There has been a lot of talk about Paul McKee’s Plan for North St. Louis in recent weeks.
It is after midnight now, and as I went to check The Post-Dispatch‘s headlines one last time for the evening, I saw that the big story for the next day is already up. Paul McKee met with the P-D’s editorial staff to discuss his plan for North St. Louis, because supposedly Paul “I’m Having A Public Meeting–JUST KIDDING!” McKee will finally be meeting with us Near North Siders en masse this evening. And hey, it only took well over five years for him to work up to having the courage to look us in the eye. Never mind that he has proven that he is literally powerful enough to buy and sell our homes and those of our neighbors–apparently us disenfranchised lil’ Near North Siders are terrifying baddies and he could not possibly have met with us about the future of our own neighborhoods before now. I tooootally know how he feels–sometimes when I have done something to hurt somebody’s feelings, I wait over five years and tear down a bunch of buildings around that person’s home before I feel comfortable meeting with them in person, too.
I have a lot of thoughts about this plan. Some of them are nuanced, and some of them start with F, and some of them are nauseous, acidic feelings that churn deep down in my gut. But more than anything:
Please, please, let us not forget the enormous human cost that Paul McKee’s project has had on North St. Louis. Please, do not get caught up in talking exclusively about “development” when the human rights violations have been so numerous and heartbreaking.
For those of us who live in Paul McKee’s project area (which only constitutes part of North St. Louis), McKee has dragged us through over five years of pain and deceit.
(Here is a great primer on the basics of Blairmont, if you would like one.)
Despite being incredibly rich, powerful, and prominent, Paul McKee deliberately concealed his identity from us in his purchase and neglect of properties. Rather than buying properties in his own name or that of his development company McEagle, he instead used a quirk of Missouri law to register numerous corporations in such a way that it was virtually impossible to tell who had registered them. He gave these corporations names made up of mish-mashes of area street names in an attempt to make it really hard for us to figure out who was buying up and neglecting so many hundreds of properties in our area. He hired Eagle Realty to help buy and “manage” properties. One of my closest friends desperately needed permission to dig up a McKee vacant lot in order to get sewer service to her home, and she had to call Eagle Realty three times a day for over a month in order to get them to even call her back.
Even after Old North residents finally uncovered documents (disclosure reports relating to McKee’s position on a bank board and campaign finance reports) indisputably proving that the family of corporations known as Blairmont were McKee’s doing, he persisted in telling us that he was not Blairmont. At this point, I am told that he lied about this to my neighborhood organization, a reputable decades-old organization that is in the middle of a wonderful multimillion dollar development project (not their first such project).
In the Post-Dispatch piece, Jake Wagman and Ken Leiser say about McKee’s secrecy, “He said he was just trying to keep prices in check.” The words that I am told McKee used to explain this phenomena in private conversation with members of my community likened the purchase of real estate to the purchase of a part of the female anatomy, noting that when people are aware you are buying, prices increase. As a North Sider, a woman, hell, as a HUMAN BEING, I am disgusted. When I hear McKee’s paternalistic, faux moral rhetoric about his development in North St. Louis and elsewhere, I am often reminded of the kinds of repulsive, hateful things he says behind closed doors. There is a profound gap between the values he professes in front of media outlets and the ones he reveals in private, to say nothing of what his actions toward my neighbors show his values to be.
Contrary to spin and to opinions professed by those who do not know North St. Louis, McKee did not come into a trashed area–I know, because I have lived up here for several years myself. And I’m told that McKee told other developers that once he actually got to know our community, he realized that he would have to create the conditions he planned to save us from.
McKee did not buy a bunch of trashed properties on trashed blocks. Sure, some of the buildings he bought were vacant, but many of them were not. At first, he just picked off that skim of actually neglected buildings and lots that owners actually wanted to sell. But soon, he ran out of such properties. His agents had to press harder. They began buying occupied buildings, their acquisitions sometimes resulting in abrupt and illegal evictions. In one case often discussed around the community here, McKee’s agents allowed a landlord to continue collecting rent after they had bought the building, and never informed the tenants that the building had been sold. The tenants found out when their utilities suddenly turned off. They had 24 hours to move, and all their possessions were out on the street (I personally saw their stuff on the sidewalk).
After a while, McKee had acquired all the buildings in our area that anyone actually wanted to sell. In order to continue his landbanking, he had to target people who wanted to stay in their homes, in many cases longtime residents and households that had held blocks together for decades. Around this time, mysterious rumors about future eminent domain started to circulate, particularly around parts of St. Louis Place near the Pruitt-Igoe grounds and in Jeff Vander Lou near St. Louis Avenue. Some neighbors received deceptively governmental-looking letters about eminent domain in their doors. While no one could confirm actual eminent domain was officially going to happen, the ongoing sales of homes all around them to McKee’s corporations and the presence of his agents in the area (with briefcase and all) no doubt was enough confirmation for some homeowners. And certainly, the way eminent domain works, it’s ideal to sell the second that word starts getting around, rather than waiting around until everyone else has left and the official notice comes, at which point you will be able to get only a fraction of your property’s actual value back. And while we cannot definitively prove that McKee’s associates started the eminent domain rumors, there is no one else who would have any motive to have done so, and the timing was terribly convenient for it to have been a coincidence.
And hearing McKee and his defenders talk about burnt-out buildings and the like literally churns my stomach. Paul McKee deliberately created blight on the Near North Side. He wasn’t rehabbing his buildings or flower gardening in front of them. Helllllll no. Paul McKee purchased buildings and lots and then did zero maintenance, so that he could drive down property values and save himself a couple of bucks on buying property (Clearly, a multimillionaire who owns dozens of corporations needs that couple thousand bucks worse than all the individual home and small business owners in North St. Louis he was buying out needed it.) . And the neglect also served to make it increasingly difficult for those of us who have chosen to stay here. Imagine what it’s like to live in a paid-off house that your family has maintained for generations, and to watch in despair as adjacent properties go vacant, have the weeds grow several feet tall in the front yard, and then begin to attract unwelcome, illegal visitors at night. Imagine that grinding, lonely feeling, that constant worry–that’s the exact feeling that the Blairmont project cultivated to intimidate Near North Siders out of their homes.
What do I mean, he neglected his properties? I mean that McKee wouldn’t even board up or fence his buildings, let alone mothball or maintain them. Early on during his property acquisition, when he only owned a few dozen parcels, several hours of walking around St. Louis Place and JVL one afternoon netted me a massive spreadsheet’s worth of McKee property code violations several pages long. We tried reporting these problems to the city via the Citizens’ Service Bureau, but it was futile. In particular, I remember that my neighbors and I called the CSB at least a dozen times requesting the board-up of the doors of the regal Brecht Butcher Supply buildings, to no avail, and eventually part of the complex burned. Repeat that times dozens of city blocks, and you’ve got an idea what it’s like to live in Blairmontland. We cleaned his properties, mowed his properties, chased off the troublemakers that his properties attracted to our streets, and even had board-up parties, all at our own effort and expense; however, our resources were not sufficient to keep up with 900 parcels worth of neglect. There is something farcical about working class and middle class people who all have jobs and numerous other commitments having to band together in order to do basic maintenance on property owned by an uberconnected multimillionaire.
The city made cursory attempts at enforcing code violations against McKee, but he had enough money to keep paying the fines while doing absolutely nothing about correcting violations. The city tried to take him to court over the Clemens Mansion, but after so many continuances granted to McKee’s lawyers (the man himself never showed up in court), the case seemed to evaporate. It almost seemed as if McKee had a cadre of guardian angels looking out for him within the Slay administration.
So, there was the basic neglect of not boarding or fencing or mothballing or mowing anything, and then there was the metaneglect that ultimately came with it: brick rustling. Brick rustling, the illegal and highly dangerous practice of tearing down part of a building without the owner’s knowledge or consent, is Paul McKee’s gift to the Near North Side. Brick rustling was a minor problem before Blairmont, one that only people deeply into the worlds of architecture and demolition were aware of. But as McKee’s property ownership began to create extreme concentrations of vacancy in pockets of the Near North Side, brick rustling went from the stuff of an occasional, third-hand tale to a wide-spread phenomenon. There are definitely residents of this area who feel that McKee’s associates intentionally encouraged brick rustling, perhaps even giving thieves property addresses. While this would not be terribly out of line with McKee’s demonstrated ethics, I personally believe that brick rustling is something that McKee’s people did not intentionally support, but did nothing whatsoever to stop. I think rustling developed into a full-blown menace once brick rustlers noticed th the huge swaths of vacant buildings McKee had created and that (as a result) not enough people were around keeping an eye on things anymore to stop them. So, they brought their icepicks and their pick-up trucks and began hacking away at the physical fabric of our community, leaving behind the unsupported floors and internal walls of buildings hanging dangerously in the air, the left-behind hulks mocking our sense of dignity and agency in our own neighborhood. This was only an occasional problem before McKee’s neglectful practices turned it into an epidemic.
And there’s more to the neglect: Paul McKee’s holdings have a way of catching fire. Brecht Butcher Supply, Better Donut, the building on the northwest corner of St. Louis and Jefferson, these were probably accidents, albeit ones that were preventable via normal, legally required board-up.
One spate of McKee property blazes in particular were profoundly disturbing. A year ago, eleven buildings in a specific section of McKee’s project area abruptly burned in a four-day period. Of these eleven buildings, ultimately eight or nine of them turned out to be owned by McKee. The general consensus was that this was arson. Some argue that an arsonist just striking vacant buildings in the area would have had a high probability of randomly selecting mostly McKee buildings, but I counter that the 5th ward has one of the very highest concentrations of Land Reutilization Authority owned property in the entire city, and to the untrained eye, LRA and Blairmont buildings are more or less indistinguishable. That not a single LRA-owned property burned in these eleven fires is interesting. Investigations revealed that every single building had its gas shut off at some point prior to the fire. I walked through one of the buildings the day after it burned, and the fire had started on the top floor in classic arson fashion. The back door to the upstairs apartment was open, and because the building was not fenced in thanks to its neglectful owner, the person who set the fire could have fled in virtually any direction.
The area where the first ten Blairmont fires occurred in May 2008 was bounded by St. Louis, Glasgow, Hebert, and Jefferson, Glasgow being one of the boundaries of McKee’s property purchasing area. This part of town was in the heart of the part of the project area that McKee hopes to demolish. One additional fire happened outside of the boundaries of the first group, but still well within McKee’s planned clearance area and on a McKee owned building, 2206 Hebert. That was no average house fire–that building burned and took two of its McKee-owned neighbors with it. The fire produced such a huge plume of smoke that I actually thought a very large nearby church was on fire when I first saw the smoke from the roof of my apartment.
I have to say, standing on my roof and watching 2206 Hebert go up in smoke three blocks away broke something inside of me. And it’s hard for me to infer that these fires, which happened so neatly inside the Blairmont project area, happened for any other reason than to elicit that feeling in me and my neighbors. (Well, that and to get rid of a few pesky historic buildings on the cheap.) I believe that they were intended to instill terror in us, and to break our spirits. To an extent, it worked. I feel frustrated admitting this, but…. yeah. There was no moment of snapping, no blind rage, just the knowledge that some feeling of agency, ownership, hope, and faith was permanently gone.
These burnt-out shells, these brick-rustled shipwrecks, and the hundreds of mostly black families driven out of their homes in the city and into the county: These are Paul McKee’s destructive legacy in North St. Louis. He talks about plans, about looking 15 years into the future, but he has already spent five years demonstrating in detail what he thinks of the Near North Side and its residents. Actions speak a hell of a lot louder than words, and McKee’s presence in North St. Louis has spoken in evictions, demolitions, and flames.
At a meeting last week with Near North Side residents (Yet another instance of McKee claiming he’d speak with us and then abruptly changing his mind), a representative for McKee made a prolonged, ridiculous PowerPoint presentation about North St. Louis so cartoonishly dire that you’d think it this land had been cursed since it first emerged as a land mass on the tectonic plates. The presenter even tried to make the claim that the 1866 cholera epidemic was mostly a North Side phenomenon (I call bullshit), but I think it’s pretty obvious what the real plague on North St. Louis is. Before anyone talks about development, we need to remember the toll that Paul McKee’s property ownership has taken on hundreds of people in North St. Louis up to this point. This is destruction, not development.
After so much destruction has been wrought on our area, clearly we need to pick up, rebuild resources, and move forward. I feel that McKee’s destructive, deceitful legacy with us shows that he is not the man for the job. If eminent domain is used, let it be used to turn his properties over to those who would actually redevelop them. I know this will never happen, but I still want to state for the record that I do not feel this man is competent or trustworthy as a developer for North St. Louis. No plan should require such widespread secrecy and fear to succeed, and no plan should involve the many thousands of residents of our area giving up our self-determinacy to a malicious outsider who has for years neglected not only our own plans for the area, but our very right to safety and sanity in our own homes.
Moreover, it has taken me hours to even be able to produce coherent, non-spittake thoughts on the fact that McKee is asking for over $1.1 billion in public money to complete this project, on top of the already written pretty much for McKee Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit. Excuse me, but you come into my neighborhood using corporations to hide your identity, you frighten my neighbors out of their homes, and leave a huge trail of destruction in your path, and now you seek an additional $1.1 billion in public funds, dear multimillionaire? AND we’re supposed to hand over the keys to our entire section of the city to you, and let you decide where to drive? I scarely know what to say to that, it’s so ridiculous and insulting. McKee smears phantom thousands of jobs all over this, but is terribly scanty on the specifics. He’s going to, you know, build stuff, and one time he talked to somebody from China, you know, trust him, he’s rich. What if I decide I’m the job fairy? Y’all, I’m gonna create like 500,000 jobs up in here when I wave my magic wand, I promise–all you have to do is give me $1.1 billion or more of your tax dollars. 3 or 4 of the jobs might even be permanent! I mean, look at how Paul McKee has managed the money he has already spent–rather than doing anything silly like buying a smaller amount of buildings and using the rest of his millions to at least keep them boarded up, he pressed on and acquired more more more until !!!!SCREEEEEECH!!!! he had no choice but to ask us for billions, because the poor fella is tapped out.
The fact remains that Old North St. Louis is an abundantly, sparklingly successful area, a neighborhood inhabited by several generations of rehabbers and a growing and diverse batch of newcomers. Do not let anyone tell you that the North Side is a wasteland. I have lived here for several years, and it has completely changed my ideas about what a neighborhood can be. In my time here, I have seen neighbors literally rebuild buildings that were missing walls or that had fallen into the streets. You cannot tell these people that something is impossible. City blocks that have been off the grid for decades are now occupied and rehabbed–I know, because my own block is one such phoenix. Neighbors up here care about each other. This is a place where people are on a first name basis with each other, a place of backyard barbecues and a thriving generosity economy. We have the city’s oldest ice cream parlor, a hardware shop, light industry, a brand new art gallery, a summertime farmer’s market, and a new coffee shop on the cusp of opening, just to name a few of the many projects happening here. Despite decades of redlining, widespread small scale development is already working here. Wasteland? Sure, you could describe it as a wasteland if you were not at all familiar with the area, or moreover if you had an agenda to push.
Paul McKee and his representatives have been very careful not to apologize to me and my neighbors for their profoundly dehumanizing treatment of us. I don’t know how healing, let alone development, is supposed to happen without a simple, sincere apology. The closest we have come was in the Post-Dispatch article, in a comment McKee made about the secretive nature of Blairmont: “If there’s anything to apologize for, it’s that…. But I didn’t know how else to collect all this land.” Wow, you have millions and millions and millions of dollars, own dozens of corporations, you’ve opened the first Catholic school in St. Louis in over fifty years, you own a private duck hunting club, you’ve built WingHaven and NorthPark, and you can’t possibly think of another way to buy land or make money? Would it really have hurt your profit margin that badly to have taken input from us at any point within the last five years? Besides the insulting illogic of McKee’s statement, the structure of the apology itself rings hollow: It’s “if there’s anything to apologize for,” not an actual apology. It’s on par with when someone unwittingly insults you, but insists on saying “I’m sorry you feel offended,” rather than a real “I’m sorry.” Paul McKee has many, many things to apologize to the Near North Side for, and he can start with the fires. Hell, he can start with, “I’m sorry.”
I am frustrated, also, that this is referred to as Paul McKee’s plan for “North St. Louis,” as if North St. Louis was one small, homogeneous area. McKee’s project area might fairly be called the Near North Side, as it is composed primarily of Jeff Vander Lou, St. Louis Place, Old North, and the Near North Riverfront. But it stretches all the way to the 64/40 22nd Street exchange Downtown, decidedly not part of the North Side at all. And McKee’s project definitely does not cover even half of the North Side. North St. Louis, like the South Side, is composed of several dozen distinct and varied neighborhoods. Old North and the Wellston Loop are as different as Carondelet and South Grand. McKee’s plan tends to be characterized as something that will cover the entire North Side, and it will not.
So, to what extent does McKee’s project affect the whole of North St. Louis, the whole of our city? The hundreds of families that McKee’s destructive practices forced out of the fifth ward may not be your neighbors, but in a city where this kind of treatment of human beings is not only allowed but encouraged to happen, no one’s home, block, or community is ever really safe. Yes, that means you.