In many ways, Jane Anton got what she wanted, although in the end it didn't turn out as she had hoped. Back in 1983, Anton, a psychologist in private practice, was looking for a building where she could live, have her office and provide "incubator" space for women wanting to start their own businesses. She wanted to be near either Tower Grove Park or Forest Park. The building on the northeast corner of 39th Street and Shenandoah Avenue, which once housed Whitey's Tavern, fit the bill. It was a historic building, and it was in the Shaw neighborhood, a city enclave that was being revitalized. It had apartments attached, it was just three blocks from Tower Grove Park, and it had a grocery store, not a supermarket, across the street.
Anton is from Iowa but had lived in New York and California before coming to St. Louis in 1974. She wanted an urban feel to her home and business, and she knew she had found that in Shaw. The roots of that feel went back to 1857, when that incredibly rich gardener Henry Shaw began to plan the residential area immediately to the east of what would eventually become the Missouri Botanical Garden, more commonly called Shaw's Garden.
"They really laid it out so it had multiple classes built into its housing structure from Flora Place in the middle, which has large single-family homes; then on the sides of it you run into smaller but substantial single-family homes; then the two-families begin working in; and then a street like Shenandoah has almost all two- and four-families and then some larger apartment buildings," Anton says. "It used to be the end of a trolley line."
The structure that had just a few years before housed the rambunctious Whitey's Tavern, known for fights in which someone might fly through the bar's plate-glass window, was renovated into office space for women to use part-time for their start-up businesses. A career-consulting firm run by Anna Navarro was part of the mix. Anton's business thrived, and for 11 years she lived and worked at 2256 S. 39th St.
That total immersion in a neighborhood that seemed to be in permanent transition made those 11 years far from dull. Eventually Anton tired of the bickering, the neighborhood feuds, the class conflict and, to a lesser extent, the crime. One tenant of an apartment of hers was shot in a drug deal gone bad. So in 1994, she kept her business in Shaw but moved less than a mile away, deciding to live on the other side of Shaw's Garden.
"I had become pretty discouraged and disillusioned with the leadership of the neighborhood. Shaw has been notorious for being contentious and having feuds of various sorts," says Anton, citing the spat that led the city to fund two housing corporations St. Margaret of Scotland Housing Corp. and the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association to work the same area. There was also the ongoing war against licenses for liquor and beer. When the owner of the Tom-Boy across the street, Leuther's Market, died and his son and widow eventually decided to sell the market, the new owners, who were immigrants, wanted to maintain the store's liquor license.
"The neighborhood association went into its no-compromise mode," recalls Anton. "I had people stopping me on the street, saying, "Oh, I understand Leuther's been bought by Palestinian terrorists who are going to turn it into a liquor store.' They said they heard it at their block meeting. People are scared anyway. There's an edge of fear in living in the city. If you just start fanning those flames and play on people's fears, they get pretty hysterical and animated. There was just no room for compromise; we tried to negotiate." The new owners had wanted at least to be able to sell beer and wine to go along with their deli trade, but it was not to be. When Leuther's Market was sold five years ago, there would be no liquor license.
As it turns out, Anton's choice living elsewhere but continuing to work in the Shaw neighborhood would only last a few more years. Considering her experience with the fractious nature of the neighborhood's politics, perhaps Anton should have known that she could not go quietly when she made the decision to sell her building and move her business.
The decision by Anton to leave comes at a time when the neighborhood association in Shaw has banded together with three other neighborhood associations to concoct a redevelopment plan for the combined area, which is to be called the Garden District. So despite a history of turmoil and an image as the Balkans of St. Louis, Shaw neighborhood residents have closed ranks to launch what looks to be the most ambitious attempt in the city to resurrect a neighborhood. The fact that the plan has the backing financial and institutional of the Missouri Botanical Garden greatly increases the odds that it may come to fruition.
The main objective of the plan is to salvage McRee Town, an economically depressed and socially troubled area north of I-44 and west of 39th Street. That Shaw, which doesn't have to look elsewhere for grief, would be ambitious enough to attempt such a renewal shows that its leaders are not faint of heart. It also shows that they are pragmatic enough to know that only I-44's eight lanes of concrete separate Shaw from McRee Town, a neighborhood with half the population and half the median household income of Shaw.
A lot of McRee Town's symptoms, like those of many urban neighborhoods nationwide, can be traced to when it was amputated from the rest of its neighbors by an interstate highway. After a swath was cut through the middle of the area in the early '70s, the land sat fallow for several years before the highway was finished. More than one observer thought that some sort of legal action should have been taken to ameliorate the aftereffects of the interstate. Hemmed in by the new highway to the south, railroad yards and light-industrial firms to the north and west, and hospitals along Grand Avenue to the east, McRee Town started to fade.
The worst of McRee Town's criminal activity appears to have passed, as a result of depopulation and arrests, but when it was flaring up, it was as bad as it gets. Police blamed an internal feud among a gang called the Darkside for eight killings and 20 shootings during a 19-month period in 1993-94. That's within an area of less than one square mile.
Though violent crime seems to have diminished, horrific violence continues to occur on a more sporadic basis. On April 7, 1998, during a fight between two feuding groups of girls, 14-year-old Maneabra Pryor was fatally shot. In November 1998, a 17-year-old unloading his .45-caliber semiautomatic gun accidentally shot 6-year-old Porsche Champion in the head, critically injuring her.
So when residents of Shaw look across I-44, they might think they're seeing storm clouds headed their way. Also, metropolitan pundits see an area like Shaw as a barometer for the urban climate, suggesting that as Shaw goes, so might the city. And if American society can best be described as a tossed salad rather than a melting pot, where people of various backgrounds and classes live in proximity but don't often interact or agree, then Shaw is a working microcosm of that metaphor.
Shaw is racially mixed, with about a 50-50 split between African- Americans and whites. In some 60 square blocks, it has about 160 Section 8 federally subsidized rental units and houses on Flora Place that often sell for more than $200,000. In a recent South Side Journal, the "What Did It Sell For?" column listed houses in the Shaw neighborhood that sold from $15,000, at 4132 Shenandoah, to $184,000, at 7 Shaw Place.
Anton knew this when she moved to Shaw. The mix of realities is one of the main reasons she picked the corner of 39th Street and Shenandoah Avenue. But finally, enough was enough.
"The Shaw neighborhood is just a bunch of paradoxes," says Anton. "I find that all very interesting, the diversities and paradoxes of class and race and people having different points of view it's really exciting. But if it's always polarized and everybody goes to war and draws the line and there's no compromise and there's no discussion, that's what wore me out."
Fear and loathing in Shaw
In the end, when Anton decided to sell her building, she set off a maelstrom of controversy that exceeded anything she had experienced. In March, she decided to sell to Covenant House, an international child-welfare organization that Anton describes as serving youth ages 16-21 "who really get totally lost in the system." That much sounded good to Anton. "They can make a huge difference in those young people's lives," she says. "They give them an alternative."
Covenant House Missouri was not going to be a shelter, and it would not be open all night. It was planned to offer educational and vocational assessment and counseling to youth, giving them employment guidance and, possibly, help getting high-school equivalency degrees.
An initial discussion at an April 19 board meeting of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association went well for the idea, with a 12-2 vote in favor of Covenant House's move to Shaw. But the vote was contingent on the approval of the "affected blocks." That's when the process headed into the ditch.
"Then, again, we had this fear-and-loathing-in-the-Shaw-neighborhood tactic. There was a group that was absolutely, totally dedicated to, at all costs, preventing Covenant House from being there," says Anton. "To them, having Covenant House there would prevent other residential development on the corner, it would lower property taxes, it would increase crime, it would cause traffic jams it was awful, horrible, terrible. And, again, there was going to be no compromise."
Rich McGovern, who lives at 3860 Cleveland Ave., didn't see it that way. Covenant House would be moving directly behind his house; in front of his house was the Benedict-Joseph Labre Center, a transitional residence for homeless and mentally ill men run by Peter and Paul Community Services. For McGovern at least, this was not so much a NIMBY "not in my backyard" complaint, it was a backyard and frontyard concern.
"I've been here since 1980, and nothing's ever bothered me," says McGovern. "But at some point in time I don't think I should have to take my residential neighborhood and have a Peter and Paul in front of me and a Covenant House in my backyard. At some point I consider all my work on my house I'm throwing it away.
"What family, what mom and dad with two kids are going to see my "For Sale' sign some day and say, "Hey, I want to live in this house. I want to live across from schizophrenic men, and I want my kids in the backyard, when they're playing, to be looking at the comings and goings of troubled youth between the ages of 17-21.'"
Even though Covenant House said it would only serve youth from the Shaw neighborhood, McGovern was skeptical that they wouldn't go looking for clients and that if someone came from farther away, they would turn them down.
Gina Ryan, a former president of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association who lives at 3822 Flad, opposed the sale and didn't like the way its opponents were portrayed. "There's a handful of people in the neighborhood who are Covenant House supporters. It's gotten to be an awful lot of finger-pointing about who's tolerant and who's not," says Ryan, who feels that's a bogus charge. "Not one person said Covenant House is a bad organization or they're running bad programs. Everybody just said it was the wrong location for it."
Those who knew of the sale to Covenant House early on "didn't anticipate that everybody would react like they would," says Ryan. "It was treated casually, and it backfired."
On April 27 at the meeting of the affected blocks, the vote went 16-5 against Covenant House's being in the building. Trouble was, in the meantime the city had issued an occupancy permit on the basis of the proposed usage for the building and the initial approval by the neighborhood association, even though the approval was stated to be "contingent" on the OK of nearby residents.
As if the situation couldn't get any stickier, the occupancy permit was revoked and the Board of Adjustment held a hearing. Presiding over the meeting was John Koch, a former alderman for Shaw who was familiar with its pitched battles he once survived a recall effort. People took days off from work so that they could testify. Opponents of the deal cited parking problems, noted that the intended use of the building was different from the current use and stressed the expected negative impact on the neighborhood.
The board listened and, about a week later, issued a conditional-use permit limiting the operation to daylight hours and banning any residential component and any recreational or "social programming on the exterior grounds." The program was to "focus only on the youth in the Shaw neighborhood who are between the ages of 17-21."
The opponents were not pleased. With the Benedict-Joseph Labre Center, a shelter for abused women, the Missouri School for the Blind, Cornerstone Child Development, the planned American Youth Foundation and several other agencies, the addition of Covenant House made Shaw appear, as one resident said, as if it were the "Social Services R Us" neighborhood.
What also galled the residents was that Covenant House had tried and failed to locate a facility in the Central West End, at 4314 Lindell Blvd., and later at the corner of Manchester and Boyle avenues. Each time they had such difficulty with either the zoning or the redevelopment authorities Washington University Redevelopment Corp. and McCormack Baron that they looked elsewhere.
Suggestions that Covenant House try buying the soon-to-be-vacant International Institute on Park Avenue or locate on a busier thoroughfare went nowhere. One Shaw resident, Kathleen Sharkey, believes Covenant House wanted to locate in a nicer neighborhood because its "volunteers from the Junior League" wouldn't go to McRee Town or other areas where a building might be cheaper and more convenient. Sharkey, who says she has donated to Covenant House in the past, thinks the new social- service agency on the block will be a magnet for trouble.
"There is going to be a higher concentration of troubled kids in the neighborhood," she says. "We have troubled kids now; nobody is denying that. In fact, (about a week) after the Board of Adjustment hearing, I was mugged right here in the neighborhood. It was an 18-year-old who would be a prime candidate for Covenant House services. But why bring more of that kind of kid into the neighborhood? I was standing with two other people, a man and a woman; we were on a really good block. This guy was so bold. I think he needed a fix of drugs. Twelve noon, broad daylight. I had my purse over my shoulder, and he grabbed the purse and threw me down. The man I was standing with started to fight with him."
The assailant got away, but within a week an arrest was made in connection with the assault on Sharkey.
There is the option of an appeal on the Board of Adjustment ruling, but that would mean hiring a lawyer. In this case, Covenant House has deeper pockets than a bunch of disgruntled neighbors. "They are in essence a multinational corporation with $132 million in assets," says Sean Thomas, of 3805 Cleveland Ave. "They have money to burn."
Marian Wolaver, executive director of Covenant House Missouri, hopes the worst is over as she prepares for an Aug. 16 opening of the facility. Wolaver says the main attraction of the building was it needed no real renovation and lay in an area that needed to be served. "There are many people who support what we're doing, and there are some people who don't," Wolaver says. "Quite frankly, I don't have time to go around rapping on people's doors and asking if they've changed their mind because we're busy trying to get going so we can help kids. That's the bottom line."
Now that the Board of Adjustment has ruled, perhaps the most emotional scenes are over. At one earlier meeting, an opponent got in Anton's face.
"He says, "I know who you are you're the one who's making them close this deal. If it weren't for you, they'd go away, and we want them to go away, so it's all up to you. And you're just doing this because you're greedy.' He says this to my face. I said, "You don't know who I am. You don't have any idea what I'm about.' He says, "Yes, I do. Where do you live? Are there social-services agencies where you live?'
"It doesn't make any difference to these folks," Anton says. "He was whipped into this shape that he was saving his neighborhood from the evil Covenant House."
As it turns out, after living for 11 years in Shaw and several more years on the other side of Shaw's Garden, in the Southwest Garden neighborhood, Anton has moved to Pacific, where she lives on 5 acres and commutes to her practice on Union Boulevard near Forest Park. She says one of her main motives in selling her building was that she was tired of being a landlord. Had she found a buyer who would have let her keep her office there, she would have stayed as a tenant. When it came to Shaw, she was simply sick of living there.
"I thought I was moving into an urban neighborhood that would be revitalizing, that was going to be coping with its problems, that was diverse but that was all sort of working together," she says. "I didn't have any Pollyanna notion that you didn't have neighborhood fights, but I thought that there was some common interest that the neighborhood could perceive and rally around and the Shaw neighborhood doesn't have one and can't do it. As soon as there becomes a common interest, instead of getting a consensus, it draws a line down the middle and chooses sides."
"This is as hard as it gets"
If Anton's theory is correct, that Shaw is so splintered and hell-bent on process and confrontation that it can't perceive a common cause and work toward it, the Garden District plan is doomed. If she's wrong, the plan has a chance of turning around McRee Town, one of the city's most beleaguered areas, while at the same time bolstering the image and reality of the Shaw, Southwest Garden and Tiffany neighborhoods. If all that happens, then the anxieties at the Missouri Botanical Garden that it will be corralled by a smutty urban streetscape of the sort that many of its visitors might only see on the 10 o'clock news will be eased.
Ed Roth, a lawyer and president of the 17-member Garden District Commission, is a point man for the plan. He thinks all the contretemps in Shaw are a sign of health, not sickness.
"These neighborhoods are robust in their citizen involvement and place a premium on process. When any new initiative is introduced that could have a material effect on the neighborhood, or a part of the neighborhood, the pros, the cons, the critical path, the timeline, the who, what, when and where are thoroughly thrashed out by involved citizens," says Roth. "Thus, unlike other parts of our region, where initiatives are shepherded through by insiders, pols, rabbis or power brokers, here people get involved, often in passionate ways that defy Robert's Rules of Order but almost always in ways that, because of freewheeling involvement, ultimately yield the best result for the larger community."
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Garden District plan is that everyone, or most everyone, seems to be kicking in on the chorus. The neighborhood associations of Shaw, Tiffany, McRee Town and Southwest Garden and the powers that be at the Missouri Botanical Garden are backing the plan and have representatives on the Garden District Commission. Ald. Stephen Conway (D-8th) and Deputy Mayor Mike Jones pledge support from the city.
The entire plan might take about $50 million to pull off, but Jonathan Kleinbard, the Garden's deputy director and a commission member, believes the first phase is more in the several-million-dollar range. That first phase includes a privately run community center, similar to the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club, surrounded by softball fields and new housing. The four-square-block area to be cleared for that is bounded by Blaine, Lafayette and Thurman avenues and 39th Street.
In the first five years, the goal is to construct about 100 single-family homes, 75 townhouses and 60 units of elderly housing around the community center. The housing units in the area west of Thurman would be rehabbed when possible, or new "infill" units would be constructed.
So far the money has come from the Danforth Foundation, which kicked in $1.5 million and $250,000 in Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits. The Garden has helped pay for some planning expenses, but, more important, it has pledged to use its influence for future fundraising.
Though the early stages of the collaborative process appear to be going well, progress has not been made without glitches. The first bump in the road was when a mailing was sent out detailing the May 25 Garden District Commission meeting. Enclosed was a 12-page "Report to the Community" that explained the plan. Roth admits that the mailing service hired to send this out mistakenly left much of McRee Town off the mailing list.
When Jim Roos got a copy of the report, alarms went off. Roos is the head of Neighborhood Enterprises Inc., which he describes as a "self-supporting business/ministry" that manages about 75 buildings comprising about 225 rental units, about half in McRee Town and the rest in the surrounding neighborhoods. Most of the units are modest apartments occupied by low-income families. He owns or manages 12 buildings in the area to be bulldozed during the first phase.
Roos is a veteran of the area, working at 2752 Lafayette Ave. and living at 3012 Lafayette, about six blocks east of McRee Town. A graduate of Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Roos has a John the Baptist zeal about his work. Once, when showing a friend bullet holes in his back door, possibly put there by an angry tenant, his friend asked him, "Why don't you leave?" Roos answered, "They missed."
So when he saw the plan and interpreted the lack of a mailed notice as an intentional slight, he printed up letters to "owners and tenants in 3900 and 4000 blocks of Lafayette, McRee and Blaine," that told them, "The Garden District plan has an EVICTION NOTICE for all of us." Roos went on to state, "We have been excluded from the development, implementation and conclusion of this plan."
Since that broadside in May, Roos' relationship with the Garden District folks has eased. Though Roos and others still have major concerns about the displacement of low-income families, the two sides are talking.
"When we circulated the conceptual plan, Roos came on like gangbusters, as though this came out of a star chamber, that this was all secret and all this kind of business," Roth says. "We reminded him that this was a well-publicized process and that if he had attended a neighborhood meeting over the past year he would have known about it."
Both Roth and Conway believe a role exists for Roos in the process, particularly in renovating and salvaging some of the buildings west of Thurman, outside the initial target area. "Jim has a mission in his heart, and there should be a role for him, a bona fide role, in this," says Conway.
John Pachak, one Shaw resident who works with Roos as part of Sanctuary in the Ordinary, a nonprofit corporation that owns properties designed to meet the housing needs of low-income people, is also concerned about what will happen to the disadvantaged in McRee Town. He says that, often, such developments are "an assault on the poor."
Pachak, who is also program director of Catholic Community Services, at 1202 S. Boyle Ave., says the Garden District Commission is not representative of the affected area, because it has no renters or low-income residents of McRee Town. "The plan that's been passed out shows a lot of greenspace where people are living now,"says Pachak. "McRee Town needs to be redeveloped, but our hope is that it would be inclusive of the people who are living there rather than forcing them out to make it look prettier for people going to visit the Garden."
Kleinbard, who was hired by the Garden after working for more than 20 years in neighborhood development for the University of Chicago, is aware of that criticism. He wants to ease those fears and to admit the underlying basis for them. "The first thing that happens here is to provide decent, affordable housing for an underserved population," says Kleinbard. "There are 40-50 households that will have to be relocated. Our commitment has to be to provide them better housing in the same area, if that's where they want to stay."
And, yes, the Garden is concerned about how it looks from the highway.
"If people drive down I-44 and they see boarded-up, devastated buildings along DeTonty and Lafayette, they're basically not going to the Garden," says Kleinbard. "If they drive down Shaw and they see boarded-up windows and lots with abandoned cars parked in them, who the hell is going to come here? Ten years from now, that'll be it unless you reverse it."
So Kleinbard set out to get the neighborhoods to take the lead, with the Garden behind them. "There's nothing altruistic about it. It's totally self-interest," says Kleinbard, who lives on Flora Place. "Just like you want folks who live here to say, "Hey, this is in my interest to have my street look good.'"
That some suspicions have been raised early is no surprise to Kleinbard, who was a catalyst in the renewal of the Woodlawn, North Kenwood and Oakland neighborhoods in Chicago. "There are people who are not for this. The knives are out; that's OK. That's good. I just like them to be in daylight."
Pachak is suspicious that what passes for inclusion where he lives in Shaw doesn't always mean any more than mere coexistence. "It's a liberal idea of diversity," says Pachak. "You talk about living next to somebody else, but it's really only because you're already there and people who are different are moving in and you're not leaving. It doesn't mean you're making contact with those people or making connections with them."
Roth begs to differ. He stresses the All Shaw Choir as an example of an activity that involves a wide range of residents. Also, Roth believes that the decibel level of recent spats has diminished: "I think there's more unity in the neighborhood. There's less conflict than 10 years ago among various factions in the neighborhood." Part of that is the result of action against problem properties.
"We have a better handle on absentee landlords than we did 10 years ago. Absentee landlords who neglect their properties know that the people in Shaw are going to kick their ass," says Roth. "As a result, we are doing much better, with people taking better care of their properties and making sure their tenants are respectful of their neighbors. We haven't solved the problem, but we've really gotten a handle on it."
As for reaching out to McRee Town, Roth sees the eventual reopening of the Thurman Avenue underpass of I-44 as a symbolic rejoining of the neighborhoods. Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association president John Merideth says that blocking the underpass was a bad idea.
"There was discussion at the time of actually concreting in or cinderblocking in the whole underpass so there wouldn't be an underpass, the idea being, basically, build your barrier as high as you can build it and don't allow the traffic back and forth," says Merideth. Closing it made it worse because burglars and robbers on foot could escape Shaw and, if they were pursued, "the police would be stuck; they'd have to go all the way to 39th Street or all the way to Tower Grove Avenue, and by then you never could find anybody."
Crime, and the perception of crime spreading from McRee Town, has been a concern for a long time. Earl P. Holt III is a former school-board member, a strident opponent of the voluntary-desegregation program and the archconservative host of Right at Night on WGNU (920 AM). He is glad that something is being planned for McRee Town. And he does not mince words.
"Anything they do to redevelop McRee Town has got to be good, because it's probably the highest concentration of violent crime in the entire city of St. Louis. So anything they do there, from gardening to carpet bombing, sounds good to me," says Holt. "If the Garden is really going to bulldoze everything from Blaine to Lafayette, it'll save me a lot of money in ammo I won't have to buy." Holt admits that crime has eased a bit in the last few years. "My neighbors used to be routinely held up with shotguns and have their doors kicked in," says Holt, who lives on Shaw Boulevard. "That does not seem to be happening anymore."
Winning Floyd over
Had the Missouri Botanical Garden been successful in its plan eight years ago, the current Garden District plan would never have materialized. The Garden's myopic goals would have been realized, and the neighborhoods would have been left to their own fate.
Back in 1991, the Garden's board wanted to issue $7.5 million in bonds to buy its way to the highway.
What the Garden, which receives a tax subsidy through the Zoo-Museum District, had planned to do was to buy all the land between its entrance and Interstate 44, thereby closing off Shaw Boulevard. If attempts to buy the land failed, eminent domain was an option. The roughly one-block-by-two-block area contained 42 buildings and was home to some 250 people, both renters and homeowners. The board had approved the sale of $7.5 million in revenue bonds to buy the land and finance the increased parking and improved access to the interstate. They had even received permission to dismantle the front section of the Garden's stone wall, erected in 1859 under the supervision of Henry Shaw, so that the front entrance could be expanded to I-44.
If that vision had been realized, visitors to the Garden could have steered clear of any funky city scenes by exiting the interstate directly into the parking lot and touring the grounds without having to mix with any of the locals. The plan wasn't leaked to those in the buyout area until the Garden's board had decided to do the deed.
Floyd Wright, who lived on DeTonty Street and led the opposition to the move, thinks that both the plan and the closeted way in which it was devised showed that the Garden folks were out of touch with the nearby neighborhoods. "We were unwilling participants. We had no warning of the expansion to bulldoze and demolish our area," says Wright. "They didn't have any idea who lived over here. They just thought there was a bunch of lowlifes."
Whatever the Garden planners at that time thought, they had to rethink it, because of the vocal and effective protest launched by residents of the Southwest Garden neighborhood, the small sliver of land to the north and west of Shaw's Garden and to the south and east of I-44, Kingshighway Boulevard and Vandeventer Avenue. They hired an attorney, Shulamith Simon, to represent them. Eventually, amid threats of legal action, protest picketing of the Garden and a media feeding frenzy, the Garden backed off from its plan.
When all the turmoil surfaced, Wright was in the midst of a 30-year career as a teacher of remedial reading at Fox High School in Arnold. He describes himself then and now as an "urban pioneer," a term that, when used by Wright, sounds fitting. He moved from the suburbs, buying and living in a four-family flat that he fixed up as he lived in it. He gradually bought other buildings as they became available, including several on one block when news of the Garden plan went public.
"We had bought some properties to stabilize the block because we had various crime and drug problems. We had done this work for 15 years; I was a teacher doing this in the summer, on nights and weekends, all my time. My neighbors had done the same thing. We had fought the good fight. We did not choose to be destroyed. We were completely unaware of the expansion plan."
Having been burned once by such shenanigans, it took awhile for Wright to warm up to the current plan. He wanted to make sure that this time would be different.
"I waited a year before joining them. They had public meetings to discuss the development plan," says Wright, who is now part of the 17-member Garden District Commission. "The whole thing was handled very differently; it was very open. When they called me, one thing that was said to me was there would be no secrets. I detested the clandestine nature of the other attempt eight years ago to do something."
One sign of a change of attitude from inside the garden wall is that Kleinbard lives in the Shaw neighborhood. Wright believes that in years past, new hires and interns were routinely advised to live elsewhere than in the adjacent neighborhoods. Now the garden owns several two-family and four-family flats in the area that serve as temporary housing for interns and new staff.
Kleinbard, who was not at the Garden in 1991, admits that actions then were "not done in full public view." That has changed.
"You have to build a case that there are overlapping agendas," says Kleinbard. "Not everybody will agree, and there will be people who oppose it. That's only normal; that's sort of natural. The Garden's agenda is such-and-such. Explain it; make people understand it. Don't have hidden agendas. There are no such things anymore. You can have hidden agendas, but they're going to bite you in the rear end."
That Wright is on board with this effort is noted often by those pushing the plan, as if his presence is a stamp of approval of its intent and its method. Wright just thinks something needs to be done in McRee Town. He's in touch with residents there, and because they are involved and support the plan, Wright is with them. "We can be helpful in turning around McRee Town," says Wright. "They cannot do it by themselves. They've been hung out to dry for years and years and years. Their problems of absentee landlords and drug problems are not solvable by themselves. The police have tried; they've zoomed in and tried to stop problems. But the problem is urban decay. I would say over half of the housing stock that was there is either no longer there or is boarded up."
There was no plan for McRee Town aside from 911 attention doing what had to be done, only when it had to be done. As Wright sees it, the Garden District plan isn't chiseled in stone and wasn't brought down from Mount Sinai. In his view, the plan will happen in pieces and can be changed along the way.
Money will be an issue. The Garden board, with its connections, is seen as crucial to raising funds from the private sector. More specific financial projections are expected by the end of this month. The estimate that it may take up to $50 million to revitalize the area includes a variety of means such as direct private donations, loan guarantees, tax credits, federal and state money, and housing subsidies. After the first few million bucks, Kleinbard predicts, the rest will come from "banks, institutions and pension funds putting money in they expect to get out and will get out." The neighborhoods are looking to the Garden for the financial help, but the Garden won't be handing over their checkbook.
"Nobody has this kind of money," Kleinbard says. "We have maybe the leverage to make this happen.
"We'll do everything we can to help them raise this money," he adds. "We'll ask our board to help them. We don't have the money to pay for this; this is a huge project, it is not going to happen easily. It will take a variety of financial instruments and vehicles to make it happen. It's very, very difficult. This stuff doesn't happen overnight; it's seven to 10 years, at best."
Progress likely will be incremental. Wright predicts that, in order to clear the space for the recreation complex, up to about 40 families may have to be moved over the next 10 years. That could mean as few as two or three families a year.
"They could be moved into the half of the McRee Town that would not be demolished under this plan," says Wright. "There's plenty of room for them there. There is no plan to grab a bulldozer and knock down buildings that are occupied. There are literally dozens of buildings that are empty that need to be knocked down. That will take two or three years right there.
"There could be all kinds of modifications of the plan. If there is some housing that the planners suggest be demolished, if someone else says, "Hey, we can rehab it,' we'll say, "Let's go ahead and see if we can rehab that row of houses,'" says Wright. "We're not going to have that kind of thing happen. If there is a row of viable houses, we can incorporate that into the plan."
As new houses are built and worthy ones rehabbed, Wright believes that the "long-suffering tenants have first right in the new housing."
And if at any point during the process Wright smells a rat, he knows what to do. "Everything so far has been quite aboveboard, and if it ever wasn't, I would quit," he says bluntly. "If I felt it wasn't aboveboard, I wouldn't be part of it."
But though the Garden seems to have come to its senses about its surrounding environment, city government and its agencies appear to be missing in action in McRee Town. The Garden District plan itself is almost proof of that.
"Waiting for the city to do something, to show leadership on an isolated pocket of blight, is a lost cause," Wright says in a matter-of-fact, everybody-knows-this-is-true tone of voice. "But the city will support a local initiative, a Garden initiative."
Deputy Mayor Jones admits that the city had no plans for McRee Town.
"Or most places," Jones says. "It's not like McRee Town got picked on because everyone else had a plan and they didn't." The city has had no planning agency for more than 20 years, ever since the Community Development Agency (CDA) was created, in part to serve that purpose. That aspect of the CDA's mission faded, and the city "quit doing planning of any serious nature," Jones says. Under the new reorganization of the St. Louis Development Corp., a department of planning and urban design has been reinstituted.
Jones promises that the city will do what it can to help implement the Garden District plan, but he credits the Garden as being an "institutional leader" by becoming involved in the surrounding community. "The Garden taking this approach to Shaw and McRee Town is critical," Jones says. "It's interesting that they decided to cast their bucket in the neighborhood that needed help the most. Lots of times, people pick the easiest one to do. In McRee Town, they picked the toughest to do. From my standpoint, they get four stars. You need people to step up and take responsibility for the hard stuff."
Roth doesn't think that waiting for city money, or action, is a good idea.
"In the city of St. Louis, even the most committed people have looked at revitalization efforts only in terms of what kind of government funding that they could get," says Roth. "Then they look at McRee Town and say, "There's not enough money in the world.' I used to be one of them, saying, "You're nuts there's not enough money in the world to correct the problems there.' Everyone is sort of jockeying for a little slice of a small pie. People spend untold hours trying to angle for $2,000 to get a computer for the neighborhood association you know, those kind of crumbs. What distinguishes this effort from the kind of scrambling that neighborhood people do to get a small amount of resources is the fact that the Missouri Botanical Garden is interested in this. They have the capacity, if they have the will, to tackle a project like McRee Town."
So the often contentious Shaw neighborhood, no stranger to internal civil strife, has joined forces with the guardedly suspicious but recently converted Southwest Garden neighborhood to back what appears to be a good-faith effort by born-again Missouri Botanical Garden leadership to do the difficult, if not impossible, job of bringing back McRee Town from the brink.
Wright, a veteran skeptic, is hopeful.
"The whole philosophy is to let Jonathan Kleinbard help develop the neighborhood rather than walling the garden off from the neighborhood," says Wright. "The attitude is completely reversed from what it was in 1991."