority by paying property owners too little, then turning the cleared, leveled and graded land over to McBride & Son Homes, which stands to make a handsome profit.

"Eminent domain is for the public interest," Roos protests. "It's in the public interest to solve crime and make an environment where it's eventually possible to rehab these houses and build new houses."

Instead, he says, the Garden District Commission has "demonized the neighborhood and anyone involved with it so that no one has to feel bad about the loss of these buildings or the unfair treatment of anyone or anything."

"We know some of these buildings are horrible and they should have been knocked down five years ago," adds Father Gerald Kleba, pastor of St. Cronan's Catholic Church, located a half-mile north of McRee Town on Boyle Avenue. "But some of these buildings are treasures. They just insist on the slash-and-burn technique."

Jonathan Kleinbard sits at a conference table in an office with huge windows that overlook the Missouri Botanical Garden. He's wearing a black suit and black lace-up shoes, which he props on the table as he speaks. On paper, Kleinbard is simply a member of the Garden District Commission. In reality, he is its founder and chief fund-raiser.

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