Rodney Norman is an active resident of the West End neighborhood, which is bounded by Delmar, Skinker, Page and Union on St. Louis’ north side. Recently, he and a group of his neighbors traveled seven miles to the city’s south side to visit the Tower Grove East neighborhood, bounded by Gravois, Grand, Nebraska and Shenandoah. Seven miles doesn’t sound extensive, but when it comes to St. Louis, that distance might as well be 100 miles.
Norman participated in the exchange as part of St. Louis Association of Community Organizations’ Neighborhoods United for Change program, which connects groups of 5-15 people in neighborhoods with a corresponding group from another neighborhood in the region. That number is intentionally kept small, so participants can have deeper conversations with one another.
“The whole idea is for two neighborhoods who probably have never visited the neighborhood to come, to talk, to break bread together, to visit to get an idea of what’s going on north, further north, south, further south,” said Kevin McKinney, executive director of SLACO.
“We want to discuss different topics, different ideas … to get away from the Channel 2, Channel 4 and Channel 5 viewpoint of those neighborhoods. You visit those neighborhoods and see there is not so much different.”
What he means about that “viewpoint” is one that focuses on crime and killings in St. Louis neighborhood. McKinney wants people to “dig down a little bit” and see that people, no matter where they live in St. Louis, want to live in decent neighborhoods with good schooling for their kids and a good number of jobs.
“Whatever color you are, that transcends zip codes,” McKinney said.
So what did Norman find when he went to Tower Grove East?
“The same challenges exist in every neighborhood,” Norman said. He particularly noted that there seemed to be a preponderance of businesses on the corners of major intersections in Tower Grove East.
“In the West End, those businesses existed once upon a time but many of those buildings have been demolished,” he said, remarking that neighborhoods need places for people to meet and socialize, bringing communities together.
Norman wants people who visit the West End to learn more about the neighborhood’s history, like the historic Hamilton Hotel and Ruth Porter Mall.
Tours are exceptionally planned and include bussed transportation between areas and meetings set up once neighbors arrive. After the program, numbers are exchanged between participants and McKinney hopes to plan a large-scale event for everyone who participated in an exchange to meet up at the end of this year.
The St. Louis Civil Rights Enforcement Agency helps provide transportation and lunch for the people who participate in the full-day neighborhood exchanges. Charles Bryson, the executive director of CREA, said that the organization got involved because “in order to reduce discrimination, we have to come together in conversation.”
“People, no matter who they are, are willing and want to communicate with someone else,” Bryson said.
There are five more neighborhood exchanges left this year. Next year, SLACO hopes to expand its offerings to 14 different neighborhood groups—including those outside of SLACO’s membership, which constitutes about 30 neighborhoods. Right now, exchanges are planned for Baden with Tower Grove South and Tower Grove Heights, Holly Hills with Lewis Place and JeffVanderLou with Forest Park Southeast.
For those interested in joining the program, they can find more information at www.slaco-mo.org or calling 314-308-9894.
“There are 79 neighborhoods in St. Louis and we have plenty to go,” Bryson said.
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