KINLOCH — When Donna White hears the sounds of cars outside her home overnight, she knows what to expect in the morning: another broken mattress, worn tire or trash bag thrown onto the junk piles all along her street.
“Every day there is something else new,” White, 50, said outside her home in the 8300 block of Oakridge Avenue.
White maintains her home and yard, but said she can’t blame illegal dumpers for writing off the otherwise abandoned, overgrown block and the trash all around her.
A dilapidated brick structure next door, which fell into St. Louis County possession after it was abandoned by a private owner, serves as a makeshift dumpster, filled with trash bags. Tires, construction debris and trash are piled on the lots across from White’s house, property of an absent auto salvage yard dealer who once owned Kinloch’s former city hall. Monroe Avenue, the next street over, is filled with trash piles that block motorists and emergency vehicles. Four lots next to her home are owned by the city of St. Louis; a “no trespassing” and “no dumping” sign peeks out from the overgrowth.
Recently, an outcry about a similar dumping problem on county-owned property in the Black suburb of Wellston prompted a government-led cleanup. Now, officials like state Rep. Raychel Proudie are calling for a similar effort, this time led by the city of St. Louis, which owns more residential lots in Kinloch than any other entity.
“That right there would be a massive change, because that would mean most of the parcels in the city would be free of trash,” said Proudie, a Ferguson Democrat whose district includes Kinloch. Proudie, elected in 2018, last year led a volunteer cleanup of the city funded through donations and has frequently taken to social media to call for regional attention to Kinloch.
Nick Dunne, a spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, said the “neglect of city-owned property in Kinloch has been an issue for many years.”
“While the City and Airport have made attempts to clean up, there is a perpetual illegal dumping problem that must be resolved,” Dunne said in a statement. “We look forward to working with regional stakeholders to tackle this issue.”
Roger Lotz, a spokesman for St. Louis Lambert International Airport, said in a statement the airport has “organized and participated in clean-up events” and volunteered personnel, dumpsters and a dump truck for those efforts.” The airport contracts mowing services for about 27 acres of Kinloch and plans more cleanups in coming months, Lotz said.
Swallowed by the airport
Kinloch, Missouri’s first and oldest Black town, was once a thriving city of 10,000 residents. Today, Kinloch is home to fewer than 300 people who live in an area of less than a square mile of largely abandoned streets, vacant buildings and roadways blocked by debris. The median household income in the city is about $28,600, according to U.S. Census figures. The unemployment rate is about 35% and the poverty rate 51%.
The city points to the late 1980s as the start of its decline, when Lambert began buying homes in Kinloch for a noise-abatement program, ultimately purchasing roughly 1,360 properties. Over the next decade, the population plummeted, and Kinloch fell further into poverty and blight.
Much of the land acquired by the airport was developed into NorthPark, a 550-acre industrial park that includes Express Scripts and Schnucks among its tenants.
But Lambert, which is owned by the city of St. Louis, still owns 406 out of roughly 1,080 parcels in Kinloch. St. Louis County owns Kinloch Park and a handful of vacant properties that were put on its tax rolls. The city of Kinloch itself owns 211 parcels.
The mix of public ownership in the city, and a wider history of upheaval in historically Black communities, make Kinloch a “multigovernmental failure” that needs to be addressed by the city of Kinloch and the wider St. Louis region, Proudie said.
“Although Kinloch is not our fault, Kinloch is our responsibility,” she said.
Other local officials, including state Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, and County Council Chair Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, also called for a regional push. And Williams, whose district includes Kinloch, suggested using part of an unprecedented influx of federal COVID-19 recovery money for the effort.
“If we do not take advantage of this opportunity, with the amount of unprecedented funding coming to our state and region, it would only be an example of failed leadership,” said Williams, a former staffer to former U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay. “I think if we work together we can get a lot done.”
Days, whose district includes Kinloch among a broad swath of north St. Louis County, said she wants action and that she is not opposed to using COVID-19 federal funds to help clean up Kinloch. But the money has to be “well-spent,” she said.
“We really want to look at the whole situation and figure out what can we do to get it it right and sustain it,” Days said. “I think that’s the most important part, to be able to sustain it.”
Days and Proudie said they plan to meet with Kinloch Mayor Evelyn Carter this month. Carter, a former alderman, did not return multiple messages requesting comment.
Under an agreement with NorthPark, Kinloch received funds for improvements including the construction of its current city hall, as well as an annual sum of $200,000 until 2040. But the city’s management has been questioned amid a series of corruption scandals since 2011, with two former Kinloch mayors and a fire chief sentenced to prison for stealing funds from the city. A third mayor was impeached by the three-member Board of Aldermen amid accusations of vote buying.
Longtime Kinloch city manager Justine Blue said in an statement that the city has spent “tens of thousands of dollars” in the last six years and worked with “multiple entities” to clean up trash but that violators continue to dump debris in the city. “Tens of thousands of dollars have been spent over the last five to six years to clean up and combat the dumping, but our efforts have made little to no difference over time,” she said.
“We have worked with multiple entities over the years to address the dumping issue and remain 100% committed to eliminating illegal dumping from our city,” he said.
Blue did not respond to other questions.
“Experience has taught me the media tends to report only the aspects of a story that increases viewership/sales. This slant seldom does anything but hurt my community.”
‘Don’t gloss over things’
Proudie said she disagreed, and said the city administration is ignoring a danger to public health that blocks roadways and contributes to crime. In 2017, the body of a murdered Berkeley woman, Monica Sykes, was found in a desolate stretch of Kinloch.
“Kinloch’s history leaves no shortage of things to be proud of,” Proudie said. “But if we’re going to sit here and say we want to restore Kinloch, we don’t gloss over things we need to fix.”
White, who grew up in a low-income family and left a warehouse job last year because of health concerns, said she can’t afford to move out of Kinloch. But she’s not trying to move out either.
“Even though it’s gone down, we still have a nice time” in Kinloch, White said. “We’re not going to get pushed out here because of no trash — they can get that stuff up just like they’ve been getting that stuff up over there.”
In the meantime, White said she would like to see more police patrols in the area, or surveillance cameras to ward off illegal dumpers. The St. Louis County Police Department, which has patrolled Kinloch since the city disbanded its own troubled police force in 2018, has increased patrols in Kinloch in an attempt to ward off dumping, a spokeswoman said.
The department community engagement unit plans to host a cleanup day, but it has yet to set a date. Police also asked the public’s assistance to report illegal dumping by calling the department at 636-529-8210.
White and Proudie said a campaign by the St. Louis County Parks Foundation to raise $1 million to renovate Kinloch Park, a county park and former linchpin for the community, could lay a foundation for reviving the city.
“I think for folks who live in Kinloch, or just have some kind of connection to Kinloch, it would renew the energy and interest in coming back and investing in that place,” Proudie said. “And what’s good for Kinloch is good for the surrounding area.”