Conversations about the Old North St. Louis neighborhood are starting to center around more than Crown Candy.
Make no mistake, the chocolate malts at Crown Candy remain as delicious as ever, but other things are happening in the neighborhood bordered by Palm Street on the north, Cass Avenue on the south, Howard Street on the east, and North Florissant on the west.
To get an idea of what is happening we talked with families who live there as well as the head of the neighborhood association and people involved with Washington University's Land Lab.
Raising a family
Joe Eisenbraun has lived in Old North his whole life, since 1981, and is raising his two daughters with his wife, Susannah. He and his wife actually met in Old North after she moved there as part of a farm project to open the North City Farmer's Market.
“That was back in 2007. We got married in 2008. It was just perfect,” Susannah said.
Joe said the neighbors tend to be very involved in the improvement of the neighborhood.
"It is some kind of sign of the atmosphere here that we would be expected, in any way, to know about, understand or participate in what is happening on these lots blocks and blocks away,” Joe said.
He points to the Old North Restoration Group, which was founded in 1981 to help organize improvement. And in just the past few years some noticeable changes have been made to the neighborhood. Some with help from a Washington University program.
Sustainable Land Lab
The Sustainable Land Lab, a public competition hosted by Washington University and city government, selected five two-year projects in 2012, which were given vacant parcels to develop.
“We posed the question, essentially, ‘What do we do with all this stuff? What do we do with 20,000 vacant parcels in the city of St. Louis to advance sustainability?’” said Phil Valko, the assistant vice chancellor for sustainability at Washington University.
In the 18 months that have passed, some projects have failed, others have flourished.
The Sunflower+ Project has been one the most successful sites. The idea was to use sunflowers and winter wheat to remediate the land, or remove harmful contaminants from the soil.
The first planting season went very well, Valko said. After a successful first year, the group expanded and paired up with Alderwoman Lyda Krewson to plant 7,500 to 10,000 sunflowers in a half-acre lot along Delmar Boulevard west of Kingshighway.
Susannah Eisenbraun is a flower gardener herself and takes their daughters to the site to look at the flowers and watch birds.
"I love the Sunflower+ project,” she adds. “It is beautiful, practical and there are tons of empty lots in the city."
The Mighty Mississippians group developed its land to help members teach others about the culture of the Mississippian Indians.
“Their project was much more about process and about learning from the Mississippian culture that had lived in our region for hundreds and hundreds of years before the present area and lived in balance with the natural environment,” Valko said.
On their site, they have planted a small foraging area, built a solar calendar and have hosted events that range from a Native American storyteller to yoga.
Chess Pocket Park
Those who have gone to the Old North Farmers’ Market recently may have noticed people giving chess lessons in the newly opened Chess Pocket Park.
This park, about a half block south of Crown Candy, contains several permanent chess tables.
“The team is really interested in chess as a community building tool and also as an education tool,” Valko said. “The Chess Club of St. Louis is one of their big partners, and the chess club has actually been giving free lessons.”
Sean Thomas, the executive director of the Old North Restoration Group, said chess pieces in his office can be checked out by anyone who wishes to play.
Susannah said her daughters may be too young to enjoy the intricacies of chess, but they love to play “chess” with rocks when they go on walks.
Yet to break ground is The Bistro Box group, which plans to build a restaurant out of shipping containers. The restaurant is designed to be a center of community activity.
Valko called this project a “big risk,” but believes it could have a huge payoff for the Old North community if it is successful.
While given a $5,000 budget by the Land Lab, the group has a total budget of over $500,000. Valko said the group has gone through an extensive design phase and is working toward building relationships with construction agencies to gather in-kind resources.
Future for the Sustainable Land Lab
Valko explained that one of the Round 1 winning projects, RR Farm, failed, but the point of the Sustainable Land Lab is to learn what does and does not work.
“It really is a process of trying things out and learning through the process,” Valko said. “We went into the Land Lab being really intentional about wanting to take some chances and just try things.”
The Old North Restoration group worked with developers to complete a $35-million redevelopment called Crown Square in 2010. This effort involved the renovation of historic buildings immediately south of Crown Candy Kitchen into functional commercial and living spaces.
Since the renovations have been finished, the group has worked to fill these spaces.
Walking down 14th Street, one can see the number of new businesses that have moved in recently:
UrbArts, Blackmun Footcare, Kennedy’s Pet Shop and the second location of Firecracker Press.
Headhunters Salon is one of the only businesses that remained open and active during the years when 14th street was a pedestrian mall.
Annessa Blackmun brought her Blackmun Footcare in recently. It focuses on diagnosing and treating different conditions that affect feet and ankles.
She believes that more business will come when they see that businesses can be successful there.
“We are having businesses here that are successful, we love the people here in this community, and it is moving in the right direction – we need more people to come and do it with us, join with us," Blackmun said.
UrbArts is an organization that began just this year, and focuses on spoken word and other language arts.
Firecracker Press recently opened a second location in Old North. This space gives it the room to grow, and to start a new non-profit, Central Print.
Eric Woods, owner of Firecracker Press, explained why he chose Old North.
The Next Step For The Neighborhood
While progress has been made in Old North, many believe there is still a long way to go.
Thomas said the founders of the Old North Restoration group “started this organization to make this neighborhood as vibrant and healthy as it possibly could be, but to be guided entirely by what the residents here saw as their vision for the community."
And residents said they would like to see more functional businesses move into the neighborhood. “I mean, we want it to grow even more,” Blackmun said. “We certainly need a grocery store. We need a wellness center. I want to have a place to do yoga. I want a laundromat, a cleaners.”
Other residents, such as Veronica Holden, the owner of La Mancha Coffeehouse, believe one hindrance of Old North’s growth is long-standing perceptions of the neighborhood. Thomas said he believes perceptions are changing, as more people come and visit the neighborhood.
Thomas said the Restoration Group would someday like to find ways to connect Old North to other parts of the city. There is hope a streetcar line could one day be installed. And Great Rivers Greenway is researching the development of the Old Iron Horse Trestle that it purchased in 2004. It wants to create a pedestrian and biking path along the mile-long trestle that would connect Old North to downtown St. Louis.
Tom and Gloria Bratkowski have been living in Old North since they were married in the 1970s, but Tom comes from a long line of Old North residents – he is the fifth generation.
They both told me about the abandonment of the neighborhood in the 1970s, but said since the creation of the Old North Restoration Group in 1981 there has been resurgence and the neighborhood is growing again – literally.
“The gardens and those kinds of social interactions give people a chance to share and to reach out beyond their own lives,” Tom said. “Think about things they can do to improve the neighborhood aesthetically and also to add some green lungs to an urban environment that needs trees and green.”
Both seemed confident that the neighborhood will continue to grow, but Tom was sure to specify that people who move to Old North need to do more than occupy an apartment. He believes they need to take on challenges and become active stakeholders in what happens to Old North St. Louis.