On Feb. 7, 2008, Cookie Thornton, a resident of the Meacham Park neighborhood in Kirkwood, entered a Kirkwood City Council meeting and started shooting. Six people died, including Thornton.
Filmmaker Sarah Paulsen has recently produced an animated film, Elegy to Connie, that focuses on the story of Kirkwood Councilwoman Connie Karr, one of the victims, and her efforts to give greater voice to women and minorities.
“Connie was an amazing woman, a powerful leader. She really believed in everyone she met,” said Paulsen. “When she passed … not only had we lost this amazing woman who believed in us, but we also lost this amazing leader.”
Paulsen started out believing she was making a film about women trying to have political voice in the community, but after interviewing Harriet Patton, a woman of color from Meacham Park and learning much of the backstory to the shooting, her direction changed.
“I think that was the beautiful thing about making the film. There was the story that I thought I was going to tell and there was the story that I also came to understand by making it,” said Paulsen.
Tensions between Kirkwood and the largely African-American Meacham Park neighborhood have smoldered for decades. In 1991, Kirkwood annexed the neighborhood and shortly after, used a TIF to build a commercial strip. Many homes in Meacham Park were bought out, but not everyone thought they were treated fairly. Thornton was upset that he didn’t get the work on the development he was promised and also ran afoul of Kirkwood zoning ordinances that took effect when Meacham Park became part of Kirkwood. Tensions came to a head in 2008 with the shooting.
Since then, the City of Kirkwood and groups of residents have worked to improve communication and ease tensions. “One of the things we’re trying to do now is make sure that the community feels inclusive — all of Kirkwood” said Ronald Hodges, the chair of the Community for Understanding and Hope (CFUH).
In addition to CFUH, the Meacham Park Neighborhood Association and the Kirkwood Human Rights Commission are working to make sure everyone is heard and increase community collaboration. In 2009, Kirkwood invited the U.S. Justice Department to administer a mediation leading to an agreement to improve relations between Meacham Park and the rest of Kirkwood. Hodges says that Meacham Park was becoming a diverse neighborhood when the shooting occurred. Since then, that trend has continued.
“I’m blessed to have been raised in a community like Kirkwood. [But] as a minority, I never felt that way,” said Kirkwood Councilman Paul Ward who has recently been appointed deputy mayor of Kirkwood. “There’s a politeness that goes on. There’s an ‘I don’t want to be one of those people’ that goes on.”
Though Kirkwood isn’t where he wants it to be, Hodges says he sees changes and increased collaboration. He points to Ward, the city’s first African American deputy mayor as an example, and Paulsen says she sees more conversations on race.
Said Hodges, “At this point the TIF is over, the buyout is over, the city isn’t getting ready to give us, or those homeowners, any more money now for that buyout – whether good, or bad, or how it happened. And I’m as passionate today about it as I was then, when I was put on that mediation team. But that is not going to move us forward. … You need to know what happened, but at the same time you’ve got to move on.”
Scott Stearman is senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church and has been actively involved in community dialogues since long before the shooting and continued efforts since. “The question that we all must face, but particularly those of us from white privilege, the onus is on us to figure out what moving forward means and with these economic realities,” he said. “How do we help people grow economically the way we all want to? Coming together, building relationships, doing studies together, serving the neighborhood together — these things are not the fix, but they are a part of the fix. I think it could happen again,” Stearman added, “but I think we are creating a climate where it is less likely.”
Cinema St. Louis 2014 Filmmaker's Showcase Presents "Elegy to Connie"
Sunday, July 13, 2014, 2:30 p.m.
Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Blvd.
(314) 289-4150 Cinema St. Louis Website