East St. Louis nonprofit plans to build new subdivision and other developments
EAST ST. LOUIS — Cultivating a community of residents in East St. Louis to love each other, God and their neighborhood are among the goals of a new nonprofit. Lansdowne Up aims to create a faith-based economic revival in East St. Louis—starting with a new housing project.
“We’re looking at luring people back to East St. Louis, giving them reasons to come back,” said Kevin Green, director of administration for Lansdowne Up.
Named after the Lansdowne neighborhood in the city’s northeast end, the nonprofit aims to revitalize the area through daily cleaning of lots and streets and rehabbing abandoned homes and properties. The first project for the organization, which officially received its nonprofit status last month, is developing a 20-home subdivision at the intersection of 25th Street and Gross Avenue.
But at the center of the group’s vision is creating a better community for kids and residents living in the Lansdowne neighborhood, which includes ZIP codes 62204 and 62205 and city landmarks like the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center and Jones Park.
“We’ve got dilapidated houses; we’ve got lots that are overgrown; we’ve got properties where people are literally just dumping trash,” Green said. “We need to clean this up because the kids that walk to the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center and, even the kids who get rides there, why would they be subjected to this that defines their neighborhood, that defines East St. Louis?”
‘We hire guys from the neighborhood’
About a 5-minute drive from the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center is a newly renovated home on Audubon Avenue. The house was an eyesore three years ago and fit right in with the neighborhood’s blight, according to members of Lansdowne Up. That was until the nonprofit decided to purchase and rehab the home. Garland Robinson was interested in the work that the group was doing.
“I was originally homeless, and I used to watch one of the guys who helped put this house on Audubon together, and I used to just watch him work,” Robinson said. “I walked over one day and asked him if he needed any help to do anything on the house (and told him) I’m willing to work.”
Robinson, who had been homeless for two years at that time, was hired by Lansdowne Up within a week of being interviewed. The organization also gave him the home to live in. Robinson pays for the home’s expenses with what he makes from Lansdowne Up. Robinson has lived at and worked on the home since at least 2019, and renovations on the home were completed last month.
“We hire guys who are from the neighborhood,” Green said about the employees on Lansdowne Up’s nearly 20-member team. “We have no problem hiring an ex-offender or an ex-drug user or even an ex-drug dealer. We have no problems hiring them because we have a Christ-centered approach to what we do, and Jesus wouldn’t turn people away. He’d work with them, so we work with them. We give them opportunities where maybe someone else wouldn’t give them the opportunity.”
Robinson said his experience working with Lansdowne Up has been invaluable. He’s never owned a home, so he views his time with the organization as a “blessing”. Robinson mainly does landscaping work for Lansdowne Up, although his responsibilities aren’t limited to that.
“It’s been beautiful,” he said. “It’s been educational. It’s been spiritual. It’s been a multitude of things. We have devotion every morning to help with any of the issues we’ve been having because we keep God in everything we do. He’s the head of our lives, so we keep God as our leader in our everyday aspects.”
Robinson is a longtime East St. Louis resident, and he’s adamant about supporting the city through his work with Lansdowne Up. It’s why he sees the new subdivision as a positive asset for the area, even though the homes may not be affordable for the average East St. Louis resident. The market-value homes are set to be priced around $235,000 to $275,000. The median household income for residents in East St. Louis is $24,343, according to 2020 Census estimates.
“This is something that the community needs,” Robinson said. “A lot of our places here are worn down or maybe even have slumlords and now, with Lansdowne Up coming through and a couple of the other investors, people are interested in building East St. Louis up.”
One property at a time
A thoroughly wooded area with growing weeds mainly encompasses the vacant land on Gross Avenue where the new subdivision will be. Construction hasn’t started, and Lansdowne Up hasn’t officially decided on a name for it. The group is tentatively planning a groundbreaking ceremony for the beginning of April, but those details haven’t been finalized.
However, the group believes that the new subdivision will economically benefit East St. Louis and cites the need for homes that aren’t exclusively for low-income families, given the prevalence of public housing projects. Lansdowne Up wants a balance of housing developments that are appealing for both low-income and middle-class families in the city.
“Affordable housing is not a lure to get middle-class families to move to East St. Louis,” Green, who lives in East St. Louis, said. “We need to have some diversity in the community, some economic diversity. We need to lure back people who can even pay taxes, we need to lure back people of different races, even, people who will bring some diversity to East St. Louis so that others will consider moving back into the area.”
Nearly a two-minute drive from where the new subdivision will be is what’s left of Lansdowne Towers on 2901 Waverly Ave. Built in the 1960’s, the four high-rise towers were the largest public housing complex in East St. Louis before demolition of the towers began in 2019. Only one tower, Rukavina, exists today, and the East St. Louis Housing Authority confirmed Monday that demolition plans for the tower have not been finalized.
Green and other leaders of Lansdowne Up said they aren’t aware of the towers and that their plans aren’t at all tied to the housing project.
Like Green and Robinson, Antonio Ingram is also a resident in the area. She grew up in the city’s John DeShields Homes, another public housing complex. She’s now a board member for Lansdowne Up and lives in Washington Park. Ingram said she supports the development of the new subdivision because she thinks it’ll bring more opportunities to the city.
“If it can beautify our city, and we can help each other, then I think it’s good,” Ingram said.
Along with the city of East St. Louis, Lansdowne Up has invested about $6.5 million into the new subdivision, with the city providing about $1 million of the investment. East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III said boosting the city’s population motivated him to partner with Lansdowne Up. The city has a population of 18,469, a striking decrease from 27,006 that was reported in 2010.
“We need the population, and to attract people back to the city, so when you have market value homes, you’ll attract different people to the region and it actually increases the property value when you have those types of homes,” Eastern said about the subdivision.
The housing project is only the beginning of Lansdowne Up’s grand plans for the city, most of which the group isn’t ready to discuss publicly. Group leaders want Landsdowne Up to be a spark for more economic development in East St. Louis.
“We are a God-centered, Christ-centered not-for-profit agency that just feels a need to invest in the community,” Green said.
Loving people and loving God
Next steps for the group include finding a way to inform residents about what they’re doing and get them involved. After all, that’s how all of this started— 14 years ago when Mark Mestemacher started wrestling and youth programs in East St. Louis, mainly at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center. Then, in 2015, after seeing the area plagued by drug and prostitution houses, he wanted to do more for the kids he was coaching. That’s when the youth coach and former wrestler felt called by God to establish Lansdowne LLC for buying properties in the area in an effort to beautify it.
Since 2015, he’s purchased nearly 250 properties, including those that are now consolidated. He also has plans to eventually live in one of them.
“It became really apparent to me that if I’m truly going to make a difference in these young people’s lives, they’re not going to trust me,” Mestemacher, 65, said. “One, I’m white. Two, I’m old. Three, I’m male, and as I was coaching it was very difficult for them to trust what I was saying. It became very apparent to me that the only way that they’re going to trust me is if I spend more time with them….It’s crazy for you to sit here and say you want to make a difference in these young people’s lives and you tell them you can encourage them to go do this and go do that, but at the end of the day, I get in my car and drive to Edwardsville.”
Mestemacher acknowledging his privilege is crucial, given he’s a white man trying to redevelop a city that has a Black-majority population with a poverty rate of three times higher than the state’s average. He said a few people have labeled his work as gentrification, the process of people from wealthy neighborhoods refining a poor community of color while displacing current residents. The validity of such claims are yet to be determined, given Lansdowne Up’s developments are in the beginning stages. However, those concerns are understandably rooted in the adverse effects of gentrification in Black communities across the country. Mestemacher affirms that “everything I’m doing is to try to honor and glorify God.”
“We don’t want anyone to leave the city,” Mestemacher said. “We need residents in the city, so it frustrates me when people look at the color of my skin and say I’m gentrifying a community because there is not one person that we have pushed out of the community. Our efforts are to keep people in the community and keep them from leaving the community.”
Adam Ahart, another employee for Lansdowne Up, knows that it’s their duty to reach out to residents. He said none of the work that the group is doing can be done without their input.
“Obviously, when you start getting next to people’s houses and you start breaking it down, people are gonna wanna ask questions, especially with the fact of, once again, it’s our goal to keep within the community and work with the community,” Ahart, who lives in O’Fallon, said. “It shows opportunity to them, and once you show opportunity to them, then it shows them that we’re here to help you, not hurt you. I think in general you gotta communicate with the community.”
Lansdowne Up’s priority to reach out to residents is why Kevin Green says the organization isn’t an example of gentrification or the start of it.
“Right now, we have to lure people into East St. Louis and people have to come and live here. If you don’t have people living here, there’s no reason to have a YMCA here or a shopping mall or car dealership here in East St. Louis because you don’t have enough people,” Green said. “We don’t have a reason right now to have a Starbucks here or a Chick-fil-A , but we want to create the reason and the way in which you can do that is have the people come into the neighborhood.”
The group’s devout faith in God spurs that mission. Every Monday, Lansdowne Up hosts Bible study for its staff at its headquarters located on 1315 Lynch Ave. in East St. Louis. They also have employees participate in daily devotionals.
Garland Robinson said the organization’s Christian foundation is his favorite part about his job. This month, the group held a gathering to dedicate Robinson’s home to God.
“Nothing comes before God,” Robinson said.
Scott Loeffler, director of operations for Lansdowne Up, said the group’s mission heavily aligns with his personal relationship with God.
“I feel like everything God created is good and us people, people in general, we mess everything up, and I believe that God has called us and people in this community to rebuild (it),”Loeffler, who lives in Belleville, said. “(It’s) kind of like in our own life. (We) look at this community or any community the same way. We’re going one person, one house, one piece of property at a time and like this is yours God, what do you want us to do with it? Just like you’re restoring us, we’re restoring this community.”
DeAsia Page is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.