Clark selected for his great experiment the worst blocks in two of the city's highest crime neighborhoods. Hamilton Heights and Penrose, three miles apart and 98 percent black, lie within that wide expanse of weedy lots and empty sidewalks north of Delmar Boulevard, where the infant mortality rate is at Third World levels, and only thieves and fools pull up to gas stations past 11 p.m.

Since 1990, Hamilton Heights has lost 44 percent of its population; Penrose, a quarter. Those who stayed must live with the ghosts of those who left. One of every five houses is vacant. One of every four people lives below the poverty line. One of every three families is headed by a woman with no husband present. It's a stretch of land colored by this choking sense of abandonment — residents flee to safer neighborhoods, businesses choose not to invest, and politicians allow the many properties bought up by the city to rot.

When Clark first launched Neighborhood Alliance, the focus was on jobs. Two outreach workers would plaster the neighborhoods with information about the MET Center's career training program, while Clark and his lieutenant, site director Errol Bush, worked their connections to find employment opportunities for the growing flock. As a result, Clark and his initiative gained trust. This didn't seem like another outreach attempt espousing abstract ideas like "empowering the community" or "cleaning up the streets." The message was simple but powerful: "We'll help you get a job."

In the two years since Clark implemented Neighborhood Alliance, crime in Penrose and Hamilton Heights has decreased at four times the rate of the rest of the city.
In the two years since Clark implemented Neighborhood Alliance, crime in Penrose and Hamilton Heights has decreased at four times the rate of the rest of the city.

With employment opportunity as bait, Clark was able to rally people around bigger ideas, beginning with his "Put Down the Pistol" campaign, where he would host town-hall-style meetings to discuss combating gun violence. Often, more than 100 people would show up and leave with armloads of "Put Down the Pistol" fliers to hand out around their neighborhoods.

In early 2010, Better Family Life was forced to lay off the two outreach workers because of budgetary concerns. Clark had the wind knocked out of him. He had been seeing progress. Old ladies in the neighborhood would stop him on the street and thank him for helping their grandson get that construction job because otherwise he'd be on the corners selling dope or their niece get that nursing job because now her kids can eat three meals a day. More and more residents were buying into his movement. Without the extra staff, he wasn't sure how he and Bush could keep up the pace.

Then a mutual acquaintance introduced Clark to White. While Clark and his staff were trying to fix those neighborhoods, White was at Saint Louis University, trying to develop a strategy to do just that. Clark had the infrastructure, and White had the plan. They traded notes and together began to adjust the Neighborhood Alliance model.

White was struck by how many people Clark was reaching and moving. He saw the room full of people at "Put Down the Pistol" meetings. These people needed more than just job opportunities, he thought. And that's when he came up with the idea for the "resource quilt."

The resource quilt is a network of service agencies, with the Better Family Life building serving as the hub. Residents can come to Clark with any issue — "I'm pregnant" or "I'm hooked on crack" or "I need a lawyer" — and Clark can direct them to the person or organization willing to help. The idea is roughly based on the settlement houses of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where immigrants and poor people with few connections could go to a single trusted source for any need.

"All these people have different needs, and we can't meet them all," says White, "but what we do have is the most important thing, which is that they come and ask."

Over time, as Clark and White reached out to other organizations, the network grew. The physical manifestation of the resource quilt is on display behind all those folding chairs at 6017 Natural Bridge Avenue: tables covered with pamphlets for services, from Assisting Children of Prison Parents to Head Start, and business cards of lawyers and agency directors.

White saw something else in those packed meetings: an army of eager volunteers. They couldn't send outreach workers to knock on doors three times a week anymore, but they could saturate the neighborhoods every Saturday with dozens and dozens of converts to the movement, many of whom — reformed thugs like McClain and Robinson and Houston and Willingham — served as walking examples of the movement's power.

"You have to find people, local guys that have the ear of the least connected people, young people, the ones that are out on the street, that aren't getting the services," says White. "What inspired me about what James was doing was that he had those same guys that at one point were the targets of the outreach now becoming the instruments of the outreach. That's pretty critical. That you're able to get those guys who were doing that stuff to say, 'OK, I'm going to come in and go out and give testimony that the chances are that your life can get better if you come in and do this.'"


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38 comments
Alex3redromero
Alex3redromero

oh yeah! River Front Times, should have more articles like this every monthly issue and special reports..keep up the good work RFT

Alex Romero
Alex Romero

yeah I was told by a friend to read this compelling story of change in the st.louis area and community..it was worth my time thanks...keep up the good work of community outreach..hopefully this will and should catch on like wild fire

Martha
Martha

I am a student that transfered from L.A. valley community college to Saint louis University, i know that Los angeles has its problem with crime and poverty..but i believe like Dr. Norm White that our inner city neighborhoods need resources and more job readiness initiatives for the urban enviroment and people that see no hope...keep up the good work Dr. White and Clark...P.S. I pray that this project works and grow to every city west of the Arch until it reaches the gang capitol of the world Los Angeles and then the rest of America..

Margo Elrolas
Margo Elrolas

I really thought that this was a story that is very awsome because every inner city from new york to my home town of los angeles need a neighborhood alliance built from the gound up and not the top down to rebuild the united states inner city...good job mr,clark and better family life

Donte
Donte

Good Article...Like 2Pac said "they will see me in Hell before they see in Jail..peace in the streets

Luvator
Luvator

I really love how Mr. Clark and Mr. Bush always educate and inform young men every Saturday @ the BFL "put down the pistol" meetings..towards young black men Respecting women, even if they do not respect themselves.I heard them both say "a man is never violent or aggressive with women, a man is a father to his children, a man is a role model for all children. Also a good man respects the law, and knows this does not make him weak..I really agree that with a relationship with God a man is active in the building of his block and neighborhood. He sets an example, that others follow..We must teach this everyday to our boys and girls , to help them grow to become productive men and women in our community and families.we need basic morals and good personal ethicsand not AT RISK lil kids having lil kids,,babys raising babies...Keep up the Good Work BFL Outreach...Mr Bush and Mr clark

Luvatormarys
Luvatormarys

I really love how Mr. Clark and Mr. Bush always educate and inform young men every Saturday @ the BFL "put down the pistol" meetings..towards young black men Respecting women, even if they do not respect themselves.I heard them both say "a man is never violent or aggressive with women, a man is a father to his children, a man is a role model for all children. Also a good man respects the law, and knows this does not make him weak..I really agree that with a relationship with God a man is active in the building of his block and neighborhood. He sets an example, that others follow..We must teach this everyday to our boys and girls , to help them grow to become productive men and women in our community and families.we need basic morals and good personal ethicsand not AT RISK lil kids having lil kids,,babys raising babies...Keep up the Good Work BFL Outreach...Mr Bush and Mr clark

susieque2
susieque2

Talk to your kids like this when they're young: "One of the things you own from being born in the United States is a free education. You own it, it's yours.''Now if someone stole your lunch, your books, your Ipod, you'd be pssd. You'd be mad. You'd try to get even. You'd go looking for your stuff back. When you mess up your free education you're robbing yourself, and not even blinking about it. Even those kids on the street corner selling dope have to add and subtract, multiply and divide. The ones who can't are sort of slaves to ones who can.'When you say, 'No, I'm not gonna do well in school,' you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you say, 'No, I'm not going to college' you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you're a baby raising a baby, you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you get caught with dope or become and addict like (fill in a real person's name here) you're giving away freedom for the rest of your life.' 'You're robbing yourself, and you're not even smart enough to be mad about it."Then, go to the bars, the dope houses, the churches and tell everyone, "You can have a house for $1." because that's what the LRA sells 'em for. Home ownership is where the poor community falls down for generations. Look at 203k loans. Look at HUD's programs to invest in 'blighted' communities. There's money there and people can have work working on rehabbing houses. They can own their own homes.

Ebony
Ebony

I remember Mr. Clark from the1990's....he came to speak to us at the Juvenile Center.....he has been helping people for a long time.....

St. Louis is in trouble.....there is too much violence.....we need to stand UP!!!

Ben W
Ben W

It's awesome to read an uplifting story about St. Louis, and the work of these two men.

CityFred
CityFred

James Clark should run for Mayor.......He would get my vote!I hope the City gets behind this program....

Advent Gabriel Rall
Advent Gabriel Rall

We have ah modern Martin Luther King among us..let us not wait until this hits ah higher stage to support and help this movement grow and catch on fire in every hood in America..the writer of this RFT article Albert Samaha, did ah great job of describing the fire in this Vision of "Put down the Pistol"... also big shout out to the photo shooter Ms. Silverberg...and the BFL family peace Fam,cuz,shorty-mane

NoBS
NoBS

So James Clark claims he wants to clean up St.Louis neighborhoods? Why did he and his wife then abandon a home and leave it to foreclosure, not only ensuring its vacancy for months but also driving down property values due to the foreclosure. He could have at least attempted to sell the property instead of just becoming another deadbeat because it was more convenient for him. This is a role model and a neighborhood improver? Gimme a break.

Donte
Donte

yeah u sound like ah little grown as Dude

guest
guest

talk about missing the bigger picture

anton
anton

Nobody is perfect. Forelosing on a home does not make James Clark a deadbeat. He is still considered a great guy doing a good cause.Celebrities and athletes have foreclosed on their homes, too.To name a few, but popular ones: Michael Jackson on his Neverland was auctioned.Latrell Spreewell, Jose Canseco, Micahel Vick, as well.Good job, James Clark and Norman White!

Larryjohnson2
Larryjohnson2

NoBs, I agree that leaving a house was a bad thing to do. But, the man's car was shot up....his home was broken into, burgular alarm wire cut. His wife said, to him, "I do not feel safe". For me, I would have done the same thing......also...the house sold, and he is still active in that neighborhood.....

The young men that he works with pledged to stand guard at his home, morning, noon, and night.....he told them that would not last long. He appreciated their love and pledged support, but he moved for his family....yet, he continues to serve the neighborhood

 
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