The other day I took a walk with a friend.
We were on Enright Avenue, in the Vandeventer neighborhood north of Delmar Boulevard.
School was letting out as we walked by Pamoja Preparatory Academy in the old Cole Elementary School building. Children were getting onto buses. Two girls talked about getting together after school.
“I live just off of Page Avenue,” one of them said. “Come by.”
They were 6, maybe. Smiling, laughing, innocent.
So was David Birchfield III.
He was a kindergartner at Gateway Elementary School in the Carr Square neighborhood, just a couple of neighborhoods to the east of where I was walking.
On Saturday, he was riding in a car northwest of there with his mother and siblings, in Kingsway East, when a gunman fired directly into the vehicle, killing David and injuring his 9-year-old sister, Jordyn Hamilton.
“We have to stop this violence,” the boy’s father told the Post-Dispatch.
It’s the helpless plea of a broken city.
On signs that dot many front lawns in the aforementioned northside neighborhoods, the message is spelled out this way: “We must stop killing each other.”
Nearly every time another child loses his or her life in senseless gun violence in the city, angry and heartbroken residents band together to march, to honor the dead and pray for an end to the violence.
So it was Monday night, as more than 300 people gathered in the rain in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood to lament David’s death.
“Just as the marches in the ’60s didn’t fix racism, because racism is still with us today, we aren’t under the illusion that having a march will end all gun violence,” said James Clark Jr. of Better Family Life.
Clark has walked in too many of these marches, for too many dead children.
His organization has received grants from the St. Louis Crime Commission to work on de-escalation in neighborhoods, the process of trying to stop violence before it happens. The same sort of program is what drives the Chicago-based Cure Violence program, which is ramping up to bring its de-escalation program to St. Louis this year, after the Board of Aldermen funded the work following 11 tragic shooting deaths of children in the city last year.
Clark is happy that the Cure Violence folks are on the way, but in typical St. Louis fashion, he says, it’s too little, too late.
For most of his life, Clark has walked the neighborhoods of north St. Louis, and he sees a tough few months ahead, the combination of gun violence and increased fentanyl and heroin use, and the hopelessness that comes with both.
“This spring and summer is going to challenge St. Louis like we’ve never seen before,” Clark says.
While gun violence among children earns big headlines, he says the drug overdose death stories are just as bad. The day of the “Peace Be Still” march he had a woman in his office talking about the death of her 12-year-old son from an overdose. There’s some bad fentanyl on the streets in north St. Louis that is killing kids, Clark says.
His story reminded me of another headline recently, the one where a fentanyl dealer in St. Louis got arrested after bragging on Facebook that his doses were sometimes deadly.
“People want the (expletive) that will make them die,” he said.
That’s next-level hopelessness.
So while Clark cheers the upcoming efforts of the Cure Violence de-escalation program, he also has a warning for civic and corporate leaders in St. Louis. It’s not enough. Not even close.
“It’s not Cure Violence … or …” Clark says. “It’s Cure Violence … and …”
That “and” is the investment in neighborhoods that is often promised and rarely delivered, at least on the scale that is necessary to pull certain areas, block by block, out of the reaches of poverty.
That’s why my friend had me take a walk with him the other day, to show me baby steps of progress in a long-forgotten neighborhood, the sort of ground-up effort that needs to be applied on a large scale in communities yearning for a commitment from the greater St. Louis community to show that they matter.
Clark compares the level of commitment that St. Louis shows to dealing with the underlying cause of violence in north St. Louis — poverty — like a family preparing for a trip to California. They map out the route, plan a wonderful itinerary when they get there, but put only a quarter of a tank of gas in the car.
“I’m shocked that we have not been able as a metropolitan area to give these issues the attention they demand,” Clark says. “We have not been able to see the importance of investing in neighborhoods. We’re ignoring our greatest crisis.”
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.