Monday, March 14, 2016

Harvard University, Melvin White and a Much-Needed Plan to Thwart Racial Exclusion in St. Louis

Later this month, I will join a consortium of well-known St. Louisans in Boston to discuss racial exclusion and ways to build social change in our region. We were invited by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Last year, a team of graduate students led by Professor Daniel D’Oca came to St. Louis to meet with the Creative Exchange Laboratory (CEL) and Melvin White, founder of the nonprofit Beloved Streets of America (BSA). The Harvard group immediately saw the value of White’s vision to revitalize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. streets in the region and throughout the country. Interviewing entrepreneurs like Karen Bryant, owner of an alterations shop on King Drive, the group honed in on one key element needed to make and sustain the change in low-income neighborhoods, empowering regular people, like White.

Melvin White / Photo courtesy of  STL Public Radio

Before the visit, White’s plan, although it had received local and  national media attention, had been ridiculed by some politicians and basically ignored by local, uber-wealthy educational institutions like Washington University. In 2014, the Riverfront Timesperhaps unknowingly, did a somewhat divisive story on White and BSA that rankled some black aldermen along the MLK strip. There was a bit too much focus on White’s colorful attire, seedy behavior and “bombed-out-looking former stores,” that the writer observed. Animosity was seeded when the writer positioned BSA as salvation for neighborhoods aldermen had been trying to improve for years. Some of them, and rightly so, took umbrage to White being positioned as a “savior” of their wards.

My hope is that these black aldermen are savvy enough not to make White or the Harvard team their enemies or become entrenched in sabotaging the effort. If we are to be real, we must face the fact that poverty, crime and hopelessness will never cede in our communities until the people impacted by these conditions can create and sustain economic, educational and holistic change themselves.

Blacks in St. Louis need a WIN! We need something of our own that generates as much excitement and media buzz as the attempt to build a billion-dollar football stadium or the 200-acre Cortex Innovation District or the multi-million-dollar Northside Development project. We need something that captures the energy, imagination and fosters pride and ownership among urban youth, residents and others residing or investing in North St. Louis.

We need something like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative  in Boston’s Roxbury district. There, residents, politicians and city planners came together to improve the fabric of a community plagued with severe disinvestment, illegal dumping and an overabundance of vacant lots. Together, this collective developed a long-term plan to reclaim their community and implement their own vision of an “urban village.” They formed a structure that blossomed into affordable new and rehabbed housing, two "town commons," a trendy farmers’ market, and the reopening of a closed commuter rail station.

  

   This region’s civic and political leaders seem to have an alternative template for development: give already rich developers or powerful entities like the Ikea furniture store in midtown or the government mapping agency millions in tax breaks and acres of land and pray that these efforts will create trickle down economic opportunities for the entire region.

St. Louis is unaccustomed to investing in the ideas of common citizens. Melvin White, a postal worker, is an ordinary dude with an extraordinary vision.  I can relate to that. I’m a born and raised, dyed-in-the-wool St. Louis guy who happens to be committed to utilizing the “food movement” to educate youth and empower poor people. The Sweet Potato Project’s big vision is to have land-ownership, large-scale farming and major food production coming out of North St. Louis. If we can accomplish that goal through a well-funded collective effort along Martin Luther King Drive, well…so be it!

Actually, I can think of dozens of grassroots nonprofits-Hosco Foods, the Fathers’ Support Center, Better Family Life, St. Louis Metro Markets, Northside Community Housing, Inc., OBS, Good Life Growing, LLC. and more –that are close enough to MLK Drive to participate in a grand empowerment strategy for low-income people and poor neighborhoods. In order for this to happen, we have to dream big, strategize and demand that the city invest in North St. Louis and the people who live there.
  
For more than 60 years, blacks in the region have been shoved out of long-inhabited neighborhoods in the name of “development.” Millcreek Valley, for example, parts of the Central West End, Grand Center and, today, land near the old Pruitt-Igoe site reserved for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, were and are benefactors of strategic visions, political influence, tax incentives, land and eminent domain.


Proposed site for the Geospatial Center in North St. Louis / Courtesy of STLToday


With a strategic, inclusive community development vision, political leaders can use their influence to help their constituents access some of the more than 8,000 vacant lots in or around MLK Drive and use that assembled land for tax incentives and community development funding. Kansas City, MO-which is light years ahead of St. Louis in developing grassroots urban agriculture initiatives-has drafted state-wide legislation (House Bill 542) that earmarks certain low-income areas as “Urban Agricultural Zones (UAZ)” which makes the neighborhoods ripe for government, corporate and nonprofit funding.

Urban Agriculture Blossoms in Kansas City after Passage of Farm-Friendly Zoning Ordinance

   It would be absolutely amazing if local politicians designated MLK as an UAZ area making it eligible for government incentives specifically designed for “systematic re-purposing of blighted areas.”

   This past summer, I attended classes offered by Washington University in partnership with The Mission Center L3C. The free weekend classes delivered innovative entrepreneurship training to all participants. The lessons were helpful but with a strategic plan, they could be powerful. If these classes were attached to a collective plan and funding sources, we could have urban entrepreneurial training coupled with small business development funds dedicated to sparking urban revitalization in one specific area of St. Louis.    

   There is a reason St. Louis has captured the nation’s attention. The explosion in Ferguson after the police-shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old exposed the region’s sordid history of shuffling poor populations into areas where they weren’t necessarily welcomed, denying them inclusion in the economic mainstreams and targeting them as revenue-generators for local municipalities.

   Harvard University’s work here is in partnership with Washington University. Harris Stowe State College is exploring development ideas with community groups in the Greater Ville area. The Sweet Potato Project has been blessed to partner with St. Louis University’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics on entrepreneurship training and food product development. It’s not like these institutions are oblivious to the history of racial exclusion in St. Louis. What’s missing is a collective, strategic plan formed and promoted from those who govern, live and work in North St. Louis. 

The Boston conference I mentioned, Voices and Visions of St. Louis: Past,Present and Future,” hosted by Harvard in partnership with Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design, is an attempt to kick-off a “multi-year trans-disciplinary conversation” that promises to focus on “injustice, inequality, and racial exclusion.” Conveners are upfront about sparking a “new agenda for environmental change” in St. Louis and around the country.

We should capitalize off this attention and agenda. To borrow a line from the movie Shawshank Redemption: I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really; Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Is North St. Louis, as we’ve historically known it, dying? Maybe it’s too soon to tell. This much I do know; after some 60 years of neglect and disinvestment, it has become the focal point of community development conversations. Has the gentrifying of North St. Louis begun? Not sure but I’m observing huge swaths of the urban core set aside for larger businesses, private investment, expensive housing and the arrival of wealthier people. Through eminent domain, the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders and accommodating political insiders has already begun.



I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really; Get busy living or get busy dying.”


Melvin White and BSA are on the radar of a national community development agenda. He has happened to identifiy a strategic location for a massive self-empowerment project. This is not the time for hatin’. It’s our time to capitalize on the attention and momentum White has garnered.  Those of us who hold North St. Louis near and dear to our hearts need to get busy living, planning and strategizing on ways to empower those already in North St. Louis so they, too, can be the benefactors and recipients of an inclusive, safe and economically vibrant North St. Louis.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is the former publisher of Take Five Magazine, former columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and current director of the Sweet Potato Project.

3 comments:

  1. Sylvester, I would like to speak with you at an appropriate time to discuss how southsiders can support,not lead nor co-opt, this effort.

    ReplyDelete
  2. wonderful ideas. I have often thought that the old Pruitt-Igoe site should be converted to an active, productive farm as a means of education for the children of the area and as a means of providing healthy food for people.

    ReplyDelete
  3. MO, give me call (314-341-4071). I'm open to all ideas and all people interested in creating opportunities for our youth and disadvantaged adults. You are a jewel!

    Carol, your idea about the re-use of Pruitt-Igoe is a good one...plenty of land and lots of trees. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be don't agree with us. That leaves growing healthy food on some of the 8,000 plus vacant lots just lying fallow in St. Louis. Thanks for commenting.-Sylvester

    ReplyDelete