Monday, March 28, 2016

Moving Beyond the Segregationist Mindset of St. Louis..with your Help

It’s almost enough to make you throw your hands up and just give up:   


The March 25th St. Louis Business Journal article reports how Mayor Francis Slay and the City of St. Louis plan to sell a Chicago company 42 acres of vacant land in North St. Louis for $1 so it can grow trees.

Rendering of an urban tree farm / courtesy St. Louis Business Journal

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against planting trees or any ill intent towards the company Fresh Coast Capital or their desire to help beautify cities like St. Louis and Kansas City. What bothers me is this city’s stubborn desire to empower folks who look nothing like the residents of North St. Louis while refusing to invest in the people who live, work and struggle there.

I’ve been writing about this for years and have reached out to aldermen asking that they help identify some of the 8,000 + vacant properties in their wards that it can be given to low-income people to grow food. The Sweet Potato Project (SPP) is not only training youth in entrepreneurship and urban agriculture, we’re working to build a collective of residents who grow and sell food in (were many food deserts are located) and outside their neighborhoods.

What bothers me is this city’s stubborn desire to empower folks who look nothing like the residents of North St. Louis while refusing to invest in the people who live, work and struggle there.

In my perhaps biased mind we’re offering a win/win scenario for anybody interested in revitalizing North St. Louis. By giving land to residents; we give them a vested interest in protecting and rebuilding their neighborhoods. As a collective, we can grow massive amounts of fresh produce; we can erect a couple farmers markets in the city so youth and adults can sell their produce and wares starting this summer. We want to develop a brand of “value-added” products (cookies, pies, spices, canned goods, etc) so restaurants, coffee shops, major grocers and consumers can all support the effort by purchasing produce and products from newly empowered North St. Louis residents.

By giving land to residents; we give them a vested interest in protecting and rebuilding their own neighborhoods. 

It boggles my mind how the city will work with a rich St. Charles-area developer to access hundreds of acres of North St. Louis land (covertly mind you); allow those properties to rot for years then help write legislation that rewards the developer millions in tax dollars. There’s no “free land” for residents but plenty to woo the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to locate near the old Pruitt-Igoe site. Eminent domain has been and is now being employed again to kick residents out of neighborhoods they’ve occupied for decades.

I have no desire to fight City Hall or insult North St. Louis aldermen. I’m trying my best to operate an under-funded nonprofit but I’m also a journalist who, damn it, has no choice but speak truth to power. And the truth is that there’s an inflexible segregationist mindset that still holds the region in a vice-like grip. As it revitalizes downtown, Grand Center and now North St. Louis, there is no compulsion to include or empower residents of these areas. After all the post-Ferguson reports, negative disparity studies and proof of long-term exclusion the region is just as racially exclusionary today as it was more than 50 years ago.

...the truth is that there’s an inflexible segregationist mindset that still holds the region in a vice-like grip.

I’ve been working with urban youth for about five years. I have experienced their brilliance, natural survival skills and hunger for direction. I’ve heard the cries and demands of young people who are challenging “the systems” (economic, educational and criminal justice) to realize that their lives matter, too. It's not like we have to start from scratch either. There are dozens of grassroots urban farmers growing food in North St. Louis. We just need to get more land, grow more food and market our produce as a collective. 

I envision environments that nurture these youth and adults and provides self-sustaining economic opportunities in their neighborhoods. Growing and selling food and food products will not be an all out panacea but it is a viable means to inspire and lead youth and adults into other areas of self-empowerment.  

Clarity can be a curse sometimes. I can see this vision as clear as a cloudless sky but many with the juice to make things happen in St. Louis don’t share my enthusiasm. We’re either ignored by politicians or dissuaded by funders who doubt the viability of a community controlled food-based movement. It seems city planners have more faith in outsiders than local folk. I'm not looking for an "either or" thing, I'm hoping for a "both and" approach. Invest with outsiders if you must but let's be inclusive and support long-time city residents, too.


I'm not looking for an "either or" thing, I'm hoping for a "both and" approach. Invest with outsiders if you must but be inclusive and support long-time city residents, too.

I’m getting old and have less and less interest in fighting for what I deem a common sense approach to making poverty-stricken, deadly neighborhoods healthier, safe and economically vibrant. What keeps me going, first and foremost, are the young people we serve. Secondly, it’s the people who share or who have adopted our mission. It’s institutions like St. Louis University and Chef Steve Jenkins who provide culinary and product development services for the Sweet Potato Project; it’s our board and advisers who give their time and expertise: It’s all the generous people and entities that have donated money, time, space and have volunteered to share their knowledge with our students.

Yeah, I grow tired of struggling and grappling with the mindset of movers and shakers who apparently believe that North St. Louis’ resurrection lies in the hands of outsiders.  I’ve come to the realization that if SPP’s long term vision of community revitalization and empowerment is to be actualized, it has to happen on the grassroots level-first. It’s going to happen because the idea resonates with all kinds of people who believe in its powerful premise.  

I’ve come to the realization that if SPP’s long term vision of community revitalization and empowerment is to be actualized, it has to happen on the grassroots level-first. 

So, in the spirit of Booker T. Washington, we have to cast our buckets down where we are and work harder with the folk who truly believe. The Sweet Potato Project requires help in all sorts of areas. For a detailed listing of our 2016 needs click here. Additionally, our goal is to have 25 partner gardeners growing food with us this year. Right now we have a buyer, St. Louis University, for all the sweet potatoes we grow as a collective. We invite churches, community organizations and individuals who own or can access vacant properties to join us. Click here for more information.

...if we can develop a grassroots template of food-based development that empowers poor people, we can impact the trajectory of “community development” in North St. Louis and beyond.

We will never effectively address disproportionate levels of crime, poverty or hopelessness until we can empower poor people to make and sustain the change we all desire. I may still be a naive optimist but I maintain that if we can develop a grassroots template of food-based development that empowers poor people, we can impact the trajectory of “community development” in North St. Louis and beyond. If we can convince politicians and city planners that ordinary people in the areas they’ve targeted for development can stay in their own neighborhoods and generate money from food like they’ve done in Soulard, Tower Grove and places like Kansas City, we’ll be in a position to demand the same energy, passion and taxpayer dollars doled out to rich developers and other entities.

This revelation is enough to keep one going until the region wakes up.