MLK Drive: Steeped in tradition, struggling with decay, showing promise for improvement | St. Louis Public Radio

MLK Drive: Steeped in tradition, struggling with decay, showing promise for improvement

Jan 17, 2016

This is the second of a three-part report on the past, present and future of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.

Shavette Wayne-Jones was in her office early the first working day after the long New Year’s weekend.  A caller suspects that is not unusual for her.

Wayne-Jones is executive director of the Hamilton Heights Neighborhood Association, a community improvement organization whose work encompasses three north side neighborhoods, including the western stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive where it runs into the city of Wellston.

She was reared in north St. Louis and at times she resembles a mother mockingbird, so fierce is she in her defense of her home turf. She regards the questions about the death of her neighborhoods as risible as well as wrong. She envisions the world on and around Dr. Martin Luther King Drive with a sense of possibility, a belief things will go right.

And so, when asked if all were lost along Dr. Martin Luther King Drive she replied, “Absolutely not."

“My organization is all over the place in the 22nd Ward so I can tell you for sure, all is not lost.

“The reason this part of town has not deteriorated more,” she continued, “is that we have strong minded people living here, and they aren’t turning away. These people moved here and chose to live here many years ago. They wanted to raise their children and grandchildren here.”

Shavette Wayne-Jones, executive director of the Hamilton Heights Neighborhood Association, poses for a portrait at the group's office.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Wayne-Jones said, however, there have been plenty of business people and residents who’ve said, “I can’t deal with this,” and move to north St. Louis County or elsewhere. “By the same token, others have bought in because they see potential, the potential for making something greater.

Wayne-Jones is a city woman. “I grew up here. My grandmother was First Ward Alderman Joanne Wayne. All I know is centered on the community. But my thing is,  ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’  You can’t expect to wave a magic wand. This is going to take some work!”

A persistent question about Dr. Martin Luther King Drive is this:  “What happened?” Why did this piece of urban St. Louis — so robust and dynamic at mid-century — continue a decline that began in the 1960s and became precipitous around 1972, the year Franklin and Easton avenues were renamed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

"The reason this part of town has not deteriorated more is that we have strong minded people living here, and they aren't turning away" — Shavette Wayne-Jones

“I was born in 1972,” Shavette Wayne-Jones said. “It’s hard to say. Could have been that hardly any of the businesses were owned by African Americans." Commercial white flight was as harsh and deleterious a reality as residential flight has been.

“Maybe the white business folks didn’t like the fact the street was named for Dr. King,” she said, then grew quiet for a moment. 

But then, all of a sudden, it was as if her optimism had rejoined the conversation. She began to talk about partnerships her organization has with various individuals and organizations, including the city of St. Louis and with Washington University, which has, in recent years, taken an active and determined role in community development outside its once impermeable, protective bubble.

“This is going to take a holistic approach. What we are doing here has not been seen or done before — the situation here is different from Delmar (the Loop) and Manchester (the Grove).”

Different? Perhaps. 

At one time of another, all three of these districts had in common  fundamental conditions: generalized decay and disinvestment. But in such so-called wastelands, the conditions are individual, specific to the place. By looking carefully at these discrete conditions, at the present and at the past, and thinking always about needs that may differ from place to place, workable ideas are born, and from those ideas innovation is generated, and then rebirth. It is organic and evolving, this kind of planning, and is based on needs and desires.

Growth results from thinking that understands there is no generic development, no template that can be applied successfully all over the place. The activity that is swirling around Dr. Martin Luther King Drive must evolve from the needs of the people who live in the neighborhoods adjacent to the street, and to businesses that may develop on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. 

Unique effort for a unique neighborhood

Twenty-Second Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd is an important player in this process. He looks to the Delmar Loop a mile or so south of King Drive for inspiration, but wants to go a few steps better that the work entrepreneur Joe Edwards has accomplished in there.

“When people ask me what we need, I tell them it  is developers, developers who’ll come in and help us build on vacant property.” Boyd, in fact, qualifies as being one of those developers. He is working on rehab projects in the neighborhood himself.

A man crosses Martin Luther King Drive between Hamilton and Hodiamont Avenues. The area, on the western border of St. Louis next to Wellston, was once a bustling shopping district.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

But he wants more than just some development.  “I want what we do to be better than the Delmar Loop.”

“What we need is someone with vision who is willing to put the money out there.”

Don Roe, the City of St. Louis' director of planning and urban design, cautions against thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive — the street — as the whole or defining picture of this sliver of the St. Louis metropolitan region.

“The Drive is the spine,” he says, and from it, as in a human body, grows flesh and muscle and vital organs, healthy — or not so healthy.

In and around the spine

The physiological metaphor holds when you venture off King Drive, the better to explore areas that exist to the south and especially to the north. There, out of the mainstream of the Drive, and away from the more evident and abrasive pathologies that inhabit it, astonishing developments come into view: attractive, new housing, such as Arlington Grove and Hamilton Heights, and the renovation of the old Arlington School, which opened in 1881, closed in 1993 and was vacant for many years. In 2012, it reopened as an apartment building, part of the mixed income Arlington Grove apartments project.

"I want what we do to be better than the Delmar Loop." — Jeffrey Boyd

Gardens produce flowers and vegetables in the warm seasons, having been planted and supported by strong and stalwart women such as long-time residents Lovie Haynes, Bernice Jones and others. Residences that survive from the glory days of northwest St. Louis and Wellston continue to earn their keep as livable homes.

There is no sense pretending that all is well; it is not. There’s no use playing as if we live in a color-blind and equitable society just because Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that forbids racial discrimination at the ballot box, or that the Supreme Court ruled the educational separate but equal policy to be unconstitutional in its 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

There is no ignoring crime and the scourge of drugs and the degradation of prostitution, as well as murders and rapes and robberies on streets such as Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and along its edges.  Nor can one ignore the hard-wired fact that racial and cultural differences cling to all of us. Observable and audible differences such as skin color and speech patterns are divisive as well as ingrained.

And then there are economic disparities, and at least the appearance that areas of town occupied mainly by minority populations get the short end of the economic stick, while more stable, more economically productive areas are cosseted by the government.

“Disinvestment (withdrawal or reduction or abandonment of an investment) is a condition we have in St. Louis,” Don Roe says, “And disinvestments don’t get fixed overnight.”

What's being fixed now

The sidewalk in front of the Wellston Station, once the hub of integrated transportation systems once brought 30,000 to 40,000 passengers every day to shop or just to pass through the neighborhood. Now it is a gathering place for vagrants, drug abusers and prostitutes. Looking across the street at the boarded-up building that once was the popular Jupiter discount store, one might assume that the situation is intractable. It appears that this neglected part of town has to settle for slums, racism, struggling or closed schools, economic inequalities, unemployment, broken glass and broken souls.

A boarded-up building sits on the southeast corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Hamilton Avenue, across the street from the site of a proposed neighborhood park.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

But then, like Superman with a pigtail,  along comes Bob Hansman, wiry guy who has survived not only cancer but also spirit-battering disillusionment with public and private institutions. He has also known the tragedies attending the streets and housing projects of the city where he lived for a time, experiencing enough for the living conditions of the poor to eat at him.

Nevertheless, for more than two decades, Hansman, now a fellow of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at Washington U., has inspired his students in the College of Architecture's Community Building classes to understand that social issues should get attention equal to plumbing and load bearing walls in their planning and designing. He teaches that urban maintenance programs should get their share of government and private institutional resources.

At the same time that he has been working with economically and culturally advantaged students at Washington U., Hansman has been busy rescuing disadvantaged children from situations — and futures — that can be described best as grotesque or tragic. He established City Faces in 1994 to advance his mission. That organization provides safe places for children of the Clinton Peabody neighborhood south of Interstate 64/Highway 40, and helps them to redirect anger and frustration into self-evaluation and personal achievement. Today, his son, Jovan Hansman, its executive director, runs City Faces.

For the last 15 years, Bob Hansman has carried his mission to populations on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and in the neighborhoods adjacent to it. He has brought students there to work and to extend their knowledge of humanity; he has acted as an advocate for senior citizens, who often are struggling not only to maintain their residences but sometime simply to survive.

The embrace of his philosophy these days knows no generational boundaries. He’d laugh at the notion, but he has disciples. He has brought along to north St. Louis talented colleagues such as Andrew Raimist, who, like Hansman, Wayne-Jones, and Alderman Boyd, is a keen observer of urban pathologies and promises, and a historian as well.

Raimist organized a "Family Reunion" thrown in the landmark J.C. Penney building on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in November. The building itself is something to see — it is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is celebrated as a building inspired by modernism's International Style and the work of architect Le Corbusier. Fred Lewis owns the building. He feels a responsibility to hold onto it, and improve it as much as possible, and to make it one of the developmental engines on King Drive.

Raimist and his Washington U. students helped bring order to Lewis' incredible collection of modern utilitarian products in time for the Family Reunion, which attracted about 300 folks on a cold day.

Creative preservation and development

Recently, Raimist says has been working on a plan to  “combat common issues especially prevalent in the north side of the city. There’s a lot of open land and plenty of vacant buildings, but there aren’t many people coming in to use the space." Creating housing would be part of the program, and immigrant populations would be welcomed to help to fill the residential spaces.

Raimist is not convinced at all that the sort of density that existed a half a century ago is in the pipeline for Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. But he has convictions, and he believes in finding workable uses for the open spaces — uses that that don’t involve buildings. “How can you turn negatives like vacant land into positives?” he asks. One answer, he believes, is urban farming.

“Someone I talked to said that that station (the soon to be physically stabilized Wellston Station) is the ‘black eye’ of the city, a place where nothing good happens. But what if Wellston had a co-op at the Wellston Station where food from local urban farms might be sold? It would offer a wide variety of produce to people. If you can develop a market for that … people would come.” He is not starry-eyed about this. “It would take years,” he said.

But urban farms can and do help neighborhoods to breathe fresh air and to flourish. One example is John McPheeters and his family’s urban farm in the Central West End, at the corner of Walton Avenue and Olive Street. The development has been as big a boon to a decayed neighborhood as there possibly could be.

Pivot back to Wayne-Jones, who knows all about ideas concerning trolley cars and carrots and zinnias and new buildings and old ones. She is buoyant, and possessed of a gladsome spirit, but she stirs realistic caution into her recipes of optimism and idealism, and is not fearful of making hard decisions, her colleagues say.

“As with anything, someone has to be the leader,” Wayne-Jones says. “Someone has to start this.”

Once again she pauses, then moves into that knotty problem of outside investment. She, with wisdom built on hindsight, understands that for too long the city of St. Louis was so desperate for investment cash it settled regularly for mediocrity — she is concerned about the quality of development of investment dollars produce. 

The Federal Government didn't help much either, The massive highway building programs of the 1950s and the seemingly willy-nilly land clearances contributed enormously to the development of urban wastelands, to food deserts. But, in the process, the new roads offered anyone with a car quick access to the suburbs, stimulating the galloping middle-class flight.

"As with anything, someone has to be the leader." — Shavette Wayne-Jones

For places affected, such as Dr, Martin Luther King Drive's commercial spaces, “We don’t need another Dollar Store," Wayne-Jones said. "We need meaningful places for residents to shop and for other people to come here to shop.” She is aware, however, of the need for rebuilding along King Drive, and the difficulties in finding the right donors with pockets deep enough to do the jobs right.

Beyond the strictly quotidian, she is firm in her convictions of responsibility to traditions and to history.

“We have to be innovative deciding how we address Dr. Martin Luther King,” she said.

“And always,” she concluded, “we need to be respectful of him.”

Tomorrow: Proposals for reinvigorating MLK Drive.