Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fox Park-The Park

This is a long, long, long winded post.  There is a lot going on in Fox Park, and I have a ~2.5 year story to tell.  If you don't get through this, please let me begin by asking for your support.  If you would like to volunteer for our Park Committee, email me.  We always need help manning our weekend gardening hub, Spring and Fall planting projects, fire hydrant painting, grant writing and getting a dog park going.  If you have skills in these areas and want to be part of an up-and-coming neighborhood, let me know.  This is my pet project so to speak, so I can't be shy when it comes to drumming up potential support.  People always say we need more doers and less talkers in St. Louis.  I concur; but, I say we need both.  This is my "doing" project and the talking, well, you know I just can't shut up when it comes to my favorite city.

For those familiar with Fox Park (the park) you may have noticed some very significant changes.  Starting this spring, you are about to see more substantial changes.  It is an exciting time.

Kind readers, this is your chance to follow the work that's been taking place in Fox Park over the last two years or so.

First a little on Fox Park the neighborhood:

Fox Park is a south city neighborhood located between some of St. Louis' greatest neighborhoods.  With boundaries of I-44 to the north, Nebraska to the west, Jefferson to the east and Gravois on the south, the neighborhood is embedded amongst the swanky Compton Heights and Lafayette Square neighborhoods on the west and northeast and shares borders with the comparable up-and-coming neighborhoods of Tower Grove East, Benton Park West and McKinley Heights.

The 2010 U.S. Census data counted 2,632 in Fox Park, a 17.1% decline compared to 2000 counts.  Racially speaking, the neighborhood is 61% black, 32% white and 5% Hispanic/Latino.  Those numbers are basically unchanged from 2000 to 2010.

This is a key area of the city that must continue to improve to stabilize the southside.  This part of the city has seen a lot of changes in the last 50 years.  In talking to neighbors, it probably hit rock bottom in the crack epidemic years of the late 1990's.  The entire city and nation as a whole really had a rough time when crack hit the streets and the murders spiked:


However, things have calmed down since the 1990s.  The police deserve a lot of credit here.  Also, renovation really picked up and gentrification started to take hold in the early 2000's.  Now, after living here for over 2 years, I would say this is a bona fide up-and-coming neighborhood with tremendous potential.  I am raising a family here, making friends here and we honestly love it here.  But, it's not Shaw, Benton Park or Tower Grove South just yet...it's rougher around the edges.  There is very little walkable business and nightlife compared to those previously mentioned neighborhoods.  We have some work to do...but there are people here willing to put in the sweat equity to help make it happen.

In many ways the park from which the neighoborhood takes its name is a good representation of the neighborhood and area itself.  Years of deferred maintenance, dis-investment and blind eyes turned/no-snitch societal norms have made the park a not so nice place.  Destructive activity by unsupervised kids and local adults who have been binge drinking, fighting, selling/smoking weed and crack here for years has taken its toll.  It's so obvious, you'd have to be a fool not to notice how unchecked this area has been for years.  With the bad guys doing business right out in the open under the pavilion on Shenadoah.  Long time neighbors and decent residents don't go to the park for this specific reason.  How do I know you might ask?  Well, outside of good old street smarts and conventional wisdom, we have some data as well...our former (excellent) alderwoman Kacie Starr-Triplett organized a door to door canvasing of the residential blocks immediately surrounding the park to get a feel for what people like and don't like about the park, and what they want to see in the future.  The idea here was to attempt to engage the people who live around the part to be part of the solution and not the problem.  We informed people about how to get involved and attend neighborhood meetings (which are advertised publicly with signs throughout the neighborhood).  Sadly, we did not get anyone to volunteer their time as a result of this effort, but we did get some good feedback.  The overwhelming response from residents was that they were scared to go to the park because it's ghetto and the dealers and large groups of people drinking, etc was intimidating and violent.  Fact.  All this is now being addressed head on...full on...there's no quitting this time...this cannot go on in a public place where little kids and decent people should feel welcome and safe.

Shenandoah right by the pavilion is the favorite dealing spot for these guys who seek to "own" the park and did not get asked questions from the decent neighbors and residents for years, in fact many of these guys are neighbors.  All afternoon-long and into the night binge drinking parties took place on the Victor side of the park by the old time residents and visitors, again unchecked by the neighborhood.  This has been going for years if not decades, say the long time residents.  This was not a nice, feel good blockparty-like scene.  A group of people standing, yelling, fighting, hassling passersby, at times blocking the street is not a healthy public park.

What decent person regardless of race or class or upbringing wants to be subjected to this at a park where little kids are running around and playing?  It was embarrasing and a black eye for the neighborhood.  It had to be addressed.  Now was the time.

Fast forward to a Gateway Greening community garden tour where I met someone from Fox Park (my new neighborhood at the time).  This person I met just so happens to be an urban pioneer with her partner in the Fox Park neighborhood.  Turns out they rehabbed the building next to our house and have done the same to other homes and own some other property in the neighborhood.  To say the least, they are invested and really, really care.

We hit it off fantastically and are now good friends and co-leads of the Fox Park Park Committee.  Her name is Beth Stelmach and she is one of the urban pioneers that has put her unending dedication to this city and specifically, this neighborhood, on display.  She is a super nice person, but a bulldog on issues that need frank discussion and straight talk.  She is a woman of kind and measured action.  She brings people together in ways that inspire me constantly, and I guess I'm just blessed and fortunate to have met her.

Beth has tirelessly led the reincarnated Fox Park Park Committee for over 2 years.    Her accomplishments and no-quit attitude are on display in the park today.  We have ridden this emotional rollercoaster together through the thick and thin.  Making positive change is an uphill battle sometimes.  The best way I can sum up my experience working in Fox Park so far has certainly been "two steps forward and one step back".  I'll share examples in a moment.  Through all the adversity and crime and harassment we've dealt with, it's been Beth and her partner who have given my family and others the resolve and strength and encouragement to never stop.  I'm a very simple man who thinks positivity and love can always flush out negativity and hate.  Given that I'm drafting much of this post on MLK day, I'll share one of my favorite quotes of his:
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."   Martin Luther King, Jr.
Back in 2004 the Fox Park Neighborhood Association and then Alderwoman Phyllis Young worked with a local firm (H3) to draft a Masterplan.  The masterplan was developed based on a thorough canvassing of the neighbors around the park to get their input on what the neighborhood wanted the park to be.  Here's the product of that endeavor:


Key elements of this plan included new landscape, trees, a dog park, a new basketball court, playground and spray pool.  There was no money set aside for this work, it was just meant to serve as a template for future improvements.

One key element of the plan was implemented shortly thereafter in 2009.  The open field area along California Avenue on the western edge of the park was graded and seeded at a cost of ~$9,840; the Fox Park Neighborhood Association paid for this.  Longtime residents tell me this part of the park used to be a small grocery store which became a big problem property when it became a spot for the local dealers and thugs to ruin for everyone else.  The building was demo'd and buried in the foundation making planting in this area a struggle.

Another key element of the masterplan that took place during Alderwoman Young's tenure was the installation of new playground equipment:

please forgive my shoddy cell phone camera photos


The original plan was to have the playground extend to the east as well per the Masterplan and the following design:

The area circled in blue and green never happened, and we got a scaled down version of the above design circled in red including the swingset to the north.  The city paid for this nice new playground equipment and swing set out of Aldermanic capital funds.

As I mentioned before, when a neighborhood which has been dominated by negativity and neglect is faced with a new influx of positive activity and investment, the bad guys tend to react immediately as they are scared that their place of business and hang out is threatened.  I will provide proof of this at every step...not in an attempt to be a downer, but to keep it real and let people know that this is the fight that must be waged in order to have decent, safe public spaces for ALL to enjoy.  Haters and thugs are amongst us here and they have tried to fail nearly all attempts at improvement.  I want to tell that side of the story as well.

In this part of town there are some "gangs" of kids, teens and longtime residents known as the 27 Mac and ACG.  Everyone knows they exist and this has been going on for years as my neighbors who have been here for much longer than I have have educated me.  Tagging is one of their favorite pastimes, and here's their immediate contribution to the new playground equipment right after it was installed:

Let it be known that if normal people go to the park with their kids, these knuckleheads will make some noise, denegrate themselves and move on.  They don't like people who will call them out on their behavior and will leave until the decent people leave and then they return.  They also put on display their feelings for women and the "n-word" in the freshly poured concrete.  They also burned holes in the slides and the rubber surface.  Thanks guys, way to go.  2 steps forward, one step back.

Fast forward to the new park committee formed by Beth.  We started by walking the park together and talking about what needed to be done immediately.  We removed graffitti and gang signs.  We picked up trash.  We made a list.  We contacted the alderwoman to introduce ourselves and hopefully get her support.

Our first set of goals were:

Remove the dead and dying trees throughout the park; we identified the ones that needed to be cut down and the city forestry and park's dept did a good job of removing the trees and grinding the stumps.  The Cardinal's 2011world series victory gave the city some extra money and we were told the tree removal was a result of that windfall:

dead pines surrounded the basketball court
dead deciduous trees lined Victor Street

We now needed new trees to provide shade and beauty and replace the ones that were dead or dying.  We were told there were no mature trees available from the city, so we had to get creative.  We wrote a grant to Missouri ReLeaf Communitree and got 40 + trees in 3 gallon pots.  We got a crack group of volunteers to help plant these trees throughout the park.  We rented industrial grade augers and planted 20 tulip poplars, 10 serviceberry and 10 eastern red bud in addition to some extras that we purchased through the neighborhood association.  We put in hours and hours of digging, mulching and watering these trees to have them only survive until the following spring when the unsupervised kids and park partiers pulled them out of the ground and threw them up by the pavilion, or simply snapped them off.  We lost > 75% of the trees we planted.  They didn't stop there, they also destroyed several large trees the city planted that were ~3' in diameter.  We photo documented all destruction and negative behavior so we could build a case to the city and anyone else who would listen that we have a problem on our hands.



We didn't stop there, we wrote another grant in the fall of 2012 for trees that were 3 times larger in an attempt to make it a little harder to destroy.  We planted 3 vernal witchhazel, 3 northern red oak and 3 blackgum.  They still stand as of now, but we'll have to keep an eye out come warmer weather. 

The park goers were littering the park with trash empty beer cans and gin bottles, we needed to get more trash cans.  Drive by the park today, you may notice the cheesy white plastic trash cans.
Kind of ugly, right? All other city parks have the metal ones. We can't have those because our old ones were stolen for scrap. We got new metal ones from the city, those were stolen too. Thanks again assholes, I guess we have to stick with the plastic ones for now until we can quit being the target. Metal trash cans are all over the city, these were targeted by people who are pushing back at the positivity  We got a grant from Gateway Greening for 4 beautiful large plastic trash cans designed for parks. These will have to be installed in concrete requiring more hours, expertise and money from the park committee and neighborhood association.  Here's a photo of the nice new cans to be installed in 2013: 
The old crappy and unsafe basketball court that exists near the right field of the ballpark had to be addressed.  This area had several dead and dying trees surrounding it and the roots eventually destroyed the surface.  The people that have lived here for years have not demanded better conditions, and they proceeded to destroy the rims, backboards etc.  This was one of the former hotspots for intimidation, binge drinking and public weed/crack smoking.  It was insanely prevalent and not a welcoming site...of course, right next to our playground.  Here's what it looked like:




^ notice the grown men drinking Bud-Ice 40's right next to the kids playing

We set up a meeting with our new alderman Kacie Starr-Triplett whose ward now covered the park after redistricting.  We shared with her our ideas about implementing the long-shelfed masterplan and getting a new basketball court was a big part of that.  Moving it to the spot at Victor/Ohio was a key element of the adopted masterplan.  We were able to establish a great relationship with Kacie and one of her advocates, Christine Ingrassia, then Director of Community Outreach - 6th Ward at Jeff Vanderlou Initiative.  This budding relationship turned out to be a game changer for us...more on that later in the post.

Kacie said the basketball court project "spoke to her".  We wanted to set ourselves apart from Lafayette Square and many other neighborhoods surrounding Fox Park that got rid of their public basketball courts when they became havens for thugs and other assholes that make the parks uninviting, loud and violent.

We got funds through Kacie to get the old court removed and a new one built per the masterplan.  We got a seat at the table in City Hall to meet with the capital improvement project liaison who put together the plans and dimensions and asked for our input.  Come spring, 2013 ground will break on the first new basketball court in this part of town in years.  This is extremenly exciting and we invite any and all to join us shooting hoops at the new court.  If you want to set up a league, send me a note.

I know what some of you are thinking, this is not going to turn out well.  Why are you rewarding the same people who have destroyed the current court and shit all over the park every night/weekend?  I've heard that argument, but I disagree.  We may need help from the police and cameras, but we will not let this court go to pot and become a place where kids and others will be intimidated.  We have to continue this fight.  Fox Parkers deserve a court for decent people to enjoy.  We will have that now.

Furthermore, there was a delapidated 8 foot fence that was in disrepair along the right field line along Shenandoah.  This fence was installed to presumably keep people out of the park???  It had to go.
holes in the fence
stay out of this park!
4' silver and 8' green fence didn't match at all...shoddy

The fence was removed by the park's dept and we now have an open view of the beautiful maple trees and this side of the park is much more inviting to the residents of the neighborhood and has much better curb appeal.

The park committee thought we needed more positive activity in the park.  We worked with Gateway Greening to establish Fox Park as a South City garden hub.  A hub garden is basically a "home base" where gardeners throughout the city can come to borrow tools for their gardens/landscape projects, buy inexpensive fruit, vegetable, herb seeds and get good gardening info and advice.  Gateway Greening gave us a lawn mower, weed wacker, rotor tiller, hand tools, etc. to loan out for a small deposit for anyone to use.  We have a dedicated but small set of people who volunteer a couple hours on Saturdays to open the hub up to all.  People come from all over the city to buy seeds, plants and loan out tools.  GG installed all the tools in our pavillion and all this stuff was secured behind locked doors.  Continuing on my two steps forward, one back theme, the assholes who saw us using the pavillion broke in and stole everything except the rotor tiller which was rented out.  They took everything except the seeds.  Thanks again guys.  One morning, someone accidentally left out some sidewalk chaulk and the thugs took to tagging the pavilion with 27 MAC stuff, their calling card.  Thanks again guys.  We got new locks and new tools that were donated to GG from kind folks in their network.  Guess what thugs, we aren't going away.  In fact we got a great sign to establish the pavillion as a garden hub.  Furthermore on the 2 steps forward, 1 back theme, this sign was pulled out of the ground once and torn off the sign post another time.  Thugs hate positivity.  I installed it once more this time with the best hardware I could get.  It stands as of today, and we'll keep putting it back up.  The thugs especially hate this because this is the drive up window for drug sales during warm months.


As part of our grant from GG, we also got 2 brand new picnic tables which we wanted to go between the maple trees along Shenandoah.  We had a very generous neighbor who spent 2 days staining them with 3 coats of varnish.

The picnic tables became a nuisance to the neighbors as they attracted large, loud, rude crowds who didn't pick up and left the areas completely trashed.  We heard a lot of complaints from people who live on Shenandoah and Armand.  It looked bad from the streets as well.  So, we moved them to the California side.  The thugs and haters didn't like the move and splashed cans of paint all over the tables.  Thanks again asshole.  Our now neighborhood prez and vice prez cleaned up the paint.  We aren't going to quit.

We knew we could update and refresh the signage in the park as well.  There was a rather aged shadowbox type sign at California and Shenadoah.  It was meant for people to post notices, park info, etc, but it was never used.  We decided to move this shadow box to the pavilion to post upcoming events and ask for volunteer support and help keeping an eye out for safety and calls to the police to report ghetto behavior.  This was also an attempt to inform those that are destroying our work to help pitch in and have a voice in the park.  That has not materialized to date.

GG lent us the services of a dedicated and skilled employee who drilled into the brick and installed this awesome sign under our pavillion.  Thanks GG!  Of course, the thugs tore down all the flyers we had placed in the sign to talk about the new basketball court and watching out for new trees in the park, etc.  So Beth bought and installed locks to the sign.


When we opened up one of the doors in the pavilion, we discovered 3 unused signs just lying in wait for some TLC.  We worked with an artist who lives in the neighborhood to design a font and make lettering for the signs.  We got bids for installation and went with a local business in Old North St. Louis who did great work.  We got $ from the neighborhood association to execute the job.  And the signs are standing proudly at California/Shenandoah, Victor Street and Shenandoah Avenue.





The areas around the signs will be the site of much landscaping work to be completed in 2013.

We took a look at the tired and beat up fire hydrants around the park.  Something had to change.  We worked with a talented artist, Grace McHammond who has done many of the murals in the Grove.  She was awesome to work with and drafted up a couple designs.  We chose this one and now you'll see these around the park.

We kicked off an "adopt a hydrant" campaign to get all hydrants in the neighborhood painted with this.  Click HERE to be part of that campaign.

More good fortune was upon us.

As mentioned before we struck up a professional relationship and personal friendship with Christine Ingrassia, who tirelessly fought for us and listened to our complaints.  She commisserated with us and a lot more...she went to work grant writing for funds for a children's spray pool as per the Mater Plan.  She got the support of local city leaders all the way up to Senator Claire McKaskill and got us a ~$160,000 grant wiht the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a children's spray pool directly south of the pavilion leading to the playground.  You should see ground breaking on this in 2013.

Christine didn't stop there.  She worked with then alderwoman Triplett, to get us a meeting with the Park's Department, Police and Police Athletic League which "runs" the baseball field.  Thankfully, the alderman and Christine attended the meeting with us.  Let me just say we got some push back on our efforts and not all invited parties could be characterized as professional.  That being said, a lot of good came out of it.  We got access to the ballpark for neighborhood events.  PAL does not "own" the park and we can now use it.  We held a Spring youth t-ball league organized by Ms. Ingrassia.  It was open to all and it was a great time.  Christine also organized a fall festival to get neighbors together in the park.  Good times were had by all.









We also got help from the police.  They got tough, issued some tickets, made some arrests and cracked down on the ghetto behavior.  They got rid of the parties on Victor.  I mean gone...to this day, it's cleaned up.  Also, they made some busts on the playground, basketball court and at the pavilion.  They parked the armored police vehicle with cameras there for over a week.  It was awesome.  The police were ON IT.  And things got better for awhile.  It was a message we could never have given on our own.  Thanks to the SLPD for the dedication and support. The dealers are still around, they are just scared for now, but they will be back in the warmer weather.  We won't quit though.  A new Capt. was assigned to our district, so we are very hopefull that we'll have their full support in protecting our investments in the park.

Thanks to all the great people I've met in Fox Park.  You are the ones on the front lines of St. Louis' streets making this a city we can love as opposed to one we're embarrassed to bring our friends and family to.  These are the grass roots that truly make change on the urban landscape.

This year, we are convening to discuss our plans for 2013.  We hope to start a fundraising campaign for a dog park and walking paths throughout the park to encourage dog walkers, stroller pushers, joggers, etc to use the park for exercise. 

The park has gotten exponentially better.  I have no doubt it will continue to get better, and as goes the park goes the neighborhood.  If I didn't believe we have the right group in place to make this happen, I wouldn't be spending my time on this.  Believe me, we will make Fox Park just like Shaw and Tower Grove.  It just takes time.

Keep up the love yall!  Drop me an email if you want to be part of this action-oriented group.

Cheers, Mark

12 comments:

LisaS said...

I recently was back at the park for the first time since architecture grad school, and the changes were palpable -- keep up the good work!!! The good guys can win - you just have to work at it!!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story - thanks for sharing this. Might make a good topic to present at the SLACO conference if there is one this year!

martyeyed said...

Wow. Fantastic article Mark. Good luck with your courageous efforts.

Mark Groth said...

^Anonymous Feb 21, 11:17 AM, don't know much about SLACO, but hit me up if you want to collaborate.

Mark Groth said...

^Anonymous Feb 21, 11:17 AM, don't know much about SLACO, but hit me up if you want to collaborate.

Anonymous said...

Mark, where is the commercial going to be in fox park? nebraska and shenandoah is a great intersection, but i've seen a handful of businesses fail there. Is the future of fox park going to be lots of small corner commercial spaces (ala soulard) or a legit commercial strip (I guess along Jefferson) (ala south grand/tge/tgs)?

Ryley said...

I commend you for standing up to the ding-dongs in Fox Park. Fighting the good fight in a transitional neighborhood isn't the sort of thing that's for everybody. Human detritus is the hardest kind of shit to clean up.

Glad to hear that the police and civic leadership responded positively once they knew that there was an organised group in the neighborhood that cared and was in it for the long haul.

I look forward to Fox Park reaching the stabilization level of neighborhoods to it's west.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mark, what you think about the future of commercial development in fox park? gimme some feedback

AndyV said...

Thanks for the article Mark. I am happy to be a part of the transformation and very thankful for the commitment from you and other neighbors driven to turn the park into an asset for the community. My biggest hope is that the new improvements and positive presence will revive the interest in neighbors who have given up on the park and think of it as only a nuisance. I would love to see them and others be able to utilize the park without having to worry about the things that have previously kept them away. Looking forward to the new changes and excited for more positive activity in Fox Park.

samizdat said...

http://m.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline

Another possible component in the overall drop in crime since the early 90's.

Erika Cruse said...

Hey Mark. I'm moving to Fox Park and would love to get involved with all of these efforts. Let me know the best way to connect with you and where you might need my help.

Mark Groth said...

Erika, first of all welcome! Glad to have you. Hope we'll meet soon. send me an email at groth_stl@hotmail.com and I'll make sure you are invited to the next park meeting.