My next entry on the exploration of gentrification in St. Louis continues to focus in on my neighborhood of Fox Park. Recently, I spoke to a longtime resident of Fox Park to get his thoughts on how the place has changed over the years.
Is Fox Park gentrified or gentrifying?
To get an understanding of the unique nature of how Fox Park has evolved over the years, I knew I’d have to get the perspective of our local Community Development Corporation (CDC), one of, if not the biggest property owners in my neighborhood.
Two emails later and a one block walk from my house, I was sitting down with Tom Pickel, the executive director of DeSales Community Development, who are one of the largest community development corporations (CDC) in St. Louis. Tom has been working for DeSales since 1989.
They are widely respected as a key contributor in stabilizing a part of the city that, like others, experienced gross abandonment, vacancy and social decay in the years following the fall of the Industrial Era after WWII and the rise of the suburbs.
I knew I’d have to sit down with DeSales to get their perspective.
Fox Park has undoubtedly seen an uptick in rehabs and infill over the last ten to fifteen years. So much so, that it is riding the current hot housing market and some homes are selling for prices unimagined when we moved here eleven years ago.
When I think about the classic definition of gentrification: pushing out longtime poor or working-class people for new transplants with the lust for expensive, exclusive stuff, housing costs are one part of the equation.
Can a place retain affordable housing and a good rental/owner mix in a hot market? I don’t see how affordable housing is prioritized in rebounding neighborhoods without a non-profit CDC with the goal of creating dignified, quality housing at an affordable rate.
Fox Park is fortunate to have DeSales which has done just that. Their efforts and role in the neighborhood has evolved over the years.
Here is a summation of my conversation with Tom.
Tom is from St. Louis, living in the city his whole life. He got a business degree from Mizzou and knew he wanted to be involved in the rebirth of the city. He moved back home and took his first job with the St. Louis Land Clearance and Reutilization Authority (LCRA) where he worked from 1980-1987. He learned he wanted to work for a smaller, community-based organization which eventually took him to the Housing Corporation in the Shaw Neighborhood, the predecessor of Tower Grove CDC for a brief period of time. Then a position opened up at DeSales as assistant director. Tom got promoted to executive director and has been at DeSales ever since. He has been at the helm since 1989. DeSales was founded in 1976 before the term CDC was even coined.
Tom sees DeSales as a mission-driven business vs. a non-profit. When things are working as they should, DeSales is entirely self-supported based on revenue from developing and managing housing.
The thing that has kept Tom optimistic and motivated in his 40+ years at DeSales is they have always been able to do new things and grow the organization.
When Tom came here he described the late 80s/early 90s Fox Park as a tough period. Economic recession, crack cocaine and fallouts from a tax reform act of 1986 ended a lot of development in Federal Historic Tax Credits.
Tom knew DeSales had to be agile and figure out a way to open up a pipeline of investment during uncertain times.
DeSales first got into the development business, then property management, later into McRee Town/Botanical Heights working with the Garden District Commission, whose sponsor was Missouri Botanical Garden. They expanded and contracted their area of focus, always with Fox Park and Tower Grove East as home base.
I knew I was sitting with the right guy to pose the question “Is Fox Park gentrified?”
I walked Tom through my investigation of the topic, and how it led me to DeSales.
I started with the definition of gentrification, then explored the Botanical Heights neighborhood east of Thurman, which was large scale urban clearance, west of Thurman which invited long time and new residents to the table to envision what the neighborhood was to become. I moved on to explore the academic perspective on whether gentrification is happening in a beaten city like St. Louis, and most recently, I focused the lens in on my neighborhood, sharing a conversation with a long time resident who has seen the neighborhood change over the last four decades.
Now it was time to talk to DeSales to get their perspective.
As a reminder, gentrification is the displacement of people, usually low-income people due to rising housing costs. It also is defined as a trend of high-end, yuppie offerings that cater to the upper class and choke out the businesses and patrons that previously inhabited a neighborhood.
Is Fox Park gentrified?
To frame the discussion, I described a CDC example from Denver’s Five Points Neighborhood in “The Divided City” by Alan Mallach.
Denver set up a CDC for Five Points and I asked Tom if he sees this as the goal in St. Louis.
“The CDC, by replacing blighted properties with attractive affordable housing, revitalizing the commercial strip, and building community spirit and engagement, may well have been the catalyst- along with the light rail line- that turned the neighborhood’s potential into reality. Clearly, something did. Between 2000 and 2015, household incomes in Five Points more than doubled, as the neighborhood’s white population went from 42% to 76% of the total. Five Points gentrified. Whether this is a CDC success story or not, then depends on how one feels about gentrification.
— Alan Mallach “The Divided City”
Anecdotally, I made my family go to the Five Points on a recent vacation to Denver and I have to tell you, yeah it looks like a rebounding area, but it is nothing, NOTHING like St. Louis neighborhoods, especially Fox Park. The near collapse in St. Louis’ oldest neighborhoods never hit Denver. You have to frame just how close St. Louis has come to utter decay and fall in some parts.
Has DeSales work led to gentrification that many claim has taken hold in Fox Park over the last five or so years? Are poor black people getting kicked out by rich white people? That’s what this boils down to in the minds of many. And remember, there are very few minorities like Asian’s, Middle Easterners or Hispanic/Latinos in St. Louis. Our city is nearly 50:50 black:white. So calling blacks a minority in St. Louis is a bit misleading, but that term carries over from the National percentage of blacks being ~12%, where whites are ~60%.
But is that the case here in Fox Park?
So, citing the Five Points, Denver example, I asked Tom if replacing blighted properties with affordable housing is what DeSales has done. “Yes, especially in the 1990s”, Tom said.
Of course, “affordable” is subjective and variable, but it is usually defined as 80% of the median rent in the broader city. Tom indicated DeSales metric is more like 60% of median rent because almost all the development they’ve done is through Low Income Historic Tax Credits (LIHTC), funded at 60% median household income.
DeSales owns 248 units, mostly in Fox Park, but not all. Some are in Tower Grove East and a couple in Carondelet. Approximately 225 of DeSales properties are in Fox Park. 59 of these are market rate, so about 166 units are affordable. Fox Grove Management, the property management arm of DeSales was established in 2005 and is across the street from DeSales in Fox Park. They manage over 1,600 units citywide, including 180 units for North City Community Housing and 120 units in the suburban town of University City, MO.
Tom said, “Some calling Fox Park gentrified or gentrifying seems too simple and broad, it doesn’t take in the full picture and necessarily describe what Fox Park has become over the years.”
The most drastic transformation and injection of investment occurred years ago.
Tom continues, “We gentrified Fox Park with low income housing”.
“We looked at LIHTC and said, we can do good here. We can set the table for private investment and new people.”
“We did work on the toughest blocks in the neighborhood. I like to think that the affordable housing we’ve done on the 2600 blocks of California and Iowa were among the roughest. The 3rd district police captain identified eleven properties on the 2600 California block that were actively involved in the drug trade in the 90s.”
“DeSales focus was taking on vacancy and drug houses so that we were not at the mercy of absentee landlords and could get community based control and stabilize the worst blocks.”
DeSales owns nearly the entire grouping of four-family homes on the west side of California from Sidney to Magnolia.
The thought was, “If we can improve the four-families and get rid of the drug dealers, the homes on the east side of the block might attract private owners to invest in homes there. That was the goal. Today, it is modest, affordable, well-maintained and managed and someone might feel like living on the block.”
Since many see gentrification strictly as a racial issue, I asked Tom if the racial breakdown of their tenants is reflective of the St. Louis demographics as a whole, or the neighborhoods represented?
“No. It is more like >90% black. Among our whole portfolio, even market rate, it is almost all black.”
I asked Tom to tell me more about this and why white people or other races are not seeking affordable housing in this part of St. Louis.
“There is an attitude amongst poor whites that if Section 8 or public housing or subsidized housing means black people. They don’t necessarily want it. Pride, I suppose.”
“The first LIHTC project DeSales completed was on the 2600 block of Iowa in the mid-90s. It was a big deal for them as they were total rehabs of derelict, fire-damaged properties.”
Tom recalls, “we put together a program where residents got a pre-training program on how to be good tenants and how to interact with landlords; the demand was high. We had to declare to prospective renters that there were income restrictions. He’d get that far, and if it sounded like a white person on the line, the tone changed. ‘Ok, let me think about that and get back to you’, and then click, the conversation was over. He thinks when white people hear that it is ‘low income’ or ‘subsidized housing’ white people think ‘I don’t want to live around poor black people’.”
Tom naively thought there’d be a diverse mix of people living together, but aside from one white disabled lady, it was all black. And that has proved to be the case over the years.
Fox Park’s racial balance in 2020 will be totally because of DeSales keeping a nearly all black clientele. This will balance our numbers and keep us racially diverse. Fox Park was 61% black, 32% white and 5% Hispanic/Latino is the last official Census count in 2010.
Has DeSales ever been criticized for the racial breakdown? “No. Nobody has that concern.” Tom said, “only I think about that, I try to find balance and work toward diversity. But NIMBY-ism is not a thing DeSales has dealt with in Fox Park. Most people have been very supportive of what we have done.”
Anecdotally, when I moved here, the praise for DeSales was overwhelming. I, as a born skeptic, was somewhat suspicious. But over the years, their actions have won me over as well. I tried to seek out DeSales skeptics, or someone who thinks they are detrimental or too big for their britches. Nothing materialized.
Some say gentrification is converting multi-family properties to single family homes, or taking a four family down to a two family. Another bonus of having an active and well-intentioned CDC is they can take on these properties and keep them higher density, even in a world where people want more space than they did when these homes were built.
Tom recalls a property years ago at Halliday and Compton in Tower Grove East that sits on a hill. This four-family had been vacant, a murder occurred there, the bank that eventually took ownership no longer wanted their name on it, so they donated the building to DeSales. The back wall was falling off. The neighborhood association in TGE was a bit skeptical of low income housing, but Tom won them over by showing what had happened in Fox Park and the alderman at the time didn’t want to go to the neighborhood association and say ‘I support low income housing’. Once DeSales proved themselves, they built trust and the alderman actually came to DeSales proactively asking them to help with properties on Humphrey near Gravois.
DeSales started painting their doors the same color to identify them and for neighbors to know it’s a DeSales property and they know who to call if there’s a problem or offer praise.
Of course there will always be people who are opposed to things organizations do. Tom mentioned a complaint DeSales received that the painted doors are like the scarlet letter and shames the tenants by saying ‘this is low income and you are stigmatizing the building and the people living there’.
You can’t please everyone.
I for one would take it a source of confidence. I’d be completely happy living next to a DeSales-managed property.
DeSales has a good reputation nearly across the board in these parts. I asked Tom if the name has a historical connection to St. Francis DeSales, a once active power house institution in the neighborhood.
He explained they have no affiliation with the Catholic church and former school. They are a private, non-profit, non-sectarian organization. He went on to say, a few years ago, they looked at doing a rebranding of the organization, and the marketing firm they were working with suggested a name change.
But they recognized the equity in the name and stuck with it.
Fears of gentrification among long-time residents is fear of not being involved in decisions and being marginalized and not asked for input on the future trajectory of a place.
How does Tom get input from these long term residents, just not the new white young people buying $250K+ homes?
“Strategy and governance is handled through our board of directors, a good mix of younger and older folks with 25 years experience with the neighborhood.”
DeSales has transferred property to those already living in the neighborhood who were interested in making Fox Park a more stable place. Tom mentioned a property on the northwest corner of Accomac and Ohio that was vacant and in terrible condition. They sold these for $1 to folks living in the neighborhood with the resources to improve the property and invest the sweat equity to encourage owners taking stock in the neighborhood.
But Tom said, “there’s no formal process other than listening to the neighborhood association, the neighbors and the renters.”
I asked if neighborhood associations are representative of the neighborhoods they represent. We discussed the divides between the white neighborhood and the black one, home owners vs. renters. DeSales has tried to bridge this reality. Tom thinks the board can always improve on diversity, but they’ve had renters on the board in the past, but not right now. They are always asking and looking for representation from various parties.
Renters can be tough because folks tend to move around to follow jobs. The average stay of an American renter is just over two years (source).
In privately owned rentals, Alan Mallach said in Divided City, it is <6 months average stay. But this data was from Baltimore, not St. Louis.
A testament to DeSales is the average stay of their tenants is ~four years, but they’ve had 20 year residents.
Tom said turnover is a constant reality and challenge. He heard from a SLPS teacher who saw 60% turnover every year because families are constantly moving. Lower-income renters move a lot for many reasons.
So, the 225 properties in Fox Park have stabilized the neighborhood and elevated some very troubled properties.
Mallach said in Divided City that “Fox Park today is a very different neigh than it was 20 years ago.”
Tom agrees. I asked him what he sees as a noticeable change in 2020 vs. 1990.
“Sitting here looking out the window. There was no pedestrian activity 20 years ago, no healthy activity, bikes, walking, jogging, parents walking strollers. Comfort levels exist now. There is less fear. The stop signs are still run, but it is a safe place to walk by yourself these days.”
He remembers when Fox Park had needles everywhere. “People didn’t let their kids play in the park. The Park is a great place now.”
Again he cited the 2600 block of Oregon which was a chronic problem, “the toughest areas are not and have not been the drag on the region like they were in the past. The biggest stabilizing factor has been focusing on the toughest spots.”
He mentioned that people are investing here and getting loans here for far more than would have been possible in the past.
Tom sees a future Fox Park that remains racially and economically diverse, he sees “maybe a 3-5% shift in the upcoming Census count, no major displacement, no white flight. Rising home values are likely, but not a lot of drastic change.”
One of the common complaints of gentrification is from long-time residents saying the new investment is a neighborhood is for upper class or visitors. “They didn’t build it for us.”
There could be some evidence of high end offerings, which I’ll discuss in my next entry, but the largest investments are completely benefiting the whole city.
Local philanthropists and organizations are seeing Fox Park in a new light. Tom mentioned Rung for Women who recently rehabbed a vacant former factory and built new a campus for their non-profit.
Rung for Women is a clear positive and game changer for Fox Park. DeSales had a hand in Rung settling in Fox Park. Tom said, “we are very proud on taking a chance with all that property around Rung and Koken and handing it over to Rung who will be investing ~$20M in the project. That was a source of pride.”
As a resident, I firmly agree.
Back to Alan Mallach, I wanted to talk to Tom about his experiences with the author who came to St. Louis to interview Tom.
A particular section stuck with me.
“(Fox Park) still has rough edges and a fair number of neglected and vacant homes, but the results of people fixing up houses and beautifying their streets can be seen on almost every block. Today the neighborhood has 200 more homeowners – a well-integrated mix of white and African-American families – than it did in 2000. Crime is down sharply, and the open-air drug market of the 2700 block of Accomac Street is only a memory. And even as house prices go up, DeSales’s commitment to keeping the apartments it owns affordable ensures that low-income families will always be part of the Fox Park mix.
The stories of Five Points (Denver) and Fox Park are encouraging, but they raise a lot of troubling questions. Could it be that the only neighborhoods that revive are the ones that are in the right place, and have the right still-intact fabric? Even more, could it be that they revive only, or mainly, because they get and influx of new, more-affluent moving in—-that is, they gentrify? And, finally, if this indeed is the case, does that mean that one writes off the neighborhoods that don’t have the right features or are in the wrong place?
— Alan Mallach – The Divided City
If this is the case, does that mean we write off neighborhoods with no bones? Walnut Park ain’t Fox Park when it comes to potential. small sided post-war homes vs. early 20th Century, quality, mixed use brick and stone buildings.
Is proximity to stable areas a key to Fox Park’s success?
Tom says yes. “These border neighborhoods that need investment and more people can quickly rebound due to location and proximity to institutions and other places and jobs. The Central Corridor is the backbone of the region, and we’re close to Downtown, Soulard, I-44, I-64, etc. Wealth is not far.”
Tom said, “While race is part of almost every St. Louis conversation, there are now more blacks living south of Delmar than north of Delmar. It’s all about location. Carondelet will stay as-is until there is a massive increase of population. It is what it is and wont’ see a massive increase in new or higher end housing. Lemay is the neighbor, not Lafayette Square.”
While DeSales has a small footprint in Carondelet, Tom says they were approached in Carondelet, as opposed to seeking it out as an area to expand.
Tom admitted he’s not as familiar with those neighborhoods as he ought to be, but he sees some rapidly degrading areas of St. Louis as ripe for addition by subtraction where a land banking approach may be more appropriate. He mentioned the need for a handful of dedicated owners who are needed to to do something. They need a CDC to drive change.
Tom mentioned Fox Park (the park) which developed a plan and slowly, step by step followed through on realizing the vision. This took place over many years, with many different people carrying the torch.
DeSales has played a role in the parks over the years. “There is now a popular youth sports league. People come in from all over and have a place for their kids to safely play together. That was a big win, and a stretch for DeSales to get involved with youth programming.”
It is overwhelming in the too far gone areas that have seen devastating losses. “Fringe neighborhoods are easier to envision step by step, block by block impacts from a CDC. We’ve been able to do what we’ve done without a major sponsor like ABI or Purina or the Botanical Gardens, this has worked for us. But, some areas will need partnerships to drive meaningful investment.”
He says those north side neighborhoods likely need a sponsor. “Maybe Ranken or NGA can provide that leadership to kick start positivity and resources.”
You don’t focus on the too far gone. Go to the rebound potential neighborhoods.
This is consistent with my conversations with Dr. Swantstom in part 4 of this series. Swanstrom cited the Dogtown neighborhoods as ripe for rebounding. Tom cited Gravois Park and Benton Park West.
So what does the future hold for Fox Park?
“There are no plans to start selling our properties for a profit. Some have sold in Tower Grove East in the last year or so, but in Fox Park, we still see ourselves as the ones who can care and look out for the buildings and continue to seek good tenants. We don’t see selling them to an investor; they might not have the same commitment. It’s working, why change it? We’re proud of those properties and homes we can bring to people in Fox Park.”
I asked if he has received any criticism of new restaurants offering options only for the monied?
“Some of these places may appeal to higher end neighbors, but they bring in people in from all over, too. Getting Clayton or Central West End money in Fox Park is a good thing. What’s the chicken and what’s the egg? There are plenty of normal, affordable places.”
“Is it snooty? Not really. Rung will build on this traffic too. That will bring upper income people who would otherwise never volunteer or work in Fox Park. There’s nothing wrong with the Taylor family investing in Fox Park.”
Again, is Fox Park gentrified?
“I don’t think so, it has rebounded. It is absolutely not exclusive. It is stable from a racial and economic standpoint. It is welcoming.”
As you can gather, I’m proud of what DeSales has done and continue to do for my neighborhood, but it goes a step deeper. I have been complaining about abandonment and vacancy in my neighborhood for years. Folks actually reached out and stepped up to offer their help. I got the attention and care from a group called the Vacancy Collaborative and through these endeavors, DeSales were pulled into the conversation and were nothing but helpful and dove in whole hog.
I’ll detail these interactions in a future post with the goal of giving people like me who see the wrongs of absentee owners and see how helpful good people around us truly are and how willing to help people are.
Thanks to DeSales for serving our community with integrity and openness. Thanks to Tom and his staff for being transparent, honest and a part of our rebounding neighborhoods.