Why the Jefferson Lake idea on the Rally Saint Louis page needs to be removed

This evening, a friend brought to my attention a proposal someone made for North St. Louis on the Rally STL website, entitled Jefferson Lake, posted by user cooperpriess. It is a proposal to replace substantial parts of the St. Louis Place and Jeff Vander Lou neighborhoods with a giant urban lake.

The pitch for the idea describes the area as “kind of a blank slate,” a phrase that people actually wince at here in Detroit. Simply put, we are used to it being used by white not-from-here people to describe plans for black neighborhoods, that do not include the residents of those neighborhoods.

The footprint of the proposed lake includes:

-Occupied nice 19th century housing (including a house where my friend’s family has lived for 51 years)

-Occupied new housing

-At least one entire school (The way the rendering is done, the road clips a corner of another SLPS school which I attended, which was built less than 20 years ago)

-The Griot Museum, as pointed out by @PubPolWonk on twitter

-The St. Louis firefighters’ training center

-Numerous churches

-Numerous businesses, including a large pigment factory, a sponge company, a medical laundry company, a granite countertop company, an operating ironworks, and small shops owned by people of color

This is a partial list, dashed off quickly from the top of my head.

Suggesting that a big hole in the ground would be better than black homes and businesses is not okay. Suggesting that my friends’ homes should just be wiped away is not okay. This idea would literally erase these places and resources if implemented, and the suggestion of it erases them in the metaphorical sense. Do Rally STL and cooperpriess not see how harmful it is for white people to suggest the wholesale removal of black neighborhoods in a city as hurting and divided as St. Louis? Do they not understand that this would be a continuation of the city’s history of urban renewal, including the Mill Creek Valley project that intentionally wiped out the black business district of its time?

The St. Louis Place community has been through a lot. They have survived urban renewal, redlining, the under-provision of basic quality of life services at Pruitt-Igoe, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe, fallout from the savings and loan crisis, massive under-servicing from the City of St. Louis (one summer the grass was person height), and Paul McKee. The US Army tested toxic chemicals on the community from sprayers atop Pruitt-Igoe, something that was known about by the neighborhood for a long time but only officially acknowledged in 2012.

And yet, people stay. They live, they work, they have cute puppies and amazing block parties. The people who can make it through all of that are the heartiest, most resilient residents, the kind of people a city struggling with population decline should want to hang on to. They deserve reparations. At the least, they deserve the same availability of capital, insurance, and public services that home and business owners elsewhere in the city get, something resembling a fair playing field. They deserve respect, not urbanist spins on Paul McKee’s shtick. This is a new face on old racist planning.

And how would this idea be implemented, anyway? Would the budget for the lake include relocation costs for households, resources for them to build roots in their new spots? How would it account for the fact that people of color in St. Louis, including many in this footprint, have already survived relocations before this one? Would it support businesses as they found new buildings, and make sure they stayed open years down the line? Working ironworks can’t exactly shut down at night and then have all their equipment installed elsewhere by the next morning, and they are legally obligated to fulfill their contracts. Where does this plan propose that the firefighter training center be rebuilt, and how would that get paid for? How would it account for the loss of regal 19th century historic buildings, including some of the last stone facade homes on the North Side?

I understand that the person who suggested this was probably well-meaning. But as someone who lived on the Near North Side for five years, I have a hard time distinguishing it from any of the other myriad proposals of things-that-will-never-be-built for that same footprint. Others that have not happened have included a golf course, a subdivision, a warehouse hub tied to shipping from China, a subdivision again, and now the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. None of it has been built. But every addition to the list is insulting and hurtful. It’s as if the region is fumbling for any excuse, now including a big wet hole in the ground, to replace black communities. They would rather have a pit than to simply leave St. Louis Place residents’ homes alone.

Black neighborhoods are not problems, and they are especially not problems to be solved by clear-cutting with a bulldozer. They simply are neighborhoods, as valid and deserving of resources and continued existence as white ones.

The Jefferson Lake proposal describes the area as “vacant” and “dilapidated,” which is not true for the entire area. Again, there are residents, institutions, and value, something anyone who has spent quality time there would know. The vacancy and dilapidation that exists is due very significantly to the efforts of intentionally destructive property owner Paul McKee, who has used every trick in the 1950s blockbusting handbook to pressure people out of their property, and torn blocks asunder for his own gain. The proposal does not mention this elephant in the room once, and that’s because it is not actually interested in addressing the causes of neighborhood decline, but rather in a false, silver-bullet notion of urban planning.

The proposal also notes that the area is “lacking access to services.” As a former resident, no quibble here! But the solution to an area being underserved isn’t to drop a bomb on that area, it’s to serve the area. Want to kickstart development, the stated goal of this project? Great, put good quality grocery stores in several locations, and hire North Side residents at good wages in the stores. Implement a project that collects data on the quality and timeliness of city service provision in both black and white neighborhoods, and then use the findings to press for fairness. Talk to people giving small business loans and training in other cities and bring their ideas to help existing and new businesses in North City. Create an informational resource on funds for home repair and home insurance, and help people apply for those things. Teach a GED class or mentor a teenager. Serve the area, and the improved quality of life will help it flourish.

I have tried to be patient with this idea, but it’s hard to be charitable when someone looks at your community and suggests that nothingness would be better. This is that McRee Town eminent domain logic, the thought that white eyes should be relieved from having to look at black neighborhoods, and that that relief should be the focus of urban policy and resources. This logic does not care for black homes or black lives. It does not care what happens to anyone in their new community, once their old community has been replaced with something visibly new and twee.

In closing, Rally St. Louis, I call on you to pull Jefferson Lake from your site. Take it down. No, it’s not going to get built, but leaving a proposal to eliminate black neighborhoods up reinforces that this kind of thinking is not only acceptable, but somehow positive. It is also a harmful thing to do read for those who live in such neighborhoods–A friend who lives there once remarked, “Do people think we don’t have the Internet?” Rally Saint Louis’s own site says that you “[ask] that you do not submit ideas that contain or revolve around” a list of things, including “racism.” Eliminating entire black neighborhoods and (as twitter user @PubPolWonk notes) St. Louis’s only black history museum seems like it ought to meet that guideline.

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 12:49 am  Comments (4)  
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Clerical error leads to easy demolition of historic district building in St. Louis

Clerical error leads to easy demolition of historic district building in St. Louis

Not even surprised. Not remotely surprised. Yesterday at work I told a coworker, “I’m trying to be extra careful, because I’ve seen the wrong building get torn down before. In St. Louis.” Today I saw this.

This building was being demolished last time I was in town, and I thought it was weird.

We are only even hearing about this because it happened south of Delmar. If this was somebody’s house in North City, fuhgeddaboutit.

Published in: on February 7, 2014 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Got lost inside the caves in my former workplace. Hit my head, too. Thought, “What a clumsy metaphor for visiting one’s hometown years after leaving!”

A few minutes later, I plopped myself down in front of a bonfire, and heard “If you want to roast a marshmallow, you can get a stick from OH HEY CLAIRE.” On the next tree stump was a pal from teenage years.

I’ll take both of those metaphors.

Published in: on December 28, 2013 at 3:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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North City Farmers’ Market: A great little piece of writing by a friend

My friend Thom Fletcher wrote a great little announcement for The North City Farmers’ Market. Thom lives in Old North St. Louis and I used to live there, and reading this made me wish I could be there with my ONSL family.

If you are in St. Louis, consider partaking in some of this on Saturday. Even in StL, how freaking often do you get to experience such incredible positive change like what’s going on in lovely, character-rich Old North St Louis?

Thom’s post:

“This Saturday is the last 2013 market day of the Old North Farmers Market. For those of you so atrophied and decrepit that you’ve mistaken the academic, rhetoric about immediate living for actual immediate living, here’s a defibrillator for your tired, tired heart. This Harvest Fest is scored by the Illphonics, with a cooking demo by Food Outreach, and Jamaican barbecue from Mi Hungry. Across the street is the first best historic soda fountain in St Louis, the Gateway to the West, Crown Candy, as well as the 5th Ward’s business of the year (and baked good blackbelts) La Mancha Coffee House. And then there’s the classic car show and skateboard event at Ye Ole Haunt where Stray Rescue will have the cutest damned dog there ready for adoption (make a good day perfect). Ask Ye Ole Haunt’s bartender about the hot wing challenge but you’d probably better not mention my name. Breath. And then stroll down Crown Square to where the 14th Street Artist Community celebrates their one year anniversary. THANK YOU 14TH ST ARTIST COMMUNITY!


as a 13th Street Gardener I can assure you that the harvest is bountiful. It’s been a good season for our farmers and our gardeners, and we are exhausted from our efforts. Please come and tell our growers, artisans and craftspersons that you love them. Tell Willie I said hi, and tell Armin you liked the beard. Tell Luz-Maria and Gloria you need in on some of them Ali Baba watermelons you keep hearing about. And tell your friends what you saw here.

Quite sincerely,

Your Pal Thom”

Hometownness: Old guitars and shared stories

Last week, I went to see a band from my hometown play here in Detroit. They play American music from past decades and are very good at it. When I was growing up, my parents’ friends were musicians who played the blues and 1920s music. So, the band the other night sounded like home in a way I at first couldn’t name: That’s what St. Louis sounds like. That’s the sound of having red brick and river mud running through your veins.

When I walked into the club, a man dressed like a dapper cowboy looked at me like he was trying to figure out if he knew me, but it was dark and I didn’t think I knew anyone who looked like that. When he came out onstage playing washboard and a harmonica with the band, I thought I know those eyes. He kept holding my gaze. It took me half the set to figure out: His piercings are still the same. Oh my god, we went to some of the same parties when we were teenagers. We both grew up in Tower Grove South.

People say that folks from St. Louis will inevitably ask you, “Where did you go to high school?” It’s thought that your high school determines your whole life forecast in parochial little St. Louis. And after the set, we talked. For the first time in a good while I got asked a permutation of that question: “Didn’t you go to Gateway?” My family moved to the Chicago suburbs before I started high school, but I would have gone to Gateway and it’s strange to think that information is still encoded into my DNA.

I guessed: “You went to Central, right?”


“Creative city kid. Makes sense.”

We talked about growing up in South City. We both attended summer school at Enright and then urban explored the school after it closed, startled to find artifacts from our era left in the abandoned building: names on chalkboards, the smell of the place unchanged. We both still have bowling balls that our 16-year-old selves stole from Western Lanes when it shut down. He mentioned his lucky bowling ball from Western and I responded, “I have one too! It’s outside in my car right now!”

I think the “Where did you go to high school?” question is almost always about Catholic and suburban high schools. I know characteristics of people who went to a certain Parkway school or who went to SLU High, but such jokes rarely mention the city high schools. It was neat not to get that rare-for-me little blast of shared heritage, but also to identify characteristics that mark someone as having grown up in St. Louis City and SLPS.

Relocating to Detroit was absolutely the right decision for me. But a flipside to the wonderful possibility and novelty of relocation is that you don’t have people around that you go back with. Nobody knows the things you were content to leave behind, but they also don’t know what you’re capable of and where you’re from.

I’d been vaguely meaning to get rid of that lucky bowling ball for a while, but I think I will hang on to it a little longer. I ought to take it bowling in Detroit.

The Corner of Main and Main: on Paul McKee’s never-ending sales pitch

With a nod to Jeff Wattrick’s naming of bridge-owning Matty Moroun as the Mr. Burns of Detroit, and in light of Tim Logan’s summary of land-banking Paul McKee’s salesmanship of his “vision” versus his actual record on following through with development, I have an observation to make.

Paul McKee is the Monorail Guy of Metro St. Louis, and he’s coming to make a presentation to a municipal council or lender near you!

I’ll admit it’s not a perfect metaphor. Even the Monorail Guy followed through on his promise to build what he pitched, and to create a couple of short-term jobs.

Sing it with me now: Monoraaail, monoraaaaail, monoraaaaaaail!

Published in: on December 18, 2011 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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MetroLink Prom 2011

The fourth annual MetroLink Prom takes place tomorrow night, October 7, 2011, in St. Louis.

Being in the thick of schoolwork this evening I don’t have time to write about it as it deserves, so let me just direct you for details to their fun tumblr: Metro Prom.

The Drumline of St. Louis is going. A lot of well-dressed people are going. I hope like hell you’re going, too.

Love from Detroit,

Published in: on October 6, 2011 at 3:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A few hasty thoughts on early census numbers for St. Louis

The AP has early census numbers for St. Louis City, showing that the city’s population is down 8% from 2000. It’s now around 319,000 people.

Damn, StL, damn.

The Slay administration has made challenging the census numbers a cornerstone of their spin. It was strange to hear such sunny figures while watching the Near North Side bleed families directly or indirectly because of Paul McKee’s land acquisition. My neighbors and I kept hearing about evictions, talking with people who were leaving, and seeing moving vans. So many occupied buildings went vacant and often disappeared altogether. Anecdotal evidence seemed to suggest that nearly everyone was heading to North County. If Slay’s numbers were accurate, I thought, there musta been a hell of a lot of people moving in and staying on the South Side and in the Central Corridor.

To be sure, McKee is not the only factor when 30,000 people have left. Eviscerated schools, a persistent problem with crime, transit cuts, ubiquitous lead in housing, and paltry employment opportunities all play a major part in the difficult decision to stay or go. Daily life needs to be functional, and I think that often gets lost in the shuffle of talking about glamorous large-scale projects and attracting middle class creatives to cities. Nonetheless, I think the fact that Slay and friends think they can support a project that seeks to depopulate an enormous swath of the city and still end up with good census numbers speaks volumes about how much they think North St. Louis matters.

I am curious to learn the specifics when more numbers come out,  and to hear the spin coming out of Room 200 about this in the coming days.

Published in: on February 24, 2011 at 2:54 pm  Comments (2)  
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How many St. Louis aldermen does it take to change a lightbulb?

a) I think Matt Villa just abruptly resigned to find out.

b) My committeeperson’s sister runs a lightbulb company and would like to talk to you.

c) Which side of Delmar is the lightsocket on? I see. Well, the city will go 50/50 with you on the cost, even though your community is missing light fixtures in a lot of places, while people across town have gilt lamps ready to take fresh bulbs.

d) at least 28. At least.

e) The Building Division does not know, nor does it know anything about the recent rash of lightbulb rustling.

f) Your thoughts?

Published in: on February 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Prop A passed!

Quick hit: Proposition A passed! A sales tax is regressive, yes, but a region where people without cars can’t get to work is regressive in and of itself. Transit won tonight. I’m proud of you, St. Louis.

Published in: on April 7, 2010 at 12:27 am  Comments (2)  
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