Andre Alexander remembers the day, almost six years ago, that changed the way he thinks about his community.
He'd gone to his church, a storefront in the 3800 block of Ashland Avenue, and managed to lock himself out, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
While Alexander waited for the church facilities manager to show up with a spare key, he visited with neighbors, who were out on their porches, enjoying the spring weather. He talked to them about the neighborhood, its strengths and its weaknesses. About what needed to be done and who should do it.
Alexander already knew more resources were needed. A doctor's office and counseling services. A job-training and employment center. Better transportation. Places to shop and maybe a movie theater.
But what he heard most was also the most obvious. People were tired of the broken buildings and empty lots.
The Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, where Alexander serves as senior pastor of The Tabernacle, is riddled with more than 2,000 vacant properties, city records show. In fact, it's one of the hardest-hit by disinvestment of all 79 city neighborhoods.
"I hadn't thought about how much vacancy paints the picture that nobody cares," Alexander said. "I knew vacancy had an impact, and I knew it was not good because of the crime it brought, but I didn't think about the other side of the picture, about 'What does this say to people? What do you say to people when this stays broken?'"
The neighborhood wasn't always this way, though.
Jeff-Vander-Lou, an area roughly bounded by Delmar Boulevard and Natural Bridge, Jefferson and Vandeventer avenues, once was one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city. It had big employers, such as Carter Carburetor and Coca-Cola, and major anchors, including Sportsman's Park, home of the Browns and Cardinals.
New research by St. Louis University sociologist Christopher Prener shows it was home to about 40,000 residents in 1950, the year the city's population peaked. Today, Jeff-Vander-Lou is down to about 5,500 people — the largest numerical loss of any neighborhood in the city.
In the time it took for Jeff-Vander-Lou to lose 34,500 people, the city saw 10 mayors come and go. Each of them vowed to fight blight and stop the exodus of residents.
Alexander, like many in north St. Louis, learned not to expect answers from City Hall.
In 2014, two years after he and several others started Tabernacle, they began their own effort to address vacancy.
The nonprofit they incorporated, Tabernacle Community Development Corp., has been busy.
It has identified, bought and demolished properties deemed beyond repair, including three in the 3800 block of Ashland Avenue, one in the 3800 block of St. Louis Avenue and two in the 3700 block of Hebert Avenue.
It also has completed the rehabilitation of four buildings, all funded by donations, providing homes for seven families, Alexander said. Tabernacle CDC is rehabbing another five properties near the church.
"We were very interested in trying to bring back to life anything that we could," Alexander said.
Businesses and major institutions have helped drive the vision for much of the city's redevelopment. But Tabernacle's approach is community-based, with people who know the neighborhood in charge. Their goal is to provide housing for north St. Louisans, not displace them.
Churchgoers and organizations such as Brace for IMPACT 46, a nonprofit founded by former Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan, contribute to the cause with time and money.
Alexander and his wife, Tiffany, have spent most of their lives in St. Louis. For two years after Alexander's mother died, he lived with his grandmother and grandfather in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood. His father grew up in north St. Louis.
Alexander, 42, could have done other work, elsewhere. He earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri. He has a master's in business administration from Webster University and a master's of theological studies from Covenant Theological Seminary.
"Our nonprofit's mission statement is 'assisting communities by building people,'" Alexander said. "We want to be able to always do that, and never get handcuffed to what somebody else thinks, who's never even been in this neighborhood."
Diana Wingo, 66, is one of the people who donates her time to Alexander's cause. She helps with administrative work, including screening potential new tenants for Tabernacle's rehabbed housing.
Wingo grew up on Lexington Avenue, close to the border of Jeff-Vander-Lou and the Greater Ville, in a house her father bought in 1956. She moved to Normandy, in the county, when she was 26, and raised her children there. She moved back to her childhood home three years ago.
Like many baby boomers who grew up in north St. Louis, Wingo recalls vibrant neighborhoods full of young families. Her childhood neighborhood was a place where everybody knew everybody, and nearly every home was owner-occupied. She remembers hearing the bell at Farragut Elementary from home, and sprinting across neighborhood streets with friends to make it in time for school.
"People rarely moved because it was such a nice neighborhood," Wingo said. She and her family never had to leave the neighborhood to find good restaurants, services and fun family activities to do together.
Today, it looks like a whole different place to her. By nearly every quality-of-life measure, Jeff-Vander-Lou falls near the bottom.
The data backs her up:
. The neighborhood's per-capita crime rate for April through September was higher than most of the city's other neighborhoods. Compared with the same six-month period last year, violent crime is up 55%.
. Two years ago, hundreds of children in the city of St. Louis had blood lead levels at or above the marker for medical intervention, according to recent state data. More than 100 of them lived in ZIP code areas that overlap Jeff-Vander-Lou.
. In a nearly 30-year period, Jeff-Vander-Lou lost more children to homicide than any other neighborhood in the city.
. A Post-Dispatch review of almost a decade of city service call data showed that for every 100 residents in Jeff-Vander-Lou, the city received 76 complaints about trash.
. On the city's North Side in general, including in Jeff-Vander-Lou, fewer people have access to vehicles, and there are few groceries close by.
. Little to no mortgage lending is occurring north of Delmar Boulevard.
North Side neighborhoods like Jeff-Vander-Lou have been spiraling down for decades, and the despair keeps growing.
"Once the city starts neglecting you, then businesses leave, and it just goes on, and on, and on," Wingo said.
The problems manifest themselves through desperate pleas for help Wingo hears when she answers the phone at Tabernacle.
"Listening to their life circumstances is sometimes gut-wrenching for me," Wingo said. "I mean, the need that is out there is unbelievable. And when I talk to those that are selected (for housing), I mean they are just ecstatic. It's like a dream come true for them, because most of the time when you are in the situation that most of these people are in, you have to settle for substandard housing."
A history of neglect
The history of disinvestment and neglect in north St. Louis is part of what pushes Alexander and Tabernacle to move forward. He cites a story an older resident told him about buying a home across from Fairground Park, where facilities remained segregated until the 1950s. The homeowner would sit on the front porch and look at the park, admiring it from afar.
Fast forward to today. In one sense, the story recalled by Alexander didn't happen that long ago, he said.
"In another sense you go, 'OK, now that we can enjoy some of these things, look at how they look,'" Alexander said. "And that's really what tugged at our hearts to go, 'We've got to do something about it, or do our part.'"
In that, Alexander walks in the footsteps of others. In the mid-1960s, a community-driven redevelopment effort was launched by Macler Shepard, the owner of an upholstery shop who had been displaced twice by urban renewal. Shepard organized neighbors who, like him, didn't want to get pushed around anymore, into what became Jeff-Vander-Lou Inc., targeting an area of the old Yeatman neighborhood for redevelopment.
The name for the organization — and later the neighborhood — came from the major cross-streets in the area: Jefferson, Vandeventer and St. Louis avenues. As Shepard told the Post-Dispatch in 1967, referring to urban renewal that wiped out the black majority Mill Creek area, "We cannot stand another Mill Creek with all the demolition. We want to get a rehabilitation program in the area."
Along with a young Mennonite minister, the Rev. Hubert Schwartzentruber, and retired schoolteacher Florence Aritha Spotts, Shepard built the organization from the ground up, successfully developing 623 units of new or rehabilitated housing, according to a study published in the early 2000s.
Cecil Miller, now 80, worked by Shepard's side. Miller and his wife, both Mennonites, were a young couple in the 1960s living in Kansas. The two felt like they needed to do something to help solve the country's social ills, many of which were based in racism.
"Judy and I kind of felt like nothing is going to happen unless someone goes there," Miller said. The two committed to each other that if they both could secure teaching jobs, they would move to St. Louis. Soon, the couple found jobs and a house in the 2800 block of Dayton Street.
"It was alive," Miller said of the Jeff-Vander-Lou he and Judy moved into. "And that would be demonstrated by the fact that as the community started talking and gathering together, they gathered every Monday night. You'd have a building full of people, talking about what they wanted and what they wanted to do, and hopes and dreams."
Jeff-Vander-Lou Inc. struggled at first to get help from traditional lenders and the government. Its initial work was supported by donations, including from a philanthropist, businessman Thomas N. DePew. Later, it benefited from the first subsidized urban homeownership program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That program, which was said to be inspired by Jeff-Vander-Lou Inc.'s work, insured single or multi-family mortgages, as long as the housing was under rehabilitation by a nonprofit organization.
Intended to help build wealth in poorer communities, the insured mortgages had a low, fixed interest rate. According to Miller, Jeff-Vander-Lou Inc. eventually came to rely heavily on this program. But funds to construct new low-income housing or rehabilitate existing housing were cut drastically during President Ronald Reagan's administration, which limited the neighborhood organization's ability to continue its work.
The nonprofit's efforts to secure other funding fell short, and its work, after showing so much promise, slowly ground to a halt in the 1980s. Shepard died in 2005.
At first, Alexander said he was met at banks with attitudes similar to those that Macler Shepherd encountered when he was getting started.
"I think it's forgotten that everybody needed a chance to get started," Alexander said. "And so of course I'm not going to have the experience if I never get a chance to get the experience, to get the capital."
Through an Investment Connection event at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank last year, Alexander was able to secure a loan from Gateway Community Development Financial Institution, which helped renovate three of the properties. Alexander and representatives from Gateway have continued to work together on finding funding sources for Tabernacle's projects, according to the St. Louis Fed.
Alexander attended the event again this year to pitch a different project he calls "The Hub." The Hub will be a community center with a variety of employment, educational and other services for residents. Tabernacle CDC bought a building at 3000 East Prairie Avenue to house The Hub.
Even today, if Wingo's neighbors want to fix up their homes like she has, they better be prepared.
"The banks won't lend you any money," Wingo said. "These houses, you can't build wealth in. Nobody is interested in these houses." When she went to the bank for a $45,000 loan to rehab her family home, she could get only $17,500 because of what's referred to as the "appraisal gap" — the house appraises for less than it's worth, often because of neighboring property values.
To get credit flowing again, groups like Justine Petersen and the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council are working together on what's known casually as the "greenlining" fund.
The fund will provide mortgages structured to work around the issue. The St. Louis Community Development Corp. contributed $100,000 earlier this year. The groups working on the project say they are close to reaching their fundraising goals, and hope to have all of the legal paperwork finished in time to begin making loans in the new year.
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.