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North St. Louis homeowners push for revitalization and investment, one block at a time

From left to right: Dan Lovings, Phillip Johnson, and Andy Krumsieg.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

Crumbling homes, missing bricks, dangerous streets, and crushing poverty — these details make up the overwhelming narrative of north St. Louis often offered by national media, local media and popular perception.

But Dan Lovings, a longtime St. Louis resident, moved to north St. Louis with the intention of owning and putting money into a house there. He meant to build a good home, increase property values, and join and contribute to the neighborhood. But to do so, he found, would require some individual initiative.

First, he worked on the simple things: beautification, cleanliness, neighborhood involvement. “When I first came over to the neighborhood, there was a lot of litter on the street for some reason,” Lovings said. “So I chose to start picking up litter. And after I started picking it up, other neighbors started picking it up. And now we have a pretty clean street.”

Then, Lovings decided to build an extension on his house, located in the Academy-Sherman Park neighborhood. He added a front-facing garage and a loft space above it. He put in landscaping work, adding shrubberies to the front lawn area bordering a vacant lot. And he joined his neighborhood association — for which he now serves as vice president. Some of his neighbors, he said, are following suit.

Contrary to popular perception, the neighborhoods of north St. Louis host many community members like Lovings, who initiate improvement and are dedicated to positive change, even if on a small scale. Now, filmmaker and author Phillip Johnson is trying to get more people to pay attention to those leaders — and to north St. Louis itself, as the area revitalizes block by block with coffee shops and farmers markets, park construction and housing development.

The idea of north St. Louis residents as agents of their own recovery is either discounted or unfamiliar in popular media, but community leaders and homeowners in the area beg to differ. Their efforts to increase the value of their homes and neighborhoods through restoration, beautification and municipal involvement have created a network of community partners and dedicated residents that are working to revitalize north St. Louis from the inside, out.

“Yes, you can look in the paper and you can hear stories of shootings and gang violence in north St. Louis, but there is always an alternative narrative,” Johnson said. “And I think it’s just as important to get that narrative out.”

There are beautiful, well-kept houses north of Delmar, Johnson said, and behind them are dedicated homeowners who decided long ago to stay in their shifting neighborhood and keep it from falling apart.

In his forthcoming book and video project, “Hidden Jewels of North St. Louis,” Johnson will tell the stories of those who own and reside in north St. Louis’ prime but ignored real estate.

Andy Krumsieg is an associate pastor at Jubilee Community Church, 4231 North Grand Blvd., and director of its development corporation. A St. Louis expat who returned in 1994, Krumsieg has rehabbed several houses on the block of Hebert Street. on which he lives. He explained that personal investment in north St. Louis housing has various benefits, even as it presents challenges.

“It’s an investment in my family, it’s an investment in our life, in our community,” Krumsieg said.

But the changes he can personally make are incremental and limited. “I think it’s going to take a good amount of people that are going to say, ‘we are going to restore buildings, we’re going to restore lives, we’re going to make our community a strong and vibrant place.’”

“When you move into a neighborhood, when you buy a house, there should be things that are inherent, understood,” Johnson said. In many areas of north St. Louis, he continued, expectations for property are low — for renters, for homeowners, for visitors, for investors. Lovings, remember, had to start a street-wide movement to keep trash off of a neighborhood road. “The expectations in this community have to be brought up.”

But while the sentiment for community improvement might be contagious, the ability to enact it is not, Krumsieg said. Picking up trash is one thing, but building a garage is another. Finances are a huge concern for many residents of the area — and without spare funding, tax or other monetary incentives, or the ability to take out loans, house rehabilitation is a pipe dream.

Prospects for refurbishing property in the area only got worse with the financial crisis of 2007-08. Krumsieg himself bought another building in the neighborhood years ago as an investment. It was appraised at $110,000 before the economic downturn, he explained, and some years later he went back to get it re-appraised and refinanced for future work. “Well, I got the appraisal back and it had gone, not from 110 to 70 or 60 or 50 — it had gone all the way down to $12,000. And this was a building that was already rehabbed.”

Those numbers are dramatic — and problematic. But many residents of north St. Louis can’t even think about financing their homes; not simply for economic reasons, but because the area is largely made up of renters. Demographics in north St. Louis changed in the ’70s, Johnson explained, when many middle-class African-American families moved to the county. Now, much of north St. Louis property is owned by non-residents — straw parties, corporations or private investors — which Krumsieg says lends to a sort of “impersonalness” in neighborhood leadership.

A high percentage of renters and a fair number of disinterested, absentee landlords — these are not favorable conditions for the kind of groundswell of investment that Johnson, Krumsieg and Lovings want to foment.

Johnson retains hope. He has started a foundation, which, he says, will hopefully offer homeowners resources for home repair and development, thus kicking off a cycle of improvement. Homeowners who can afford to rehabilitate their homes and nearby properties become necessarily invested in improving the health of the community at large, even if it’s one step at a time. In turn, they empower their neighborhoods, attracting businesses, nonprofits and private investment.

Those kinds of ideas, he said, catch—especially if all parties to the neighborhood recognize that they share a responsibility to the neighborhood. Eventually, Johnson hopes that the efforts of homeowners like Krumsieg and Lovings become the new normal.

Until then, they continue to spread the message among homeowners, renters and community members alike. Krumsieg says he preaches the restoration of the neighborhood, “physically, spiritually, in all ways,” at Jubilee Community Church. “We live it out every day.”

Lovings engages with communities all over the city through the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations, and continues to play up the many qualities of north St. Louis real estate. Owners who sit on vacant buildings simply waiting for them to become valuable are missing out on their own property, he said. “These houses, they sit on an 18-inch foundation, stone blocks,” he said.

“The walls are three-layer-thick brick — I mean, they’re outstanding houses. I don’t understand how St. Louis is letting these houses fall by the wayside.

“That’s what I’ve always done, is try to raise the conscious level about our property and everything,” Lovings said. “We always call ourselves ‘ghetto fabulous,’ you know?” Because the property is fabulous — it’s just that no one comes to look.  

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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