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

A $233,000 loan in late 1998 from Heartland Bank made all the difference. "Banks seldom loan on older rental property, even in better neighborhoods," Roos says, adding that he tried for years to get conventional loans, as well as grants, with limited success. With the money, Sanctuary in the Ordinary has bought homes and made repairs to existing properties, such as replacing lead-painted wooden windows with thermal-insulated vinyl ones. "It's a work in progress," Roos asserts.

He tries to teach tenants basic skills, he says, such as taking trash out regularly, keeping yards clean and living quietly. He admits that at times he has given problem tenants too many chances. "We do not, however, tolerate illegal or unpleasant behavior indefinitely," he insists.

In order to keep housing affordable, Roos tries to follow the principles of the Enterprise Foundation, a nationally recognized organization that rebuilds low-income communities. He uses recycled materials, and he is more concerned if bathroom plumbing works than if bathroom floor tiles match.

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

In 1999 Lutheran Family and Children's Services of Missouri honored Roos with the Arnold and Mildred Bringewatt Social Justice Award. "I respect him and think he's doing a good job," says Janet Becker, a lobbyist for Adequate Housing for Missourians, a nonprofit advocacy organization that opposes the demolition of housing in McRee Town. Although city housing inspectors decline to discuss the condition of Roos' buildings (or those of any other landlord), they say addresses he manages in McRee Town have been inspected and are up to code.

When Roos heard the garden was interested in improving McRee Town, he hoped Sanctuary in the Ordinary would be able to partner with them to buy and improve more buildings for low-income people. He soon learned that this was not the plan.

"They claim [tearing down houses] is what the community wanted," he says. "But the garden picked the people to be on the Garden District Commission and the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation board."

Dell Breeland, who became president of the Garden District Commission in 2001 and also serves as president of the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation, says Roos had no chance of getting on the panel. "Why would you put a person on the board that didn't even approve of what the board is doing?" she asks. "If you're going to work on a board, everyone has to be of the same accord."

Pachak, of Midtown Catholic Community Services, says McRee residents didn't even receive copies of the 2000 annual report, which outlined plans to tear down half of the neighborhood. And Kleba questions why the Garden District Commission held its meetings at the Monsanto Research Center at 8:30 on Saturday mornings.

"If they wanted people to participate, they should have had meetings on a Friday night in the neighborhood and given out free hot dogs and hamburgers," he says.

Breeland, who lives in the 4200 block of Lafayette in an area that will not be demolished, scoffs at that idea. "We didn't want to create a carnival atmosphere. We wanted a business atmosphere," she says. "We didn't eat hot dogs. We had a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and we felt if we could get up at 8:30 in the morning, then if a person is interested, they'll get up too."

At 3950 Blaine Avenue, red boards have been pried off the front door of a fire-damaged four-family building. One year ago neighbors found the body of seventeen-year-old Lee Smith lying in the doorway. By the time police arrived, someone had put a white muscle shirt over his face, but blood was everywhere. According to the police report, Smith, also known as T-Man, accidentally shot himself while he was inside the abandoned house, then stumbled to the bottom of the landing, where he died sometime in the early morning hours.

In the weeks following T-Man's death, friends paid homage to him by creating a shrine of beer bottles and cans. "There were no balloons or dolls or flowers -- just bottles of beer," Roos says. Early one morning, he cleaned it all up, because "it was a memorial to a way of life that is destructive."

Inside the house police found a loaded .38 Special revolver, 23 shell casings, four bullets and three boxes of cartridges. "It is obvious the building is being used for illegal activity," the report notes dryly.

"The vacant buildings are a good place for drug dealers to hang out," says Johnny Bell, a volunteer at the St. Louis Powerhouse Church's men's shelter on Blaine Avenue. "They hide drugs in there. When the police chase them, they run up in them and hide. Drug addicts, prostitutes, homeless people. They sleep in there."

The Garden District Commission began buying vacant buildings in McRee Town in 1999. Even though it has publicly stated for the past three years that it plans to tear down every building between 39th and Thurman, the commission has only demolished one building, and that's because it was about to collapse onto a spot where children stood to catch the school bus.

"Some of the worst buildings in the neighborhood, the Garden District Commission has owned the last five years," Kleba says. "Their intention is to make all of their worst prophecies come true -- that this is a terrible neighborhood. They say there's drugs and delinquency and crime. Well, if they know about it so well, let's get better police protection."

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