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Much ado about Gravois Park

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 18, 2011 - Oh, Gravois Park, what be thy plagues, thy dreams?

'Tis no flight of fancy; Gravois Park will soon star in a Shakespearean saga, courtesy of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.

In a new program called Shakespeare in the Streets, a creative team will first get to know this St. Louis city neighborhood bound by Cherokee and Chippewa, and Jefferson and Grand. Then, in late April, their exploration will result in a Shakespeare play that most closely illustrates the neighborhood.

During the collaborative process, a director, playwright and designer will meet with Gravois Park community leaders and residents. The goal is to discover the "hopes, dreams, colloquialisms and aspirations for their neighborhood and their people," according to festival executive director Rick Dildine.

"What's going on here, what are the big issues? What are people talking about -- what are they not talking about?" Dildine said.

Resident Rita Ford Drives Area Improvements

Gravois Park, home of the burgeoning Cherokee Street district, is a diverse area that delights Barb Potts, who works there through the city's Neighborhood Stabilization program.

"They have a Somalian, Bosnian and Latino population, a very interesting mix of cultures and nationalities and races -- it's kind of fun," Potts said.

But something, if not rotten in a "Hamlet" sort of way, has been at least troubling in Gravois Park in terms of safety. In 2005, there were 977 total crimes including six rapes, 247 personal assaults and 730 property crimes in this area of of 5,900 people.

By 2010, the overall crime count fell to 762, with one rape, 50 personal assaults and 604 property crimes. The improvement is no accident, according to Capt. Jerry Leyshock of the police department's third district, which includes Gravois Park.

"You can't talk about the Gravois Park area and not mention the effectiveness of the neighborhood association and Rita Ford," Leyshock said.

Ford, the neighborhood association president, bought her home on Nebraska Avenue 24 years ago after a citywide house-hunting expedition.

"It was a beautiful neighborhood, a nice place to raise a family," Ford said.

About 10 years ago, Ford noticed things had changed outside her front door and all around Gravois Park. As many elderly home owners moved out, renters moved in.

"We lost a lot of that homeownership base, which was really unfortunate," Ford said. "People moved in from other neighborhoods, bringing their bad habits with them."

In response, she formed the neighborhood association. It's like a second job for the HVAC sales and customer service representative who's on the phone every night about issues ranging from stolen cars to poisoned squirrels.

"There are people who think I work for the city," Ford said.

Potts applauds Ford's work and the efforts of others who've joined her.

"We have a motto at Neighborhood Stabilization that you don't have to move to live in a better neighborhood. I think they've taken that motto very seriously," Potts said.

Young Criminals Face Their Neighbors

The cornerstone of the area's improvement plan is a pair of programs called Court Watch and Neighborhood Accountability Board (NAB). Gravois Park Court Watch, in place for nine years and winner of a national award in 2005, involves a sharp focus on city judges. Sitting in on court cases, looking for patterns is part of the strategy.

"We want to see how the judges are thinking. We even picketed against one judge we thought was a little soft on crime," Ford said.

With NAB, the focus is on young lawbreakers. Local kids who shoplift, smash windows or commit similar crimes can choose between juvenile detention or going before a panel of their neighbors who've passed an NAB course and been sworn in by a judge.

Often, the sentence involves a conversation about what they could have done differently and writing a letter of apology to their parents and the victims of their crime.

"We meet with them and try to bring out the good side of these kids, find out what their goals are, and talk with them about how they can improve and change their lives," Ford said.

In Ford's estimation, this up-close-and-personal method boasts an excellent success rate.

"I would say that about 98 percent of these kids who've come through have done better," Ford said.

Gravois Park's Next Act

Like most city neighborhoods, Gravois Park still faces challenges. Crime-wise, murders increased to four from two between 2005 and 2010, and compared to St. Louis' 86 other neighborhoods, Gravois Park has the 11th highest number of overall crimes.

"We still have some rough patches either north or south of Cherokee Street. There's gang activity, and we're constantly updating our intelligence files and sending in extra resources," Leyshock said.

Thefts from vacant houses and other buildings are a big problem, according to Leyshock. Ford wants to bring back a mobile patrol effort in place several years ago, in which residents volunteer to drive around to spot and report problems.

Another issue on Ford's agenda is the overall look of the area. Every week residents armed with lawn mowers and chain saws clean up neglected properties. Trash is also a problem.

"I don't think people understand how important it is for our alleys and streets to be clean. I can drive down the street and the guy in front of me is throwing a McDonald's bag out the window," Ford said.

But the area, whose $26,000 a year median income was $19,000 less than the state median in 2009, is definitely now on the upswing, Leyshock said.

"I think that neighborhood will continue to thrive," Leyshock said. "I see young professionals moving in and I think we'll see more more people who like the vibrant Cherokee Street allure."

Potts is optimistic that the Shakespeare in the Street project will also be a positive for the area.

"I think any time you can mix media with neighborhoods and bring variety in, it's a good thing," Potts said. "We've had movies in the park, and that's always turned out to be an incredible experience; kids come out and talk to you and you meet your neighbors."

The play's the thing to also broaden the area culturally, according to Shakespeare Festival's Dildine.

"We're showing that Shakespeare is accessible to every language, every community; it's not just something for academics or an elitist art form," Dildine said.

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