My wife and I drove the streets of Walnut Park East with our camera taking pictures of what we saw on that cold winter day. I did a blog post on January 10, 2010. The photos and description and overall vibe was true to our experience on a maybe 1 hour drive through this neighborhood. But, I fully realize you can't judge a neighborhood on a 1 hour tour? But, I felt I was honest in describing what I saw; and somewhat even handed in that I didn't take pictures of the numerous dumping sites and tire fire remnants, etc.
Not 4 days later, Antionette Cousins, the executive director for the Riverview West Florissant Dev. Corp (RWFDC) left a comment on my post. It struck me immediately, because I feared I offended her or others that may call WPE home. On one hand I'm always a glass half full guy, a rooter of the underdog, I find beauty is wrecked things and abandoned buildings in former urban residential and industrial areas. Things that were made to be beautiful and last but have aged or fallen apart are some of my favorite vistas in St. Louis. Yet, I wasn't feelin' it here and I'll stand behind that. However, I felt personally responsible to meet with Ms. Cousins to explain my prerogative; to somewhat come clean on my take and learn something about the positive things that weren't apparent to me that day I drove around WPE. In fact, here's how I ended my post:
Please correct me if you are familiar with the neighborhood and have opinions to the contrary. Or, if you have examples of positivity to share regarding WPE, please do. I'm sure there are church based organizations and such working hard to help those that choose to call WPE home, it's just these efforts were not immediately apparent to me on my tour today.
And here's Ms. Cousins comment from Jan. 14th:
I am sorry you feel that way about my community. As the Executive Director for Riverview West Florissant Development Corporation, I invite you to contact me so we can schedule a tour of the Walnut Park East neighborhood. It seems these postings are old as these homes have been torn down and new development has been constructed. I look forward to meeting with you.
314 382 9000
oh! by the way, crime has decreased by 80% since we began community engagement and new development of 32 new homes.
After giving it some thought, I was very happy that she commented and I called her the next day and we set up a time to meet in person. I do stand by the fact that the photos I took were indeed from WPE and the homes were not torn down as of Jan 10, 2010.
After meeting Ms. Cousins, and having a candid conversation about my post and motives of writing about each of St. Louis' neighborhoods, and learning some more about the work her organization is doing, I walked away feeling pretty good about the future of the WPE neighborhood and that we came to an understanding.
I'm no journalist, but I took some notes of our discussion and asked for her permission to take her picture and post some of our discussion. Firstly, let me say Ms. Cousins totally impressed the urbanist, or at least the city lover in me. She seems pretty cool and is the kind of person that is a blessing to be working the city and we need more of her kind in spades.
She absolutely loves her job and that comes across clearly and honestly in her face and her enthusiastic demeanor:
Ms. Cousins is a St. Louis girl born and raised in the city and went to high school in Affton (I had to ask). She went on to get multiple degrees in Missouri and Chicago in social work and human resources and development. We briefly talked about Chicago and New York (Brooklyn) and what makes these cities great. She gets it when it comes to neighborhood continuity. By that I mean finding architects and builders that can merge new construction with the existing homes/structures in the hood.
Yes, this neighborhood has seen some tough times, but the aldermen/women (Bosley, Flowers, Carter) and the RWFDC are working diligently to reach out to people to find out what to do to turn things around. Drugs and crime have been a problem in the areas RWFDC represents (Baden, College Hill, Near North Riverfront, North Riverfront, O'Fallon, Walnut Park East and West and North Pointe).
We talked about the massive losses in population from 1990 to 2000. We discussed that fact that I'm citing info that's 10 years old, and I'm fully aware of that. But, I feel it's the only data that can reliably used to compare apples to apples amongst the city neighborhoods. She is confident that the numbers are going to go up in the 2010 counting. Her team and org. are working hard to educate people in the 27th ward re: census counting and how important it is to comply with the census counts.
UPDATE January, 2013: 2010 Census data indicated a loss of ~23% in WPE.
We talked about the aging residents in her area. 60% of the people are senior citizens. RWFDC is working with seniors to get them help with computer skills and in general keeping up with the times. They are working with troubled kids who do work mowing grass and repairing homes for seniors and picking up trash in the neighborhood. They are working with Gateway Greening to get community veggie gardens going (3 in total).
Much of the RWFDC's funding comes from Community Block Grant dollars from the aldermanic funds that are awarded.
Ms. Cousins intentions are in line with my ideals for what WPE needs: careful rehabilitation of significant/historic structures, and sensitive new construct to fill in the gaps. We talked about our love of brownstones and matching/urban street set backs and matching new homes with the pre-existing homes. We joked about our fears of people turning the city into the suburbs :) She educated me in that each alderman is allowed to demo 13 homes annually. Her org. works with the aldermen to evaluate these homes. She's an advocate of conservation and rehabs. Demos are done under dire circumstances.
Over 200 drug houses have been identified and shut down in her tenure. The new homes constructed are being rented out for 3 years, during which time the renters get educated on escrow accounts, home ownership and predatory lending practices. They get the option to purchase the home. There is a waiting list for these homes. They are taking into account modern advancements in energy efficiency by building these homes with rain barrels for capturing water to use for outdoor uses and installation of tank-less hot water heaters.
I hope I recapped our conversation accurately. It was a pleasure learning that the future of our city is up to us....our generation....to rise above the loss and degradation that our parent's and grandparent's generations allowed to occur. We are in a good place for the future as a city. We have good people working to improve this improve this town. I'm glad we can talk about it and become friends and unite on the thing we all want: healthy, thriving neighborhoods where people can feel safe, happy and proud of their homes and city.
Cheers to the RWFDC! Thank you for your time and reaching out to me in my quest to understand what the 79 neighborhoods of my favorite city have to show and offer.