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Seeing Dutchtown with new eyes: Photo project seeks to document neighborhood's renewal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2010 - Dutchtown got its name -- and its start -- as a center of German (or Deutsch) immigrants. Now, this "scrubby Dutch" south St. Louis neighborhood, bound by Chippewa, Jefferson, Meramec, Virginia and Walsh, is becoming home to a new generation of immigrants from points all around the globe. In the process, a once declining neighborhood is poised for revitalization.

A new photo project, "The Changing Face of Dutchtown," intends to document this neighborhood in transition.

"Over the last five years, the Dutchtown Downtown Business Association has worked really hard to develop Meramec, and the new people moving in have created a greater sense of community," said Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward. The neighborhood, he added, has been doing lots to improve itself -- from painting fire hydrants to growing community gardens to modernizing the street lighting.

"There's a lot of momentum from the neigbors. They are bringing in some vitality that hasn't been seen here in a few years," added Cohn.

PPTC photograpgy project

Each year since 2004, the PPRC teaches four or five community groups to take pictures of their lives and  community. The work of the amateur photographers is then displayed at PPRC Photography Project Gallery at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and at a neighborhood gallery close to the community group. Projects have included Cherokee/Benton Park West, Vashon's Parent-Infant Interaction Program and Lydia's House. Striking photographs and personal statements line the walls in each display. The heartfelt representations aim to inspire people to get more involved in their communities.

"We want to get a really broad perspective of the community and capture a moment in time in Dutchtown," said Mel Watkin, the director of the photography project of the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

The training will begin this September, when twice a week from 3:30 to 5 p.m., Chinyere Oteh, a teacher for PPRC and resident of Dutchtown, will teach photography to youth now in the Dutchtown South Neighborhood Community Corp.'s summer jobs program. These youth and any interested business owners will then go out to photograph what they see as Dutchtown. Urban Eats, a cornerstone of the business revival in Dutchtown, will display the photos in January.

This past Wednesday night, for the second anniversary for Urban Eats, a few business owners came out to chat with Watkin about the project. Judging from their responses, the community is enthusiastic about the photographs.

"I think this is really exciting to do this in our neighborhood," said Connie Backfisch from the Dutchtown South Neighborhood Community Corporation.

Maude Bauschard plans to open a produce market in Dutchtown in the hopes her produce store will allow residents to stay in the neighborhood when shopping for food. "I'm very interested in the revitalization of Dutchtown, and photography is a great way to do so," she said.

Caya Aufiero, president of the Downtown Dutchtown Business Association and co-owner with her husband of Urban Eats, also hopes to publish the photographs from the project, showing the region what a "hidden gem" the neighborhood is.

"The fact that (Urban Eats) has survived and is thriving is a major sign of Dutchtown's revival," said Aufiero. The ongoing revitalization "just takes time. Things are happening, and we're really happy."

Aufiero said she and her husband knew when they bought the corner building at Meramec and Virginia that the building was meant to be a community center. Designed to be a "third space" for community members, the business exemplifies what a for-profit business can do to rejuvenate an area she said.

Farther down on Meramec, ReFabulous, a shop opened six weeks ago, has done so well that owner Rebecca Fox just bought another 600 feet of space next door for expansion. "Dutchtown's a great neighborhood and place to shop. It's very up and coming," she added.

As Tom Lampe, a Dutchtown resident for the past seven years, said about Dutchtown, "It's just getting better and better and better." 

Lauren Weber, a student at Georgetown University, is an intern at the Beacon.

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