June 13, 2000
Story by Richard H. Weiss; Photos by J.B. Forbes of the Post-Dispatch
Chapter 7: To hell and back
Marlene Hodges had said she wouldn't do it this year. It's too much trouble, and no one wants to help.
Ah, what the heck. She did it anyway. She couldn't let Halloween pass without a party for the neighborhood. Even so, the preparation is making her cranky. Every year she has put out a call to parents to volunteer. Every year, only a few respond. In fact, many parents never show up. They send their children, though, as if the party is merely some sort of once-a-year extended day-care program.
"I'm trying to make everyone feel like we're one big community here, " Hodges says. She speaks in an exasperated tone that suggests the finish line is nowhere in sight.
Hodges is a community coordinator for COVAM, an organization established to give tenants in the Carr Square Village, O'Fallon Place and Murphy Park areas near downtown a say in what happens throughout their neighborhoods. COVAM helped choose Ann Meese as principal at Jefferson Elementary School. It works with police on security issues. And it acts as intermediary between tenants and management.
Hodges is the third generation of her family to grow up in the neighborhood -- her grandparents moved into Carr Square after World War II when it became the city's first public housing complex.
When she was a child, Hodges remembers, the streets teemed with children. They started pickup basketball games. They played volleyball over the clotheslines between the buildings. Everyone watched out for each other's kids, most especially Hodges' mom, known to everyone as Miss Loretta.
Miss Loretta sometimes worked three jobs. But she was never too tired to welcome the children into her home, to feed them, to dry some tears or to scold them if they were being bad.
Hodges says the close-knit community began to fray during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Several young men who went off to war did not return. Some who did come back looked haunted, confused. They wondered why they couldn't find jobs after serving their country. Many turned to drugs and crime.
"People were dying and getting killed for every reason imaginable, " Hodges recalls. "You stepped on my shoes. You looked at me the wrong way. You looked at my lady too hard."
Hodges remembers one of her friends, Richard Phoenix, dying at her feet in 1975. Phoenix had been shot on a parking lot at Carr Square. Hodges ran out from a friend's apartment to find him bleeding on the pavement with a bullet wound to his head.
The police couldn't end the killings. In fact, some residents considered police the enemy. Hodges recalls what happened when police arrested one of her friends. Instead of taking him to the police station, she said, they drove him to the riverfront, beat him, took his shoes and clothes and told him to walk home.
Just five years ago, an officer fatally shot a fleeing robbery suspect after chasing him into Carr Square. The officer, Heriberto "Eddie" Sanchez, said the suspect, Garland Carter, 17, was armed. Carter's family and friends said a gun had been planted on Carter after the shooting.
A grand jury refused to indict Sanchez. He later resigned under pressure from Chief Ron Henderson.
The relationship between police and residents has turned better since then.
Officers Darren Hill and Jermaine Jackson are on hand for the Halloween party. They're keeping an eye on some teen-agers hanging out on the periphery. But everyone seems relaxed. There hasn't been a shooting in the neighborhood since last April, the only homicide to occur in 1999.
Hodges finds herself constantly pingponging between hope and frustration over the prospects for her neighborhood and, for that matter, herself. She knows too many mothers are raising their children alone. Hodges is a single mother. Sometimes she wonders how on earth she let that happen.
Too many residents depend on welfare. For a time, Hodges received welfare, too, when she got laid off from her job at Sigma Aldrich Corp. Hodges knows lots of residents who are among the last hired, first fired. It leaves them frustrated, depressed -- as if all they can do is tread water.
Too many residents have thrown in the towel; given up on the idea that the American dream is as much theirs as anyone else's. Sometimes Hodges feels that way, too. But not always.
Her favorite movie is "To Hell and Back, " the sometimes corny World War II drama starring Audie Murphy. In the early scenes, Murphy trips over his equipment and asks stupid questions. The grizzled GIs laugh at him. But he keeps charging up the hill, braving enemy fire. One day Murphy looks back and finds his comrades are no longer laughing. They're following. Hodges gets misty-eyed every time she watches it.
Tonight at the Halloween party, Hodges feels frustrated.
Though she hasn't complained, volunteers from a do-gooder organization have all but taken over the event. For some reason they're insisting on calling it a Harvest Festival. They've asked if the media will be on hand to cover their good work. They want to distribute their limited supply of candy only to students from Jefferson School, not to anyone else.
"They even brought their own security, " Hodges says, rolling her eyes. Outsiders, she says, don't understand the neighborhood.
But as events go, this is a dandy. Lots of games to engage the children, lots of laughter, no fights, and, as it turns out, plenty of candy for everyone.
By dusk, Hodges' mood has brightened considerably. "It's working out OK, " she says with a smile.
Still, she can't help but wonder: Where are the parents? When will she be able to turn around and find them charging up the hill behind her?
Chapter 8: Boot camp
Howard Small, 10, looks even smaller than usual today as he sits between his mother and his teacher. They're looking at his report card, shaking their heads and commiserating over what they'll do to get this child on the right track.
Howard was marked down for failing to complete "assigned tasks" at Jefferson School. He got a 1 out of 4 in handwriting. His best grades were 3s in reading, music and physical education.
"Everybody talked about how Howard had beautiful handwriting in primary, " teacher Mary Spencer is telling Howard's mom, Toni McNeal.
"Now it's sloppy?"
"I want you to check his homework every night."
"He tells me he doesn't have any homework. Every day he tells me all I've got to do is read. And he doesn't do that."
"He's still reading below grade level, " Spencer says.
"He should be reading above level, " McNeal says, shaking her head.
Spencer asks Howard why he has two language sheets to take home tonight.
"Because I forgot to do one of them, " Howard says, barely above a whisper.
"Uh, huh. You know we aren't too bright."
Then McNeal turns to Howard and tells him she just might have to follow through on her threat to send him to a boot camp for juveniles in Texas if he doesn't straighten out.
"Your going or not going will depend on how you and I get along, " Spencer tells Howard. "Shall we shake on it? Do you understand?"
"Tell me what you understand."
"I understand that if my report card isn't good next time I have to go to boot camp."
After the two leave, Spencer reflects on the visit. She knows Howard's mom well enough to know that she'd never send her baby boy off to boot camp. And Howard knows it, too. "You shouldn't threaten consequences you can't follow through on, " Spencer says.
She adds, "I knew Toni's mother pretty well. We were close in age. We were all sort of taught the negative things. Sometime when I get a chance I'll talk to Toni about praising that kid. I know she loves him dearly."
At least Toni and Howard showed up for parent-teacher conference day. A third of the parents from Spencer's class did not come. The school sent numerous reminders home, and teachers made themselves available from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., no appointments necessary. McCormack Baron & Associates, the developer that renovated the neighborhood, wanted to help by making attendance mandatory as part of its lease agreement. Show up or face eviction. But the company later dropped the idea.
Spencer says it's not that the missing parents don't care. Sometimes they feel ashamed when their children don't do well, as if it's a reflection on them. Some don't have much more than a grade-school education and feel helpless. Spencer makes sure to read the report card aloud to the parents, just in case.
If there's anything that Spencer could take heart from this day, it's the number of fathers who have accompanied their children to her classroom. Many have jobs and they ask good questions.
"Do they have learning computers for kids?" a father asks. "Do you think that's a good idea?"
"The personal touch is even better, " Spencer replies. "Do get the computer. But person to person you can see what's going wrong. Flash cards are still good."
"We're going to do it, " the father says. "It's going to get done."
Chapter 9: "Count on us"
Harry Morley has long admired Richard Baron. But for the past 20 years he had been doing it from afar.
While Baron has worked his magic in the inner city, Morley has been building subdivisions in St. Louis County as chairman and chief executive officer of Taylor-Morley Homes. His subdivisions have names like Forest Creek, Fox Trails, Pinehurst and Chateau on Conway.
Now for the first time in a long while, the two are talking about a joint venture. Baron wants Morley -- quintessential county home builder -- to play a role in the rebirth of Pruitt-Igoe, the notorious housing complex in the city that was demolished in the early 1970s.
The two had met nearly 30 years ago when Baron was a Legal Aid lawyer working with tenants and Morley was an administrator with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In the 1980s, they went into the private sector and redeveloped the Hadley Dean Building downtown. Morley had had trouble getting banks interested. But Baron sold the former Mark Twain Bank on the project and made it happen. The restoration came off beautifully and made Morley proud.
And now Morley is getting that same feeling -- that Baron could make it happen. Only this time the results could be seismic.
It's not as if Morley has turned his back on the city. How could he? He grew up in the Grand Boulevard and Cherokee Street neighborhood. He graduated from Roosevelt High School. But as the years went by it became so hard to do business in the city. President Ronald Reagan's administratio n ended tax breaks for urban redevelopment projects. Interest rates shot up. And Morley's company got so good at creating new neighborhoods that it pretty much gave up on the idea of salvaging old ones.
"Building homes and neighborhoods where people want to live." That's the Taylor-Morley mission statement. And his research shows that most people want to live in safe neighborhoods and in modern homes near good schools.
That would not fairly describe the 30-acre, weed-covered lot just east of Jefferson Avenue where the Pruitt-Igoe complex once stood.
Still, Morley drove down there one day for a look around. His interest had been piqued by a developer from Detroit who told Morley that something could be done with that property with the right vision and the right people.
Morley wasn't particularly impressed with the site. God knows what sort of problems a builder would encounter with a lot left vacant for more than 25 years and used as a dumping ground by residents and contractors.
But he liked what he saw when he drove further east to Murphy Park and O'Fallon Place and then back around again to the spiffy-looking Gateway School. He saw a new police station across Jefferson Avenue and a firehouse just down the street.
Further north, he saw some vacant buildings, but he also saw some recently renovated homes and well-tended lawns.
It's getting clean, Morley thought.
So Morley attended a Housing Authority meeting where the agency explained how to apply for redevelopment rights to the Pruitt-Igoe site.
And he got discouraged again. Morley hadn't done a city project in a long time and the research that would have to be done and the paperwork that would have to be filed seemed overwhelming.
But then Baron called. And a few days later, he's holding forth in Morley's conference room with his maps and site plans and the research that would have taken Morley's firm a year to do. And Morley is enthusiastic again.
Baron says the city is ready for a neighborhood of $150,000 single-family homes. Schnucks would build a superstore and shopping center to provide services. The school district and the Danforth Foundation are pouring resources into surrounding schools.
Baron says the homes would attract first-time buyers from his rental units, police officers who are required to live in the city and retirees wanting to return from the county to their roots.
With tax credits, financial incentives and the support of a major bank, a home builder could make it work. They'd call the project CityView. Total investment: $38 million.
It takes only this one meeting to get Morley on board. As Baron finishes his presentation, Morley rises, squeezes his hand and says: "Count on us."
"THE MOST EXCITING PLACE IN THE WORLD"
By Richard H. Weiss\Of The Post-Dispatch
What is now the Murphy Park and O'Fallon Place area has had many names and nationalities since taking shape in the 1840s -- an ethnic stew boiling over, as one resident recalled.
This neighborhood northwest of downtown St. Louis was at various times Irish, Polish, German-Protestant, Russian-Jewish, Italian-Catholic and African-American. And for a short while, it was all of those at once.
The neighborhood went by a lot of names over the years depending on your ethnicity, your particular street or your point of view. To the Irish it was Kerry Patch; to the Italians, Little Italy; to the police, "the bloody fourth; " and to the census takers, "Tract 25b." If you were poor and arrived from far away, here was a place to get your start.
The neighborhood, once farmland, took shape in the 1840s when the city's population exploded to 77,000 from 16,000 over a 10-year period. The Irish and the Germans were among the first. The more well-to-do built brick row houses close to the streets, planted their backyards with vegetable gardens and raised goats and chickens. Those of lesser means erected shanties. Soon the Ryans, Moynihans, Kaplans and Goldwassers were joined by the Dubinskis, Xorozemskis and Ludoccos as the Eastern Europeans and Italians made their way to St. Louis.
The immigrants crowded Tract 25b with delicatessens, bakeries, fruit markets, cigar makers and druggists. Churches and synagogues could be found every few blocks. Residents found jobs at the Lafayette Brewery at 18th and Cass and in nearby railyards and downtown hotels.
The late Monsignor Joseph M. O'Toole was born in a Kerry Patch tenement in 1895 and remembered it as an ethnic stew boiling over. "It was the most exciting place in the world to be."
It could also be dangerous. In the early 1920s, clashes between gangs known as Egan's Rats and the Hogan Gang led to 23 murders in turf battles over bootlegging and protection rackets.
African-Americans began moving into the neighborhood early in the century and by 1930 made up nearly two-thirds of the population. By then, living conditions had grown squalid. Many homes -- mostly boarding houses and two-family flats -- had outdoor privies, some lacked running water and electrical wiring.
The city and federal government began a major slum clearance effort in the 1940s and 1950s that led to construction of the Carr Square Village apartments (1942), Pruitt-Igoe (1955-56) and the Vaughn Apartments (1957).
Those developments were initially seen as transitional housing for the upwardly mobile. And in their early years, particularly in Carr Square, they were a source of pride for residents. What the government failed to foresee was that many families would become dependent on welfare and stay while those with jobs moved away. Drugs, crime and vandalism followed. The St. Louis Housing Authority, whose job it was to oversee the developments, was itself rife with incompetence and malfeasance during this era. It could neither provide the upkeep nor the security necessary to stabilize the neighborhood.
About that time, Richard Baron, a young Legal Aid attorney fresh out of law school, took an interest in the neighborhood. Baron, along with the Rev. Buck Jones and many others, led a rent strike in 1968-69 against the Housing Authority that ultimately gave residents a greater voice in running the complexes.
In 1973, Baron formed a real estate business with Terrance McCormack, an engineer who worked for the Teamsters Union. McCormack Baron built the O'Fallon Place apartments in 1979-1981 with the idea of creating housing that would be attractive to middle-income residents as well as those getting federal rent subsidies.
McCormack Baron built the Murphy Park residences with even more amenities beginning in 1996 and will be adding to that complex through 2003.
We’re One Big Community
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.