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'I dream': St. Louis child hopes city will do something about vacant properties

A faded and tattered U.S. flag catches the breeze in the yard of a vacant property in the Gravois Park neighborhood on June 30, 2018.
Brian Heffernan | St. Louis Public Radio
A faded and tattered U.S. flag catches a breeze in the yard of a vacant property Saturday in the Gravois Park neighborhood.

Gravois Park has an unlikely advocate for inclusive development in a 12-year-old girl who wants to see the vacant buildings and lots on her block be transformed into safe, liveable places.

Deyon Ryan’s passion for the issue is partly influenced by her father, DeAndre Brown, who has been vocal on the issue. Deyon wrote about the vacancy problem in school and it caught the attention of local groups.

The city’s data on vacant buildings show more than 380 vacancies in four developing neighborhoods in south St. Louis: Gravois Park, Benton Park, Benton Park West and Marine Villa.

“When I look across the street,” Deyon said while sitting outside her home on California Avenue, “There’s nothing but vacant buildings. There’s literally two houses across the street that’s not vacant.”


An artist painted the boards of some of the vacant homes on Deyon’s block in an attempt to beautify otherwise deserted properties.

Deyon and her family have lived on the block for a couple of years. Young relatives frequently stop by to play. On the hot summer day, when St. Louis Public Radio stopped by to talk to Deyon and her parents, the main attraction for Deyone and the other kids in her family was the pool. Her parents sectioned off a part of the vacant lot next to their house for an inflatable pool.

Deyon, California Avenue, June 2018
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Deyon Ryan, age 12, enjoys the inflatable pool her family set up in the vacant lot next to her home.

While Ryan enjoys the summer fun she can have near to home, she said overall she feels unsafe.

“Living across the street from that (empty house) can be scary sometimes,” Ryan said, “'Cause like, there’s a house down there that broke down because it was vacant and like children play in front of them houses and it could have fallen on one of them.”

Who benefits?

Deyon’s dad worries about other safety risks that could be looming in deserted areas around the neighborhood. But he’s aware that parts of where they live are changing as development on the two major streets to the north and south of them grow: Cherokee and Chippewa streets. Brown questions if the residents who are already live there will benefit from those changes.

“(Developers) come in. They rehab these houses, which we need them, but they make them so expensive in the neighborhood.” Brown said. 

A rehab project at the corner of Chippewa Street and California Avenue by Rise Community Development and Lutheran Development Group on June 20, 2018.
Credit Brian Heffernan | St. Louis Public Radio
A rehab project at the corner of Chippewa Street and California Avenue by Rise Community Development and Lutheran Development Group.

He points to a block south of Chippewa Street where he can see the beginning stages of development. Vacant properties on that block will be turned in affordable housing, according to HUD standards.

The multi-million dollar undertaking to establish Chippewa Park Homes is one of several projects outlined in the Gravois-Jefferson Plan led by local non-profits, including the Dutchtown South Community Corporation and Lutheran Development Group. The last draft of the plan was finalized this spring. There are also plans for market rate housing in the area.

Economic diversity

Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, knows her ward has vacancy issues, but said the big hurdle presents a huge opportunity for change.

“We don’t want to put all the affordable housing in one area,” Spencer said. “The mix really reflects maintaining economic diversity.”

She said the vacancy issue points to the need for a regional plan to grow the city's population, which Spencer said has been stagnent for decades. 

"Meanwhile, parts of our region are growing. St. Charles County and areas out west," she said. "But new homes built are not being filled with new residents to the area, by and large, we are simply reshuffling the same population, and new construction in the region creates vacancy in the region. And we have been the victim of this."

As money for development on Chippewa, HUD dollars for affordable housing and business growth on Cherokee Street increase, key stakeholders say they want to see the neighborhoods around those business districts benefit from revenue generated there.

Anne McCullough, executive director of the Cherokee Street Development League,  believes that is what businesses on Cherokee Street are trying to do in a grassroots way: Not giving way to investments by big businesses and developers, but relying on local business-owners and residents.

Through a Community Improvement District formed last year and a fairly new neighborhood nonprofit, revenue goes to increased safety and youth and workforce training programs. McCullough said the district will likely collect $200,000 by the end of the year from money generated through property assessment and a 1 percent sales tax.

Money from the non-profit will go to projects within the neighborhood that are outside the confines of the district. So far, money has gone to fixing up local parks.

“We’re picking up where the city is lacking,” McCullough said of the drive to fund development, economic and social improvements in the neighborhoods around the business district.

Development or displacement?

Residents in the areas around Cherokee Street are largely black and Latino. McCullough said she can understand how families like Deyon’s could see development as both a good thing and a method that could lead to displacement. She said business owners and developers there are conscious of partnering with residents, adding that they want to make areas better.

“And by better, I mean make a place that is equitable and safe and secure pace for everybody that currently lives here and for potential new people," McCullough

Apparently, so does the ward’s alderwoman as well as the Gravois-Jefferson Plan developers. Deyon wants that too.

“I dream that one day it could be full of great things, like a place where people would really want to live,” she said.

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.

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