A mapmaker might look at the concrete patch that marks the end of the 4400 block of Vista Avenue and think cul-de-sac. But from street level, taking in the crime rate, property values and recent exodus of residents, it's nothing but a literal and figurative dead end.
The "Street Not Thru" sign at the eastern entrance of the block might be more accurately be rephrased "Street Definitely Through," as in finished. A drive-by windshield survey of the houses on and around Vista, west of Newstead Avenue and south of Manchester Avenue in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, reveal the usual markers of urban abandonment -- the letters "L R A" stenciled across board-ups, "No Loitering" signs posted on front porches and the occasional attempt at grim humor, such as the window on Norfolk Avenue with the warning "Never Mind the Dog, Beware of Owner," complete with the image of a gun pointed outward.
In a one-year period, from June 1999 through July of this year, police received 108 calls for help from the 4400 block of Vista. The calls included 21 assaults, 20 burglaries, two shootings, seven reports of shots being fired and various instances of domestic disturbance and drug activity. The vast majority of those calls involved 18 properties on that one block owned by one man, Jack Krause.
People who have moved away from the block in despair and people who continue to live nearby in disgust believe Krause's real-estate dominance and the block's troubles are more than mere coincidence. Krause is not the classic absentee landlord, however. As co-owner of Jenkin-Guerin Inc., a lubricant business located at 4480 Hunt Ave., Krause can see most of the 36 properties he owns by looking out the front door of his business. He bought those, including the 18 on Vista, over the past decade.
Current and former residents of the troubled neighborhood blame Krause for not screening his tenants, not properly maintaining his properties and being unresponsive to the neighbors' complaints. "The tenants he puts in those houses are like human wrecking balls -- they destroy the neighborhood," says Tom Blackwell, who lives one block south of Vista. Blackwell and other residents are in the midst of dealing with another Krause property at 4364 Hunt. Because that residence is part of the Section 8 housing program, which provides subsidies to low-income renters, Ald. Joe Roddy (D-17th) sent a letter of complaint to the state Housing Development Commission, which oversees Section 8. Many of Krause's properties are not Section 8. In Roddy's Jan. 24 letter, he stated, "Krause has several problem properties in the neighborhood; two of which have been found in violation of St. Louis City's Nuisance Ordinance."
Blackwell has stayed to fight the good fight, as has Kim Jayne, a high-school social-studies teacher at Roosevelt High School who lives two blocks north of Vista on Swan Avenue. Others have decided the battle is too costly and have left.
"The problem right now is, you've got small little islands of responsible land owners and tenants, and they feel overwhelmed," says Brian Wilson, who is assigned by City Hall to Forest Park Southeast as its neighborhood-stabilization officer.
Those islands appear to be getting smaller and less populated because, in this urban version of Survivor, it's not clear who survives -- those who stay on the island or those who get away. Unlike Blackwell and Jayne, 59-year-old Gloria Panchot is one who got away; she moved downtown.
Panchot, born and raised in the neighborhood, 27 years ago moved back into her parents' house in the 4400 block of Vista. She was living in that house in December 1999 when the city's nuisance ordinance was used to evict one group of tenants from a Krause property at 4459 Vista, only to have them move across the street to a different Krause property. Several burglaries, car break-ins and bullet holes in her roof pushed her to the point where what made her leave her home may seem ludicrous: "When they stole my back gate, I said, "That's it.' Just a plain fence gate; it's been up there for 40 years," says Panchot. "Nothing fancy, just a regular fence gate. That was it."
When an 82-year-old neighbor heard Panchot was leaving, she was upset. "When we told her I was moving, she said "What about me?' because we always kept an eye on her and watched over her," says Panchot. "She raised her family in that house. Just like me -- I was 10 years old when I moved into that house on Vista. I had to give up my house because of Jack Krause's tenants. That's terrible."
One couple, after numerous hassles, moved off the block this year, with plans to renovate their house and sell it, but after they moved, a fire of suspicious origin gutted the house.
Some of those who've elected to tough it out may be holding out for redevelopment to head their way. The section of Forest Park Southeast north of Manchester is beginning to see the signs of an overall neighborhood redevelopment plan being driven by Washington University Medical Center, Firstar Bank and McCormack-Baron. But even big players like Wash. U. and McCormack-Baron can raise suspicions among survivors in the 'hood, who fear their properties may be snatched from them against their will when redevelopment spreads south of Manchester.
"We're stuck in a 30-year mortgage," says Jayne, who plans to stay. "We just try to get along with our neighbors: Fight it out when you have to, make friends when you can. We got to fight gangsters on both ends -- we got the little Bloods on one end and we also got Wash. U. on the other."
Most of the redevelopment of Forest Park Southeast is focused east of Kingshighway and north of Manchester, with the significant exception of the $15 million transformation of the empty Adams Elementary School, at Tower Grove and Vista avenues, into a renovated school and a new community center. Some new housing has been built on Norfolk near the school, but, for the most part, the blocks west of the school remain untouched.
Because Krause bought up his properties on the cheap -- snapping up one for as little as $6,000 -- critics suspect he has been land-banking, waiting to be cashed out by redevelopers. By neglecting his properties, they say, he's helped drive down property values, thereby making it easier for him to collect more land.
When Short Cuts finally caught up with Krause, the landlord volunteered that he'd be more than happy to unload his properties -- for the right price: "I'll sell to anybody. I'd love to get rid of them."
Then Krause complained that dealing with his tenants has been "a nightmare, an absolute nightmare" and that buying all that real estate "is the biggest mistake I ever made in my life." He says he's spent $1.5 million for the purchase and upkeep of the 36 properties, never making a profit on his investment and actually losing $296,000 over the last two years.
He claims he bought the land to "improve the neighborhood" around his business but admits the venture didn't turn out as he wanted. Finally, following Roddy's advice, Krause a few months ago hired a property-management firm to screen his tenants.
Of course, that's after 10 years of unscreened tenants' wreaking all manner of havoc throughout the neighborhood. Around Vista, some residents blame their alderman for not doing enough to control Krause and his tenants, but Roddy says the city's nuisance ordinance is "slow and somewhat cumbersome." Roddy says he's "no big fan" of Krause's.
"We whack him every chance we can to try to hold him and his tenants to a standard that benefits the neighborhood. What that standard is is very difficult to establish legislatively," says Roddy. "You end up having to jump through a whole lot of hoops, and then when you've done all this work, you go ahead and slap this guy a little bit on the hand and it's not enough to stop him from doing what he's doing already."
Clearly, the city's nuisance ordinance, revamped in July 1999, is no match for someone who owns 18 properties on one city block and 36 in one neighborhood. The ordinance kicks in when sufficient complaints are lodged on a property to the Citizens Service Bureau, which triggers a "cease and desist" letter to the owner. If the letter doesn't do the trick, a meeting is arranged with police and city officials, at which a settlement is sought. If that fails, a hearing is held at which tenants -- or owners -- can be evicted, and the building can be shut down for up to a year.
Two Krause properties reached that final stage last December. At 4454 Vista, tenants were evicted and the house was closed for 60 days. With regard to 4459 Vista, Krause, facing a hearing, evicted the tenants and boarded up the house.
"We're continuing to whack the guy. We're attempting to make his mistakes expensive for him," Roddy says about Krause, who lives in half-million-dollar house in Webster Groves.
"If this was going on in his neighborhood, he wouldn't tolerate it."