June 12, 2000
Story by Richard H. Weiss; Photos by J.B. Forbes of the Post-Dispatch
Richard Baron is in the right place at the right time -- 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday in October in Schnucks' corporate headquarters. But he's blanking on who he's supposed to meet -- one of those senior moments. Fortunately he's got his cell phone. Sitting in the lobby, he calls his secretary.
Gordon Lyons, he's told.
He gives the receptionist Lyons' name and is soon shepherded to his floor.
They take seats around a table in an unadorned conference room. Baron has already set the groundwork for this conference. He's hoping Schnucks will join him in a proposal to redevelop the Pruitt-Igoe site, the city lot that once was home to one of the most notorious public housing complexes in America until it was torn down in the early 1970s.
Baron approached Schnucks after he learned that it might lose its store at 1030 Cass Avenue when the state builds approach ramps to a new Mississippi River bridge. He suggested that Schnucks might replace it with a new supercenter just a mile away on the Pruitt-Igoe site at Cass and Jefferson avenues.
But is Schnucks in for a political headache?
Schnucks opened an inner-city supermarket at Natural Bridge Avenue and Union Boulevard in 1997. Building that store had not been a happy experience. The project had become ensnarled in a dispute between Alderman Sharon Tyus and Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and took three years to complete.
Lyons has heard that Alderman April Ford Griffin, D-5th Ward, would rather see light industrial use on the Pruitt-Igoe site. And there had been talk of a golf course.
Groceries need rooftops. "The housing is important to us, " Lyons says. "If we find ourselves in the middle of an industrial park . . . ."
"Very frankly, I think this will go away, " Baron says. "I've had conversations with people in Washington and at HUD" -- Housing and Urban Development.
"They're the ones who at the end of the day are going to approve this or not. I'm not very concerned about it, " Barron says. "They've just put in a magnet school in that neighborhood. They're not going to drop a bunch of 18-wheelers on top of it. I wouldn't worry about it."
Then Baron starts weaving a narrative about the possibilities for the site; how his company, McCormack Baron & Associates, can leverage up to $30 million through the Hope VI program established to redevelop abandoned public housing sites.
Lyons listens respectfully. Baron walked into this meeting with quite a reputation, the Tiger Woods of urban redevelopment.
While home builders in the suburbs played it down the middle of the fairway by building in established neighborhoods and working with conventional financing, Baron had learned how to play out of the rough and sandtraps.
He can do this because after 30 years of dealing with federal and state bureaucrats, he understands the rules, the regulations, the ins and outs of tax breaks, credits and incentives.
He can do this because he has learned how to network with interested civic leaders such as Ben Edwards of A.G. Edwards, Andy Taylor of Enterprise Leasing, David Kemper of Commerce Bank. He has shown them his stunning before-and-after slides, taken them on tours of his projects and had them look into the eyes of the children who would benefit. Then they wrote six-figure checks. Over the years, McCormack Baron has landed $33.5 million in corporate and foundation support for its projects across the nation.
Baron can do this because he understands how companies he works with like to do business, and he keeps them well within their comfort zones.
Baron assures Lyons his company won't get tied up in political knots again. McCormack Baron will carry the ball. "We'll take care of all that gummy stuff, " he says. "We just need you guys to be there."
Chapter 4 Does anyone care?
School principal Ann Meese awakens at 2 a.m. on Oct. 14 hearing a doorbell. Who could be at the door at this hour? she wonders. She goes downstairs, opens the door to her town house in Murphy Park just northwest of downtown and finds no one. She notices, too, that she doesn't have a doorbell. Must have been dreaming.
Meese can't get back to sleep. Her head is spinning with all the problems she will have to sort out this day at Jefferson Elementary School -- the usual ones like getting her paperwork done, bucking up the staff, which is having so much trouble with the "Success for All" reading program.
And then the big one. Six weeks into the school year, just when the students have settled in with their teachers, Meese will have to reassign dozens of students to new teachers and classrooms. Meese knows how disruptive this will be to the students, how damaging it will be to the morale of her teachers.
The problem is that enrollment figures have not matched projections. This is common throughout the city. City residents move far more often than people in the county, and it's difficult for the district to know how to assign its teaching staff. Moreover, the district has been unable to fill numerous teaching vacancies. So every October, hundreds of students are pulled from teachers with whom they've bonded and placed somewhere else.
At a meeting a couple of days earlier, several teachers were outraged by the unfairness of it all. Why couldn't the board just give Jefferson an additional teacher for the second grade? Couldn't Meese go to bat for them? Doesn't anyone care?
"The district keeps saying 'We're for kids. We're for kids, ' " said Karen Jones, a fifth-grade teacher. "No, they're NOT. Who actually gives a care?"
Sue Turner, a fourth-grade teacher, chimed in: "The city would have more money if they would tax some of these corporations."
Meese was grateful when curriculum coordinator Darlynn Bosley spoke up that day. Bosley, wife of the former mayor, is cool and direct and has a nice way of getting people focused on what needs to get done.
"We can all be politicians, " Bosley said, her voice rising. "We can send a letter to the board and the superintendent. Do you think that's going to change anything? We have children here and we have to meet their needs now."
That helped shift the focus to trying to solve the problem. Lots of ideas surfaced, none particularly attractive.
That's what is keeping Meese from getting back to sleep on this raw October morning. Had she had the time to read the newspaper, she would be met with more bad news. State officials are saying Missouri education commissioner Robert Bartman plans to recommend that the city school district lose its accreditation. Only eight city schools meet student performance standards on state tests and Jefferson isn't among them. Not even close.
Now Meese has to make a decision that probably will make catching up to those standards even harder.
At 5 a.m., she walks over to school from her apartment and works at her desk until 8:30. Then, with her jaw set, she heads up the steps -- not stopping as she usually does to greet a student or accept a hug. She has to tell Karen Jones, Sue Turner and Mary Spencer that they will have to bear the brunt of the enrollment mess.
She will shift Dan Monnig, a fourth-grade teacher, to the second grade. Jones, Turner and Spencer will preside over larger classes.
The three have been expecting the news. And they make Meese proud by the way they divide responsibilities with so little fuss: Spencer will teach social studies to all the classes, Turner will handle math and Jones science. Looking on the bright side, it will give the children some variety and a taste of what it's like in middle school, where switching from room to room is part of the routine.
But Meese operates under no illusions. The teachers are right. This wouldn't have happened in a suburban district. The upheaval and the mixed classes will retard the progress of at least some fifth-graders.
Meese has made a calculated decision. The younger the child, the better chance Jefferson has of getting that pupil up to grade level. Not that she considers any child a lost cause, but these fifth-graders will be moving on to new schools next year. Jefferson's reputation will rise or fall with the gains it makes with the little ones.
Later that afternoon, Meese strides wearily into Monnig's room and delivers the news to the children. "I have an announcement to make, " she says over a din. "On Monday, I'm going to have you start in a combined classroom with Ms. Jones or Ms. Spencer."
Some children cheer; others look perplexed; one girl cries.
Meese asks the students to go to their assigned rooms to meet their new teachers. As the fourth-graders enter her room, Spencer adds a teaspoon of sugar to her voice.
"Life in these United States is something, isn't it Patrick?
"Things don't always work out fairly do they, Miss Greer?"
Then her eyes land on a smirking fourth-grader. "Son, get your act together immediately -- if not sooner."
* The children have only a vague notion of who Richard Baron is. When asked, one child responds, "He's rich and owns everything."
Chapter 5 Their quest
"Don't look like you're sad about it, " Sue Turner is telling the 18 fourth- and fifth-graders gathered before her. "Look like you're serious about it."
Turner teaches the fourth grade and is spending 15 minutes at the noon hour taking the children through a last rehearsal of "My Quest."
The children will recite the verse this afternoon in honor of Richard Baron, the developer who will receive the St. Louis Award in the school gym. It will be a surprise and a nice capper on the day Baron is honored for his redevelopment efforts.
The children already have demonstrated that they know their lines. Now Turner wants to make sure they look disciplined and dignified in front of Baron and 300 of St. Louis' most distinguished citizens. She and fifth-grade teacher Karen Jones are taking them through their paces.
"If you forget your lines, don't stop, " Turner says. "Don't stop. Let it flow . . . ."
Jones says: "There's going to be a big crowd. Don't get distracted. Pick up something in the back of the room and focus on it."
And don't fool around, Turner says. "Pretend you don't know one another . . ."
Turner wrote "My Quest" several years ago, and she's tweaked it especially for this occasion. She's proud of her phrasemaking, and would like to write children's books someday.
My Quest, the children recite.
I will let nothing hinder me in my quest to travel to the end of the road of success . . . .
The children have only a vague notion of who Richard Baron is. When they're asked, one child responds, "He's rich and owns everything."
"He's a millionaire, " says another.
"He's the guy who gets awards, " says still another.
Jones decides to put things in perspective: "He does happen to be wealthy. Because he owns this property around the school, he reasoned that people will come into the neighborhood and stay if there are good schools there. So he called his good friends -- and when you're wealthy you have good friends who have money -- and they put some of that money into the school. So Mr. Baron is a millionaire private citizen who has bought into this school."
I have taken belief in my left hand and faith in my right. I've put on the shoes of endurance and I've started my flight . . . .
Jones is among just a few teachers who will attend the award ceremony. Turner says she has an after-school science program that will keep her away. But word among the teachers is that they don't feel part of the event.
None received invitations in his or her name, like the others who are attending. They feel like they are being showcased. And for what purpose? Turner wonders.
Standing on the playground after the rehearsal, she shares her misgivings.
"The idea of a businessman coming in and dropping lots of money on your school . . . . I know human nature, " Turner says. "You just don't do things for the heck of it."
"Is it sincerity?" Turner wonders. "Are you doing it because you want to do it? Or are you trying to make sure the status quo continues?"
Baron and his "friends" surely did put a lot of money into the building. But, she adds, "I'm more important than the building. Pay me what I'm worth."
Sue Turner has been teaching in the St. Louis school district for 12 years and is one of Jefferson's best. She makes $28,600 a year. With her experience and savvy, Turner knows she could find a job that pays much more in St. Louis County. But she says, "This is where God has told me to be to help my people succeed."
She and a lot of other teachers feel like they get blamed for their students' poor test scores. But look at it another way. Turner and her colleagues are being asked to teach the hardest to reach.
Where's the compensation for all that heavy lifting?
Watch out for hills of doubt and mountains that say uh, uh, it can't be done. Continue steadfast because my quest will soon be won.
I won't give up!
Chapter 6 Sometimes you have to do the right thing.
Richard Baron walked into the meeting with quite a reputation. He is to urban redevelopment what Tiger Woods is to golf.
Baron learned some valuable lessons from his grandfather, a Russian immigrant merchant in Detroit who befriended many people. As a boy growing up in northwest Detroit, Richard Baron used to take the bus downtown to help his grandfather at his yard-goods store.
Detroit in the early 1950s was a stew of ethnic groups, with many immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe.
Baron's grandfather, Isadore "Izzy" Grabow, emigrated from Russia in 1905. The waitresses, secretaries and clerks in the neighborhood considered him as much social worker as merchant.
Richala -- as grandpa Grabow called him -- occasionally saw gaunt men and women with numbers tattooed on their wrists visit the store, Midwest Woolen Co. Richard didn't understand the significance of those numbers from Nazi concentration camps then, but he could see that his grandfather was helping them as they got a fresh start as tailors in America. As Richard rang up purchases, grandpa threw in some bonus thread, additional fabric, an extra pattern.
One day an Italian woman arrived with her daughter in tow to buy a wedding dress. After measuring the material and cutting the lace, Grabow asked the woman how she was outfitting her other daughters as bridesmaids.
They would wear the Sunday dresses they already had, the woman said.
That's not right, Grandpa Grabow said. "I think I have something you can use."
"Oh, no you musn't, " the woman protested.
Grabow turned a deaf ear and sent Richard to fetch a bolt of silk.
"I can't, " the woman said.
"My gift, " grandpa Grabow replied as he wrapped the material and ribbons in brown paper and string.
That started tears and a round of embraces, Richard included.
Afterward, at lunch, Richard asked: "Grandpa, how can you give away the cloth? You can't make a living like that."
"Richala, you have to understand, " the grandfather said. "Sometimes you just have to do the right thing."
"And there's one more thing you have to understand, " he said, his face crinkling into a grin. "That daughter -- she's one of six sisters."
The story Baron tells about his grandfather is his way of explaining why McCormack Baron & Associates doesn't just build affordable housing but also attacks social ills that accompany urban poverty. It's the right thi ng to do, Baron says. It's also good business.
Good schools and neighborhood services -- such as day care and job training -- help to stabilize a neighborhood. That in turn keeps rental units filled with upwardly mobile tenants. The positive momentum attracts the attention of power brokers and financiers who have a social conscience and understand that their own stake in the city depends on thriving neighborhoods and a reliable workforce.
"My grandfather understood it was important to share, and in the end if you did the right thing it would come around, " Baron says.
It's all perfectly logical. But Baron works in a world far more complicated than his grandpa's, with its petty politics, Byzantine bureaucracies and elaborate financing schemes.
And it can get touchy because Baron is, among other things, a white landlord who collects rent from poor people, many of them African-Americans.
The landlord-tenant relationship has long been an unhappy one for many African-Americans and so Baron frequently is not given credit for good intentions -- at least not at first.
Many of his tenants and the staff at Jefferson Elementary School don't know that Baron has been working in the neighborhood for three decades.
As a young Legal Aid attorney, Baron helped lead a rent strike in 1968 on behalf of public housing tenants. He and the tenants not only won the battle but the effort led to key reforms in public housing laws. One was that rents could be no more than 25 percent of a tenant's income. (The percentage has since been raised to 30.)
Baron went into the urban development business, first as a consultant who helped public housing tenants manage and run their complexes, then as a provider of housing. As a developer he's pioneered the concept of involving residents in the planning of his projects and addressing tenant concerns.
Baron has had to temper his liberal idealism with some hard-edged practices.
The company isn't shy about evicting tenants who fail to pay or run afoul of the law. It will go to court, mail the required registered letters, then, if necessary, send a burly eviction specialist to put the tenants' furniture on the street in full view of other residents.
Some neighborhood residents believe he's a multimillionaire, which he's not. His business success affords him a comfortable lifestyle and a nice home in Clayton. What it also does is enable him to seed other entrepreneurial efforts aimed at revitalizing urban neighborhoods.
Fourteen years ago, Baron founded the Center of Contemporary Arts, based in a former synagogue in University City. Now the center is providing a multitude of programs at Jefferson School as part of outreach efforts that involve more than 7,000 students at 27 locations across the metropolitan area. That gives Baron a lot of satisfaction.
What grates on him is that people still question his motives after all these years. When Baron got word last year that he would be honored with the St. Louis Award for his achievements, he insisted that the ceremony be held at Jefferson School. He wanted to drive home to St. Louis civic leaders what could be done for city schools if they would provide sustained interest and support.
It saddened him when he learned that some staff members at the school felt as if they and the children were used as props in a ceremony that glorified his efforts. A few weeks later he made a point of meeting with the teachers to hear their concerns about the neighborhood and the school.
Baron finds himself shuttling constantly between two worlds -- the boardroom and inner-city neigborhoods. That he's succeeded as a builder and businessman gives him great credibility with bankers, investors and philanthropists. But their acceptance and his growing reputation come with a price -- a degree of suspicion in the neighborhoods he's dedicated his career to serving.
"I'm always thinking about how to bridge that gap, " he said. "Everywhere I go I have to start over explaining who I am and what I'm trying to accomplish."
Selling a Vision
n June of 2000, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of stories titled, A Better Place to Grow Up. Written by Dick Weiss, then a P-D editor, the opus focused on a St. Louis inner city neighborhood, a school, a teacher, and a gaggle of fifth graders. That school year Richard Baron, CEO of McCormack Baron Salazar, had launched an effort involving many St. Louis businesses that brought to bear financial and in-kind support for Jefferson School. Their goal: Create a brighter future for the kids at Jefferson. Below are the original stories that appeared in the Post-Dispatch.