Goodbye Shaw, Hello Dutchtown

Long before my ex wife and I divorced, I’ve thought seriously about leaving Shaw. It’s not that I don’t like this neighborhood. Far from it. Everything I’ve loved about the person I have become, I’ve learned from this place. But, among the things I’ve learned in my near-decade in Shaw, it’s that love is complicated.

When Nikki and I were still together, we looked at a couple of houses outside the neighborhood. At the time, we were still planning on having children – most likely by adoption. And, since both job and income changes were a regular fact of life for each of us, we wanted less of a house payment – possibly none, given the right situation. And, we didn’t want to give up the amount of space. If anything, we wanted room to grow.

So, we stumbled upon a house we seriously looked into buying, in Old North St. Louis. When I mentioned that to a relative, recently, he shot back with the remark, “That’s where people go to die.” I wish people didn’t feel this way, about the City I love. But, they do – comfortably from their homes well outside City limits.

I spent nearly four years of my life as a Neighborhood Improvement Specialist, in some of the most challenged parts of the City. Doing that kind of work confirmed something I already knew in my gut. Beauty is everywhere, if we look for it. In neighborhoods that are only known to most people by sound bites and TV stand-ups, you’ll find blocks and neighbors who fiercely care, with homes that are more meticulously maintained than the one I just listed (under contract in less than a week, thanks to the efforts of residents and our previous alderman) – in a high-market-value area. That’s not meant to minimize long-standing, generational challenges. Those exist, too, and we are long overdue to address them. It merely serves to challenge stereotypes that are perpetuated, even within our City.

Old North St. Louis, by the numbers, is one of the safest parts of the city. Until the recent crime spikes of the last couple of years – which impacted neighborhoods citywide, Old North saw huge reductions in both person and property crime. The old 14th Street Mall was redeveloped into Crown Square, and has hosted some of the most incredible events this city has seen. Since the phrase of the day is “racial equity,” and lots of well-meaning people like to talk about it – allow me to introduce you to a neighborhood that is thoughtfully doing something about it – with near universal buy in. How I wish we could achieve that in Shaw.

Our credit wasn’t good enough to get the loan we needed, so we had to pass. I met the person who bought the house, though. He lived in the neighborhood, and the house was an opportunity for him to own a home. It went to the right person.

Other North St. Louis neighborhoods have been doing this sort of work for years, with little recognition. Places like Hyde Park, which has seen the formation of a true neighborhood organization, over the last four years. The Lindell Park historic district in Jeff VanderLou also defies those stereotypes, as does Academy in the 18th and 26th wards. The private street known as Lewis Place got some major infrastructure upgrades, thanks to the hard work of residents, partnering with Ald. Terry Kennedy. The 21st Ward is a political powerhouse, carrying on the tradition of the old 20th, before it was moved to the South Side. And, there are parts of the O’Fallon neighborhood that look every bit as stately as blocks you would find in the Central West End.

Yes, Northside Regeneration is a festering cancer. And, the residents of Old North, JVL and St. Louis Place are demanding accountability. As they should. Yes, vacant and crumbling housing stock exists. And, a significant number of voters said “no” to a creative solution that would, in my view, honestly and correctly address the problem of vacant buildings in distressed areas. That particular vote is being rightly litigated by the City, and my hope is that the decision is overturned.

We can talk these problems to death, but unless they’re in our back yard, we don’t care enough.

My last assignment put me in the 25th Ward. For all the talk of high crime in North St. Louis, Dutchtown actually led the city in police calls for service, when former Mayor Slay and his office put together the P.I.E.R. Plan, at the end of 2015. Stereotypes may be a time saver, as The Onion once put it, but given the data, they just don’t hold water. And, still, there are amazing assets that point to its inevitable rebound.

Like any neighborhood, including Shaw, you’ll find residents who care, who keep up their homes, help out on their blocks, and try to make their corner a better place. Go to a Dutchtown West meeting, and you’ll find them. Go to a Dutchtown CID board meeting, on the other side of Grand, and you’ll find them. Go to one of the many community engagement meetings facilitated by the Dutchtown South Community Corporation, and you’ll find them. Beauty is everywhere, if we look for it.

Like gingerbread homes? Dutchtown has them – mainly West of Grand. Still prefer red-brick and white-stone beauties? Those are East of Grand. Like a huge tree canopy? All over the neighborhood. Parks – including Marquette, with the only free outdoor pool in South City, cafes like Urban Eats, the original Ted Drewes, Merb’s Candies, new places like Urban Matter…it’s all there. And, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend two excellent institutions – The Feasting Fox for authentic Bavarian food, and Grbic’s for fine dining, Bosnian style.

Like the 8th Ward, I have family roots in Dutchtown. My mom’s cousins lived on the 4300 block of Virginia, and all of them would walk to St. Anthony of Padua for mass. St. Anthony’s is still open, and there are residents working to keep it the anchor it’s been; it’s one of many South City parishes that hosts a fish fry during Lent.

Dutchtown is in a pocket of South City that has an incredible influx of people who don’t look like me – whether they moved to St. Louis from another country, or to another part of the city, while crossing the so-called Delmar Divide – which is, in many ways, an invented mythology. The original divide was Mill Creek. Delmar came much later.

At any rate, when my ex wife decided she wanted a divorce, Dutchtown ended up on my short list, along with other neighborhoods where the prospect of finding a small house was more doable. I had a hard enough time caring for the 2K square foot home I just sold. I wasn’t going to do it again, unless I could afford to pay people to do the kind of necessary work it takes.

It’s also the place that offers the least expensive market-rate rent for a single person with a large dog.

In coming to accept this eventual move, I looked at several factors. Size of house in the neighborhood, should I buy again, was chief among them. Familiarity with the neighborhood was second. Home prices being third, since I wasn’t going to put myself in the same position I’d done before. And, neighborhood/ward dynamics being fourth.

Home prices ruled out a huge chunk of the city. Home sizes, both North and South, ruled out the other chunk. Familiarity narrowed it down, then, to three areas.

  1. Tower Grove South: Love the proximity to South Grand. Its where Nikki and I originally looked, before moving to Shaw
  2. Gravois Park: Love the older architecture, and the recent development booms bode well.
  3. Dutchtown: Same as point two, with closer proximity to South Grand. Less development booms, but equally thoughtful neighborhood planning.

It was the fourth criteria that sealed it. I’ve spent nine years in Shaw, with several of those in neighborhood leadership. It was a divisive neighborhood when I moved in, and unfortunately, it will remain one after I move out. Frankly, I’ve found it tiresome, and while Dutchtown certainly is experiencing the pains of change, I’ve not found near the amount of vitriol that I’ve experienced in Shaw, and witnessed in other places. I once saw an all-out, online throw down between older liberals bashing younger liberals, in a different part of South City from where I used to live. Honestly? It stopped me from moving anywhere near the place. I’ve gotten too old for that crap, I guess.

And, I struggle when those of us from wealthier neighborhoods throw out platitudes about gentrification and property values. As in, “I care about gentrification, so long as I can be the last person that does it.”

To quote someone I heard in a less wealthy neighborhood, “We wouldn’t mind having that problem, right now.”

Perspective matters, especially when the words we use become loaded tools to fire off at anyone who sees the situation differently. Yes, we need to be more thoughtful about planning. And, yes, it’s okay to want your single greatest investment to appreciate in value. We can do both, and do it better.

It’s easy to love a neighborhood when, physically speaking, it’s a nearly finished product, or when it’s viewed as up and coming. From that perspective, it’s easy to throw invective and talk about the state of the city, having not experienced significant parts of it. From that perspective, local elections can seem like popularity contests, and opportunities for long-time political foes, both within and outside the ward, to settle old scores – no matter how much the voters, themselves, may care about the issues at hand.

It’s harder to go somewhere and be part of the solution, in love with a neighborhood and all its imperfections. It’s harder to plant roots. And, it’s just as hard to re-settle.

In reflecting on my years in Shaw, I saw both the best and worst in people. I saw neighbors come together, after a tragedy, to show care and compassion. And, I saw neighbors pile onto one another, online, in ways that would make any stranger wonder why anyone would want to live in such a place. Frankly, it’s made more than a few residents question the same thing.

Again, love is complicated. Which is one of the things that Dutchtown residents seem to get.

It’s possible, for example, to have a taxing district that provides necessary additions to fundamental services, and put real effort into making the place equitable and inclusive. It’s possible for newer, younger residents to partner with long-timers, and reach out to a community that is much more transient than the place I’ve left – and welcome everyone. We are, after all, in this together.

It’s possible to work for a healthy rental inventory, and hold out-of-town and out-of-state property owners accountable – even if that sometimes means both residents and elected officials need to hold feet to the fire, working against State laws that are counter to our City’s interests, and other municipalities that have gone too far.

And, it’s easier to find common ground, when the problem is right in front of you. For all its division, Shaw had a much more robust neighborhood organization, and a much more connected neighborhood, when there was a serious need for these things. The unintended consequence of success is the loss of this institutional memory.

Indeed, love is complicated. And, loss is painful. But, without love, what else is there? And, love without hard work isn’t really love. It’s adoration. Fandom. And, at a neighborhood level, it can amount to seemingly high-school cliquish behavior that serves neither the neighbors nor City well.

In moving, I’m losing a neighborhood that has made me who I am. And, I kind of like that person, today. In spite of my losses – marriage, job, house, neighborhood – I’ll still choose love, every time – practicing it imperfectly, learning as I go.

I’ll take the best parts of my experience in Shaw with me. It will always be my wish that those divided could find the common good in all we seek – even if the chances of that realistically happening in my lifetime are slim. For that kind of dynamic to change, Shaw has to want it. And, someone needs to be left holding out that hope. A group of someones, preferably.

Until then, I look forward to contributing in my new home, where I can. My dog needs a place to play, so there’s a start.