All Politics Is Racial: The tiny north-county hamlet of Vinita Park puts a new spin on the old adage

All Politics Is Racial: The tiny north-county hamlet of Vinita Park puts a new spin on the old adage
Jennifer Silverberg

The first time JaCola Williams saw the mayor was when he drove his golf cart, the one with "City of Vinita Park" painted on the side, up her family's dead-end street. It was a steamy July day in 2010, and Williams, a pretty, slender teenager just a few days shy of her eighteenth birthday, was sitting in her pajamas on the porch with her younger sister, killing time. The girls watched curiously as the man in a suit stopped in front of their house.

"Anybody need a summer job?" he asked.

As it happened, Williams had been struggling to find work. Her mother was sick, she had a toddler of her own, and the family had moved into a relative's house on Monroe Avenue while they tried to get back on their feet. Now here was Mayor James McGee on the lawn, offering Williams a job at city hall. Within two months, she was on staff as the city's interim tax collector.

JaCola Williams believes she was fired for airing Vinita Park’s dirty laundry.
Jennifer Silverberg
JaCola Williams believes she was fired for airing Vinita Park’s dirty laundry.
Vinita Park’s mayor, James McGee.
Vinita Park’s mayor, James McGee.

"That's how I ended up trapped into Vinita Park," Williams sums up today.

This is what the mayor says he likes to do best: help people.

"If I can do anything to help people, that's what I do," says McGee, the first African American mayor of this tiny town (population 1,880) sandwiched between University City and Overland in north St. Louis County. "You get criticized for helping a lot of people," he adds, "because they feel like you looking for something."

Since taking office, McGee has kept tables in the Vinita Park Board of Aldermen's chamber stacked with free bread, English muffins, Bagel Thins, hamburger buns. He keeps full-size bags of potato chips in his office so he can hand them out to kids as he cruises the streets in his golf cart. When he heard some children in town had to sleep on the floor because their families couldn't afford beds, he wrangled mattresses from local hotels and merchants and sent employees from the department of public works to deliver them.

At a recent board of aldermen meeting, McGee presented a certificate of commendation to an older couple who'd helped catch a burglar and another to a boy who played Buster in Normandy High School's production of The Color Purple.

"Just looking at that," McGee said, smiling down at the young man from the dais, "you thought that was a professional player. Fantastic job!" The roughly twenty residents in attendance clapped and hooted.

When it came time for the "mayor's report," however, the festive air vanished from the small, wood-paneled room.

"I've been getting a lot of threatening letters," McGee glowered. "I been getting them since 2010. But like I said before: If somebody pop at me, you're going to lose your power. You're going to get your lead right back. And I mean that."

Though it wasn't clear whom he was addressing, one thing was plain as day: Not all is well in Vinita Park. A cloud of conspiracy hangs over its civic-minded citizens. They've cleaved themselves into two factions — those who support the mayor and those who do not.

"It's a shame. You don't know who is working for who," says one long-time resident who declined to have her name published. "We didn't have this until he became mayor."

For the past three years, mutterings and misgivings about Mayor McGee were confined within the town's borders, but as he enters the homestretch of his four-year term, the trouble in Vinita Park has oozed out into the open.

The consequences of Vinita Park's fraught race relations are costing the town more than goodwill. Earlier this year city attorneys approved a settlement for hundreds of thousands of dollars to five former white police officers who claim they were fired so African Americans could fill their positions. The former chief of police and director of public works, both white, have sued, leveling similar allegations. A sixth white former officer sued earlier this month.

The mayor continues to assert that his motives have been misinterpreted and that his only intention is to improve the lives of the citizens of Vinita Park.

"They're just trying to destroy the administration, by me being the first black mayor," McGee says. "A lot of people really can't see the big picture. We have to help each other."

A bird's-eye view of Vinita Park depicts a city of industry: Warehouses brick up the west side, built by Vi-Jon (maker of Germ-X hand sanitizer), US Foods and pesticide manufacturer United Industries. Trees and dead-end streets isolate the residential district from the sounds and sights of the bustling factories. Thanks to some prescient city planner, no road traverses the residential area from east to west, leaving the rows of cute two- and three-bedroom houses in relative peace. The industrial park, meanwhile, accounts for the lion's share of the revenue that feeds the Vinita Park's $3.6 million annual budget.

"If we didn't have that, we wouldn't have anything," says Ward 1 alderman Brian Gremaud.

The city gets its name from Vinita Station, a trolley stop on the Creve Coeur Lake Electric Line. In the early 1900s, developers could purchase a plot for just $25 down. St. Rita Catholic Church was established in 1914, and its primary school opened under the watchful eyes of the Sisters of St. Joseph, quickly becoming the anchor of the community.

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