Touring the Divided City How Neighborhoods United for Change transforms St. Louis into a journey toward equity.

North City resident Rosie Willis in her Fresh Starts Community Garden. (Photo: Jasmine Mahmoud)

Editor’s note: This essay, one of five in a line-up, complements the theme of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), ‘Mean Streets: Viewing the Divided City Through the Lens of Film and Television,’ presented Nov. 11-13 at the Missouri History Museum. You will find a full schedule of this year’s SLIFF offerings here.

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Our geography divided us into two teams. Blue marked those from Jeff-Vander-Lou; red designated those of us from Forest Park Southeast. And then, with a simple reorientation, those divisions vanished, at least temporarily.

In their stead: new partnerships. Each pair included blue and red forged across neighborhood boundaries. My partner and I—both black women in our 30s—boarded the school bus together. Born in St. Louis, she grew up and spent most of her life in Jeff-Vander-Lou (JVL); recently she completed an international MBA. The beaches in Thailand, and the heat in India, the revelry in Ireland—this filled our conversation.  Time on our phones on Facebook trying to figure out if we had friends in common also filled our time.

We had formal questions to ask each other. Describe what you love about your neighborhood? What do you see as challenges to your neighborhood? She talked about JVL, the North St. Louis City neighborhood, as quiet, family-oriented, but also a food desert, with crime. Similarly, I told her that even though Forest Park Southeast/the Grove (FPSE), a South St. Louis City neighborhood where I live, has great restaurants and nightlife, we also have limited grocery options (including the small but mighty City Greens) and crime. While in JVL, she asked me, prompted by our tour packets: Tell me about the first time you visited this neighborhood? How has the media shaped the way you view this neighborhood? I told her how TV news suggested all of North City as blighted and crime-filled, a place where one should not go, a place where no one lives. This tour rendered JVL as profoundly different from that: a place where people, mostly black people, live.

In fact, the first tour sight was MetroMarket. On this sunny Saturday morning, residents swarmed the parked public transit bus turned mobile farmers market, exiting with bags full of produce. Their buzz evidenced North City as a food desert in need of more grocery stores, suggesting the daily experience of these residents who lacked regular, proximate, reliable access to fresh produce. Throughout this morning, we would visit other sights in both neighborhoods: a community garden, parks, museums, an art studio, and boarded up homes next to new builds of affordable and unaffordable housing, and Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, where we ate lunch and toured the facility.

TV news suggested all of North City as blighted and crime-filled, a place where one should not go, a place where no one lives. This tour rendered Jeff-Vander-Lou as profoundly different from that: a place where people, mostly black people, live.

These activities were part of Neighborhoods United for Change (NU4C). The program, launched fall 2016, pairing residents from a North City and a South City neighborhood to meet over breakfast, tour each other’s neighborhoods, and learn about each other, discussing neighborhood strengths and challenges. As of this writing, there have been three pairings, each with about 30 participants: College Hill (North City) with Shaw (South City), Baden (North City) with Tower Grove Heights/Tower Grove South (South City), and the tour I participated in on a Saturday morning in early October 2016: Jeff-Vander-Lou with Forest Park Southeast. Upcoming is a fourth pairing with Fairground and Princeton Heights.

The idea bubbled up in 2014. During the 20th annual SLACO (St. Louis Association of Community Organizations) Regional Neighborhood Conference, Doug Bram, an attendee, won the “250 Ways to Improve Your Neighborhood” contest; Nancy Thompson, then SLACO’s Executive Director, refined his idea. That time was, as Kevin McKinney SLACO’s current Executive Director wrote to me, “right after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson.” Michael Brown’s death sparked local and national dialogue about racial and spatial inequities. Through a partnership with the Civil Rights Enforcement Agency (CREA), SLACO started Neighborhoods United for Change in 2016. “We felt that SLACO could help bridge or start to bridge a gap,” McKinney wrote to me, “and that neighborhoods should be a part of that process.”

I wanted to capture the voices of Neighborhoods United for Change, so I interviewed planners and participants. Charles Bryson is the Director of the Civil Rights Enforcement Agency (CREA), which provided funding and support to SLACO for Neighborhoods United for Change. Kim Jayne, a lifelong St. Louis resident, has lived in Forest Park Southeast for the last 28 years, working as a community organizer committed to centering the voices of residents over developers. Sal. F Martinez, a CREA Commissioner, is also the Executive Director of the Community Renewal and Development Inc., which reinvests in North St. Louis City through home repair training, beautification activities, and public safety programs. Martinez led the JVL and the College Hill tour. Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl is the Executive Director of Union Communion Ministries, and President of the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association; she along with Colin Suchland (Neighborhood Association Treasurer) led the FPSE tour. I also corresponded with Kevin McKinney, SLACO Executive Director, via email.

Charles Bryson began our interview asking me the questions. “What made you pick South versus North” as a place to live? I described my recent move in August to St. Louis from Seattle, and choosing Forest Park Southeast for its racial diversity, arts presence (with murals and music venues), and proximity to the metro. He also asked: “What have you noticed about the arts culture?” In my short time in St. Louis, I have attended LouFest, four shows at the St. Louis Fringe Festival (three by black artists), and the “Critical Conversation” event at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) on the Kelley Walker controversy, that is, the artist’s inability to articulate ideas of race so central to his works. This naming sketched my arts geography in St. Louis: only below Delmar.

Bryson then showed me pictures of public art in Las Vegas, where he recently visited. “The reason I ask,” he said “is because virtually every other city that I go to there’s a wide variety of art north and south. … I think it helps define a place. Why isn’t this in St. Louis?”

Why is this not—a glut of art below and above Delmar—in St. Louis? Bryson’s questions framed St. Louis as the divided city beyond the oft-cited factors of race and poverty, and access to public education, health care, and transportation. North St. Louis is also an arts desert. “There are two free concert series on the north side of Delmar,” Tina Pihl of Union Communion Ministries, which programs a concert series north of Delmar, told me. “There are 16 free concert series on the south side of Delmar.” (I thought of Chuck Berry and Tina Turner as former North St. Louis City residents. In 2016, journalist Chris Naffziger wrote of Chuck Berry’s house in the Greater Ville neighborhood: “the house sits abandoned, poorly secured and in danger of eventual destruction”—a description evidencing dispossession in North St. Louis City.)

“Segregation by design exists,” Kevin McKinney of SLACO wrote to me. “Black folk and white folk have been segregated by government design.” In their 2015 article in Urban Geography, geographers J. Rosie Tighe and Joanna P. Ganning articulate the policies behind McKinney’s point. “In St. Louis,” they write “decline and displacement occurred when key policies, prejudices, and plans interacted with broad economic restructuring to devastate poor and minority communities while leaving White and middle-class communities largely intact.”

There was the 1959 clearance of Mill Creek Valley (located where SLU and Harris-Stowe now exist), once a thriving mostly black residential area; “an NAACP official called the clearance ‘Negro Removal,’” Tighe and Ganning write. There were city officials who allowed “private developers to ‘borrow’ the city’s power of eminent domain” and as a result, by 1970, “the entire downtown area … was determined to be ‘blighted.’” And there was the 1973 Saint Louis Redevelopment Program, or the Team Four Plan, which “relied heavily on urban renewal projects … including land-clearance and top-down goal setting.” The plan made “no reference to race” but also marked North City, a predominately black area, for “dramatic demolition, land banking, and top-down reconstruction.” Although never formally implemented, the Team Four Plan, Tighe and Ganning suggest, influenced the racial logic of St. Louis urban development until this day. “Many believe that the City’s future development plans reflected explicit intentions to invest in the predominantly White southern half of the City,” they write “while allowing the predominantly northern half to decay.” As evidence, Tighe and Ganning found that: “North City and South City are significantly different in terms of quality of life and environment: South City residents earn more than 40 percent more than North City residents; home values are nearly 70 percent higher in South City; and indicators of substandard housing are more prevalent in North City.” A recent Riverfront Times article, “St. Louis Gave Away $950K in Tax Incentives For Every New Central Corridor Resident,” had a similar conclusion: “Even as the central corridor gained new residents, it lost black ones … a 1,049 net loss of black residents … from 2000 to 2014. In essence, the city spent that $4.2 billion to gain a few white residents, but also to lose some black ones” (Fenske). In sum: the city’s policies—dispossessing black neighborhoods and investing in white neighborhoods—have rendered St. Louis the divided city.

Despite systemic government dispossession, many North City residents have worked hard to improve their communities. This the Neighborhoods United for Change tour revealed. The highlight: Fresh Starts Community Garden, begun and run by Rosie Willis, an energetic, determined JVL resident who was on our tour bus. In 2009, Willis wanted to transform a vacant lot full of weeds and trash into a garden. She knocked on nearly every door for support for gardening materials and received a lot of no’s. With the yeses, however, she was able to lease the vacant land (for $1 for five years) from the Comptroller’s Office, and start the garden. With community support and her persistence, she grew the garden in size; it, now a magnificent garden blooming with plants, grows myriad fruits and vegetables. On the day we toured it, her okra plants soared seven feet high. I experienced JVL, then, as not just places but also people, like the persistent, inspiring Rosie Willis, and my seat partner, the MBA from the neighborhood who had lived around the world. As of 2010, Jeff-Vander-Lou, named due its major streets of Jefferson and Vandeventer, had 5,557 residents (down from 6459 residents in 2000), 98 percent of which were black and a 74 percent occupancy rate.

Despite systemic government dispossession, many North City residents have worked hard to improve their communities. This the Neighborhoods United for Change tour revealed.

But I also experienced neighborhood sights beyond media coverage that renders North City only full of crime and blight. Sal Martinez led the tour to affordable homes built by Habitat for Humanity and affordable senior housing by Fulson Housing Group; churches; a stretch on Cass Avenue where the proximity of Dunbar Elementary, Vashon High School, and St. Louis Community College produced an educational campus; and the Henry Miller Museum which celebrates the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as well as the Griot Museum of Black History in the adjacent St. Louis Place neighborhood. There was much to see and admire.

“I’ve noticed that north side neighborhoods, which always go first,” Charles Bryson told me “always try to pack an incredible amount of stuff into their presentation.” Bryson asked north side tour leaders why this is. “They said ‘because we want south side people’—and they didn’t say white, they just said south side—‘we want south side people to know that we actually have good stuff on the north side of St. Louis.”

Bryson continued: “I found that fascinating because right after that a south-side white woman said ‘We do the same thing. We want you on the north side to know that we’re okay too.’ You’ve got that conversation going now about how important the presentation was to both sides of Delmar, both sides of the city.”

Later that morning, we toured Forest Park Southeast; Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl and Colin Suchland also packed in much to see. We visited the neighborhood’s namesake, the southeast portion of Forest Park; the art studio of Dexter Silvers, a black St. Louis artist who produces realist art depicting the neighborhood; Manchester Avenue, the commercial strip full of bars, restaurants, a small grocery, which is often branded with the neighborhood’s other name, the Grove; boarded up homes south of Manchester; the St. Louis Transgender Memorial Garden (the first transgender garden in the United States); and Urban Chestnut, the immense block-length brewery where we ate lunch.

The tour animated how so many past stories hide in a neighborhood’s present geography. On the bus, as we drove by industrial plants or vacant lots, residents recalled what that land used to be: a grocery store, or a micro-neighborhood for blacks or whites only. The tour also animated Forest Park Southeast’s curious growth. In the last decade, there had been a loss in population and yet an increase in development with new construction and increased rents. In 2010, Forest Park Southeast had 2,918 residents (down from 3,704 in 2000), 64 percent were black, and a 77 percent occupancy rate.  On the tour, Kim Jayne was vocal about how development that began in the 1990s pushed many residents out. “I just wanted to make sure people knew there were other sides to that story,” she told me “You know people in this city are just being taxed to death and it’s just being handed over to developers and it just feels so unfair. You’ve got to be rich to get any support from the city.”

Similarly, in Jeff-Vander-Lou, residents were vocal about impending NGA and Paul McKee developments. (In 2016, the National Geospatial Agency announced it picked a 99-acre plot immediately south of Jeff-Vander-Lou to build its NGA West campus. It is estimated that the site will bring in 3,100 employees with an average salary of $83,000. Also, Paul McKee, a developer, purchased land across the street from the proposed NGA site—in a forest where the Pruitt-Igoe public housing once stood). Many on the bus expressed frustration at both developers. The NGA development project frustrated JVL residents who have been asking the city for modest investments—for things like a grocery store—and have been ignored for decades. As one FPSE resident said, developers in both neighborhoods are “alike—they don’t like you if you’re poor.”

As we drove by properties and land slated for development, St. Louis residents, black and white from north and south, expressed frustration the type of development that centered property and profit over people. Kim Jayne told me: “The way development was done is that people were moved out and then new people were brought in [with] higher income. A lot of people here could have really benefited from that economic development.” In these elicitations, the tour crystalized resident responses to recent development projects, including frustration at how city officials have often ceded to private developers without considering resident needs.

“The city of St. Louis still does not have a comprehensive plan,” geographers Tighe and Ganning write, suggesting a cause. “The City’s last comprehensive plan was the Bartholomew plan adopted in 1947.” They themselves support “an approach … that prioritizes equity and directly engages the issue of race … and prioritize(s) the preservation, revitalization, and development of poor and minority neighborhoods.” Their approach dialogues with how one Forest Park Southeast resident on the tour described the difficulties she faced as one of the only black business owners in the neighborhood where policies weren’t attuned to race.  

Neighborhoods United for Change sparked ideas of what St. Louis could be—ideas of what an official plan could implement. Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl expressed the need for “better public transportation” to connect North and South and provide access to those without cars.  “We’re not going to ever be a great city,” she told me “without getting a better north side line.” Charles Bryson advocated for “giving enough information to our residents to allow them to assist in the changes in their neighborhood.” Kim Jayne also sought “home repair funds” for residents. “Home ownership,” she told me “that’s really dying especially black land loss. That’s so awful.”

In many elicitations, the tour crystalized resident responses to recent development projects, including frustration at how city officials have often ceded to private developers without considering resident needs.

All I interviewed wanted St. Louis to be defined not by division, but by equity. Tina Pihl told me she wanted to “figure out the best way to provide equity to everybody.” Kim Jayne wanted “development [that] included people [who] are existing residents … not just keep moving people out.” She found it “so ironic that our child health [problems]—asthma, lead—are so high” even though there are so many great hospitals in St. Louis. Kevin McKinney quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. to summarize his wish for the city: “We must learn to love each other as brothers or perish as fools.” Sal Martinez told me that in “an ideal world Neighborhoods United for Change would be a lasting initiative. I would love to see local institutions and other organizations invest in it as we continue to try to break down these walls that exist between north and south and the central corridor.”

“I think as we embrace racial equity,” Charles Bryson told me, “we will see changes in budget and policies and practices.” His point—that racial equity results in budget changes—resonates with another argument by geographers J. Rosie Tighe and Joanna P. Ganning. Dispossession and lack of investment in North City is very much connected to growth and investment in South City, they suggest. “Growth and prosperity do not occur merely alongside blight and decline,” they write, “but because of nearby blight and decline.”

Our geography, then, divides us apart. It also yokes us together. The tour situated the experiences of that division and togetherness. “Many of the people had never been to the neighborhoods,” Sal Martinez told me about existing divisions. “They were used to sticking around their neck of the woods. … It was pretty neat to see eyes open and to see positive expressions as we toured these neighborhoods.” But the tour evidenced how residents across St. Louis want similar things. “People have a lot more in common than sometimes we think they do,” Martinez told me. “They all want safe neighborhoods. They all want investment. They all want access to the services. They want to live next to civic minded neighbors. They want positive green spaces. So everybody was unified in what they think the ideal neighborhood should look like.” Similarly, Charles Bryson told me: “Everybody wants housing, economic development, commercial development. Everybody wants their kids to go to a neighborhood-based school where they could walk. Everybody wants the safe streets, decent streets, and sidewalks, and lack of vacancies. Everybody wants the same thing. It is how that gets to be achieved in your particular neighborhood.”

Experiencing another’s geography, Kevin McKinney of SLACO suggested, gives participants “an opportunity to connect based on similarities, while reinforcing mutual respect for differences.” The Neighborhoods United for Change tour I attended allowed for this connection and respect, and for re-orientation. The tour frames St. Louis not just as a divided city but also as a city that yokes dispossession in North City to growth in South St. Louis, that reveals similar wants residents—north and south, black and white—have for their city. It suggests how experiencing each other’s geography may connect us, unite us, and re-orient us, rendering the potential for equity, or at least for ideas for another St. Louis where equity might pervade dreams, plans, and ultimately the experience of the city.


Bryson, Charles. Interview with Jasmine Mahmoud. October 2016. St. Louis, MO.

Fenske, Sarah. “St. Louis Gave Away $950K in Tax Incentives For Every New Central Corridor Resident.” Riverfront Times. 31 October 2016.

Jayne, Kim. Interview with Jasmine Mahmoud. October 2016. St. Louis, MO.

Martinez, Sal F. Interview with Jasmine Mahmoud. October 2016. St. Louis MO.

McKinney, Kevin. Interview with Jasmine Mahmoud. October 2016. St. Louis, MO.

Naffziger, Chris. “The Birthplace of Rock ‘n‘ Roll: Chuck Berry’s former home in the Greater Ville. St. Louis Magazine. 1 June 2016.

Pihl, Tina “Sweet-T.” Interview with Jasmine Mahmoud. October 2016. St. Louis, MO.

Tighe, Rosie J. and Joanna P. Ganning. “The divergent city: unequal and uneven development in St. Louis.” Urban Geography 36.5 (2015): 654-673.