Saturday, April 22, 2017

Residency Requirements and Preference for Citizen Hiring - A Change Of Mind

I'm writing this blog to share some thoughts on the future of hiring civil servants and searching for candidates to fill important city offices and positions.

This issue became top of mind when a recent ballot initiative in April, 2017 came up called Proposition C; it's goal was to provide hiring preference for citizens of St. Louis for public jobs. 

The topic sprang up again just this week when our new Mayor took office. On her first day she accepted the retirement/resignation of the acting Chief of Police, Sam Dotson.

That is a big, important position to fill.

I've struggled with internal mental wrangling on the matter of residency requirements and preference for hiring...so much so that I failed to get this published before the April election when it was fresh on my mind. Then the plot thickened with the Chief role opening up.  More thought...more time passed.  Then later this week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story on the opportunity to look far and wide for a new Chief for the first time in ~150 years.

So I'm FINALLY publishing this blog to come to terms with a full blown switch in personal philosophy on hiring in St. Louis, and what is the best for the city. 

Now, I don't mind admitting a change of mind publicly after learning more about a subject.

When it comes to St. Louis, there are several things that seem to be evidently true after living here for 23 years. My hypotheses, theories and laws are forming. I feel like I'm honing in on our top three to five strengths and weaknesses and they are almost cemented as personal law in my mind.

The hypothesis part is the most fun though. Forming an opinion or fleshing out an ideal/stance and having life, time and experience change your initial thoughts...making you more seasoned and well, I guess, smarter or at least more critical. It's one of the main reasons I do this blog...to flesh out thoughts/hypotheses on St. Louis issues.
A hypothesis is a reasonable guess based on what you know or observe. Hypotheses are proven and disproven all of the time. Hypotheses play a strong role in the scientific method where you formulate a question, create a hypothesis, make a testable prediction, test, and then analyze the data. Even then, a hypothesis needs to be tested and retested many times before it is generally accepted in the scientific community as being true. (source)
Through constant experimentation and living life, my thoughts evolve and I change my mind on what I think is good for St. Louis.

Here's a personal example of a change of mind on a St. Louis issue.

Hypothesis: I used to think residency requirements were absolutely necessary for city employees, especially police, prosecutors/criminal justice employees and firemen. You want to work here? You should live here and understand our issues firsthand and help us rebuild this dwindling city. We need to take care of each other, starting with St. Louis citizens first. Local preference!


And when I say leave, I mean bolted and cursed the city as they left. Trust me, I heard some of this firsthand and it was disappointing.

Taking that a step further, I thought all city employees should live in St. Louis...what better way to represent your office or department than by serving your fellow neighbors/citizens.

But this train of thought was especially true for authority figures...those who deal with life/death, freedom/imprisonment.

At the time it seemed like the people policing the community should be able to relate to the community. They should have a stake in crime going down from the perspective that it would affect their family or their property personally. My logic was  that people behave different and look different in St. Charles than they do in St. Louis. Think about it, can a Kirkwood resident really understand St. Louis and it's people and struggles when their demographics of personal wealth, class and race are so radically different? Sure, but it's harder...and the skin in the game is lower.

Also, my cynical or paranoid streak suspected that County philosophies/policies like to concentrate crime, poverty, etc. in St. Louis to better cordon off their communities from these issues.

Look no further than the steady stream of suburban municipality's police forces and hospitals paying for taxi rides dropping off homeless/mentally ill people found in their cities in Downtown St. Louis. It is County tradition to concentrate the region's problems in St. Louis. It's the easiest fix. And I was highly suspect of these same folks intentions working here for real change that benefits people who live here.

My former idealist ways wanted my police force to look like the people of St. Louis and understand what it's like to deal with crime on a first hand basis. I felt the only way you truly appreciate this is by living here.

Reading about it and looking at crime stats just isn't enough. Arm chair analyses from a drive to Busch stadium and back to the burbs just isn't enough.

I felt it was good to see authority figures in neighborhoods of St. Louis. It reinforced the democratic system to me...of the people, by the people, for the people.

But, renewed thoughts on local hiring/residency requirements were sparked after reading a story a few months back in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the pending retirement of Jennifer Joyce, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Prosecutor. Joyce was the city's longest-serving elected prosecutor with four terms under her belt.

From the PD story:
“I really love St. Louis,” Joyce said in a wide-ranging interview last week. “I’ve lived here all my life but I’m ready to have a little bit of a change of scenery. I would like to not think about crime 24 hours a day.” (source)
You have to love St. Louis to do that job. And it gave me solace knowing that she really did live in St. Louis as opposed to Clayton, St. Charles, Millstadt or some other city that is nothing like St. Louis when it comes to poverty and crime.

What a tough job. I can't imagine dealing with the level of hate, lack of dignity and violence on a daily basis that a prosecutor must face in a city that has the highest homicide stats in the nation.

As a juror, I've only made it so far as the voir dire; but, my wife has been a juror. Just those two experiences alone were enough to make you lose faith in humanity. The level of misogyny, hate, self-loathing and illegal gun lust in this community can really weigh on you. It is hard to take and sometimes harder to shake.

I respect the resolve that police, investigators and prosecutors have and the desire to somehow help victims find some kind of justice in a world where so many are infatuated with violence/murder as the only means to solve relationship problems, money problems and petty disputes.

I remember when I lived in the neighborhood where Joyce once lived and I'd be walking the dog crossing paths with her on occasion. I remember what kind of car she drove, etc. She would come to neighborhood meetings to talk about her office.

I never introduced myself or met her (why would I?), but I knew who she was from watching the news and reading the paper.  It was good to see her as a normal person just getting off work and living amongst the same people she is prosecuting and trying to protect.

She was definitely a part of that neighborhood and that made a lasting impression on me and is likely a big part of what formed my erstwhile opinions on local hiring, recruitment and residency preference.

But that's all been challenged and I'm here to announce a flip flop.

I was preparing to vote in the April, 2017 election and there was a measure on the ballot that required me to do some thinking.

The proposed change to the city charter, was called Proposition C and the St. Louis electorate was asked to weigh in. It states:
Shall Section 4 of Article XVIII of the Charter of the City of St. Louis be amended to add paragraph (f), which provides for the enactment of an ordinance establishing a residents' preference to residents of the City of St. Louis upon successfully passing a civil service examination for civil service positions with the City? Section 4. Ordinances to be enacted - The mayor and aldermen shall provide, by ordinance: (f) City Residents' Preference. For a preference to be granted to residents of the City of St. Louis who successfully pass an examination for a civil service position. (source)
So when I initially read this, thoughts of authority figures like police and prosecutors came to mind. I should vote yes on this one...give the people who live here and root down in our city a job.

But after further examination...no, this does not benefit the citizens of St. Louis. Why? Well, if you've ever had to utilize city services, you know it is, um, well...a mixed bag of professionalism and basic competence. Sometimes it's just fine, or even great. Yet, sadly, in my experience, at other times it is straight up terrible. Laughably so.

Which got me to thinking:

St. Louis is shedding population annually at a staggering rate. That means the hiring pool (if you had to recruit only within St. Louis' boundaries) is shrinking as well.

Any hiring manager, human resources or talent scout would likely tell you that casting your net wide is a good practice.  Expanding your search is just logical if you want the best person for the job.

I mean city jobs are service based jobs with real deliverables and accountabilities. The City of St. Louis is not a jobs program or guaranteed lifetime of employment.

Oh, and here's another thing: you know that if you live in St. Louis you pay a 1% earning tax on your personal income. And, if you don't live in St. Louis (say Belleville or Wellston), but you work in St. Louis, you pay the same 1% of your personal income earned within the St. Louis city limits.

So, doesn't it make sense to draw someone in from outside the city to expand your hiring pool and get a little extra money for the city coffers? If you live here, we already have you on the tax books. If you are hired from the nearby suburbs and small towns, we'd get a little extra $ to pay for services that citizens benefit from.

This practice as proposed in Prop C would actual promote nepotism at worst or limit the talent pool at best. This is bad, we need outsiders to help us get more professional/competent staff at all levels of city government and services.

Actually, what we need are more good, honest, hard working people from all walks of life...diversity. And we need to maybe show preference to outsiders or newbies.

Bummer is, the Proposition passed (source):
When it's all said and done, this is not a big deal. It isn't a step in the right direction, but it is what it is. So it goes.

But, I now think there is more value in hiring the best, not the most local. And first hand experience living in St. Louis is important, but shouldn't be the primary qualifier to identify the selection pool...probably not even the deciding variable in the equation.

In fact, when it comes to the Chief of Police, I think we need someone from another city in the country, a new set of experiences without local baggage and entrenched relationships that immediately add to the conflict.

And per a couple comments from Mayor Krewson, it sounds hopeful:

The path to replace Police Chief Sam Dotson will go through uncharted territory as city leaders look outside the department for the first time in its more than 150-year history.

In an interview Thursday, Mayor Lyda Krewson shied away from using the term “national search” to describe how she wants to select the next chief.

“We want to get the right person for the job, and that person might be inside or on the outside of the department, and that goes for any position. It’s just common sense personnel practices,” she said. 
“We’re not certain what the process will be, but our personnel director will put together a plan for how to go about doing this,” Krewson said. “This is all less than 24 hours old, and we’re just now figuring out all that.” 
This will be the first search for a new chief since the city regained control of its police department from the state. 
Under that structure, only those already with the department who held the rank of captain and above were eligible for the top post. It’s unclear whether the recent shift to city control may widen or narrow eligible ranks. (source)
This is a huge opportunity to make real, historic change.


I mean, someone who can walk in on the first week of the job and see that two police unions based on race is too much for one small city of ~300,000. Working together is something this region is not known for. Fighting for local scraps is. We need someone bigger than that. Someone who can stand up and say what is wrong with St. Louis, the County and the region in general...an advocate for consolidation, efficiency, community building and frankly, getting things under control.

We have a problem, and we need outside help, not local hiring preference.

I'm in the minority on Prop C, I don't think we need local people for big jobs, I think we need outsiders...the most qualified for all levels of civil service.

Anyhow, here's to hiring the best new employees we can, casting the net far and wide and getting new ideas and new people in the room.

Mayor Krewson, go find us the best Chief of Police you can find!

Fresh faces, someone we don't already "know".

Friday, April 21, 2017

A New Mayor For St. Louis!

While I'll hold who I voted for in the primary and general elections close to my chest, I will say that I'm really happy to have Lyda Krewson as our next Mayor. 

The first woman Mayor of St. Louis! That's history right there!

Whew, it's time for some fresh faces, no?

Now, I realize a Mayor doesn't really do a whole lot in St. Louis' weak-mayoral system, the Aldermen/women have that larger responsibility; heck sometimes I feel like the Comptroller and the director of the STL Development Corporation play more of a crucial role in our immediate future.

That said, I am really happy to see what she can do, and a Mayor really does set the tone for a city government and is the face to the region and beyond.

And they can be stewards of major policy changes. For instance, I think Slay's most prominent legacy will be charter schools.

Anyhow, I wish Mayor Krewson the best of luck and I'm feeling pretty optimistic so far and confident that she'll be successful and run a clean administration at minimum, or take it to new heights at best.

So what are your hopes for this new administration? 

What is realistic to expect/dream?

I have heard/read people I respect say we need more transparency from the Mayor's office trickling down to the Aldermanic level. I've also heard/read that there is an expectation that we modernize communications using email with lead time vs. posting things last minute to a bulletin board at city hall. Or even worse, being handed a paper right before a session...lame political tactics.

These should almost be demands vs. wishes/desires, right? But...democratic governments are kind of designed to move slow and man, does St. Louis like to move slow.

My hopes/desires for a new administration are quite simple, really.

I hope that in every conversation and every topic and every issue that comes across the Mayor's email/desk, she asks: "how will this effect crime, schools and quality of life for current and future residents?"

If it doesn't fit into that, it's just feel-good fluff.

The meat of gaining residents and small/large businesses to set up shop and root down in St. Louis all boils down to:
  1. reducing the negative perception and real crime issues
  2. reducing the real and perceived reputations/issues of our schools (private, charter and SLPS) and
  3. livability...are we getting quality services for our increasingly high property and sales taxes?
  4. making the process to set up shop and grow here easier; minimizing bureaucratic hoops that bring no value.
Let's open the door (and wide) to all.

Be approachable and connect with our citizens in a real way. Make an effort to talk to people who have kids in the schools here and get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the status quo. Talk to people who can objectively talk about crime's effect on their lives and properties all over the city...I respectfully know the Mayor gets this one firsthand and emotionally.

I can't wait to see where Mayor Krewson takes the city. It's fun to witness the next chapter of St. Louis history.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Sunshine Makers, LSD and a St. Louis Connection

Netflix recently made "The Sunshine Makers" available for streaming.

This 2015 documentary chronicles the life and times of two men, Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully, who together set in motion the psychedelic revolution of the late 1960's. Both men were idealists who thought that if everyone would just drop a little acid, the world would be a better place. People would be kinder to each other and the planet, have a larger awareness outside of one's own selfish desires, etc, etc.

Scully was a sharp scientist who knew the formula to make lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and had a method to produce and tablet it for distribution. Sand was driven by idealism and spiritualism and bent on bringing the psychedelic experience to the masses. The two became underground chemists who made the drug and did indeed change the world...for a little while anyway. They made massive amounts of LSD and got it in the hands of an entire generation, globally.

Their product was called "Orange Sunshine".

It changed the culture and political climate for a brief period of time until the Federal Government could catch up and bust them all. Both men had connections to Timothy Leary, the Grateful Dead, the Hell's Angels, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love (the Hippie Mafia) and wealthy heirs who bankrolled the operations.

The documentary did a wonderful job with pacing and shining a light on the personalities and renegade aspects of the two men behind story, while not getting too bogged down with pro-hippie nostalgia or anti-government commentary. It was pretty objective...and thoroughly entertaining. Even the soundtrack branched out in refreshing ways, avoiding the Jefferson Airplane "White Rabbit" and Jimi Hendrix "Purple Haze" trappings one would expect. In fact, the soundtrack was great.

If you are reading between the lines, the parallels to Breaking Bad are all there, from the identity with color (blue meth in Breaking Bad - orange acid in Sunshine Makers), a duo working in basement labs, sidling up to dubious distribution networks, the whole nine. Scully even referred to making acid as "cooking". Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were in my mind from the onset.

Here's the official trailer for the film:
It is well worth a viewing if you are interested in drug culture, the 1960's, psychedelia and 20th Century American history.

But here's why I'm writing about "Sunshine Makers" on this St. Louis website:

One of these LSD evangelists, Nick Sand, eventually came to St. Louis to avoid the Feds in Millbrook, New York (~90 miles north of NYC), the Bay Area of California and the Denver area in Colorado where they were manufacturing LSD in larger and larger quantities.

I perked up when the story unexpectedly turned to St. Louis. 

There was a photo of Sand driving toward St. Louis with the Arch in the background. I was locked in...because you know when St. Louis comes up, it is not always a lock that they are talking about St. Louis...people generalize. Even intelligent, well-meaning people don't understand how the various city's in the suburbs of St. Louis ARE NOT ST. LOUIS but they naively, deceptively or charmingly call themselves St. Louisans (depending on your perspective).

Either way, Sand came to the St. Louis region to set up shop to manufacture more LSD and escape some of the trappings and heat in California and Colorado.  Sand set up his new lab downtown and eventually was busted near St. Louis and the jig was up...the psychedelic revolution hit a major snag with the arrest...right in our own backyard.

As it turns out, the documentary followed the same missteps with location accuracy that even the St. Louis media hasn't consistently figured out...but there were enough hints from the film that tipped me off to investigate where the LSD revolution continued to prosper and then came to an end just nine miles from St. Louis.

So here were my clues from the movie:
Notice the addresses? As it turns out the lab at 2209 Delmar Boulevard is just 2.3 miles from my home. The Sunshine Makers got it right, the lab was really in St. Louis, not the suburbs. Sand refers to the lab as "Downtown St. Louis"...and I will give him a solid "A" on that as the lab is located in the Downtown West neighborhood. The operation was called Signet Research and Development.
When Sand spoke of the move to St. Louis he mentioned that he purchased a two-story brick building in Downtown St. Louis. Everyone was happy, he got "kudos from the Mayor" for bringing industry to an "impoverished area". This is the early 1970's and St. Louis was already being described as "impoverished".

I had to check it out to see if the building is still there.

The answer is yes; but you wouldn't recognize it from the photo above. In fact, the entire building was refaced and covered in stucco at some point.
So, it is two-stories which is corroborated by Sand, and the address is right. Also, the attached building just west of 2209 Delmar sports the blonde and red brick color combination that is evident from the photo in the film.
From three St. Louis Post-Dispatch articles from 19731, 2, 3 that documented the police bust of Nick Sand and his girlfriend it is hard to determine if LSD was actually manufactured here in St. Louis or mainly at their home in what the movie claimed was St. Louis (see photo below), but turned out to be the city of Fenton, Missouri about a 17 mile drive from the St. Louis border.
Anybody who knows St. Louis knows this is not a St. Louis house. This is more a product of the subjective "St. Louis": the 90 or so cities in the suburbs west of St. Louis. When Sand was arrested he told authorities he lived at 425 North Highway 21 in Fenton2. But, the actual address was 425 North Highway 141. The home was razed for interchange expansion at Gravois and 141 and was the area that is currently the Swing Around Fun Town. 

This home is where the evidence piled up that Sand who went by Leland Jordan and his girlfriend Judy Neil Shaughnessy, who went by Judy Jordan.

How did they get caught? Well two things really. Per a 1973 Post-Dispatch article, the Fenton Post Office called the local police to do a check of a "house in the 200 block of North Highway 141" as mail had not been picked up for ~ a month by the occupants of the house that rented the post office box1.

When the Police Chief of Fenton visited the property that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described as a "secluded mansion on a hilltop in Fenton....which is on an 18-acre tract and is reached by a narrow gravel road blocked by a gate near the property line"2, they found a interior laden with falling plaster and evidence of flooding. Fearing an accident, the police entered the residence. The furnace had run out of fuel and the pipes froze and burst, hence the sounds of running water from the outside and the interior damage witnessed by the police.

When the cops entered, and investigated the source of the leak, they came across 825 gallons of materials for the manufacture of methamphetamine, LSD and other hallucinogens.1

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that it was "the largest illegal drug manufacturing operation ever seen in St. Louis County."1 The police described the Fenton home as having "the general appearance of a hippie crash pad", but when they found photos believed to be the residents in the house they were "the straight type." Which Sand and Shaughnessy certainly were.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Photo

The photo of the Fenton house used in the documentary wasn't the only evidence of activity in the suburbs of St. Louis County; Sand points out that when the bust was going down, the "sheriff in that town got him".  Another clue that "that town" had to be a small town suburb. 

He was busted and booked in Kirkwood, MO per the mugshot:

The couple were returning from a visit to California when they dropped their car off for repairs at 10160 Manchester Road in Kirkwood, MO. They were pulling away from the repair shop when the cops busted them.2

The site is still an auto repair shop today:


The police were on the case. A couple days later, the press used to tablet "half the world's LSD", was recovered from a taxi cab of Leslie Daniels, a young man who was going from a bus stop in Downtown St. Louis to the home in Fenton.3 This bust further provided the evidence needed to make the case against Sand. This press for making the LSD "sunshine tablets" was being sought by the FBI for eight years.

These arrests along with LSD evangelist Timothy Leary (who Richard Nixon claimed was the most dangerous man in America) in the 1970's  brought an end to the psychedelic revolution.

And who would've thought the demise was so closely associated with a lab in St. Louis, a drug house in Fenton, MO and a bust in Kirkwood, MO.


Photographs of the basement of the lab in Fenton showed chemical drums, including at least one marked clearly as being manufactured by Malinkrodt Chemical of St. Louis. Ready access to required chemi cals may have been one of the reasons that the LSD operation was centered in St. Louis.
So maybe raw materials and supply made St. Louis appealing. I reached out to the author of the sourced blog post above, and have not heard back as of publishing. I'll update this post if I hear from him.

So anyway, thanks to the makers of "The Sunshine Makers" for shedding light on a piece of history of my city that I did not know existed and giving me a new adventure to track down.

When I drive by 2209 Delmar, I'll always think of acid and the early 1970's.

I'll be searching for this documentary on DVD to add to my St. Louis collection. Check it out, it's a solid movie with a local connection.

Sources:

1 "Quantity of Drug Materials Seized". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. January 18, 1973. pp. 1, 5.
2 "Pair Arrested in Fenton Drug Case". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. January 20, 1973. pp. 1, 3.
3 "Press for LSD Tablets Confiscated in Fenton". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. January 22, 1973. p. 12b.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Follow Up Post RE: The Evening Whirl

So I recently stumbled across a St. Louis original, the Evening Whirl. The story is all right here.

Happenstance and the Whirl made it's way into my afternoon today when I picked up two Sprites and a bag of Skittles (don't judge me) and asked the gas station attendant for the Whirl.

I wanted to read another issue to follow up with a little extra observation to make sure I fairly wrote up a summary of my firsthand experience reading the publication. Multiple replications make for good science and sound statistics (and better blogs).

She pointed me to a stack of the Whirls, rang up the bill and gave me a weird look. "It's three sixes (666)", she said.

Sure enough my bill was $6.66.

We both kind of chuckled, and I said something like "yeah, three of a kind is good but not with sixes."

She kinda shook off that awkward rebuttal and said, "no you asked for the Whirl, then you got 666."

Read: a) not good luck for you or b) "don't let me see you in the Whirl."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Historic Codes, an Empty Lot and a Proposed Mosque In McKinley Heights

I attended the Fox Park neighborhood association meeting this past January and was pleased to find an agenda jam packed with topics and speakers. It was exciting to just sit back and listen to all that is going on in my neck of the woods. There were politicians running for offices, not-for-profits speaking to new and exciting projects, and volunteers working their tails off to make Fox Park a nice place to live.

One of the guest speakers at the meeting was Rocco Danna, the McKinley Heights Neighborhood Association Chair of Development. McKinley Heights is the neighborhood directly to the east of Fox Park. The neighborhoods are very similar, especially in that they are both historic districts. We both have the same challenges and assets. We are good neighbors.

Danna came bearing good news...at first, followed by a plea for help in honoring the historic codes of the neighborhood.

First the good news:

There are plans for a mosque to be constructed by the Qooba Foundation at the corner of Jefferson and Allen Avenues in the McKinley Heights Neighborhood.

This is exciting and promising as this corner has sat vacant for many years. In fact, you have to go back to the 1970's to find a historical aerial photo of the site to view the buildings that existed at this corner.

The following photo from 1958 gives you a good idea of what the historic buildings looked like before they were demolished.
A dense, urban city we once had. Not so today as the corner buildings were razed and the lot has been vacant for years:
The properties under discussion here include 2008 South Jefferson, which is a cool old building that is owned by the same organization (Qooba Foundation); there are no plans to raze this building (whew!). Qooba also owns 2326-2346 Allen Avenue, the corner with the mosque proposal.

Here's what the two properties look as of publishing:
2008 South Jefferson Avenue 
2326-2346 Allen Avenue

These are complicated properties in that are unsightly at best, irresponsibly maintained at worst. The ownership of the 2008 Jefferson building has been stable since Qooba Foundation purchased it in 2012 from an Oakville, MO owner. The corner property has changed hands six times since 2003. Owners have ranged from the suburbs in Illinois and Missouri, to St. Louis owners. Most recently Qooba Foundation purchased it from Muhammad Qayyum of Valley Park, MO in 2012/13. This is when the property was removed from the tax books since Qooba is a religious organization. It collected $2311.76 in property taxes in 2012.

So obviously, the property will be exempt from property taxes.

This long history of property changing hands multiple times with no development has led to the area being a bit of an eyesore for people who live here. The St. Louis Citizen Service Bureau has received a combined 77 individual complaints, most for graffiti, illegal dumping, overgrown weeds, etc.

The evidence of neglect is clearly on display as of publishing:
Bottom line, this long abandoned and neglected property is poised for possible new life and that is truly exciting.

The fact that the site proposal is a mosque is good news as well. St. Louis has been welcoming to the Muslim community in my experience living near the large Bosnian population near Bevo.  In fact, the only minaret in St. Louis is located in the Bevo Mill Neighborhood. It adds to our soul and interest as a city. As the world evolves, so does St. Louis.
Minaret in the Bevo Neighborhood

And, since I've lived in the Fox Park/McKinley Heights area for over seven years, I've come to appreciate how welcoming people are around here. And I don't mean in a fluffy, fake, on the surface way. I mean it is real...as real as it has been in my life anyway.

The Qooba Foundation will be nothing but accepted here, just like the Scientologists a block or so north of here and the scads of little (mostly African-American) Christian churches of so many denominations I can't keep track. Everybody seems to get along when it comes to religion in these parts. There is even a Serbian Orthodox church in McKinley Heights that has one of the best fish fry's in St. Louis...they are considered by many to be a pillar of the neighborhood.

The Church of Scientology is investing heavily in their building at Jefferson and Lafayette which they purchased in 2007 for $1.6M per city records.

This building which opened in 1928 used to house a German cultural center called Das Deutsche Haus, the building later was home to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the 1950's and eventually carried the St. Louis House name and was home to two Christian schools before it was boarded up for the last 10 years or so (source).

The Church of Scientology just got a $200,000 permit to replace the front stairs to this beautiful building. It is good to have them in the area and investing in this historic building that adds so much character and context to a great part of the city.
Proof positive that churches and other non-profits are welcome and are investing in our neighborhoods...even the ones in historic neighborhoods. It's good to have them. No one, I mean no one has ever said or implied anything negative about Muslims in my conversations on this topic. Ever. If they did, I'd speak up.

But that's where the good news hits a snag with the mosque proposal...the site plan proposed is not good. In fact it is horrible. It doesn't match a historic neighborhood, or follow the established rules and codes in any way.


The parking is placed on the perimeter so pedestrians see nothing but cars or empty paved asphalt from Allen and Jefferson. The mosque is set back from both streets.

And most of all, it makes the same mistakes that countless churches have made in the central and northern sections of St. Louis...a small church surrounded by a sea of parking that gets used for mere hours in a week. This suburban design steals the urban fabric, soul and connection to its surroundings.

I'll provide an example so you can visualize what I'm describing and where my concerns lie.

Lately, I've spent a lot of time around one of my kid's high schools in Midtown. Adjacent to the school is just one example of the damage that a single bad site plan, allowed to ignore urban standards can destroy a block for all who want to live in a city.

And please, please don't crucify me for my choice of this particular church...I had scads of choices, especially in North City, where land is crazy cheap and churches bulldoze multiple parcels for massive surface parking lots and sprawling one-story suburban buildings. But I wanted to use a popular part of town that most people know.

McPherson and Vandeventer:
Again, this is not a shot against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other denomination or religious organization, they are all welcome and that is why it's important to make sure they are good neighbors who add to our city vs. cut it up and block it out from anyone who is not a member.

Here's a view of the dead space created by massive parking lots, suburban site plans and fences to keep people out.
 de-activated street corner at McPherson and Vandeventer
 massive fenced in surface parking lot 
 gates for members only access
 largely empty lots ~6 days a week
 half a block completely fenced off from the city/pedestrians
 fences say: "keep out"
Watch this < 30 second video of how inhospitable this street is from a pedestrian standpoint:
video
Places of worship should be interwoven into our neighborhoods, flowing together and cohesive with the resident's homes. Our forefathers got this. Just look at our historic neighborhoods...churches flow like just another home or business. And McKinley Heights and other historic neighborhoods have gone to great lengths to defend this historic stock.

That is why rules are in place and regulations have been established...to prevent erosion of our urban fabric. This can't happen in our dense neighborhoods like McKinley Heights and Fox Park.

Furthermore, people buy buildings, homes and businesses in historical neighborhoods because they want urban fabric. There are protections in place to protect their investment in our history...and provide a system to review and work with new construction so it fits in and respects the original craftsmanship we are blessed with.

Just a few steps south of the mosque site is the perfect example of someone spending tens of thousands to tuckpoint and renovate a beautiful historic building that has been long vacant.

Their investment would be sorely discredited by the suburban site plan that has been proposed at the other end of the block. Take a look at the massive amount of investment going on at the corner of Jefferson and Russell:
We simply must respect the investments and commitments people are making to our housing stock. We have to do better than what is being proposed at the corner of Jefferson and Allen. The site plan which is completely suburban  with deep setbacks from the streets, poor, cheap design surrounded by surface parking (which could easily be tucked behind the mosque).

And, as the Post-Dispatch reported in January, 2017, the Cultural Resources Office of St. Louis even proposed...get ready...an eight-foot wall surrounding the property. From the official report:
In view of the unusual siting of the building, the staff recommends the construction of a brick wall at the property lines of Jefferson and Allen to continue the building lines of the block. The applicant has expressed concerns about vandalism and graffiti with the construction of a wall. (source)
What?  You can't make this up. The neighborhood has to show up at these meetings to fight this kind of thought by the city. From the Post-Dispatch article:
The Cultural Resources Office report had urged construction of a brick perimeter wall next to the site’s sidewalks to screen the parking from view and to continue “the building lines of the block.” 
Members of the mosque’s congregation and neighborhood residents agreed Monday that the recommended 8-foot-high brick wall was a bad idea. 
Tim Kaminski, Qooba Foundation’s president, told board members such a wall would likely be a target of vandals. Other congregation members said they preferred a lower wall or no wall. 
Rocco Danna, a member of the McKinley Heights neighborhood association, agreed the wall plan was unwelcome but said the mosque site should be changed to make it more compatible with the historic area.
Read that again, the city recommended an eight-foot -high wall surrounding the property.

The McKinley Heights Historic District has enacted design standards to provide protections against such poor suburban design. The full document can be read HERE.

Here are some key elements of the historic codes that are violated with this initial site plan from Qooba Foundation:

501.1 Height   New buildings must be constructed within 15 percent of the average height of existing buildings on the block. Any additions must be compatible with both the existing building and the surrounding structures.   

501.2 Scale   The scale of all proposed new construction in the Corridor must respect the existing scale of any surrounding historic structures by seeking to minimize the difference in height, mass, fenestration, and location. Any additions must be compatible with both the existing building and the surrounding structures.


501.4 Exterior Materials   All new building materials shall be compatible in type and texture with the dominant materials of adjacent buildings. While artificial masonry such as "Permastone" is not permitted, introduction of new materials for new construction will be considered. A submission of all building material samples shall be required prior to approval. Any additions must be compatible with both the existing building and the surrounding structures. 

504. Parking   All off‐street parking shall be located behind or to the side of commercial structures. Where visible from the street, screening with visually opaque landscaping or 5' minimum high masonry or concrete wall shall be necessary. Visually opaque landscaping is defined as a continuous hedgerow of bushes planted 36" on center within a planting strip at least 5 feet wide. The planting strips with hedgerow must also contain upper story shade trees planted every 25 feet along the planting strip. The trees must be at least 2 1/2" in caliper upon plating.   All parking lots over 5,000 square feet in surface size must also be landscaped on the interior with tree planting wells, at least 15 square feet in size, so that at least 3% of the interior is landscaped with upper story shade trees at least 2 1/2 " caliper upon planting. 

Look at the comments from the Cultural Resources Office which states the section from the historic code and then the city's comments in bold font.
501.1. Height  New Buildings must be constructed within 15 percent of the average height of existing buildings on the block..... 
The building will be shorter than some surrounding structures due to its unusual design requirements.
501.2 Scale The scale of all proposed new construction in the Corridor must respect the existing scale of any surrounding historic structures by seeking to minimize the difference in height, mass, fenestration, and location. Any additions must be compatible with both the existing building and the surrounding structures. 
This is an unusual property type whose program will make it difficult to conform to the scale of surrounding buildings. The use of brick as the exterior material will create a relationship with adjacent buildings.
501.4 Exterior Materials All new building materials shall be compatible in type and texture with the dominant materials on adjacent buildings. While artificial masonry such as “Permastone” is not permitted, introduction of new materials for new construction will be considered. A submission of all building material samples shall be required prior to approval.... 
The applicant has made significant design alterations based upon staff recommendations. The use of brick as the primary building material will be instrumental in creating a design relationship with adjacent buildings. 
504 Parking  All off-street parking shall be located behind or to the side of commercial structures. Where visible from the street screening with visually opaque landscaping or 5’ minimum high masonry or concrete wall shall be necessary. Visually opaque landscaping is defined as a continuous hedge row of bushed planted 36” on center with a planting strip at least 5 feet wide. The planting strips with hedge row must also contain upper story shade trees planted every 25 feet along the planting strip. The trees must be at least 2 1⁄2” in caliper upon planting.  
This proposal includes parking in front of the mosque at the corner of S. Jefferson and Allen. At minimum the McKinley Fox ordinance calls for opaque landscaping screen or a masonry or concrete wall to screen such parking from street view. 
This is not defense of the historic code, especially the city's response to 501.2. This is not some unsolvable puzzle. This is a simple site plan that must match it's neighbors. This plan does not in any way add to the neighborhood as it is proposed. 

It needs to go back to the drawing board to find an equitable solution. This can happen where all parties are happy. Compromise and negotiation must occur.

But why isn't the city doing it's job? Cultural Resources is supposed to be the protector of the historic code, yet they came out against the code itself. This had to be a surprise to the the Neighborhood Association who assumed that Cultural Resources would be objective. 

You can watch the entire meeting here:

Again, from the footage in the review board meeting, it's great to see how welcoming the neighborhood is of a mosque, but that's where the support ends. The wall that was proposed was the main topic of conversation and backlash.

But Mr. Danna spoke at the 39:13 mark of the video to the fact that the neighborhood is not willing to abandon the historic code to accommodate this suburban design and street setback (my words).

Per my take on the presentation of the Qooba Foundation to the preservation board, this is all about parking. They want a large parking lot out front not tucked behind the structure like it could/should be. They are willing to move away from the idea of a wall, but the parking is the key for them.

The basis of their claims for the suburban setbacks were youth safety and safety of people getting in and out of cars.

Safety is everyone's concern. As Danna mentioned in his testimony, just across the street is the SouthSide Early Childhood Center who has a Monday through Friday need for child safety...parents dropping little ones off constantly. SouthSide ECC built an urban building with respect to our neighborhood. This is not hard to do.

Proof:
So why is the Qooba Foundation not held to the same standard? Why would this site be exempt from the rules and codes?

This is not acceptable, and this story that is unfolding is an example of how the city's street grid and character of its historic neighborhoods gets chipped away by lazy site plans and even worse, a complicit city Preservation Board/CRO.

We can't let this happen.
 
Any architect with experience working within neighborhoods with historic codes could creatively meet the needs of the customer (Qooba Foundation) and the neighborhood code...within budget.

I learned that a mosque's prayer room has to be designed to face Mecca. This is not a show stopper for a good site plan either...some would see this as an opportunity to build a memorable addition to a prominent city corner. As Danna states in his testimony, there are ways to make this work.

And, this is a prominent corner. Remember, there are plans under discussion to make Jefferson Avenue part of the North/South Metrolink or streetcar line.

We cannot let this suburban site plan go further. Just like any property owner, especially ones who won't pay property taxes, you have to work within the rules that exist to protect the majority's investments and desires for a historic neighborhood.

The full Qooba Foundation proposal may be accessed HERE starting on page 19.

So what's next? Well, despite the neighborhood's objections (see youtube video), the design passed Preliminary Review at the Board. The city is saying McKinley Heights cannot appeal a Preliminary Review. Curiously, preliminary Approval was given without a quorum. According to the by-laws of the Preservation Review Board you do not need a quorum for a Preliminary Review. Only 4 of the 9 members were present at the Review. The mosque has two years from passing the Preliminary Review to get a building permit. At that time an appeal could be issued by the Neighborhood Association. Or, the proposal could go back to Preservation Review Board for final approval; and if the development is granted Final Approval an appeal could be made there.

This lack of support of the Review Board is disappointing as a person who moved here for historic stock and respect for preservation. 

Not only do you have to fight the owner's proposal, you have to fight the city to uphold the codes.

This kind of disregard to follow the codes and rules makes it a fight that requires volunteers and concerned citizens to spend many hours strategizing on how to protect the code, getting petitions and signatures to validate popular opinion, go to meetings during normal working hours, fight the city and try to not let such suburban design proposals so present in our region and country to creep into our historic neighborhoods.

Let's work toward an equitable solution. It'll need compromise and negotiation. It'll take all parties to be reasonable and just. I know this can happen.

Thanks to the Qooba Foundation for choosing our part of the city to root down. Please continue to work within the historic codes to build a mosque and parking lot that complement the corner and add to our rich history....not stand out like a sore thumb. Don't fence us off. Don't wall us off. Don't hide the mosque behind a sea of surface parking bring it to the corner where it belongs!

Again, look across the street at SouthSide Early Childhood Center. This site used to be a suburban Taco Bell drive through. They elevated our neighborhood and chose to be good neighbors and respect our historic urban form.

Thanks also to the McKinley Heights Neighborhood association for leading the charge to protect the code and the neighborhood.

I will be following this one closely.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Evening Whirl - My Path To Discovery

Seems with many things, I'm late to the party. And just discovering the nearly 80 year old African American owned and operated Evening Whirl is the latest example.

Here's how I stumbled upon this local newspaper. 

My drive time to and from work has recently been filled with podcasts to pass the time and keep the brain stimulated.

"Criminal is a podcast about crime. Stories of people who've done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle." (source)
New York Magazine sums it up when they wrote: 
“Criminal is a true­ crime podcast that understands crime as something sociological, historical, even anthropological — that crime is a function of people, time, and place. With incredible sound design, marvelous writing, and a boldness in the way it makes its choices, there are few shows that feel more alive.”
It's really thought provoking and helps you consider both sides of crime, victim and perpetrator. It has helped me come to grips with life in St. Louis. 

So you can imagine how excited and surprised I was when Episode 56 came about, titled:

"Don't Let Me See You In The Whirl"

The episode description from Criminal Podcast:
"Since 1938, a weekly African-American owned newspaper called the Evening Whirl has covered crime in St. Louis with a style all its own, using alliteration and rhyme, and often omitting the usual crime-reporting words like "accused" or "alleged." The paper has been widely criticized for its casual approach to fact-checking and sensational writing style. But the paper's owner, Anthony Sanders, who has been helping out with it since he was 18 years old, doesn't have any plans to change it. As the pages of The Whirl have said:  "If that's too much for you, pick up the Times and read the theatre reviews."
A great episode, the host, Phoebe Judge, flew to St. Louis to interview Sanders. They met at Culpepper's.

The Whirl's founder Benjamin Thomas started the paper in 1938 and retired in 1995 when Sanders took over. Thomas died in 2005 at the age of 94 (source). There are plenty of great interviews out there with Thomas. Do yourself a favor and watch these two interviews with Peter Jennings and Arsenio Hall:
The history of this local paper is important. Thomas founded the paper in the Jim Crow era when blacks and black issues were not reported on or recorded. Obituaries were not printed in the newspapers. 

The topics discussed in the podcast included the tone of the reporting which is less clinical journalism and more prose ripe with accusational tones...no "alleged" or other soft language here. They go straight to the core and spice it up with some real talk or opinion...you are guilty and shamefully took someone life.

They discussed the playful manner of the wordplay in each article, and Sanders says it is this wordplay that adds the spice that make the meal, not the base ingredients...the spice is what makes the meal memorable or good.

They talked about how police are always the good guys and criminals the foils. Apparently the paper is read by police and the criminal set as well. The police use the Whirl to help them piece together the activity on the streets. Sanders claims that if you are going to solve a crime you have to "put it out there". Talk about it, shame it, get people to want to talk about it (snitch) and have the desire to stop the violence.

The Whirl is one such flashlight shining light on the underbelly.

Sanders says the Whirl is a place people go to read "who did the stupidest stuff this week" and people want to know if they got in the Whirl. It's a badge of honor for some in the region.

Sanders also spoke to the fact that the paper has been criticized over the years with plenty of libel lawsuits and charges of racism. This is obviously a complicated claim since the paper has always been owned and operated by African-Americans. Sanders said there is criticism from the black community that the Whirl only report on black crime...he says this claim is patently false. He said "no homicide is not reported on"...regardless of race.

The local chapter of the NAACP boycotted the paper in the 1980's claiming it exploits African-Americans. Sanders disagrees. In fact the Whirl is one of the only documents to record what has happened in the AA community in St. Louis. Nearby Washington University is preserving and studying copies of the Whirl to understand portrayals of race, drugs and guns in St. Louis...and America. In some cases the Whirl is the only document of gay African-Americans in front of and behind the guns.

The Whirl doesn't avoid these topics. Race, look, lifestyle, descriptions of the lack of dignity are not described in the Post-Dispatch...the Whirl is rich with description. The Post reads like a legal document, the Whirl a salacious true crime account.

The history of the paper was also discussed on the podcast. While it is not 100% clear, the name of the paper has a couple theories. Sanders says the whirl represents "kicking up dust". Ms. Judge posits that there is a line in Mark Twain's "Guilded Age" that reads: "Both chatted away in high spirits and made the evening whirl along in the most mirthful manner."

With Twain's roots here and Thomas' love for playful, humorous and rhythmic prose, the connection has legs.

The publication is wildly popular in the black areas of town.  Sanders claims that readership has grown from 4000 to nearly 55,000. He should know, he personally delivers the papers which "sell as good as the Post (read St. Louis Post-Dispatch) in some areas". They even hired a reporter...

For now the Whirl is here to stay and there is no shortage of material.

The interview ends with a passage from the Whirl from 1978 and an example of how the Whirl has entered the local colloquial farewells:

"Guns will roar and rip like hell and how the Evening Whirl will sell."

So when saying goodbye, people say "Don't let me see you in the Whirl" as they bid farewell to friends and family.

Thanks to the Criminal podcast and Ms. Judge for coming to St. Louis to shine a light on our local culture and history.

Now for the personal part of the blog...

I wondered why I hadn't seen or heard of The St. Louis Evening Whirl. Then, I was filling up my tank at a BP on Jefferson Avenue and there it was right on the counter in a nice little stack. I bought my first Evening Whirl, Volume 79 No. 12.
It is not a tome, it is printed on four pages, front and back. It is a quick read.

Some of the headlines in my maiden voyage through this historic black paper:

"Teen arrested in murder of grandpa visiting Gustine"

"Off-duty cop ok'd for whacking intruder"

The tag line on the top of the paper reads: "There is power in naming and power in shaming!"

Shame it does...or speak the truth depending on your perspective. It is unfiltered like the way people talk when they are together commiserating over the crazy stuff that goes down in this town.  It is sensationalistic and sing-songy vs. factual and dry like mainstream journalism.

There are tip lines and photos of the most wanted in the area still walking the streets. The Whirl is a member of the public safety council of metropolitan St. Louis...they want to fight crime and call out the horrible things people are capable of and that is how the reporting reads.

But it's not all just crime my friends, there is more. 

The "Inside The Whirl" center section has lots of hip hop music news and free announcement space for local events and shows in the black community.

There is a great "Ask The Leading Ladies" section where readers write in questions about dating, relationships or enhancing your sex life.  And...AND...a separate section "Dr. Feel Good" where readers from the city and county can ask candid questions related to sex. 

There is also Asset: Girl Of The Week with a small photo spread and profile of her background, online info, likes and dislikes...worst pickup line she's experienced, etc.

I'm now educated in the ways of the Whirl. I feel one step closer to being a true St. Louisan. 

Long live the Evening Whirl.

Thanks for adding spice to the St. Louis soup.