Like many small neighborhood parks in St. Louis, Loretta Hall Park could use a little love and attention.
Situated in the Carr Square neighborhood, south of Carr Street and west of 14th Street, the park has all the basics a local kid would want. It’s got a playground and basketball courts, a softball field with a backstop and plenty of open space to run around. The city is even building a roller rink with the help of a capital improvement fund controlled by Alderman Tamika Hubbard.
The concrete pad is down and railings are up.
But the ball field has seen better days. Weeds and grass invade the infield, which doesn’t seem to have seen a rake in years. The outfield is more weeds than grass. The dugout benches sag and are weathered.
In a city that has a soul for baseball, it’s a travesty.
But it’s also an opportunity.
Loretta Hall Park sits a block west of the city’s new Biddle House homeless shelter, and just east of the homes that will be among the closest to its new neighbors. Homeless men and women aren’t strangers to the park. Various church ministries have fed them there previously. The bus stop the homeless will use to get from their new shelter to various city services is at the corner of the park.
The process of opening Biddle House — now scheduled for Aug. 8 — has been a political mess. That’s not unusual for homeless shelters. No neighborhood welcomes them with open arms. The Carr Square Tenant Association, which represents a mostly African-American neighborhood, has been critical of Mayor Francis Slay for listening to downtown residents and developers who complain about the homeless and foisting them a little farther north upon a neighborhood that is already economically struggling. The neighbors have found a new ally in Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, who previously backed Biddle House but is always up for a fight with his nemesis Slay.
The homeless, of course, don’t care about such things.
They want a meal. Some shelter. Some help getting back on their feet.
And one other thing that doesn’t get mentioned often enough.
Simple dignity. The recognition that they are human. This is where Loretta Hall Park comes in.
Six years ago, my father, Frank Messenger, became involved with an experiment in Denver designed to bring a weekly moment of dignity to the homeless population in Denver. It’s called Homeless Diamond. Started by my father’s friend, Joe Carabello, the program is simple. From May to August every Tuesday morning, a group of volunteers, many of them retired teachers and coaches like my father, play softball for a couple of hours with homeless men and women. They coach and do drills. They play games and provide lunch when the games are over.
Before the season, volunteers deliver donated gloves and softballs to the various shelters with times and location for the games written down. They play at Sonny Lawson field, which like the field at Loretta Hall Park, had seen better days when Carabello first drove by it and had the idea for the program.
My 74-year-old, Jesuit-educated father instilled a heart of service in his children at a young age. But I’ve never heard him talk about anything in his life with the glow of Homeless Diamond.
“It just warms my heart,” he told me the other day.
My dad told me of an African-American homeless man they nicknamed “The Commish” because he was always complaining about something. He’d show up to the games with black eyes, from a fight the night before. The volunteers saw something in The Commish, and they mentioned him to a friend in the Chamber of Commerce. The man was tapped for a special job training program. Now he’s sober and working. He has a place of his own.
He is one of numerous success stories from the first five years of Homeless Diamond.
Some of the shelter workers told my dad that nights are calmer the night before Homeless Diamond because the men and women get to bed early. They look forward to a day away from job and house hunting, a day where they know for sure where a meal is coming from, and where for a few hours at least, they aren’t fighting just to stay alive.
This summer, the program is on hiatus because its small cadre of volunteers had some summer conflicts that couldn’t be avoided. The break in Denver and the renewed focus on the homeless in St. Louis got me to thinking.
Why not export the idea to St. Louis and use it as an opportunity to bring the conflicting parties in the Biddle House dispute to some common ground?
That common ground could be the ball field at Loretta Hall Park.
The charitable arm of the St. Louis Cardinals — Cardinals Care — could turn the neglected diamond into a field of dreams, which would be more of a gift to the children of Carr Square than anything else. Suburban St. Louis youth baseball and softball parents and their kids could donate gently used gloves and softballs for the program, with new ones being added each year. Kathy Acre’s Back@You nonprofit that distributes backpacks to the homeless could help hand them out. A few retired coaches with some time on their hands and a heart for the homeless could coordinate and organize the weekly games.
Slay and Reed could come together to fund the program with a few bucks from their campaign accounts. The city could sit down with the Carr Square neighbors and make a commitment to turning a park that was first donated in 1842 into a gem that brings renewed value to the North Side neighborhood.
This is the city of the Sea of Red. The Best Fans in Baseball.
Homeless Diamond St. Louis is a natural fit.
Somebody make it happen.