City Affair: Spotlight on the 21st Ward

Tomorrow night at 7:00 pm, City Affair will host a discussion with Alderman Antonio French, Representative Jamilah Nasheed, and Preservation Research Office Director Michael Allen. The topic: the tremendous activity and forward momentum in the 21st Ward, where many unique initiatives aimed at improving quality of life in the ward are underway.

The discussion will take place in the ward's planned community center, a historic church recently rescued from vacancy. Below is an article by Sylvester Brown, Jr. that first ran in the Northsider. Keep reading and plan to attend City Affair to learn more. Event details are on the calendar.

O’FALLON – In early March, The Acts Partnership, a community-based development organization (CBDO), issued a social media call to raise funds for the purchase of a vacant, historic church on the corner of Red Bud and Rosalie. The development agency’s Executive Director, Starr Meek, went public to raise $15,000 in one week to close on the property. Antonio French, 21st Ward Alderman, worked feverishly to meet the one-week timeline. With a matching grant from the Incarnate Word Foundation, French and Acts met their goal.

Now, the hard work begins.

The building is located on the 4400 block of Red Bud Avenue, an area known by residents as “Four Four Bud,” named after the gang that has claimed the territory for years. French said residents want their neighborhood back from violence and gang activity. He envisions the building as a strategic, stabilizing force that can offer a variety of services that specifically target young people who live around the church. Through activities and programming, French believes the community center can provide progressive alternatives to the gang lifestyle.

“The timing is perfect. It’s only been vacant a few months. So, it’s ready for us to do something with it,” French said. “We can turn the building into a center that provides everything from job training to worship services. We’ll have surveillance cameras around the site and make sure this building doesn’t in any way bring the neighborhood down but in fact, brings the whole neighborhood up.”

Vic Smith, a 40-year resident of the area, agrees with French. In a recent interview with FOX 2 News, Smith said he sees a positive long-term impact if the reclamation effort is a success: “These youth are used to things starting and stopping but if they see longevity in it they’ll want to stay into it and become a youth leader,” Smith said told FOX 2.

The purchase of the church and its proposed reincarnation as a hub for positive community interaction is one of many projects the alderman and Acts have on their plates. The church is just a block away from O’Fallon Park where French and Acts have hosted outdoor concerts within the past two years. The concerts have reinforced a sense of community and altered the image of an area singularly defined by criminal activity and gang violence.

Father Jeff Vomund (affectionately known as “Father Jeff”) pastors St. Elizabeth Mother of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church at Shreve and Carter. Vomund also serves as president of the Acts Partnership. He welcomes any endeavor that will help outsiders see beyond the “poor-black-dangerous” media headlines that are often used when talking about activities in the 21st Ward.

“What people don’t know is that there are heroes of segregated American history still living in North City. “I buried the first African American engineer that Emerson Electric ever hired. He lived right here in north St. Louis. These are the folks who have fulfilled the American myth and our kids can do it too,” Vomund stressed. “There’s so much potential in our community. We just have to help young people see what they are capable of and relentlessly hold them to their potential. That’s the message of those heroic people here: ‘You can be more. Just never give up.’”

Engaged involvement by those inside and outside the area will make the project a success, added Rev. Clyde Crumpton, pastoral assistant at New Sunny Mount Baptist Church at 4700 W Florissant Avenue. Also an Acts Partnership board member, Crumpton says, “We have to maintain the property and make sure the building is accessible and safe. We need something that will draw the young people in — major players the likes of [SLPS Superintendent] Kelvin Adams or [St. Louis Police Chief] Dan Isom and other pastors and leaders who will convince the people that this is something we need to do together,” Crumpton said.

“It’ll be a challenge, but it’s a neighborhood program so we should be able to work around those challenges.”

Father Jeff believes the challenges can be met and overcome. However, Father Jeff added, it will take a patient, consistent and affirming block-by-block, person-by-person approach.

“Our job is to ask ourselves ‘how can we be creative?’” Father Vomund said. “There’s an old saying about rising tides lifting all boats. Well, the reality is you can’t make a challenged community successful overnight. You have to take it one person at a time and keep changing the water they swim in little by little. That’s what our parish and the Acts Partnership are all about – providing a different, more affirming yet challenging context. Really, that’s what the Gospel is all about.”

By SYLVESTER BROWN, JR. Senior Staff Reporter

Reprinted with permission from the Northsider