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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