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Mike and Steve Roberts sipped their apple martinis and savored the moment. One thousand guests had gathered in the Starlight Room of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel to celebrate the launch of UPN affiliate WRBU-TV (Channel 46), the Robertses' latest television venture. Steve Roberts, the younger and more soft-spoken of the two brothers, grabbed a microphone and quieted the crowd. "Shhh!" he teased. "I know the drinks are good!"
"Many of you know that Mike and I served in public office," he began on that cool April evening last year. "We served on the board of aldermen and, for many years, we had the opportunity to work as colleagues with our good friend [Mayor] Francis Slay. And we want to ask Francis to come up here."
The Fabulous Motown Revue piped up their horns as the mayor took the stage and proclaimed it UPN 46 Day. The mayor passed the microphone to a parade of UPN stars, including Jerry Springer, the king of talk-show trash. Springer thanked the Roberts brothers for picking up his show and joked, "It doesn't say much about their taste. Frankly, it's great to be here in St. Louis. This is where we get most of our guests!"
The crowd giggled and groaned and returned to their cosmopolitans. Mike Roberts sauntered from room to room, walking across the floor illuminated by the UPN logo, past the wine bar and the ice sculpture of the Arch and outside to the rooftop balcony of the Chase. From here, Mike could look down on his stately white-stone home near the corner of Lindell Boulevard and Kingshighway and his brother's manse one street north on Westmoreland Place. To the east he could see downtown, where he and Steve have become major players in the redevelopment of the Old Post Office District.
The air was crisp and the sky was clear, a perfect evening for guests to peer through the telescope perched atop the hotel's roof, pointed at the UPN headquarters in the old Sears building on North Kingshighway between Page and Martin Luther King boulevards. The brothers bought the vacant department store in 1982 and christened it the Victor Roberts Building in honor of their father, a retired U.S. postal worker.
From this spot in one of St. Louis' most downtrodden neighborhoods -- two blocks from their childhood home -- the Robertses have risen from black middle-class roots to amass a multimillion-dollar empire of 35 companies, including TV stations, television and cell-phone towers, consulting businesses and real estate holdings in the United States and the Bahamas.
The Victor Roberts Building, with its 50-plus shops and government offices, has brought some stability to the neighborhood. But still the area remains the long-forgotten stepsister of the Central West End, the thriving neighborhood less than a mile south. The Roberts brothers are bent on changing that. Working with the city, they have unfurled an ambitious blueprint they believe will begin to transform the pockmarked face of north St. Louis. The Robertses hope that, in the process, they will see the collapse of the Berlin Wall of racial segregation that has haunted this city for generations. The plan is to extend the Central West End northward with homes, condos and retail outlets, infusing life into a huge swath of urban decay between Washington Boulevard to the south, Taylor Avenue to the east, Martin Luther King Drive to the north, and Union Boulevard to the west.
Although best known for their downtown development plans, including a $17 million renovation of the Mayfair Hotel, restoring a semblance of vitality to moribund north St. Louis is what really stirs the brothers' passion.
"Our vision is to have a very diverse neighborhood," Steve Roberts explains. "It shouldn't be one racial or economic group, [and] we'd like to see empty-nesters come back to where their parents or grandparents may have lived. This is our home. That's what motivates us."
Of course, there are other reasons too for this high-energy development duo (Mike is 55 years old; Steve is 51) who, in the 1970s began to tap into the white power structure by advising worried chief executives on how to avoid the specter of major class-action lawsuits by increasing minority employment. After all, they don't call themselves "straight-up, hard-core capitalists" for nothing.
"The housing stock is good [and] the land is priced so far under the market," says Mike Roberts. "People who are not seeing the opportunity here are going to be shaking their heads in a few years."
As kids the Roberts brothers witnessed the sting of racial hostility. They grew up watching blocks busted, public swimming pools segregated and blacks relegated to only the right-field seats at Sportsman's Park. They realize racial tensions linger still and are keenly aware of the obstacles ahead. Few investors, developers and bankers are willing to cross Delmar, a demarcation line in St. Louis' racially and economically segregated landscape.
Two years ago the banks refused to loan the Robertses $4 million to build a 42,000-square-foot shopping center on Page behind the Victor Roberts Building. "They said, 'We're not certain about this neighborhood,'" Mike Roberts recalls. The brothers chose to build the strip mall with their own money and opened it last year. But how, they ask, can small-business owners in the area ever finance even the smallest loans to remodel their buildings and resurrect their community if banks are unwilling to take a chance on north St. Louis?