The Kings of Kingshighway

The Roberts brothers fight to bring back life to north St. Louis

"If you have a school system that is discouraging home ownership, business relocation to the community, or impacting the quality of the future workforce, then what does the mayor of the city do?" Steve counters. "The mayor took a very bold step to say we've got a significant problem here and we've got to address it."

The new board's decision to close sixteen schools (twelve of which were in north St. Louis), to lay off more than 1,000 employees and to outsource scores of other menial jobs to private firms has triggered a tidal wave of resentment in the black community. Now the board is trying to decide whether to close more schools and eliminate gifted programs or force across-the-board pay cuts, which would almost certainly lead to a strike by the Local 420 teachers' union.

Jamilah Nasheed, co-chair of the activist group Concerned Citizens Coalition, questions how the Roberts brothers will lure new residents to the city when so much turmoil surrounds the school board's decisions. "When people move into a neighborhood, the first thing they look at is the schools," she says. "If the Robertses want people to move into the neighborhood, they need to make the schools better." The board's actions so far have done the opposite, she claims.

Mike and Steve Roberts aim to revitalize north St. 
Louis, working from the Roberts Companies' 
headquarters, the old Sears building on North 
Kingshighway.
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike and Steve Roberts aim to revitalize north St. Louis, working from the Roberts Companies' headquarters, the old Sears building on North Kingshighway.
At the age of 26, Mike Roberts (left) was the city's 
youngest alderman -- until his brother, Steve, was 
sworn into office at age 25.
Courtesy of Mike and Steve Roberts
At the age of 26, Mike Roberts (left) was the city's youngest alderman -- until his brother, Steve, was sworn into office at age 25.

Nasheed lays the blame at the feet of the Black Leadership Roundtable, a group of successful African Americans, including Steve Roberts, who worked with the mayor's office and other business executives to spur the school-board takeover. "The Black Leadership Roundtable are puppets and they move in the interest of the powers that be," she asserts. "In the 1950s and 1960s, individuals of their caliber would have come out to fight this."

Civil-rights activist Percy Green applauds the Roberts brothers for their decision to invest in north St. Louis neighborhoods but cautions that development for middle- and upper-income families should not come at the expense of low-income blacks living in those neighborhoods now.

"We want to see young families of all ethnicities and religions," Steve responds. "We want to see seniors in the area get help preserving their properties."

"We've put our money, our experience, our expertise, our life into this neighborhood," his brother Mike picks up. "We have to be a part of this renaissance of inner-city hard-core areas. If we don't do it, then who will?"

Correction published 3/31/04: In the original version of this story, we erroneously attributed the vacant Enright School to architect William B. Ittner. According to Carolyn Toft, executive director of the Landmarks Association, the Enright School was originally Washington University's Smith Academy and Manual Training School, and was built in 1905 for $275,000 from plans by the St. Louis firm of Mauran, Russell & Garden. The above version reflects this correction.

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