St. Louis Community Development Leaders Argue Residents Need More Say After Decades Of Exclusion
A few blocks south of Hyde Park in north St. Louis near Highway 70, contractors are gutting a row of old apartment buildings that have been vacant and boarded up for years.
These former nuisance properties are on their way to becoming charming two-family townhomes. Michael Woods, the co-founder of the nonprofit Dream Builder 4 Equity, hopes they will help draw people back to this part of town. It’s one of many northside neighborhoods that have been severely neglected by developers for decades.
A lifelong resident of Hyde Park, Woods is pioneering a new neighborhood-based strategy for community development, something he wants to see replicated across the city.
“We have an opportunity as an organization to create that perfect model,” he said. “We’re able to say, ‘This is what it looks like when you engage the right people, when you engage the community. This is what it looks like when you have people who are from the community participating and uplifting the community.’”
The city’s economic development arm, known as the St. Louis Development Corporation, is in the process of implementing a new approach. It aims to move away from a top-down model that historically focused on helping developers with their plans. Now, for the first time in decades, it has a strategic plan of its own that focuses on building up whole neighborhoods at a time.
The city still has a long way to go to make good on its promise that equity and inclusion will be at the center of this new approach, according to groups already working on inclusive development in neighborhoods. But many are hopeful that this will be the turning point.
The neighborhood approach
The Dream Builders’ model for neighborhood revitalization hinges on input from the community.
“We want to see this neighborhood transform, but we want to see it done right,” Woods said. “We want to make sure the community is engaged and they have the largest say in everything.”
He’s been working closely with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, which helped the nonprofit acquire specific properties that residents have complained about. That includes an old day care facility that Dream Builders plans to restore so that the day care can return, along with a new educational hub.
The nonprofit’s big picture goal is to complete five building rehabilitation projects per year for the next five years, as well as do free home renovations for seniors living in the community.
It’s also setting aside money to cover the cost of increased taxes for existing homeowners so that they won’t be priced out of the neighborhood as more development comes to the area.
Woods said the work is about more than fixing buildings. The project is also providing jobs for minority contractors and dozens of young people who want to learn the trade and work toward home ownership.
“We’re definitely trying to attack this in a holistic way,” Woods said.
Letting residents lead the change
Dara Eskridge is spearheading inclusive development farther south, in the West End and Dutchtown neighborhoods.
She’s the executive director of Invest STL, an organization that helps community leaders and developers work together on neighborhood change, with a focus on racial equity.
Eskridge, an urban planner by trade, said the city has no choice but to switch up its strategy. She said that the old approach isn’t working, and that now the city is facing a critical moment.
“Where we've got this small window of opportunity to make really big, bold, almost like history rectifying change, but we have to be willing to kind of step through that opening,” she said. “But the other part of it is, whether or not our conventional power brokers and structures agree that this is something we should do, the fact is, it is an imperative for our region's growth.”
If the city wants to reach its full potential, she said, city officials need to start guiding investment to neighborhoods that have been locked out of development in the past. She said that includes neighborhoods in north St. Louis, north St. Louis County and East St. Louis.
“Include me, include the community, include the single parent, include the homeless person. Include, like — include me.”
Eskridge said part of the problem is that many residents, especially those living in predominantly Black neighborhoods, have had traumatic experiences with development. She said that it’s felt extractive, instead of collaborative, and that it’s hard for people to trust the city now.
“We've got to allow other people in, and specifically those who are on the economic losing side of things in our region,” she said. “If they're not at the table to co-design solutions, we very well could re-create this whole system of inequity once again.”
Another organization, WEPOWER, is helping residents figure out how to get involved.
Shemia Reese, a resident of the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, participated in the group’s Power-Building Academy on economic justice last year. She said it helped her figure out how to talk about development in her community more effectively.
“Because some of these emotions have been bottled up for so long. When they come out, it's just like a volcano that's just erupted. And so you can’t distinguish between the passion, the anger, the hurt, or if they really want to make change,” she said.
Reese feels like she’s been left out of the conversation for a long time. While she’s hopeful about the city’s new approach, she has one main request.
“Include me, include the community, include the single parent, include the homeless person. Include, like — include me,” she said.
‘We’re making it happen’
Fatimah Muhammad isn’t waiting for any big developers to come around to her ideas.
She started the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association a few years ago and became a developer herself. At first, she said her husband was skeptical of her idea to buy a rundown building a block from the park and fix it up as a community gathering place.
“This is what we do,” she said she told her husband at the time. “There is a problem in this community, we don’t run from it. I’m not going to walk around in my neighborhood with blinders on, so we’re going to buy this building.”
The pandemic has delayed renovations, so the old post office building is still mostly boarded up. But Muhammad has a clear vision for what she said will become known as Apiary @ the Park.
Inside, she said it will house the Be Well Cafe, a coworking space, a test kitchen for food entrepreneurs and apartments on the second floor. Outside, Muhammad pictures a food truck park next to a courtyard seating area, an art exhibition space and community beehives.
Muhammad, who also coordinates neighborhood development efforts with Dream Builders, said things are finally changing in the neighborhood.
“Well, it’s not coming. We’re making it happen,” she said.
Ultimately, whether the city commits to inclusive development or not, these community organizers say they’ll keep pushing for residents to lead the change in their neighborhoods.
Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan