The Kings of Kingshighway

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

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?

"The question is: Can the private sector, banks and private developers, local residents and the city work to bring an entire neighborhood back together comprehensively -- not just tearing down a building here and there?" Steve Roberts asks. "We have to expand the horizon. If we don't do this, if we don't encourage people to open their perspectives, then frankly, it may never get done."

The north St. Louis boyhood home of Mike and Steve Roberts still stands at 4641 Vernon Avenue, a red-brick two-story flat with burglar bars on its front door. Trash collects on the vacant lot across the street from the rental home and junk cars fill a neighbor's backyard.

From the beginning, the brothers were close, devoted to and protective of each other. Steve remembers sitting on a rocking horse inside their living room when he was three years old. Six-year-old Mike sensed something was wrong and pushed his little brother off and out of harm's way, just as the heavy plaster ceiling caved in. "I've been saving him ever since," Mike jokes.

When Steve smiles, which he does often, laugh lines form around his brown eyes and his face looks young, even though his hairline is retreating. His complexion is cinnamon, his build slim. He and Mike both stand six-foot-one, but Mike has broad shoulders, lighter skin, emerald-green eyes and a graceful white streak that parts his black hair on the right.

"When you look at pictures of the kids in my grandmother's side of the family, they are every size, shape and color of the spectrum," Steve says, explaining that his mother's ancestors were African, American Indian and white.

Just three months ago, on a business trip to Mississippi, the Roberts brothers learned that their father's grandfather was Wright Roberts, the son of an African woman and a white plantation owner. It seems that Wright inherited land from his white father and established a prominent family farm near West Point, Mississippi. He also was able to send his son, Squire Victor Roberts, to medical school. That son later moved to St. Louis during the 1920s, where he worked as a physician in the African-American neighborhood near Market and Jefferson.

In 1922 Dr. Roberts' son, Victor, was born in the Ville, a thriving African-American neighborhood northeast of Martin Luther King and Taylor. "We had doctors, lawyers, grocery stores, cleaners, taxi cabs," remembers 81-year-old Victor Roberts. "We couldn't go to Grand Avenue, to the movies or restaurants, but we had all that in our neighborhood -- bowling, dance halls, the YMCA. Everybody worked together and lived next to each other -- janitors and teachers and doctors."

After his father died, Victor went to work for the U.S. Postal Service before joining the 92nd Infantry Division, one of only two African-American infantry units in World War II. When he returned from Europe, he married Delores Talley, whose family had migrated to St. Louis from the Missouri boot heel.

"We were pretty much sheltered as a middle-class African-American family," Mike explains. "We were taught traditional work habits and values. We were altar boys in the Episcopal Church."

Delores made sure her children were exposed to the arts and cultural activities. Steve remembers being dragged out of bed on Saturday mornings to take science classes at Oak Knoll Park in Clayton and trying out for a play in the dead of winter at the American Theatre. "We were never bored," Mike says, "because Mom would always have some interesting project for us to do."

The Roberts family lived with Victor's mother in the two-family home on Vernon until their third son, Mark, was born in 1958. They then moved to a new, segregated neighborhood of fourteen ranch-style houses that had just been built northeast of Natural Bridge Road and North Kingshighway. Everyone who lived in the houses surrounding the new subdivision was white.

"That's the first time I knew I was even black," Steve recalls. "One time I was playing baseball with these kids who were white. We were in my backyard and there was this big redneck-looking guy who came out of this four-family flat behind our home.

"He comes out and grabs his son and says, 'You can't play with him because he's a nigger.' I didn't even know what a nigger was at six years old."

Steve went inside and asked his mom. "She told me how when she was a kid, she and her friends would go to the Fox Theatre with her sister, who was darker, and she couldn't get in. But my mom was fair-complected, so she would beat the system by sneaking in without them knowing. This was the first time I realized that there was a discrepancy in the way citizens of this country were treated."

As more middle-class black families moved to the tidy new neighborhood, whites began moving out. "They block-busted the place," Mike explains. "The realtors courted white people, saying, 'You have black people in the neighborhood, your prices are going to go down.'

"And as a result, they ran at cheap prices and these Realtors would pick up the properties and turn around and sell them to black families for a lot more than they paid for them."

Like Victor and Delores Roberts, many middle-class black families stayed in the well-to-do neighborhoods of north St. Louis. But over the years, plenty of others moved to the suburbs, just as whites did in the 1960s.

Many feel the black middle-class migration was due largely to a misguided development plan dubbed the Team 4 Report, a city-sponsored consultant's study that advocated withholding city services from mostly African-American and low-income neighborhoods. The idea was to make living conditions so bad that black people would eventually move from the city.

On a summer morning in 1976, Mike and Steve Roberts were in New York City attending the Democratic National Convention as delegates from Missouri. Mike, who was Jimmy Carter's campaign manager in St. Louis, had recently become the first African American admitted to the Missouri Athletic Club, the swank downtown haunt of high-rolling attorneys. So when the Roberts brothers went to New York, they chose to stay at the nation's oldest and best Athletic Club.

Steve recalls going downstairs to the club's laundry to pick up his and Mike's shirts. The manager told him, "You make sure you go deliver them to these people directly. Don't lollygag or anything." Steve explained to the manager that the shirts were for himself and his brother, who was a member. "I don't believe you," Steve recalls the man saying.

He took the shirts and left. "Of course, we reported it later," he says. "Anytime we would get challenges like that, we'd bring it to the attention of the leadership of the organizations so it wouldn't happen again."

By then Mike was working as a lawyer on anti-discrimination cases with Margaret Bush Wilson, one of the first female African-American attorneys in Missouri and, at the time, the chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mike graduated from Northwest High School, St. Louis' first desegregated high school, in 1967, then went to Forest Park Community College where he met Virvus Jones. There the two young activists mourned the death of Martin Luther King Jr., marched against the Vietnam War, formed the Black Student Association and fought to bring black-studies programs to colleges. Later, they worked together in HOME (Help Other Men Emerge), a civil-rights organization that preached economic empowerment for black men.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mike graduated from law school at Saint Louis University in 1974 with the help of a grant from the Danforth Foundation and money he earned selling dashikis. Steve attended Clark College in Massachusetts and law school at Washington University as a Danforth scholar.

Fresh out of law school, the brothers launched a consulting firm that over the years has spearheaded increased minority participation in multimillion-dollar capital construction projects for Anheuser-Busch, Dulles and National airports in Washington, D.C., and Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

In 1974 Mike talked his dad into getting a $7,000 loan from the post office credit union to buy a house. He lived in it while he fixed it up, then resold it for a profit and started buying more properties.

He also flung himself into politics. In 1977, at the age of 26, Mike became the youngest person ever elected to the city's board of aldermen -- that is, until Steve was elected two years later at age 25.

As part of the Black Aldermanic Caucus in the early 1980s, Steve and Mike Roberts, Wayman Smith, Mike Jones and Virvus Jones wrote legislation that required contractors on city-funded projects to hire minority- and women-owned businesses. "Some of the large contractors certainly felt that was radical, that it was un-American, socialist," Steve remembers.

The Robertses also met the city's most powerful developers and learned how to use incentives such as tax-increment financing and tax abatements to lure investors. Steve sponsored redevelopment legislation for Union Station, St. Louis Center and Laclede's Landing.

"Had I not been on the board of aldermen, I would have never met these folks," Steve explains. "I didn't run in their social cadre. I didn't attend their country clubs."

It dismayed some members of the black community, however, when Steve in 1994 joined the board of the Veiled Prophet Fair at the urging of the late businessman Bill Maritz. Though the organization was integrated in 1979 and has since changed its name to Fair St. Louis, many blacks remember it for what it was: an all-white, all-male society of the super-rich. "Being inside an organization, you can influence change," Steve says of his decision to join.

Mike and Steve concede they've been criticized for "not being black enough." But the notion that light-skinned blacks faced less racism and received greater opportunities is "slave mentality," says Mike.

In January 1989, after a decade as an alderman, Mike Roberts decided to challenge incumbent Mayor Vincent Schoemehl Jr. for the party's Democratic nomination. He narrowly lost the race, in part because former U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay Sr., the era's most powerful African-American politician, supported Schoemehl, who is white. The mayor had agreed to appoint Virvus Jones to the comptroller's job in exchange for Clay's nod.

In 1993, when Steve made his mayoral bid, Clay shunned him as well and threw his support to Freeman Bosley Jr. Steve lost in a landslide to Bosley, who became St. Louis' first black mayor.

"Generally, we didn't get Clay's support because we came up through different channels," Mike explains. "There were certain African-American political heads that had control over wards -- Jet Banks and Jordan W. Chambers, which I belonged to. Steve was involved with Leroy Tyus, a very strong political powerhouse. Of course, Clay was one too.

"A lot of these guys, they only wanted someone developed out of their own political backyard," Mike goes on. "That's a narrow-minded approach to creating a level of political empowerment for African Americans."

On the first floor of the Victor Roberts Building, an armed security guard stands at a kiosk. A sign above directs patrons to a beauty-supply store, a cell phone outlet, a check-cashing business, a dentist's office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Women, Infants and Children program on the second floor.

At a Nation of Islam store, Louis Farrakhan is on television preaching about the "policies of the dragon" in Iraq. Theodore Muhammad says customers stop in to buy newspapers, books and tapes. The smell of fried catfish and hamburgers wafts down the hall from a newly opened grill.

Sue Zambrzuski sits behind a glass display case filled with gold chains and diamond rings at K's Jewelry. She says many of her customers live in the surrounding neighborhoods and walk to this urban mall because they don't have cars. She figures 100 percent of the shoppers are African Americans.

The white people -- architects, politicians, contractors and construction workers -- who visit immediately head for the Robertses' corporate offices on the third floor, a vastly different world from the mall below.

On a recent morning, Mike Roberts opens the glazed glass double doors and strolls into his cavernous office. An intricately carved oak pool table stands in the middle of the room, surrounded by walls draped with original Native American art and exquisite wood carvings of African warriors and women with their babies.

"We're doing pretty good down here in the 'hood," he quips.

The Roberts brothers' businesses started gaining momentum in the late 1980s when the Federal Communications Commission granted their first UHF-TV license. Mike convinced the Home Shopping Network to loan them $3.8 million to build a studio on the third floor of the Victor Roberts Building. Since then they've bought and sold stations throughout the southwest and the south. Last year they ditched the Home Shopping Network for UPN, which targets a young, urban audience with a lineup of new and recycled black sitcoms.

But their greatest triumph came in 2001, when the brothers struck gold in the wireless phone market. Mike convinced Sprint that his company could build a PCS network throughout Missouri and the rural Midwest. Needing $95 million to build the network, they put the entire company on the block as collateral and managed to get a loan from Lucent, a network-equipment manufacturer that wanted to break into the Midwest.

The gamble paid off. In six months of nonstop work, the Robertses built the network, then flipped it to a Sprint affiliate for $400 million in cash and stock.

"In politics, you don't have the reward of seeing the final product," Mike explains. "Being in business is like having my own laboratory. I get more out of being able to create real jobs for people."

Mike reclines on a tan leather chair that faces a gas-burning fireplace. On the mantel above -- just below the flat-screen TV -- sit two replicas of Mike and Steve's private jets, one of which they bought from actor Jim Carrey. They invested in the aircraft as a tax shelter and now rent them to business executives and anyone else who can afford the $3,600 hourly fee.

Mike usually flies out of Lambert rather than using the planes himself. His calendar is booked with speaking engagements around the nation -- celebrity events like the NAACP's Image Awards in Los Angeles and real-estate scouting expeditions throughout the United States and the Bahamas with Steve. He and his wife, Jeanne, also frequently visit Malibu, California, where their four children attend Pepperdine University.

In Steve's equally spacious office, about 50 photos of his wife, Dr. Eva Frazer, and their three children (ages ten, fourteen and sixteen) adorn his walls and ultramodern desk. Before choosing to stay home with the kids, Frazer worked as an internist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Nowadays she serves on Saint Louis University's board of directors and tag-teams with Steve on chauffeuring their kids to baseball practices, play rehearsals and parties.

When Mike and Steve are both in the office, they usually scarf lunch from the Saint Louis Bread Co. between constant cell phone calls and a packed schedule of appointments. But they never seem hurried. "I get here at nine o' clock and every day is a sprint to keep up," says Jerry Altman, chief counsel for the Roberts Companies.

Jazz music pours out of the office Victor Roberts, the companies' chief financial officer, shares with his daughter, Lori. Mike gives his dad a wave as he strolls down the hall to the conference room, where a team of architects from the Lawrence Group are sitting around an enormous marble table. Everyone jumps up to shake his hand.

The architects are here to brief the brothers on several projects in north St. Louis. "We're playing Monopoly these days," Mike says. They just purchased the vacant Enright School, located northwest of Union and Delmar, from the St. Louis Board of Education for $1 million. They plan to spend $15 million converting the structure, designed by the St. Louis firm of Mauran, Russell & Garden, to upscale apartments and to build at least twenty new houses around it. [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

"A lot of baby boomers grew up in this neighborhood," Mike says, noting that new homes are being built to the west and that older houses to the south are large and tidy. "Maybe they will be interested in moving back."

Mike and Virvus Jones, now a vice president in the Robertses' real estate firm, kick around the idea of building a nine-hole, par-three golf course at nearby Visitation Park. Mike is wearing black slacks and a bright blue-and-white striped shirt highlighted by cuff links. His diamond pinkie rink sparkles under the soft lights above.

Steve answers his cell phone as the architects pore over drawings for Roberts Commons. What they envision are 110 residential units and 40,000 square feet of retail space to sprout on the southeast corner of Euclid and Delmar. A condo project -- priced from $175,000 to $225,000 -- is also in the making on the south side of Washington, just east of Kingshighway.

"Alderman [Terry] Kennedy has written the letter to start a blighting study," Mike tells the men gathered in the room. If the city decides the area around Euclid and Delmar is blighted, the development will be eligible for tax abatement. The Robertses have met with Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, and Rollin Stanley, the city's Urban Agency Design director, to discuss their plans for the area. Eventually they would like the city to approve a tax-increment financing arrangement to pay for infrastructure improvements and possibly a transportation district, which could finance sidewalk and park upgrades.

"All of the infrastructure is here -- the sewer, the streets, the water, the parks," Steve says. "But it's been completely ignored by the city government."

The biggest challenge, however, will be convincing people to cross the "mental demarcation line at Washington," explains Virvus Jones. "The problem is getting people to migrate closer to Delmar. These are mental issues, so you have to do something spectacular."

Building a residential and retail complex with parking at the corner of Euclid and Delmar will "complete the block," reasons Jerry Altman, a company vice president. "It will cause people to feel more comfortable."

The Roberts brothers already own a substantial portion of the property along Kingshighway between Delmar and Martin Luther King, including buildings that house Schnucks, Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video. Ultimately, the Robertses would like to reopen the Mercedes Club, which they own at 4915 Delmar, and create an even greater impetus for people to move north to the Fountain Park neighborhood, located two blocks from the Central West End.

At the center of the historic neighborhood are a beautiful, multitiered fountain and an eleven-foot bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. Most of the huge homes surrounding the park are well-kept, but the surrounding area, like much of north St. Louis, is a hodgepodge of multi- and single-family homes that are either in need of repair or boarded up.

"The Central West End is two minutes from here. But it's twenty years away, from a psychological point of view," Steve says.

Missouri State Senator Patrick Dougherty is standing on a box, pounding his fist on the bar at King Louie's restaurant on Chouteau. "We've got a chance this year to take back the senate!" he shouts. "That's why you're here. That's why you are supporting the Democratic Party!"

Victory cries ring out and Steve Roberts smiles. Even though he and Mike no longer serve in public office, they are still players because of their financial contributions to local, state and national campaigns. This February happy hour, devoted to raising funds for state Democratic senate candidates, is being partially financed by the Robertses.

In 1999 Mike formed the Black PAC, a political action committee devoted to the "silver rights movement," which he says will create economic opportunities for African Americans. "We found there was a dearth of leadership, particularly in the African-American community, because many who had been there for many years were retiring or passing away, and we needed to encourage bright, committed, honest, credible people to run for office, not just folks who are part of a political organization," Steve explains.

The Robertses and the Black PAC have raised thousands for Mayor Slay, Governor Bob Holden, Senator John Kerry and Al Sharpton, plus scores of candidates for state, local and federal office. Mike was onstage with Kerry as he wowed voters at Forest Park Community College before Missouri's February 3 Democratic primary. He also hosted a fundraiser at his home for Sharpton because he believes the fringe candidate keeps civil-rights and economic-equality issues on the radar.

Not all of the candidates the Roberts brothers support are as popular as Sharpton in the black community. Mayor Slay has been lambasted for his efforts to reform St. Louis public schools by helping to elect a slate of four candidates to take over the school board's majority.

"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.

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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