Valley Park to Mexican immigrants: "Adios, illegals!"

A small-town mayor's plan creates one big controversy.

Feb 28, 2007 at 4:00 am
Whenever Valley Park Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker begins thinking about illegal immigration — something he does quite often — his mind fills with unpleasant visions of Mexicans pouring into town.

"My main issue is overcrowding," says Whitteaker, a boisterous good old boy who admires Bill Clinton ("He's so good he could sell a blind man a pair of sunglasses") and drives a truck for a local excavation company. "You got one guy and his wife that settle down here, have a couple kids, and before long you have Cousin Puerto Rico and Taco Whoever moving in. They say it's their cousins, but I don't really think they're all related. You see fifteen cars in front of one house — that's pretty suspicious."

It's a Friday afternoon in February, and Whitteaker is enjoying a lunch of hamburger pizza and Bud Light at JJ Twigs Pizza & Pub in Valley Park, a predominantly white enclave twenty miles southwest of St. Louis. It's too cold to tackle his day-job chores, so instead the 47-year-old Democrat attends to municipal business or, as he likes to put it, "fathering the city."

Ridding Valley Park of illegal immigrants — especially of the Hispanic variety — has been Whitteaker's largest endeavor. Last July the mayor orchestrated the Valley Park Board of Aldermen's unanimous passage of a controversial ordinance declaring that "illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, and destroys our neighborhoods, and diminishes our overall quality of life."

Without debate, questions or research, the all-white, all-male board ceded to Whitteaker's demand to make English the city's official language. No one showed up to protest.

The measure also imposes $500 fines on landlords and employers who dare to rent homes or offer jobs to illegal immigrants — all of this, despite the fact that barely 2 percent of Valley Park's 6,518 residents are Hispanic. Moreover, there's no evidence that the city's immigrant population is growing. At the same time, crime rates are at an all-time low, and school officials haven't a clue what prompted claims of overcrowding.

In any case, adopting the ordinance "seemed like a no-brainer" to Alderman Mike White, who raises laboratory mice for the Washington University School of Medicine.

Still, it caught most residents by surprise.

"I was kind of miffed at Jeff that he didn't call me before doing this," reports Ed Sidwell, a Valley Park landlord.

People like 42-year-old Carla Peeler and her boyfriend, a retired trucker named Lionel Hall, were thrilled by Whitteaker's maneuver. They claim "at least eighteen" Mexicans lived in the house behind theirs and, according to Peeler, were always outside "playing loud music, drinking beer, being obnoxious — yelling stuff, talking Spanish, where you couldn't understand them and shit."

"I like the mayor for what he did," says Hall. "He put these people in line."

Other longtime residents were appalled, saying the measure has badly divided the community. Says Karen Ford: "I think it was an absolute embarrassment."

"A resolution to Congress would have made a lot more sense," complains Martha Rodriguez, a retired nurse who hopes to become the city's first Hispanic alderman.

The morning after the mayor signed the new law, a geyser of e-mails, letters and voicemails from across the nation — 700 and counting, by Whitteaker's current calculation — began flooding in.

"Soy un vida mexicano en Valley Park," wrote a man named Señor Bold. "Digo cogida el alcalde-carbone [sic] estupido. Si ese asshole quisiera que pagara impuestos, utilizaré la forma espanola." ("I am a Mexican guy in Valley Park. I say fuck the stupid-jerk mayor. If this asshole wants me to pay taxes, I'll use the Spanish form.")

After finishing his pizza, the mayor relishes the chance to respond to some of the surly correspondence.

"Mr. mayor your full of crap and you know it," writes one Ray Guzman, "and I assure you that as an American-born Mexican I will never come thru your city or state, my money is good everywhere but your not worthy."

Sniffs Whitteaker: "I'd like to send him a thank-you note — don't come in. We'll survive without his money."

"I wonder what Jesus would think about Valley Park's latest law that verges on discrimination of Hispanics?" asks Deborah Conley.

"I wish I knew" is the mayor's flippant reply. "I would think he'd send me a sign or something."

"My fiancée and I own a $280,000 home in Valley Park and have the nicest yard in the city," writes Lance Manion. "We had always planned to move out of Valley Park by the time our unborn children reached school age, but thanks to you, we put our house on the market this morning..... Thanks for decreasing my property value, because the trailer trash will want to move in there now....."

Whitteaker: "Is he talking about Hispanics?"

"At least have the balls to say why you really don't want undocumented immigrants," goads Sean Bryant.

"Hmm," Whitteaker muses.

Other critics accuse the first-term mayor and twelve-year alderman of blatant racism, to which he responds, "If I'm a racist-pig-Mexican-hater, how do I keep getting elected? Why is the state of Missouri preparing an ordinance similar to ours? Why did George Bush on national television put a plus on crackdowns, too?"

And then there's the laudatory comment from Matt Lindgren, of Fort Worth, Texas: "Thank you mayor Whitteaker for your stand against illegal immigration. I salute your courage and your intestinal fortitude."

Whitteaker laughs and bellows, "He's talking about cojones!"

He quickly adds: "You better put 'nuts' in parentheses after that one."

The ink was hardly dry on the ordinance when some residents, quite pleased with the new law, began making anonymous calls to the St. Louis County Police Department, asking them to investigate certain homes for illegals. Officers responded by knocking on a handful of doors — sometimes late at night — and asking Hispanics to furnish proof of legal residency in the United States.

Dozens of Mexicans subsequently fled their homes, just as reporters and cameramen from NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and ABC's Nightline came to chronicle the discord.

The national coverage generated still more mail, much of it supportive.

"CONGRADULATIONS!!!!!!!" exclaimed Jill Willier of Des Peres. "Great National Broadcast!! You make ST. Louis PROUD, Thanks, neighbor!!!"

Whitteaker was beside himself. "I've made so many new friends on this issue!"

Stephanie Reynolds, meanwhile, seethed. A lifelong resident of Valley Park, owner of the Valley Deli, and landlord to numerous Hispanics, Reynolds sums up her thoughts on the law with one word: "Bullshit."

"How am I supposed to know the status of my tenants? It's not my place to ask. It's discrimination," she fumes. "My dad [a former alderman] warned me. He said, 'Stephanie, you shouldn't fight city hall. You really shouldn't. You can't fight 'em.

"Well, hell no, I can't! I said, 'Watch me.'"

On September 22 Reynolds and two non-resident landlords filed suit against Whitteaker and the city of Valley Park in St. Louis County Circuit Court, calling the ordinance unconstitutional, a violation of fair-housing laws and enforceable only through racial profiling. Three days later a judge issued a restraining order, preventing any landlord or business from being cited.

Still, Valley Park officials tried to get around the injunction by passing two new versions of the ordinance and placing the city's building inspector — rather than police — in charge of enforcing it. The most recent measure, approved unanimously on February 5, requires landlords to provide a family tree and citizenship status for all their tenants.

"I'm proud of the board of aldermen for passing these ordinances," Whitteaker said moments before the lawmakers voted. "I wish them good luck with the future." As the mayor's sister, city clerk Marguerite Wilburn, began to read the roll-call, Whitteaker flashed his characteristic ear-to-ear grin to a row of television cameras.

The board of aldermen are fighting the lawsuit and recently hired Jim Gwinner, a GOP fundraiser and Valley Park resident, to raise several hundred thousand dollars for the city's legal defense.

When Reynolds v. Valley Park goes to trial March 1 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, Linda Martínez, a lawyer with the Bryan Cave firm in St. Louis, will be squaring off against Kris Kobach, a maverick Kansas City attorney and favorite right-wing pundit of FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor.

City attorneys warned Whitteaker not to discuss the case with Riverfront Times, for fear that he might use ethnic slurs. "Oh, they don't want me to say something that could be helpful to the other side," the mayor explains.

Such as?

"Oh, you know, like 'wetbacks' or 'beaners' or something."

Whitteaker says the idea for the law came to him one morning last summer while listening to a radio-show interview with the mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, whose similar ordinance is the subject of an ongoing legal skirmish.

"The problems they had in Hazleton, I seen the same thing here, just on a smaller scale," Whitteaker explains, citing public urination and driving without insurance. He dodges repeated requests for specific evidence as to how undocumented Mexicans have "destroyed" Valley Park, stressing only that the ordinance pertains to people of all ethnicities.

"The key word," he maintains, "is 'illegal.' Why doesn't anybody get that?"

While motoring one late-January night past apartments rented to numerous Mexican workers, Whitteaker noted the location as one of the town's problem areas. Some of its residents, he says, were seen "doing outside drinking, urinating against the walls, hootin' and hollerin' at women."

The building belongs to Ray Thompson, proprietor of Ray's Tree Service, who hires some 30 Mexicans every year through a federal program. The neighborhood hasn't taken to them, Thompson says, citing the anonymous calls he's fielded over the past few years from people saying things like, "Get those fucking spics outta here!"

With a shrug and a sigh, Thompson adds: "There's a lot of prejudice in this town. I rented to a white gal once. She was married to a black man. I had calls on that, things like, 'Why are you renting to that nigger?' They ended up leaving. They couldn't take it anymore."

Whitteaker never expected the ordinance would "put Valley Park on the map," but now that it has, he clearly enjoys the high-fives from local bar patrons and inquiries from area legislators — most recently in St. Charles County — also interested in proposing similar legislation.

The mayor got yet another boost when a bipartisan bill meant to crack down on illegal immigration in Missouri was introduced last month by state senators Chris Koster, a Harrisonville Republican, and Tim Green, a St. Louis Democrat.

"I think we've started a little trend," Whitteaker says with a giggle.

Be careful what you say about somebody, because chances are the person you say it about, and to, are probably related," goes one saying in Valley Park. "You can have a secret," warns another adage, "or you can live in Valley Park."

A clannish little place, Valley Park residents identify themselves as "third-," "fourth-," even "fifth-generation." The town retains its own school district, having fought to save it from a merger with the Rockwood system in the 1980s. Until recently, all high school students had to take a Valley Park history course to graduate.

Rob Voss, originally from Kirkwood, can attest to Valley Park's cloistered culture. The convivial small-engine repairman, who lives and owns a business in town, says, "I've been here eleven years, and I'm still an outsider."

Or as Charlie Ford, a former municipal judge, puts it: "I'm never leaving. I told [my wife] I already have a spot picked out for her to bury me in the basement."

Valley Park began as a hamlet of 300 citizens. It burst to life in 1901 when the St. Louis Plate Glass Company built a factory on twenty acres abutting the Meramec River. The factory's immigrant labor, according to one historical account, came from all over Europe "in such numbers that no housing was available, and they lived in tents on Marshall Road."

The town soon became a recreational mecca, its shoreline teeming with weekend homes belonging to the well-to-do patrons of the Paddle & Saddle Club. Just fifteen years later, however, a flood and subsequent fire demolished most of the glass factory, putting hundreds out of work and ending Valley Park's short-lived heyday. (The ruins of the factory were only razed in 2002, after a resident raped and murdered his six-year-old neighbor on the wooded premises.)

Valley Park later welcomed varnish, cotton and concrete plants, and with them the town acquired a rough-and-tumble reputation. It became known as a haven for motorcycle gangs, the capital of bar-fights and the home of Jimmy Huskison's Madhouse of Fun, a must-see 1940s watering hole notorious for its "wired" stools that shocked patrons when the bartender flipped a switch.

With a precarious perch a dozen feet above the Meramec, Valley Park has been washed over a dozen or so times in the past century. In 1982 and again in 1993, the fiercest floods uprooted many dwellings in the oldest part of town, the Lower End, forcing out many of Valley Park's most faithful. Other citizens, remarkably, were too proud to give up on their motherland.

"I remember people were coming in to see Dubman (a furniture seller) with wads of money as big as my fist, begging him to sell them stuff," says 80-year-old Glenn Moon, recalling the days following the 1982 flood. "This furniture, this stuff, it had been under water. It was drenched! And there they were, shaking their wads of money. They wouldn't go away."

The Valley Park of today is the place to rent karaoke equipment, browse the exotic bird shop or visit the Whittle Shortline Railroad toy-train factory. A 53-year-old family-owned restaurant called Young's is said to serve up the tastiest fried chicken in all of St. Louis County. On Sundays there's the "meat shoot" at American Legion Post 439, where men of all ages, and the occasional gal, aim their twelve-gauge shotguns at tiny targets in a competition to bring home a twelve-pound package of pork steaks.

No longer a blue-collar backwater, Valley Park is in the midst of a socioeconomic makeover. "We've developed a pretty large — I don't know what the politically correct term is — but Asian contingent: Japanese, Chinese, Korean," explains Alderman White. "And we have a large Indian and Pakistani contingent, too. They're all out walking the streets. They're all nice, and you can talk to them."

Well beyond the river's reach, on a hill overlooking city hall, the Tea Room in the Valley caters to a west-county ladies-who-lunch crowd. To the north, a strip mall with a Starbucks and a nail salon watches over the building boom transpiring at the Dougherty Ferry and Big Bend intersection.

And, at long last, a 100-year, $50-million levy protects the Lower End, the old flood plain, home to contractors and assembly-line workers of nearby Daimler-Chrysler. For decades federal law had prohibited new construction in this 200-acre area, a motley collection of old homes mingling with smoke-spitting factories.

By day a tour of the area reveals a neighborhood obsession with lawn ornaments. At night the stench of nail-polish remover emanating from the Reichhold chemical company saturates the air.

City officials now hope to see big-box retail and condos replace these relics of the Lower End's characteristic grit. "I think the backwater stigma is just about gone," boasts Mayor Whitteaker. "I think Valley Park is one of the last places in west county that has developable land. It's the prime piece of property that people will be fighting for."

Stephanie Reynolds vividly remembers her friend, Florence Streeter, and the puzzled look she flashed when the immigration law passed on July 17. "Florence whispered to me: 'Hmm, I wonder what that's all about?' I said, 'Florence, I'll tell you what that is. That's them fixing our asses.'"

Reynolds is one of the largest landlords in the Lower End, with 28 properties in her portfolio plus the Valley Deli mini-mart. The immigration ordinance, she says, has been bad for business.

For one thing, it has cost her tenants. And, adds Reynolds, ever since she filed her lawsuit against the city, longtime deli patrons — people like Mike Sweet, who ate breakfast and shopped at the mini-mart every day for ten years — have disappeared.

"I love the food," Sweet says, "but I can't stand the politics."

Reynolds is 36 and a fourth-generation Valley Park resident. The youngest of nine children, she grew up in a big two-story home across the street from her present Lower End dwelling. A former heavy-equipment operator for various St. Louis contractors, she does her own handy-work — roofing, plumbing, dry wall — and spends weekends on her Warrenton farm cooking up venison and chasing coyotes.

She's long been known as the town gossip. As Ray Thompson, the tree-service owner puts it: "Stephanie's got more nerve than anyone."

Since the ordinance passed, Reynolds has taken on the role of city watchdog. Her office contains boxes overflowing with copies of city documents. In the birdfeeder overlooking the city-hall parking lot, she keeps a camera at the ready to videotape comings and goings of city employees. "I see a lot," she says coyly.

She refers to the aldermen and the mayor as "a band of rebels" who are up to no good.

The ordinance, Reynolds claims, was a vendetta — Whitteaker's way of "fixing her ass" for botching a massive real estate deal in the Lower End. It was a redevelopment project that would have remade the entire 200-acre area. Sansone Group, the St. Louis-based developer, was the marquee outfit city officials had in mind when they set the plan in motion several years ago.

Reynolds thought the project was deeply flawed. "They don't care about family businesses," she says. "All they wanted were Moto-marts and QuikTrips."

Reynolds and fellow landlord Florence Streeter, along with a dozen other residents, formed the Old Town Neighborhood Association to leverage their bargaining power and avoid having their property taken by eminent domain. Their efforts paid off. On July 14, 2006 — three days before Whitteaker's ordinance was enacted — Sansone abruptly backed out of the venture.

"I want you to notice the dates," stresses Martha Rodriguez, the Hispanic aldermanic candidate. "The board realized that the same people who wouldn't sell their homes rented to Hispanics and hired Hispanics, so they passed an ordinance and scared the Hispanics all off — not because they were doing anything wrong. The aldermen passed it just to get back at the people who didn't want the redevelopment."

Says Reynolds, "The mayor told me, 'Since the redevelopment fell through, we're going to clean up this town.' They cited me and Florence for code violations — but clean the town of Hispanics is what he meant."

The mayor laughs off Reynolds' accusations and claims she's spreading lies about his personal life. Last month he pulled her aside in the parking lot after the board meeting and wagged his finger in her face. "Quit telling people I'm getting blowjobs in my office!" he scolded her. "I hear you're telling that to everybody that comes in the deli!"

The pissing match between Whitteaker and Reynolds has folks like Ed Sidwell worried about the unwelcome attention the ordinance has brought to Valley Park. Still, the former Valley Park cop, who fancies himself the Lower End's elder statesman, reluctantly endorses the law.

"I just wish there'd been a more compassionate way to go about it," he says, suggesting that the city could have hired a Spanish-speaking liaison to help those who desired to become U.S. citizens.

"I'd rather see a hangman about to yank on the pulley with terror in his eye," adds Sidwell, "than I would a smile on his face — which is what we have here when it comes to this ordinance."

Whitteaker is only first-generation Valley Park, but he's spent all his life here. He met his wife, also from Valley Park, over a CB radio and married her when they were seventeen and fifteen, respectively. "Shotgun wedding," he says over beers at Fandango's.

The father of four girls, Whitteaker had plenty to keep him busy when he first ran for alderman in the early 1990s. He got into politics, in part, because that's what the elder gentlemen he grew up around always did.

"My dad was on the planning and zoning board, and then ran for alderman and lost by three votes. What's funny is the guy that beat my dad was the guy I ran against for alderman years later — and beat. Ha!"

Operating on a full tank of hubris, Whitteaker drives a one-ton Dodge diesel pickup and a red 2002 Corvette. There's a swagger to his step and a hungry timbre rolling off his tongue. He repeatedly tells a reporter she's "one good-lookin' blonde."

In the middle of a conversation he sets down his beer and, apropos of nothing, quips, "You know what they say about draft beer, right? It makes you horny." He lets out a throaty laugh.

Whitteaker says he's been thinking about cracking down on illegal immigrants for some time — at least since the day in August 2004 when the Del Abra family moved into his neighborhood, right around the corner from his sister and mother.

The Del Abras are Mexican and have lived in the U.S. for twenty years. Husband and wife Santos and Monica have green cards, and their six children were all born here. According to their former landlords (the Del Abras now own the home), they were excellent tenants.

The family wasn't in their new house more than a day when Whitteaker, then an alderman, received a call from an irate neighbor saying she was afraid the Del Abra kids — all of them seven or younger — would trespass onto her property and jump into her pool.

Whitteaker brought up the complaint at a board of aldermen meeting the next night. "Do they have green cards?" he asked the St. Louis County Police Lieutenant Scott Melies.

A fellow alderman laughed.

"I'm serious," Whitteaker protested, throwing up his arms. "Who checks that?"

Eric Martin, the city attorney, replied, "The employer."

Whitteaker shot back, incredulously: "For little kids?"

For the next two years, Whitteaker says, he continued to receive the occasional complaint from one of the Del Abras' neighbors. "And [my sister] is constantly complaining about them. Their kids are in the street, and they don't have any grass in their front yard. It's all mud and trampled, like cows went over it."

Despite his ranting, Whitteaker concedes he's never spoken to Santos Del Abra or any other Mexican living in Valley Park.

His only real contact with Mexican people, in fact, came during a family vacation a few years ago when their cruise ship stopped at Cozumel for a day. Whitteaker rented a car and did a loop of the town, sightseeing and bar-hopping. But on the way back to the boat, he got lost, and he couldn't find anyone who spoke English.

"The guys who'd given me directions, they told me it was real easy, a simple circle, but they lied," he remembers. "We just barely made it back to the dock before the ship left."

The story gives Whitteaker pause. He wonders aloud for a minute what it must be like for Mexicans who come to Valley Park. "That must be hard," he says. "I would never move to Mexico. Heck, I would never move to Boston. That would be scary."