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A tale of two, three and/or more cities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 29, 2012 - Lemay, Old North St. Louis and Skinker-Debalieviere are very different neighborhoods.

  • Lemay is an unincorporated, census-designated place bordering the southern edge of St. Louis City, a river-side community dotted with primarily owner-occupied early and mid century 20th century homes.
  • Old North is nearly a mile north of downtown and is a locus of recent revitalization efforts by long-time residents and new comers, as 19th century homes are rehabilitated and new structures built.
  • Skinker-Debaliviere sits on the northern edge of the St. Louis area's bustling and dense central-corridor, tucked between the manse-lined neighborhoods of University City and the Central West End and Washington University's campuses.

But according to University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Todd Swanstrom, the neighborhoods face common obstacles -- and a potentially brighter future lies in their collaboration.
Wednesday night at UMSL at Grand Center, Swanstrom presented "The State of Neighborhoods: Challenges and Opportunities" as part of the Community Partnership Program of Missouri University Extensions and University of Missouri St. Louis.

Swanstrom focused on the future of St. Louis neighborhoods as relayed through data and comparison with "peer" areas in places such as Kansas City and Milwaukee.

In the past, collaboration among neighborhood organizations and community builders was at a minimum, UMSL Community Development Specialist Karl Guenther said. "There [had] not been a network or association of community building organizations prior to the CBN (Community Builders Network). About 10 years ago the organizations tried to start a network but did not have someone to staff it," Guenther said.

Five factors

Swanstrom, using the Central West End as an example of a revitalized St. Louis neighborhood, pointed to five factors typically present in a sustainable neighborhood:

  • Connectivity, or walkability

  • Amenities

  • Anchor institutions

  • Subsidies, e.g. historic preservation or low-income housing tax credits

  • Organizational capactiy, such as neighborhood organizations or community development corporations

The number of subsidies in the largely historic Old North and Skinker-Debaliviere outnumber those in Lemay. Lemay and Skinker-Debaliviere both have economically strong anchor institutions in the River City Casino and Washington University, respectively, whereas Old North's famous Crown Candy acts as more of a cultural anchor institution.

The socioeconomic and physical differences, not to mention distance between areas, made each neighborhood seem almost disconnected from one another.

Neighborhood representatives -- Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, Jessica Eiland, associate director of the Skinker-Debaliviere Community Council, and Reggie Scott, executive director of the Lemay Housing Partnership -- addressed  assets and difficulties.

"We don't want to be an island," Thomas said, referencing Old North's status as a "pocket of revitalization" (see the map below).

However, all three cited a common problem -- in a downturned economy, where does a neighborhood find the resources to revitalize?

Scott said now is the perfect time to buy, as the housing market settles before a rise. Thomas noted that in spite of tough economic times, Old North had seen a decrease in vacant housing units and an increase in building permits. (See map of vacant units, below)

The St. Louis area as a whole saw a slight increase in population over the past 10 years and the per-capita income of the city has steadily risen over the past 20 years. Compared to some areas, such as Cleveland, the city and area have fared relatively well. But the area's population continues to be spread out over the suburbs, and the city's per-capita income remains roughly 25 percent below the county's.

One attendee asked why Kansas City had fared well in economic metrics and population growth over the past 20 years while St. Louis continued to struggle.

Swanstrom said that it was partially due to Kansas City's ability to annex county communities -- the physical boundaries of St. Louis have not shifted since an 1876 split from the county, an anomaly among American cities. Several in the audience cited a collaborative and "progressive" atmosphere that was lacking in St. Louis.

Many questions and comments focused on the notion of a split community -- whether that be north and south st. Louis, the city and the county or what Swanstrom called the "urban cliff." That last phrase refers to the sharp contrasts in communities that border one another, such as the Debaliviere Place and Academy neighborhoods, which represent the strongest and weakest of St. Louis housing markets.

"The urban gradient is incredibly steep in St. Louis. You could have a house selling for 10 times a house as little as six blocks away. In most cities, it's not that severe. We have the urban cliff here," Swanstrom said. He highlighted this difference by showing a well-kept 2,400+ square foot house in the north-of-Delmar Academy neighborhood that was selling for a sixth of the price of a smaller house in need of rehabilitation blocks south in the Central West End.

And that is exactly why this forum exists, Guenther noted.

Through the Community Builders Network, which Guenther helped start, Eiland said her neighborhood discovered and was looking into a program started in Riverview that  adresses youth employment by providing lawn care jobs.

"It'd be a great opportunity to see how we could do something like that not only in our neighborhood, but in our neighbors' as well," she said, referencing the Central West End.

For sustainable architect and rehabber Craig Scandrett-Leatherman, that sort of collaboration is what he showed up for.

"I wish the city had a bigger planning and development vision ..." Scandrett-Leatherman said. "But in lieu of that, grassroots and neighborhoods cooperating is a good foundation."

Swanstrom's "Islands of Revitalization": University City, Maplewood, Skinker-Debaliviere, Central West End, Midtown, Downtown, Old North St. Louis, Shaw, McRee Town/Botanical Heights, Shaw, South Grand, Tower Grove South, Cherokee Street & Benton Park, Soulard, Lafayette Square, Carondelet

Johnny Buse is a freelance writer.

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