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Countdown: In Old North, housing was key to attracting people

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2011 - When people come to visit LaShawnda Jones at her new home in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, they're usually shocked with what they find -- new homes, rehabbed older homes and shops.

It's not quite the picture many in St. Louis have of the north side of the city.

"They're really surprised to see it," says Jones, a lawyer who has lived in Old North for the last two years. (Old North is roughly bounded by North Florissant and Cass avenues, Branch Street and Interstate 70.)

The Crown Candy Kitchen may be the thing people know the most about this neighborhood, but for generations, Old North was known for some of the same things Jones' visitors are seeing today -- a diverse population, shops, homes and people.

From 2000 to 2010, the population in the community that started as a village outside the city grew by 28 percent, or 416 people. 

Before moving here, Jones thought of the neighborhood as another part of north St. Louis.

Not anymore, though.

"It's definitely its own community," she says. "There's a lot of revitalization going on around here, so I'm hoping within the next couple of years, there's a lot more."

It Takes A Village

Old North was home to the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, at 1609 N. 14th Street, where newcomers to the country had a place to stay a while. There were churches, schools, Maull's spaghetti factory and the Charles G. Stifel Brewing Co., according to "From Village to Neighborhood: A History of Old North St. Louis."

"Over time, many families left the neighborhood," the book says in the first chapter, "moving on to larger homes or better jobs elsewhere. In this way, the neighborhood served as a springboard for social advancement. Once families attained a certain level of prosperity, they left, opening up a spot for newly arriving families on their way up."

Between the '40s and '60s, the population of Old North declined as people moved out of St. Louis to St. Louis Countyy. Over time, vacant buildings began crumbling.

In the '70s, according to Sean Thomas, executive director of Old North Restoration Group, some residents with deep roots attempted to revitalize the neighborhood.

In 1981, they formed the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, according to "From Village to Neighborhood." Over the years, they worked with the National Register of Historic Places as well as Grace Hill, a social service agency.

In the 1990s, the group added paid staff, and in 2001, received a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But according to Thomas, the real changes here have happened over the last eight to 10 years, and the 2010 Census numbers show it, too.

Home sweet home

In Old North, there are 13 percent more people under 18 than in 2000, the median household income rose 22 percent to $18,802, and the percent of poor from 2000 to 2009 decreased by 7 percent in that time frame. That's a greater decrease than downtown, the Shaw neighborhood or the city as a whole. The percent of married couples also increased by 6 percent.

Thomas attributes the revitalization here to a number of things.

His list includes:

  • Dedicated community leaders
  • Commitment to preserve what's distinct about the community
  • Strong political support
  • Partners with resources and respect for the community's vision
  • Resources such as funding and volunteers
  • Coordination of efforts through a community-based organization

He also points out a comprehensive approach to community development. That includes housing that suits a range of incomes, from market-rate apartments and houses to subsidized housing for people making 50 percent below the median area income, thanks to the Missouri Housing Development Commission's tax credit programs.
New construction and rehabilitation, commercial development, green space and safety are also factors that he thinks matter.

In 2004, construction started for a new housing development on North Market Street, for instance, and the houses were sold at market rate.

"That suited a few people's perceptions about whether this neighborhood had a future or not," Thomas says.

Old North rehabbed nine historic buildings as part of the North Market Apartments redevelopment -- a partnership between Old North and the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, Thomas says.

In another partnership between the two groups, the 14th Street Mall was redeveloped into Crown Square. The project included adjacent blocks and 27 formerly vacant historic buildings. Old North has also been involved with the purchase and stabilization of other properties in the neighborhood, Thomas says.

John Burse is an architect who lives in Old North and played a big in planning the revitalization.

"At face value, absolutely, it was housing," he says of the neighborhood's growth.

Like Thomas, Burse also credits strong leadership from both the local government and Old North, as well as public money such as historic tax credits.

And there's a fourth factor, too, he says. "I think the timing was really right."

Old North already had a strong foundation for the revitalization, he says, and as the neighborhood began pursuing it, so did downtown. People wanted to live closer to the city, or in the city, and, Burse points out, Old North sits in the shadow of downtown.

The diversity of housing also matters, here, he says, and was purposeful. There's a blend of owners and renters, plus market rate and affordable housing. That all works toward stabilizing a community.

Housing needs change throughout a person's lifetime, Burse adds.

"So you become a place that offers options for folks to stay within the community."

Building diversity

Census numbers show some other trends in Old North, too.

The percent poor under 18 increased from 2000 to 2009 by 5 percent, higher than downtown, Shaw or the city as a whole. The white population decreased by 14 percent, while the black population increased by 45 percent.

Will Winter, with the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, has lived in Old North since 1995. Old North has traditionally had more whites than other surrounding communities, and he attributes some of the growth in the black population to the increase in affordable housing for moderate and low-income people. He's also seen a more diverse group of homeowners in the neighborhood. In the past, he says, they were mostly white. Now, more black home owners are buying in Old North.

He attributes much of the growth in the neighborhood to public investment and subsidies in housing. The census shows 48 percent fewer vacant properties in 2010 than in 2000 in Old North. It also shows 24 percent fewer housing units, but Winter credits that to demolition of about one-quarter of the buildings here.

While income levels did rise, Old North still has a significant number of poor, he points out. But the community itself is growing, he says.

"And it's growing because of the investment in the housing."

Thomas agrees. In another 10 years, he expects to see more growth in Old North. So far, it's happened by word of mouth, he says, but also through the vision and hard work of a community.

"This is: 'If you build it, they will come,'" Thomas says. "And it's come from nothing to something."

Countdown Census 2010

Countdown is an occasional series that takes a closer look at the results of the 2010 Census to draw a more detailed portrait of the demographic trends and changes in our region.
Analysis of census data related to the Countdown series has been provided by members of the Applied Research Collaborative, a joint project of three of the region's leading research institutions: St. Louis University (Department of Public Policy Studies), University of Missouri-St. Louis (Public Policy Research Center) and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (Institute for Urban Research).

Kristen Hare