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Countdown: In Forest Park Southeast, population loss doesn't mean neighborhood is crumbling

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 8, 2011 - Nearly 40 years ago, Mike Goeke moved into this neighborhood. Forest Park Southeast was then a different place than it is now.

White families had mostly packed up and moved away. There was crime and poverty. But there was also promise. Goeke and the Catholic lay community he was part of saw it then. And depending on how you look at the census numbers, quite a few others have since caught up.

"The changes that have taken place in this neighborhood over the past 40 years have been profound," Goeke says.

Forest Park Southeast, bounded by Interstate 44 to its south, Kingshighway Boulevard to its west, I-64/40 to its north and Vandeventer Avenue to its east, had a 21 percent drop in population to 2,918 in 2010 from 2000. But the neighborhood as a whole had a 26 percent rise in median income, to $29,608. The percent poor dropped by 13 percent, and the percent poor under 18 dropped by 31 percent.

"What it really does is tell a story about what happened to this neighborhood in the last 20 years," says Brian Phillips, executive director of the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corp., one of the key players in the area's rebirth.

In Goeke's more than 40 years in the neighborhood, he's seen many plans and projects to improve the spot close to so much of what St. Louis has to offer. But, to him at least, the real successes here have been slow and organic, with much more room to grow.

Urban Pioneers

Goeke moved to Forest Park Southeast in 1973 with a lay Catholic community called Kopavi. Originally, 13 people lived in two houses on Taylor and Oakland avenues. They eventually also bought a house on Arco Avenue, which has been inhabited by someone from the community since 1974.

"By the time we got there in the fall of '73, we were almost hailed as saviors because we were the first white folks to move there in a long time," he says.

At the time, the neighborhood was a pretty even mix of black and white.

In 1976, Goeke and his wife, Patricia Curtis, moved out and rehabbed a four-family flat one year later. In 1978, they bought their current home for $500 plus back taxes.

Goeke and his wife stayed in the neighborhood, raised their three children and watched changes slowly over time.

Those changes include a loss of population but a rise in median income, a 29 percent increase in the white population, with a 34 percent decrease in the black population from 2000 to 2010. There are 2 percent more units, a 67 percent change drop in people under 18, and a 13 percent change drop in percent poor from 2000 to 2009.

Crime has also changed dramatically.

Between 1985 and 1992, the crack cocaine epidemic devastated the neighborhood, according to Goeke. The low point, perhaps the turning point, came in 1990 when a 9-year-old got caught up in gun fire between two drug dealers and died.

Then Police Chief Clarence Harmon started a gun buy-back program and proposed melting the weapons down to create a statue in the neighborhood. People in the neighborhood strongly opposed it though, Goeke says, and it was never built.

From 1995 on, development plans began affecting real changes, and from 2000 to 2010, homicides decreased 100 percent, robberies by 49 percent, burglaries by 67 percent, assault by 67 percent, auto theft by 91 percent and larcenies by 40 percent, for a total drop in crimes of 55 percent, according to Park Central Development.

So what do all those numbers mean?

More single, white people are moving into the area, says Todd Swanstrom, Des Lee endowed professor of community collaboration and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"I wouldn't call it gentrification," he says, noting the median income is just under $30,000.

But it has been change over decades, which has included individuals, major institutions and visible revitalization.

House And Home

Among the most notable changes Goeke has seen in his time in the neighborhood -- home values. Between 1978 and 1998, he says, they remained pretty much the same.

But several things changed that. For one, a historic district was created in the neighborhood, which helped redevelopers get valuable tax money. Dan Krasnoff, executive director with Park Central, says that spurred a lot of redevelopment.

In 1996, Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corp. got a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help assist revitalization.

Goeke calls the school's involvement largely defensive, although successful in many ways, especially after the grant. Several big things did come about from their involvement, which he says was integral.

In a partnership with Forest Park Southeast Development and the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, several properties run by an absentee landlord were bought up. Using low-income tax credits, the units were rehabbed, and the groups hired a management company to screen who moved in.

That, Krasnoff says, helped increase the confidence of middle-income rehabbers who worried that a high crime would threaten their investment in the community.

Finally, Krasnoff says, Washington University started a program that offered help with down payments to employees for buying in the neighborhood, giving the neighborhood a tremendous advantage over other perhaps more desirable ones.

Today, houses in the neighborhood go for as much as $200,000.

From 1978 to 1998, Goeke says, fewer than 60 properties in the neighborhood were rehabbed. But since 1998, he says that number is about 200.

And while residents do worry about displacement, Phillips says over the last 15 years, 80 to 90 percent of the units rehabbed have been for low- and moderate-income residents, both on the sale and rental side.

And, Krasnoff adds, the focus hasn't just been on offering low-income housing, but on offering quality low-income housing.

In Business

Another big change has come to the neighborhood -- a growing business district.

Fifteen years ago, Phillips says, many of the businesses along Manchester were boarded up. They were occupied, he says, but used as storage warehouses and machine shops.

Now the Grove District has become one of the city's newest hot spots. The developers took what was already in the neighborhood, a few gay bars, and saw growth potential, says Krasnoff.

He doesn't think that has enticed people to move in, necessarily, but he does think having a strong business community nearby is a positive thing for the neighborhood.

And that's not all there is here, says Sarah Coffin, associate professor of public policy studies at St. Louis University and a neighborhood resident.

"It's not just a fun place to come if you're gay," she says. "There's a lot of options."

Coffin moved to the neighborhood eight years ago and loves how close it is to everything.

"What you're not seeing in the numbers is really the momentum that a lot of us feel is happening," she says.

When she first moved in, Coffin remembers chasing a drug dealer off her front step. Now, she says, the neighborhood comes together around safety and so have community groups, like the Grove Community Improvement District, which hire additional security.

According to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the crime index in Forest Park Southeast was 358 for 2010, with 303 of those property issues. As late as 2005, the crime index was 595, with 492 property crimes. In comparison, in 2010, downtown had a total crime index of 1,507, and of those, 1,337 were property crimes. The Central West End had a total crime index of 1,392, with 1,281 property crimes.

Since the 1990 shooting, Goeke says the neighborhood and the police have cooperated much better.

"Now," he says, "it's more of an event when something does happen than when something doesn't."

Coming Up

Like Goeke did decades before, people are recognizing the area's potential.

During his time, Goeke says, kids in the neighborhood went to parochial schools. Now, they have more options. The schools in the area range from Adams Elementary School to several charter schools, including Forest Park Montessori, City Garden Montessori and St. Louis Language Immersion Schools. (Goeke's wife Curtis is the director of Forest Park Montessori.)

Still while some numbers for the neighborhood look positive, there's still much work to be done, particularly south of Manchester.

Krasnoff says the neighborhood is currently developing a master plan to help determine the neighborhood's direction. For it to be successful, they'll need input from the community and a consensus about priorities.

Within Forest Park Southeast are several smaller neighborhoods. Getting them all to come together is possible, Goeke says, but it is issue by issue.

"I personally think, and this will be our biggest challenge, that the future of the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, north and south of Manchester, east and west of Tower Grove, is that the neighborhood is either going to rise together or it's not going to rise together," says Krasnoff.

Successful neighborhoods need a stable middle-class foundation. "We need to have that here," Krasnoff says. "We don't want to be an island of poor or an island of wealth."

Keeping the diversity of the neighborhood, both in terms of race and income, is also important, Phillips says.

"A lot of neighborhoods, when they're going through a redevelopment, they tend to become homogeneous. This one has not," he says. "It has remained super diverse."

And those diverse voices, Goeke says, must have a role in deciding where the neighborhood goes next.

In 10 years, he will be 70. By that point, Goeke hopes to have witnessed the redevelopment of Forest Park Southeast north of Manchester and progress in the neighborhoods south of Manchester.

"The next 10 years are going to be interesting," he says.

Analysis of census data related to the Countdown series has been provided by members of the Applied Research Collaborative, a joint project of three of the region's leading research institutions: St. Louis University (Department of Public Policy Studies), University of Missouri-St. Louis (Public Policy Research Center) and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (Institute for Urban Research).

Kristen Hare

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