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McClellan: Pulling up roots in a pandemic

McClellan: Pulling up roots in a pandemic

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Good bones is how construction people sometimes refer to old buildings like the two-story, six-unit apartment building at Wise Avenue and Moorlands Drive in Richmond Heights. It was built to last in 1938.

But even good bones require maintenance, and if maintenance is deferred, sometimes the only solution is to put a new body on the old bones. It is the circle of life for bricks and mortar, and rehabs are generally a positive thing for neighborhoods and municipalities.

Still, it can be disruptive to the people who are uprooted, and that is especially true in a pandemic. I spoke with three of the people recently uprooted from the apartment building on Wise Avenue.

Peter Leach had a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor. He is 85. He had lived in the building for 30 years. He is a writer. He is best known for a collection of short stories, “Tales of Resistance.” It was published in 1999. It is historical fiction, Missouri-based.

Leach grew up in Kirkwood. He went to Amherst College. He dropped out, did a hitch in the peacetime Army, went back to Amherst and got his degree in English and then studied play-writing at Yale.

The literary life was in his blood. His father once received — and saved — an encouraging rejection letter from Esquire.

Leach has had more success. He has had a novel published. He has long been a member of the local literary scene. I remember him doing a reading at Duff’s. But the plan to write great novels never quite materialized. He worked for a while at a publishing company. He taught English at Bryn Mawr College. When he finally came home, he taught at community colleges and Webster University and Washington University.

He is currently rewriting an unpublished novel about St. Louis in the 1890s. The book is populated with people from his own childhood, although, of course, they are set in an earlier time.

When he got a notice taped to his door that he would have to move, he found an apartment nearby. It is more expensive than his old place — he was paying $650 a month on Wise — and he had to pay a moving company to move his stuff. He told me he is currently a little stretched financially, but fine.

Leach was the first tenant to respond to the notice to vacate. He moved out, and workers began gutting his apartment at the end of September.

Marilyn Mackris also had a first-floor apartment. She is 82 and disabled. She has multiple sclerosis. She had lived in the building for 12 years, initially with a lease. When the landlord announced he was going month-to-month, she knew the end was coming. But time passed, and so it was jarring in early August when she found a piece of paper taped to her door from the owner saying he had sold the building, and she would soon be hearing from the new owner.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “I called various agencies and it didn’t seem like there was any help.”

She said she became more stressed when the workers began gutting Leach’s apartment. “I can’t even describe the noise,” she said. She said she thought she was having a heart attack and she went to an Urgent Care facility. She was diagnosed with heart palpitations. A friend took her to Mercy Hospital where she was treated and released.

She grew up in St. Louis. She has a degree in education from Washington University, and she taught elementary school in the city and in Parkway School District before deciding to stay home and raise her children. She is now divorced. She said she contracted MS about 40 years ago.

She said she used to teach a course on “Great Thinkers of the Western World” for the Lifelong Learning Institute. Her favorite philosopher is Plato.

Originally, she was supposed to be out of her apartment by the end of September, but she said management for the new owner gave her an extra month. She used it to find an apartment in a seniors-only complex just off Big Bend Boulevard in Webster Groves. She said she was extremely lucky to find a first-floor apartment.

Alison Carrick lived in the apartment above Leach. She had lived in her apartment for about 20 years. She is 51 and a librarian at Washington University. There is an air of competence about her.

She, too, had recognized the significance of leases not being renewed. So the sale of the building did not surprise her. What did was the noise and dust from the gutting of Leach’s apartment. She said there seemed to be no mitigation efforts. Also, the hours. The work seemed to begin early.

She called Richmond Heights to see if the work permit had any time requirements. There was no work permit. So the work was temporarily halted. When it resumed a few days later, the construction company was required to determine if asbestos was present. The company’s inspection was rejected by the St. Louis County Department of Public Health because the inspector was not certified. A subsequent inspection by a certified inspector reported no asbestos present.

Carrick was not convinced. She took three sample to the health department for more testing. One was from a chipped tile in her kitchen. It was positive for asbestos.

In October, she spoke at a Richmond Heights City Council meeting. She also submitted comments to the public portion of a County Council meeting. She had several email exchanges with the county health department. She did not think the authorities were being sufficiently diligent.

She said she was left with the impression that her efforts were not accomplishing much. In early October, she received a 30-day notice to vacate. She spoke with an attorney who told her she was entitled to 60 days, but she moved out of the building in late October. She now lives in Maplewood.

Two tenants remain.

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