Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Slide from Joseph Heathcott's keynote panel address
This weird deja vu feeling swept over me as the Harvard University conference came to its conclusion.  The 3-day symposium, Voices & Visions of St. Louis: Past, Present, Future, was comprehensive. Scholars, activists and politicians thoroughly dissected our region’s unique history of racial exclusion from the Civil War to 1940's era political shenanigans, health and wealth disparities to redlining, segregated housing and gentrification to large development projects that destroyed black communities and displaced African American residents.

"Race, Space & Design" GSD workshop
Harvard's Gund Hall, site of presentations & workshops
Because the St. Louis region became the national focal point for racial injustice after the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown by a Ferguson, MO policeman, the conveners have committed to “multi-year trans-disciplinary conversations” that address questions of injustice, inequality and exclusion in our city and throughout the country. Even as a long-time journalist and St. Louis native, I was blown away by the national and local presenter. Together we explored the deeply embedded layers of legal and pseudo segregation from the Civil War up to modern times, examining the ramifications and implications for the future.
Ald. Antonio French

At the end of the presentations, news broke that North St. Louis had been selected as
the new location for the 100-acre National Geospatial Agency (NGA) site. The building of a $1.7 billion facility — including $1 billion in construction- $15 million in infrastructure and street repair, a brand new retail district, new housing developments and plans for more restaurants and office spaces; is all cause for celebration.
Slide from Antonio French's presentation

Still, because of the region’s history of exclusion, I was struck by a deja vu feeling. It was like thoroughly studying the history of damage caused by trains on questionable tracks then confronting a new mammoth locomotive barreling down on the black community with unknown consequences.

I spoke during a panel discussion titled “Exposing Exclusion,” outlining the purposeful decision not to invest in North St. Louis. Thousands of housing units were razed in the 1950's to revitalize downtown St. Louis. One of those areas was Millcreek Valley where 80,000 black people lived and 800 businesses operated. After the Pruitt Igoe public housing units (near the new NGA site) were demolished in the early 1970's, a strange set of “unofficial” policies went into motion that prohibited development in North St. Louis for more than 30 years.

Slide from Joseph Heathcott's keynote panel address
Back then, Black leaders took serious offense to language proposed by two white aldermen in board bills 19 and 20 that defined North St. Louis as “an insignificant residential area not worthy of special maintenance effort.” These bills, critics contend, led to the “Team Four Plan.” This 1974 study paid for by the city recommended a policy of “Benign Neglect.” In other words, do nothing, no investments and no s in North St. Louis for at least 30 years. The goal, the plan outlined, was to come back after at least three decades and reclaim and revitalize that portion of the city.
Joseph Heathcott's, State Senator Jamilah Nasheed and Harvard's Diane Davis
Of course, city leaders swear the Team Four Plan was never officially adopted but, by “happenstance,” there was no major investment or development in North St. Louis until St. Charles-area developer, Paul McKee introduced his multi-billion-dollar Northside Regeneration plan. The developer quietly amassed hundreds of parcels of land in depressed areas of North St. Louis. In true “Team Four” fashion, McKee did nothing with most of his dilapidated properties which added further blight to the area and lowered property values of home-owners. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, local politicians helped draft legislation that led to McKee receiving more than $40 million in state tax credits that helped buy parcels of land. City officials also agreed to provide up to $390 million in TIF aid and mortgaged city-owned buildings to help McKee with property deals and lawsuits.

Washington University's Patty Heyda's  presentation slide
“And therein,” as The Bard phrased it, “lies the rub.” In a perfect world bad behavior that displaces poor black folk and empowers rich white folk should not be rewarded. Landing the NGA deal is great news for the region but perhaps not so much for residents and small businesses that's been basically ignored for decades. There is a reason city officials have not invested in North St. Louis for more than 50 years and has used land and tax dollars to land the NGA deal and stubbornly support McKee’s project in the same imprint.

City planners examining the soon-to-be demolished Milcreek Valley area
St. Louis has never gotten over the exodus of almost 500,000 people (mostly white) between the years 1950 and 1990. There is a reason development in North St. Louis-so close to downtown developments-is now the Cause De jure. If it feels like gentrification, smells and looks like gentrification…well, it’s probably gentrification.

However, all is not lost. The Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) in collaboration with Washington University has provided the history and information that demands immediate redress and a new, holistic way forward in addressing racial exclusion by design. National and local urban planners and architects like Jasmin Aber of the Creative Exchange Laboratory (CEL) are dedicated to using proven methodologies that can establish new agendas in urban planning and design. Organizations and individuals like Beloved Streets of America, the Ville Collaborative, Beyond Housing, Better Family Life Inc., State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed and Alderman Antonio French have introduced inclusive, holistic ways to educate and empower poor people and low-income communities.

If it feels like gentrification, smells and looks like gentrification…well, it’s probably gentrification.

Panel for "Reconstructing a Better Future": Michael Willis, Margaret Garb, Patty Heyda, Antonio French and Toni Griffin

What needs further exploration are endeavors like the Sweet Potato Project, which seeks to economically empower at-risk youth and poor people so they can create and sustain self-empowered communities. We need a North St. Louis agenda that’s not separate from but complimentary and inclusive of developments like the NGA and McKee initiatives.

My weird deja vu feeling is not without cause. We've seen this movie before. However, I’m still somewhat invigorated… despite my fears of gentrification in North St. Louis. The Harvard University conference spoke to our pitiful past and our perilous present but it also provides a well-researched path and inkling of promise for our future.

St. Louis has a long history of pushing people and problems into other areas of the region. With our hugely racially-tinged health and wealth disparities, it’s way past time for a new direction.  Although city leaders still seem stuck in the segregated past, there are viable, collective opportunities to reclaim and revitalize other segments of North St. Louis. Black politicians have voted for and/or supported efforts of giving land and money to outsiders to build in the city. It’s time for a little quid pro quo.  We can’t wait on the region to grow up and become inclusive. We have to follow McKee’s and the NGA’s lead and develop an agenda and an empowerment plan for the rest of North St. Louis.