Fox Park (The Park) - 100th Anniversary

We have lived in Fox Park for seven years, almost to the day. While seven years isn't really a lauded anniversary, a centennial anniversary certainly is.

Fox Park (the park) turns 100 years old this year:

Fox Park and Playground began to be used for recreational purposes in 1917 under a permit from the Fox Brothers and was purchased in 1931.
— St. Louis City Website

The park property has evolved from three separate parcels into a single park property over the years.

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Before the land was donated to the city as a park, it was a lumberyard (Fox Lumberyard). This part of the city still has millwork operations very close to the park. There also used to be a grocery store and large surface parking lot at the furthest west side of the park along California Avenue which is now home to the multi-use field. 

From a September 30, 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article:

The park increased in size by nearly one-third a year ago (2003) when the nonprofit DeSales Community Housing Corp. bought up a block just west of the park and turned it over to the city. Alderman Phyllis Young, D-7th Ward, persuaded city officials to demolish an abandoned grocery where loiterers had been gathering daily and to eliminate an alley. The ground was planted with grass seed and joined to the park’s original 2.7 acres.
— Patricia Rice, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I had been looking for photos of the grocery store and the Fox lumberyard and warehouse for years and finally, a Facebook conversation bubbled up on the neighborhood page:

On the South East Corner of California and Shenandoah was a Grocery Store that was named Cooks, then Super Tru-Buy Discount Foods owned by the Frenzle Brothers.

Later, a photo of the grocery was posted to the same Facebook page, corroborating the statement above:

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Per a friend who's been in the neighborhood for over 30 years, "the place was a lot rougher back then". The market was a hot spot for negativity and stupid/criminal behavior. The neighborhood started the process to shut down this problem property back in 2000.

The area is now a multi-use field surrounded by trees.

I'm here to report that the park is in better shape than it has been in years. There is more positive, decent activity here now more than ever (in my seven years, anyhow).

I'll list the reasons why I have this opinion in a bit. But, I also want to first give props to two women I had the good fortune to have met and worked with on the park committee with accomplishments that went from discussions over drinks to real action and proof of things getting done through hard work, gumption, listening and caring.

It's hard to think of the park and how far it has come without thinking of Beth Stelmach and Christine Ingrassia, as this last seven years of the park's history owes these two leaders the most gratitude and my intent is to record their contributions and some of the documents and photos I've accumulated as to not forget the work they put in to make the park is what it is today.

First, I'll share some personal stories on what led me to my interest in St. Louis' parks and getting involved at the local level in Fox Park. 

Then I'll dive right into some of the accomplishments that Beth and Christine led us through.

When I moved here, I knew the park for which the neighborhood takes its name, could use some help. Negativity is the term I'll use, it wasn't a place people who love their kids wanted to be. It wasn't a place that would bring solace, more like confrontation.

The park is our near geographic center, it is the neighborhood's only park. We need this place to be functional or at least peaceful. And it had seen better days. I never saw my good neighbors there (black or white if you care). I never saw the people who've lived here for a generation there. That was perplexing. The good folks that lived here wrote it off. Felt like they quit when it came to visiting and using the park.

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The park committee was fighting back the negativity though, I blogged about these efforts back in 2013. 

Right around 2013, the experiences I had in Fox Park led me to the personal goal to visit and blog on each of St. Louis' 108 parks. I visited every single one and took notes and talked to lots of people using the parks. Sometimes I'd not see another soul, other times I'd come up on a party or just run into someone willing to kibitz.

I have to say, it was one of the best experiences I've had in my life. I got to know the minds of urban fishermen, old timers, homeless people and other fellow St. Louisans...a goddamn blessing to have these conversations and memories in my brain.

A recurring theme in my conversations with folks in the parks that are in bad shape, abused by the locals and not safe was: "why don't they do anything about this?"

After much contemplation, I locked in on the "they".

Who is "they"? If folks are waiting around for the city parks department or the political structure, or some other external force to do something transformational in their spaces and have it turn out the way that actually pleases the people who live there, they are going to have to wait a long time to see change...if ever. In my experience, the community has to get involved to drive change.

Fox Park seemed to have the desire to change. A park improvement or any other successful volunteer project needs to have an advocate. A devoted, smart, hard-working, collaborating soul to lead the charge. 

Fox Park was lucky enough to have such a person(s). For my money, that Fox Park person is Beth Stelmach, along with her partner Beth Conroy are two of the best souls I've come across in the last ten or so years of my life. Very few people get the carte blanche, goldstar city status award in my mind.  I trust their instincts implicitly when it comes to straight talk, yet intellectual compassion for neighborhood topics. I always listen when they talk, and in most cases, I agree with them.

Beth Conroy, left and Beth Stelmach (everybody calls them "The Beths")

Beth Conroy, left and Beth Stelmach (everybody calls them "The Beths")

The other person who took the park to a new level and activated the dreams and wishes of the Park Committee was Christine Ingrassia, the then acquaintance, now alderwoman, who kicked our desires and efforts up a notch...more like ten notches, and could righteously be credited with bringing the park master plan (adopted by the neighborhood in 2004) to completion.

In order to get things done, here and anywhere, you need someone with vision and the ability to bring people together. You also need a do-er, the connected person that can run the traps on process and funding and politics. Between Beth and Christine, I can say the stars aligned. They continue to kick ass and do for us and accomplish their goals, and we should all be thankful and proud of the park today because of their efforts.

I'm a better man for having met these women and having watched them knock down every obstacle in their way to make this part of town a better, more equitable place.

When I heard people say "when are they going to do something", they meant the government. The real "they" is concerned and driven residents and politicians willing to work for the electorate's needs/desires.

That "they" can be "we" if you team up and commit yourself to hard work and persistence. The proof is right here.

Yet, it would be shortsighted to not recognize the efforts of many others; and, the folks mentioned above did not operate in a vacuum. The original park committee that formed around late 2003/early 2004 received widespread community input and held multiple sessions to query the neighborhood on what people wanted the park to be. 

Then came a park master plan adopted in 2004. This master plan was no back of the napkin sketch done in a back-room of some smoky bar. It was a professionally developed, community derived plan meant to please the entire neighborhood contingency.

Again from the 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article:

The (parks) department was impressed by the energy of the neighbors - a mixture of newcomers and some stalwarts who have lived there for two decades - who raised money and got top-flight master planners.”
— Karen Pecaut - St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry
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That "top-flight master planner" was John Hoal (The PD misspelled his name as John Hoad), a master planner at H3 Studio and Washington University professor. In addition to the Fox Park plan, Hoal designed the Forest Park, Carondelet Park and Lafayette Park master plans. 

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Back in January, 2007 St. Louis Magazine published an article on Fox Park, with a quote from Hoal, echoing my experiences:

The Fox Park residents are quite remarkable,” says John Hoal, founding principal of H3. “These are people who passionately believe in building parks for communities.
— Jennifer Roberts - St. Louis Magazine

The Beths were both members of the original park committee led by Michael Crooks. This group worked with the neighborhood association, city and others to raise $12,000 to commission H3 Studio to develop the four-phase plan with an execution timeline of 2014.

When volunteers are involved, things take time. When the city continues to lose residents and tax dollars, the resources and budgets are tight. The city parks department could use, um (let me choose my words wisely) an infusion of youth and a shot of energy and new ideas on collaboration.

So, as we sit here in 2017, I think it is safe to say the key elements of the plan were completed. Some original items were not, but most were. I'll list the key improvements based on my experience on the Park Committee.

1. Removing fences around the original park land. Yes folks, there were ten-foot chain link fences surrounding the original park to presumably keep undesirables out (or in). The Warriors, Repo Man or Escape From New York images should be popping into your head right about now. Most of the fencing was removed in the early 2000's but some remained along Shenandoah Avenue nearest the first base line of the ball field when I got involved many years later. We worked with the park's dept to remove that and planted a perennial bed and erected a Fox Park sign to improve the curb appeal of the park. 

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2. Filling in the former Fox lumberyard warehouse and grocery store property with fill dirt, grading and planting grass/trees around the perimeter. There was supposed to be a burm or mound in the center to form an amphitheater, but that never happened. Trees were planted and a perrenial garden and Fox Park sign were erected on the corner to help define the park.

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3. The long empty wading pool just south of the pavilion that was filled with pea gravel that kids would throw at visitors and all over the park was to be covered with wood for a community stage. That never happened, but something even better was to come, a spray pad that was funded through a 2012 Land and Water Conservation Fund grant written by Ingrassia. This is a fantastic addition to the park and a great place for kids to play when the temps are high.

4. Shade trees and landscaping definition for key areas of the park; the trees were donated through grants written by the Park Committee. We planted over 100 trees. I was walking by this fall and noticed people sitting under the trees we planted to provide shade and relief from the heat while watching a youth soccer match. The massive planting at the corner of Victor and California as seen in the master plan has never come to fruition since the mounded amphitheater did not either. But, there's more shade now than ever.

5. New basketball court per the park master plan. While some parks removed basketball courts, Fox Park built a new one...and it wasn't cheap, the price tag was $85,000:

6. Branding the park and neighborhood with a clever logo (thanks to local artist Grace McHammond for her kindness and spirit); you may have seen our fire hydrants and signs:

7. A dog park that has brought neighbors together and positive activity to a former tough part of the park (I've had so many good conversations with people I'd not have met otherwise had it not been for the dog park). This is yet another element of the master plan, the most recent one to come to fruition thanks in part voters passing Proposition P passing, raising funds for the 108 parks. Ingrassia did most of the legwork to get this funded. A small army of volunteer dog lovers helped with the by-laws, details and administration.

8. Trash cans and water fountains and trees by the benches to provide shade. Simple right, but necessary to give people a chance at being comfortable and doing the right thing with trash.

9. Plans for renovation of the pavilion complete with usable restrooms. The pavilion is in dire need of tuck pointing, paint and the restrooms and electric are trashed and unsafe. This will be a huge improvement, and one I never thought would happen. The improvement, expected to start any day now, will also make the pavilion ADA compliant.

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10. Softball/youth baseball field improvements. For a couple generations, Fox Park was THE place to play adult softball prior to the great suburban migration. Many people who used to live here have fond memories of the beer flowing and ball being played at a pretty high level. People from all over would play here. Too bad they left, they could've really passed that tradition on to the next generations, but so it goes. This park used to be run by the Police Athletic League (PAL). Truth is, they were terrible stewards of the property. To start they had pad locks on the field that they would not open for non-police events. We were verbally abused when we tried to get them to cooperate with the neighborhood and park committee. It was laughable how arrogant and antisocial those people were. They did not take care of the field, neither did Cardinals Care who built the field in it's current configuration as Darryl Kile field. The good news is help was on the way.  "First right of refusal" was transferred from PAL to DeSales Community Development, a much more equitable partner with the citizens and the neighborhood association. This was a big win as now there are social activities here including St. Margaret of Scotland youth practices and a DeSales-sponsored youth sports initiative that is part of number eleven below. There are also plans in the works to rekindle the relationship with Cards Care to get the locker rooms/showers/concession stand back in usable order.

11. Community building. DeSales, the local housing development agency, has sponsored a youth sports league called Southside Sports that has come to fruition recently. There is a dedicated group of folks teaching kids the basics of baseball and soccer right here in the park from spring through the fall. I've seen 3 on 3 organized basketball games as well. Families from local public and charter schools are signing their kids up to join these sports leagues. I've seen participation from schools in McKinley Heights, Fox Park and Tower Grove East.

SouthSide Sports is a free to low-cost sports program that aims to promote physical activity and advance social equity at the neighborhood level. Our goal is to ensure that children in the Fox Park and Tower Grove East neighborhoods have access to youth sports regardless of where they go to school or their ability to pay a fee. The league is open to children in Kindergarten through third grade.

We currently offer soccer in partnerships with New Dimensions Soccer in the spring and fall and Redbird Rookies Baseball in the summer. All practices and games are conveniently located in Fox Park.
— DeSales Community Development website

I've also seen the neighborhood association sponsoring events in the park including art fairs, bocce ball leagues, concerts in the park, fall festivals and national night out celebrations. Gateway Greening helped Fox Park become a garden hub, where gardening equipment and seeds are made available to neighbors. There is talk of a $300,000 grant to make Fox Park a food hub in which healthy food from local growers will be distributed and available to neighbors. There is also an element to this grant that would provide training and education for youth to learn skills in the food and hospitality industries.

Stay tuned, we're in good hands and those hands continue to be outstretched to the community surrounding the park.

There are probably other elements that I've missed, but what an impressive set of accomplishments!

Congrats and most of all Thank You to the Beths, Christine and the many hard-working neighbors who poured concrete, planted trees, painted picnic tables, moved around countless loads of mulch, landscaped some corners and made Fox Park a place for everyone to enjoy.

Happy 100th Anniversary Fox Park!