Sunday, July 24, 2016

St. Louis MetroMarket Bus Spotted In The Jeff Vander Lou Neighborhood

When you are tooling around the city and you notice what appears to be a Metro bus parked in a vacant lot, and a guy with a flag ushering you toward said bus, you have to check it out.

That's just what happened to me as I was heading northwest on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive photographing the 30 amazing firehouses in St. Louis on a sunny Saturday morning. 

At a corner wedge in the Jeff Vander Lou Neighborhood, defined by Thomas Street and Wester Avenue, with Dr. Martin Luther King Drive as the hypotenuse, the scene included a big bus, whimsically painted in greens, yellows and reds. 

There were tents set up and the guy flagging traffic toward the bus stood next to an A-frame sign advertising fresh, healthy, affordable food.
I pulled over to sate my curiosity. 
Turns out the eye-catching operation I stumbled upon is the St. Louis MetroMarket. Here's a little background from their website:
The St. Louis MetroMarket is a non-profit mobile farmers' market that will serve all St. Louis area food deserts by providing direct access to fresh and affordable produce, meat, and staple goods and by advocating on the behalf of these communities on issues related to food justice, hunger, and health.
What is a food desert? Per the Economic Research Service of the USDA:
While there are many ways to define a food desert, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group considers a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. To qualify as low income, census tracts must meet the Treasury Department's New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program eligibility criteria. Furthermore, to qualify as a food desert tract, at least 33 percent of the tract's population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. (source)
Simply put, think of areas where there are no grocery stores offering healthy, affordable foods within walking distance from low-income areas. Grocery shopping, especially for a family, is tough without a car.

There are many places in St. Louis that meet the above definition of a food desert, 15 per this source

Now that you're grounded with a little information on this non-profit endeavor, here's what I learned after speaking with executive director, Lucas Signorelli who  showed me around the operations including a cooking demonstration by nutritionists who were sauteing up onions and red peppers (both available on the bus) for some tasty recipes.
Lucas introduced me to Serena Bugett who showed me around the bus/market and answered some of my questions:
Ms. Bugett, a fellow city resident, is the Director of Community Engagement for MetroMarket.  She indicated that the market was created by St. Louis University Medical Student Jeremy Goss as well as co-founders Tej Azad and Colin Downing (both Washington University alumni), all interested in bringing healthy, affordable food to areas that need it the most. As the writing on the bus says: "Food Is Medicine" and "Eat To Live".

The bus itself was donated by Metro. The bus seats were removed and floors and shelves were designed to make an easily accessible market. Re-purposed wood was obtained to give it that farm look. The team cut, sanded and stained the wood that makes the shelves.

The offerings are selected based on both the season as well as feedback from the community. Meetings were held to survey the residents on what items they would like to see available. There is an emphasis on locally farmed fruits, veggies, meats and cheese. There are ready to eat or prepared foods including BBQ sauce, marinades, preserves and apple butter from Amish farms. Future plans include acceptance of EBT.

Jeff Vander Lou and Hyde Park were selected for the initial launch. The market also sets up shop on North 14th Street near Mallinckrodt Street by the Holy Trinity Catholic Church on the first Saturday of the month. And they are at the JVL location every Saturday from 9:00 - 12:00.

Before the St. Louis MetroMarket selects a spot to serve, they ask for permission from the neighbors. The group is researching additional spots it will be welcome. They do not simply identify the food deserts on paper and show up. They work with the community to ask for permission to set up shop in their neighborhood. They wait for an invitation from the community.  This is the best way for the MetroMarket to get an idea of what the people want to purchase. If I've learned one thing about St. Louis' poorer areas, it is that the decent people that live in these areas are tough and proud. Asking for help does not always come easy. Therefore, the conversation and the request to be part of the neighborhood before you just show up is vitally important to establish goodwill and acceptance.

St. Louis MetroMarket gets that.

Simply put, the market is an amazingly transformed space. It is like an aisle in a small city market...not a bus. No seats. No fumes. Instead, brightly lit shelves, meat and dairy cabinets all in air-conditioned coolness. The driver's station is subtly hidden behind a burlap curtain. You walk up the stairs to a market as opposed to a bus. Hook a slight left and you notice a check out station manned by a cashier and then of course the food.
This is a place designed and made to feel real and professional...a place with dignity. It works. There is enough variety to make entire meals, not just a here and there offering of this and that. It is well thought out and sourced.

Don't just take my word for it. MetroMarket has been covered well by the local media including KSDK Channel 5, KWMU 90.7 FM, KDHX 88.1 FM, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and many others.

Congratulations to St. Louis MetroMarket, and best of luck. You are good neighbors. The conversation I had and the work you are doing made my day. And seeing nothing but smiles on the faces of your customers makes me hopeful for our future.

You can follow the St. Louis MetroMarket on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, July 15, 2016

An Interview With The Civilian Oversight Board

I recently had the opportunity to talk about "Community Engagement" at a panel discussion hosted by the St. Louis Public Library. Afterward, a member of the recently-formed City of St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board introduced herself and asked if I'd like to meet the others on the team and learn more about the role of this newly-formed office within the Department of Public Safety.

I decided to take her up on the invitation with the intention of sharing some of the positive actions that are a result of the current events and scrutiny around policing in St. Louis and the region at large.

If you are like me, you watched the events play out after the death of Michael Brown in November, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri and other small towns in the suburbs just north of St. Louis and came to the realization that things have to change. Conversations began on how to make improvements to the "taxation by citation" policing methods employed by many of these small towns in St. Louis County and the use of force in the line of duty to serve and protect across the many police departments in the region. 

One thing that seems obvious after the disputes, higher scrutiny and maybe most of all: cell phone footage of police interactions now available to nearly everyone via social media is that we need additional avenues to help bridge the efforts of the police force with the community. In order to ensure trust between law enforcement and the community, we need a process for citizens who feel they've been treated unjustly or unprofessionally by law enforcement officials to seek justice.  I think we can all agree that as citizens we want the best, most respectful, just and equitable relations with the police force that is possible. Respect is a two-way street.

Transparency is a cornerstone of trust in our democracy and we need hon
est channels to air our grievances with the power structures and feel as though due process has been served. Bridges can be built to help citizens and the police hired and trained to protect us to enforce the laws in a manor that fits and respects the community. St. Louis
 took a first step toward this goal in April, 2015 when the Board of Alderman voted 17-8 in favor of establishing the Civilian Oversight Board (COB) to help bridge any gaps of trust and professionalism between citizens and the police force through the establishment of a system to allow citizens an avenue to report alleged misconduct by police, followed by a review of a seven-member appointed board to mediate complaints.

From an April, 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article:
Under the proposed bill, a seven-person St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board would have the authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct; research and assess police policies, operations and procedures; and make findings and recommendations. It could also review evidence and witness statements from investigations by police internal affairs. The board would report its findings to the city’s public safety director and police chief.
So, I sat down with Executive Director, Nicolle Barton and Legal Investigators Aldin Lolic and Louisa Lyles in Room 4029 of the Abram Building at 1520 Market Street in the city's Downtown West Neighborhood to get a little more information on this newly-formed office. The staff has an impressive and diverse background including insurance investigation, probation and parole advocacy, Department of Corrections and the Circuit Attorney's Office experience.
left to right: Barton, Lolic and Lyles
As stated above, an ordinance was passed in April, 2015 establishing the office. The office reports to Richard Gray, the Director of Public Safety. By May, they were accepting official complaints. To date, the office has received six separate complaints.

So how does this whole process work? What if you have an interaction with the police that you deemed unprofessional or unjust and you would like an independent assessment of the facts and the incident itself?

First, you need to be 18 years of age or older to file a complaint. If a minor was involved, a parent or guardian can file a complaint on the minor's behalf. The complaint must be filed within 90 days from the occurrence of the incident.

Then you fill out an official complaint form. The simple, two-page form is available online or a paper form may be picked up at the Public Safety Department (room 401 at City Hall), the COB office (1520 Market Street room 4209) or at the North, Central and South Police Patrol divisions. You can also contact the COB at (314) 657-1600 to have a form mailed to your home.

The forms are then filled out and mailed to the COB office, or dropped off in person. You cannot file an anonymous complaint; hence no email, an official signature is required to file a complaint. If you have audio or video footage from the incident, it may be provided whether you recorded it on your own device or a neighbor/witness recorded it. This data may be provided in a drop box or downloaded at the office.

Mediation may be pursued. For example, if you feel inappropriate language or unnecessary rudeness was displayed, you may choose to seek remediation with the police. If mediation is preferred, you may indicate it by checking a box on the form; doing so will not disqualify your complaint from COB review.

Once the official complaint if filed, it is logged in the data entry system and assigned a case number so your name will not be used in the on-going proceedings.

The complaint is then turned over to the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police within 48 hours. A verbal statement as well as any recorded footage will be provided.

The IAD then has 90 days to review the complaint and any accompanying data and turn their file over to the COB office. Members of the COB office are present at the IAD meetings and they provide an independent review of the evidence, findings and recommendations. The meetings are taped and the information is available through a Missouri Sunshine Request.

The COB and IAD reports then go to the appointed seven-member board for review. The board members are selected through a series of interviews by the aldermen and mayor, with the final appointment being made by the mayor him or herself. The seven members represent one of the seven police districts and four wards across the city. They serve as volunteers for a 2-4 year term and can be extended for additional terms of service. They meet monthly on the third Monday of each month at 4:00 p.m. and are open to the public. The meetings are held in Room 4029 at 1520 Market Street.

The seven appointed members of the board will hear the COB and IAD findings and recommendations and will vote on an outcome. That outcome will be compared to the IAD outcome. If both are in agreement, the investigation is deemed complete. To date, the outcomes for all six complaints are still under investigation. Should there be disagreement between the two parties, the Chief of Police shall hold the final decision.

Once a decision is determined, the COB Executive Director reaches out by letter to the complainant. The communication informs the complainant as to whether action was taken by the police department or if no action was required. In the case that action was taken, the specific disciplinary action against the officer is not communicated to the complainant.

The COB also may serve as independent investigators relating to internal officer misconduct allegations.

So that's a high-level summary of how the process works.

As the COB is in its infancy, out-reach efforts are being extended throughout the community. They are attending neighborhood meetings, school and community events (like the library panel discussion where I met Ms. Lyles). They are visiting the International Institute of St. Louis in the coming weeks to reach out to the budding immigrant community in St. Louis. The office is researching COB's across the country, and in the coming weeks will be traveling to Kansas City, Missouri to visit their COB office to compare methods and processes. An open house was hosted last month where ~50 attendees visited the office. Subsequent goals include setting up IT systems to enter, record and track data in a systematic fashion. With policies and procedures underway, the office will work on continuously improving the system as they get more experience along the way.

To-do items for the office include record keeping and file sharing upgrades including on-line posting of COB meeting agendas at least three days prior to the meeting, meeting minutes and annual reports that report metrics and decisions by the COB.

So who pays for this office? Well, the tax payers of course. But specifically, the COB will ask the Board of Alderman to fund the office budget on an annual basis.

A system of checks and balances, teamed with transparent policy, process and communication is the goal of any successful democratic government. These efforts, while in their infancy, seem like a logical and noble first step toward enhancing the relationship between citizens and our respected police department. Kudos to all those seeking positive change, and open communication. We can only do better and I'm hopeful that this office will lead us toward that goal of transparency and due process.

Ms. Barton who has much experience working toward just solutions in Ferguson, Missouri led me to believe that she too is hopeful for the future. Since the 2014 Ferguson events, she sees things changing for the better. The newer academy trainees are evolving their mindsets and becoming more focused on community policing.

We are all evolving. 

In Ms. Lyles' emails back and forth with me, she included a Chinese proverb that states:

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

I couldn't agree more. Thanks to Ms. Lyles, Ms. Malone, Ms. Barton and Mr. Lolic for sharing your story to date and keep up the good work.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

St. Louis Population Loss During Modern Mayoral Terms

With Francis Slay recently announcing he will not run for re-election as Mayor of St. Louis, his four consecutive terms go down as the longest run in our city's history. Back in 2010 I gave the office of Mayor some thought and looking back at that post, for the most part, I still feel the same including the need for a new set of ideas and styles. The Democratic Party Mayors have largely failed if you use residency as the measure of success.

Do people want to live here or not? To me, that is the ultimate measure of a city's success. If it's a hopeful, growing, stable or improving place, people will move there. If hope is lost and the future does not look bright, people will leave. And in St. Louis, people have and continue to leave in droves, mostly for the 90 plus suburbs and small towns in St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County.

St. Louis has been losing population at a staggering rate since we ended our growth period in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Here are the numbers summarized on the St. Louis Wikipedia page that show the mass exodus of people out of St. Louis:

The reasons are complex and varied on how something like this can happen.  We have a city that was built for one million inhabitants, but we're down to 315,685 and dropping fast (source).

Now that Slay is exiting, I'm starting to read some accounts that praise Slay as a Mayor which make me a little skeptical if you use population as your measuring stick.

I'm not here to criticize though; I recognize that public service is a tough job. The professional and personal toll of being a politician must be exhausting. I respect Slay for being in office for so long and running successful campaigns for re-election. That is not easy.  But the fact remains that during the Slay years ~33,489 people up and left St. Louis during his tenure as our top leader; this is a staggering figure that should always be considered when opining on his legacy. It just blows my mind that we are losing this many people year after year. If the 33,489 people who left St. Louis made up its own city, it would be the 19th largest city in the state of Missouri.

Yet, it would be shallow to just point out the numbers of people who vacated during a single Mayor's term(s), without taking a look at the other modern-day Mayor's numbers. This is not intended to be a petty political shot, rather a quest to understand the history and trajectory for St. Louis during my lifetime.

So let's take a look at the data.

An assumption was made from the graph below; my data source was the United States Census Bureau, plotted out annually by Google. Since this graph only went back to 1970, I used the 1960 data and increased the 1960-1969 data in a linear fashion so I could estimate the population when Mayor Alfonso Cervantes took office in 1965. Meaning, those years will not be accurately represented. But you still get the gist of the population losses.
year by year 1970-2013 data plotted by Google

Here's how the numbers shake out for each Mayor from 1965 to 2014, sorted by the largest declines:

Why the massive drop from 2009 to 2010? Either there is an error in the data, or the rules were changed on how Census counts were estimated. But, you get the point...people are not picking up what these guys have been laying down...and this has been going on for over 60 years.

You know despite these negative numbers, I am still bullish on St. Louis. I've lived here for 22 years and, as a whole, quality of life in the city has gotten better. Sure, there are exceptions, but I still firmly believe there is reason for optimism and hope for the future.

But in order to steer the ship away from this exodus it is going to take leaders who can listen, compromise, think large, act independently You know, inspire. People with an outsider perspective would be wonderful.

Let's hope someone runs that is interested in the entire city, someone that lives in a neighborhood that is racially and economically inclusive, someone that has lived the challenges of navigating the schools, someone who takes ownership of the harm that petty and violent crime have on our business community and our citizens. Someone that loves it here and cares as much as the devoted on the future of the city. It is now or never, right?

No more silver bullet stadium proposals! We need to focus on neighborhood growth. Jobs within the city's borders that hire new and existing people in the city. Make sure we subsidize and incentivize small and medium sized businesses at the same rates as the larger ones (my neighborhood restaurant has done more to raise my quality of life than the Rams ever did). We need someone who can see the big picture that recognizes our faults and makes every decision to get us one step closer to that goal. If you can articulate a vision and repeat it incessantly until all 315,685 of us know your goals, then we can appreciate the decisions that are made to march toward those goals...even if sometimes it feels like a compromise. We need to feel some wins. I'd prefer 1000 little wins vs. 10 big ones.

Best of luck to the next set of candidates for Mayor. It will be fun to watch the field of candidates unfold. We need as many people paying attention, reading, listening and making educated, careful and critical choices at the ballot box. And remember, if you don't live in St. Louis you can't vote in St. Louis. You are either part of the problem or the solution when it comes to things that matter like hiring leaders. Shooting your mouth off from the suburbs just doesn't cut it when it comes to real change. 

Here's to growth on the horizon and a brighter future that lets all these young people doing great things in our city not think they have to move to the burbs to live out their adult lives.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

St. Louis City Talk Update

Holy crap, I'm edging toward one million page loads on this blog...never thought that'd happen. Anyhow, I've been pursuing the personal goals of writing for pleasure and promoting St. Louis as a great city to live/explore since 2008. I started making lists of public places and photographing, researching and writing about them one by one.

Neighborhoods, parks, libraries, fire houses, you name it, I like making lists and setting goals and sharing my findings with other like-minded people. The experience has been positive overall and I plan on continuing to write on this blog into the near future. It keeps me learning about my city and I never want to be stagnant when it comes to my opinions on St. Louis stuff.

So with that in mind, it feels like the right time to start updating some of the older blogs starting with the neighborhood posts. For instance, I looked back at my Gate District post from 2010 and think I could've done better. This is a part of the city that confused me when I lived farther away; I've since moved to a neighborhood just south of here about five years ago and have spent a lot more time in these parts. We routinely visit a couple friends who live here, my wife now works here, my kids use the St. Louis University track complex here, I've come to love shopping at Walter Knoll for all my landscaping needs and I didn't know Maya Angelou was born here back then. I guess what I'm trying to say is, my perspective has changed. I know more now and maybe I didn't give the Gate District a fair shake back in 2010. I at least have a more personal perspective.

One of the most fun things about a city is that it is constantly evolving, changing and reinventing itself in many ways. This keeps me curious and excited about a place I feel like I know pretty well, but constantly surprises me.

So while I'll be updating some content, I won't delete photos, because I like capturing the city in a particular time. But, I will update content including revised census data, updated park and library links and content related to new development/major demolitions.

And then I'll work on updating the blog to a proper website. I had scheduled a class at the community college in the suburbs to transfer the Blogger site to a website to give it a more modern feel; but life stuff got in the way and I had to cancel. So at this point, I will be seeking out a website design firm to make this thing look better, and if you have any advice on good web designers (in the city of course) I'd gladly accept them.

Anyhow, as far as updated blogs, I started with the Gate District for reasons previously stated; but, going forward I'll update the neighborhood posts in the order of most read, starting with the top ten:

I'll then follow up with some the neighborhoods that have changed the most (by my estimation) in the past five or ten years.  So thank you all for reading and following along the way. I am so grateful to have a hobby that keeps me intellectually stimulated and has brought new acquaintances and/or friendships into my life.

All the best,

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Firehouses of St. Louis

Having kids in scouts and other groups gets you into some places that you usually would not go. Firehouses are once such example. I attended a cub scout tour of No. 35 on Arsenal Street with one of my sons. This is where I got an appreciation for some of the details within these old buildings.

Also, when I lived in Boulevard Heights years ago, I used to walk my kids by No. 19 on Morgan Ford Road and the firemen on duty would invite us in and let the kids sit in the truck and put on the hat. They LOVED that, and it was very kind and unsolicited...they invited us in without me asking.

My curiosity was piqued. I love making lists and setting goals  and exploring my city, so here we go with yet another adventure: photographing all the city firehouses.

Per the official St. Louis website, there are 30 active firehouses in our fair city.

They are spread throughout the city in 29 different neighborhoods, only Tower Grove East has two active stations.

No. 1 - 2910 S. Jefferson Avenue, 63118, Benton Park neighborhood
No. 2 - 314 S. Tucker Blvd., 63102, Downtown St. Louis
No. 4 - 4425 S. Compton Avenue, 63111, Dutchtown neighborhood
No. 5 - 2123 North Market Street, 63106, St. Louis Place neighborhood
No. 6 - 5747 Manchester Avenue, 63110, Cheltenham neighborhood
No. 7 - 2600 LaSalle Street, 63104, The Gate District
No. 8 - 1501 Salisbury Street, 63107, Hyde Park neighborhood
No. 9 - 814 LaBeaume Avenue, 63102, Near North Riverfront neighborhood
No. 10 - 4161 Kennerly Avenue, 63113, The Ville neighborhood
No. 11 - 2224 S. 7th Street, 63104, Kosciusko neighborhood
No. 12 - 5214 W. Florissant Avenue, 63115, Mark Twain neighborhood
No. 13 - 1400 Shawmut Place, 63112, Hamilton Heights neighborhood
No. 14 - 3523 Magnolia Avenue, 63118, Tower Grove East neighborhood
No. 17 - 3238 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd., 63106, Covenant Blu / Grand Center neighborhood
No. 19 - 6624 Morgan Ford Road, 63116, Boulevard Heights neighborhood
No. 20 - 5600 Prescott Avenue, 63147, North Riverfront neighborhood
No. 22 - 1229 McCausland Avenue, 63117, Hi-Point neighborhood
No. 23 - 6500 Michigan Avenue, 63111, Carondelet neighborhood
No. 24 - 5245 Natural Bridge Avenue, 63115, Mark Twain / I-70 Industrial neighborhood
No. 26 - 4520 Margaretta Avenue, 63115, Penrose neighborhood
No. 27 - 5435 Partridge Avenue, 63120, Walnut Park East neighborhood
No. 28 - 4810 Enright Avenue, 63108, Fountain Park neighborhood
No. 29 - 200 S. Vandeventer Avenue, 63110, Midtown
No. 30 - 541 DeBaliviere Avenue, 63112, Skinker / DeBaliviere neighborhood
No. 31 - 4408 Donovan Avenue, 63109, St. Louis Hills neighborhood
No. 32 - 3500 S. Grand, 63118, Tower Grove East neighborhood
No. 33 - 8300 N. Broadway, 63147, Baden neighborhood
No. 34 - 8227 S. Broadway, 63111, Patch neighborhood
No. 35 - 5450 Arsenal Street, 63139, Southwest Garden neighborhood
No. 36 - 5000 S. Kingshighway Blvd., 63109, Princeton Heights neighborhood

I received another list of 11 former firehouses that are still standing as of publishing:

No. 1 - 2411 McNair Avenue, 63104, Benton Park neighborhood (Built 1872)
No. 3 - 3648 S. Broadway, 63118, Marine Villa neighborhood (Built 1919)
No. 7 - 1304 S. 18th Street, 63104 Lafayette Square neighborhood (Built 1897)
No. 26 - 2100 N. 2nd Street, 63102, Near North Riverfront neighborhood (Built 1887)
No. 28 - 3934 Enright Avenue, 63108, Vandeventer neighborhood (Built 1961)
No. 29 - 1219 S. Vandeventer Avenue, 63110, Forest Park Southeast neighborhood (Built 1888)
No. 32 - 2000 Washington Avenue, 63103, Downtown West neighborhood (Built 1892)
No. 32 - 503 N. 20th Street, 63103, Downtown West neighborhood (Built 1919)
No. 36 - 1719 N. Union Boulevard, 63113, Wells Goodfellow neighborhood (Built 1911)
No. 40/41 - 707 N. 7th Street, 63101, Downtown neighborhood (Built 1904)
No. 45 - 914 Allen Avenue, 63104, Soulard neighborhood (Built 1906)

Here is a map of all 41 mentioned above; note the nearly perfect spacial distribution to cover the entirety of St. Louis:

So feel free to follow along. I will start with the 11 former firehouses. Stay tuned!