Food, Community and the Rebirth of Old North St. Louis

July 19, 2011 06:22 AM
The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.


By Connor Elfrink

A box of organic "Annie’s Homegrown" cereal sits next to a box of off-brand "Frosted Mini-Spooners." Nearby rests a wood crate filled with moist heads of green lettuce and canned vegetables.

The coexistence of a $6 dollar organic cereal and a $2 common brand on the same shelf is important to the diverse neighbors who live around the Old North Grocery co-op. When members of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group designed the store, they wanted healthy options available for all the neighborhood residents, rich or poor.

The co-op opened in July 2010 and provides fresh, affordable and local products to a neighborhood three miles from the nearest grocer. This "food desert" is in the midst of restorations that have begun to leverage a dilapidated region into an area of booming bohemian growth.

Kara Lubischer, a community development specialist with University of Missouri Extension, said Old North St. Louis is different from other urban neighborhoods affected by "white flight." The people in the neighborhood are active in volunteering and represent a rare harmonious microcosm of diverse income and race.

"I have never seen a neighborhood like this," Lubischer said.

Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Restoration Group, said that even from its earliest days, Old North was trying to be different, and in doing so, became a benchmark for other areas.

Old North started in 1816 as its own village. It merged with St. Louis in 1841, setting a precedent for similar neighborhoods.

In the 1970s, pedestrian walkways were installed, leaving 14th Street with no through traffic and few customers. But business declined.

But not all businesses left. Crown Candy and Max Hardware have been in the neighborhood since the early 1900s. The family-owned stores stayed because it is home, Thomas said.

According to the book, "From Village to Neighborhood: A History of Old North St. Louis," several churches, along with about 15 families, moved to the neighborhood in the late 1970s. A few of the churches still operate.

The restoration group hopes that once restaurants and other new businesses become established, congregation members will have a reason to stay after church.

In between some of the churches, new homes are being built by Habitat for Humanity. Lubischer said this is "very encouraging" because it works to ensure a mix of incomes. Habitat for Humanity is committed to maintaining the feel of the neighborhood by building new homes that match the existing decor, she said.

Just down the street from one of the churches, Graham and "V" Lane, a couple in their early 20s, have moved in. They have turned their home into part sculpture studio, installed a geothermic heating system and won a $25,000 yard makeover through a local radio station.

V said she fell in love with the neighborhood because it reminds her of where she grew up in Arkansas, "where you can do what you want with your yard." The Lanes enjoy the freedom and close relationships they’ve found in Old North.

"It’s a really eclectic neighborhood where people really care about each other," V said.

The Jackson Park Senior Apartments represent another diverse aspect of the community. The apartments house mostly older residents with limited mobility. With raised beds in place at the co-op’s community garden, seniors can participate in growing their food and meet their neighbors.

The co-op provides residents with convenient and safe shopping. Previously, the nearest store was three miles and in a high-crime area.

Ben Bowman, an employee at the co-op, said before his store, people had few options.

"People were spending more money on transportation, overpriced food from corner stores, or expensive, unhealthy, prepared food from fast food chains," Bowman said.

When customers become members of the co-op, they can take part in the decision-making process at the store. The two part-time employees at the store are residents of the Old North neighborhood.

Politicians have been supportive of the restoration and respect the neighborhood because the neighbors are so active, Thomas said.

"They don’t want to tick people off that are that engaged," he said.

When Graham saw the co-op being constructed, he decided to help, rather than working on his own home. That commitment lasted three months.

Lubischer said residents like Graham Lane are what make her admire the character of the neighborhood and keep her optimistic about the future.

"That shows the true partnership with the community," she said. "It benefits both us and them."


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