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Resident of ‘forgotten neighborhood’ in St. Louis organizes in hopes of having more clout

Resident of ‘forgotten neighborhood’ in St. Louis organizes in hopes of having more clout

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ST. LOUIS — In 2001, with a development underway to build 80 new homes in an area north of Delmar Boulevard, Audrey Ellermann was one of the first to step up.

“When I bought my property, I was excited to transform things,” she said.

Ellermann, now 67, still lives in the large home in the 3800 block of Finney Avenue. A tall staircase with pots of purple flowers on each side leads to the front door.

The two-story house, which has a finished basement and garage, was one of about 35 that were built before the Great Recession ultimately halted the construction of dozens more. As years passed, weeds and trees grew wild on lots left empty from demolitions.

Ellermann said the sting of unfulfilled promises and unreliable city services recently motivated her to officially form the Covenant Blu-Grand Center Neighborhood Association.

“It gives us voice,” she said. “It gives us recognition.”

Though it’s believed that neighborhood associations can have an impact, there are pockets of St. Louis where residents haven’t organized or groups became inactive. An exact accounting isn’t yet available.

“There is no central registration for neighborhood associations in St. Louis city,” said Dana Malkus, a law professor at St. Louis University who runs the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic, which assisted Ellermann. “In other cities, they do have that.”

Since 2019, Malkus and others have been working to build an interactive map of the city to better understand the status of neighborhood associations and identify holes in coverage.

“Neighborhood associations are a key way for neighborhood residents to take collective action on issues affecting the entire neighborhood,” she said. “They are also key to community-driven, as opposed to developer-driven, development.”

She said neighborhood associations have more available legal strategies than individuals to take action against problem property owners. She said the groups tend to be more persuasive with city government.

“You have a better shot at getting the attention of people who can potentially do something about the problem,” she said.

According to the map, which is still being updated, there are 78 neighborhood associations in St. Louis. Of those, it’s unclear if about 10 are active, including Carr Square, Hamilton Heights, Hi-Pointe, Newport Heights, Walnut Park East, Walnut Park West, part of Dutchtown and Vandeventer.

Ra Khem Thoth was part of a group of residents that formed Vandeventer Citizens for a Better Community Neighborhood Association in 2000. He said the organization helped bring more policing to the area, including a bike patrol and regular attendance at its meetings. He said the organization partnered with nonprofit groups that financially supported an annual public health event. He said the neighborhood association also spurred development.

“We wanted to do something about the deterioration of the neighborhood,” said Thoth, 84, a former chairman.

He said the organization became inactive around 2009, after another leader of the group died and he moved out of his home in the 4200 block of Enright Avenue.

“My house was overwhelmed with black mold,” he said. “I had to move.”

Areas on the map where neighborhood associations have not been identified include North Riverfront, Mark Twain I-70 Industrial, DeBaliviere Place, Midtown, Columbus Square, Kings Oak, Wydown Skinker and Kosciusko. The Ville and Greater Ville don’t have neighborhood associations shown on the map, however, Malkus said the area does have the Ville Collaborative, a community-based organization also driven by residents.

That the area of Covenant Blu-Grand Center didn’t have a functioning neighborhood association puzzles Ellermann, who filed articles of incorporation with the state in March. It’s within walking distance of St. Louis University, the Fox Theatre and the central corridor that has been booming with developer-led projects.

“We want to take this neighborhood to the next level,” said Ellermann, a retired home-health nurse.

But even with the newly formed neighborhood association, low-hanging fruit still seems hard to pick.

During a recent tour, she pointed to a few dry brush piles, including one at the busy intersection of North Vandeventer and East Cook avenues littered with old tires and air conditioner parts. She said she’s complained about the rubbish to the forestry department and city leaders.

As she walked, she navigated breaks in sidewalks, including a 40-foot section near the intersection of Spring and Finney avenues. Overgrowth, some more than 7-feet tall, have made the section impassable along a four-lane roadway for a long time.

“Who is responsible for that?” she asked.

She’s trying to direct some of that frustration into productive influence from the neighborhood association. She said there are about 10 active members and other residents receive information updates. She’s looking for more volunteers.

A few years ago, they started meeting as a block group at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being at 1000 North Vandeventer Avenue. The meetings are now online because of the pandemic. The next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 10.

“We want the same respect that the homes get on the south side of Delmar,” she said. “We are the forgotten neighborhood.”

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