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Living with history, fighting for the future in Westland Acres: Part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2010 - Earlier this week, about 15 miles from a small and historic black community in the heart of west St. Louis County, on the sixth floor at Missouri Baptist Hospital, in the cardiac recovery area, Clifford Frazier lies unconscious in his bed.

His wife of 60 years, Doris, talks on the nearby phone to a friend about her husband's condition. Next to the bed, a nurse adjusts the IV. Frazier, 83, breathes with the help of life support.

Gradually, members of his family fill the waiting room. One of their daughters, Michelle Jones, and her grandson, Jonathan. Their son, Clifford Frazier Jr. Cousins. Community members. Church family. "It's so hard to see Dad lying there unconscious," Frazier Jr. says to his mother. "And so quiet."

Fifteen miles away sits Westland Acres, the community where the elder Frazier has spent his life working to preserve the land for his children, grandchildren and other descendants of William West. In 1881, West, a former slave, bought the land between Chesterfield and Wildwood, and it's largely remained in family hands since.

The community once housed about 200. Now, it's around 40.

Over the years, Frazier and his neighbors persisted in trying to better the prospects of this historic place as new and expensive homes sprang up all around them, raising property taxes and changing the community that Westland Acres began in.

Now, though, the biggest obstacles aren't race or class or planning and zoning commissions, as they may have been in the past.

Now, with a poor economy and a slumping housing market, the biggest obstacle may be time. On Thanksgiving day, Clifford Frazier passed away. The Beacon learned of his death the following day. His legacy includes his fight for Westland Acres.

West County Living

Generally, Chesterfield is seen as a wealthy suburb -- new, mostly white.

And that's a fairly accurate picture.

Average home prices here are about $400,000, according to most real estate websites.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of roughly 46,000 in 2009 was 88.8 percent white. But that's not all there is, says Dan Rothwell, a local author and historian who serves and/or chairs the board of all three of Chesterfield's historical societies.

Rothwell, who became friends with the Fraziers years ago after he moved to Chesterfield, found a community rich with history, with 100-year-old homes and churches and a past deep enough to keep him busy all these years.

"A lot of people need to dig a little deeper," Rothwell says. "They have thoughts of Chesterfield as the mall up there."

In the basement of his home, a great library stretches out, built with Rothwell's deep digging.

On the front of a white binder, tucked into a clear plastic cover, sits a yellow post-it note that reads: Westland Acres and Union Baptist Church.

Since 1997, when he got to know the Fraziers, Rothwell has collected newspaper articles about the community's struggles for both sovereignty and recognition.

The issues unfold quite clearly.

  • In 1988, Chesterfield incorporated for the first time, taking half of Westland Acres with it.
  • In 1995, when Wildwood incorporated, the city annexed the remaining half.
  • In 1997, a study was commissioned and conducted with community development block grant funds to assess the feasibility of building smaller, more affordable homes on the land, as well as condominiums or apartments.

Most of the homes in Westland Acres community were worth between $40,000 and $75,000 at the time, Frazier told the Chesterfield Journal in a January 1997 story.
"If we go by the cities codes," he said then, "most homes in Westland Acres would be condemned. We want to provide newer, affordable housing so our kids will be able to move back in after growing up here."

Neighbors in nearby Pacland Place, with homes on three-acre lots that were worth about $1 million each at the time, worried what development at Westland Acres could mean for their own property values and quality of life.

"The impact of changes in Westland Acres will be far greater than just in that small community," one neighbor said.

A 2002 story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailed the fight by Westland Acres to leave Wildwood and for all of it to become a part of Chesterfield. At the time, all 78 property owners supported it. Reasons cited in the article included poor water and sewer service.

"Perhaps the most crucial factor is the dual issue of the further development of this prime tract of real estate and property taxes," the story reads. "Some former residents have been forced to sell their property because of a surge in property taxes. If they are unable to build on this land, residents fear more will have to sell, potentially breaking up the community that has existed for about 200 years."

The stories continue, month after month, with fear expressed from people in Wildwood that the land would be overdeveloped.

Finally, in 2006, both Chesterfield and Wildwood planned to vote on whether or not to allow rezoning, offering the chance for developers to build on as little as one acre lots. Wildwood also recognized Westland Acres on the historic registry. Plans were proposed to rename streets to honor longtime families here, use public artwork to recognize black culture in the area, recreate a log-cabin as a museum to show what the original Union Baptist Church looked like, and to create an interpretive walking trail.

By November of that year, both Wildwood and Chesterfield had approved the measures.

An environmental cleanup was planned to remove years of debris and trash from the area, with construction set to begin by the summer of 2007.

And that's the last of Rothwell's newspaper clippings.

"Nothing ever happened," says Aimee Nassif, planning and development services director with the city of Chesterfield.

Plans were submitted and reviewed, sent back to the community, and the city never received anything after that, she says.

The reason, she thinks, is quite clear -- the national economy tanked, along with a housing crisis that persists to this day.

"Everything slowed," Nassif says.

Joe Vujnich, director of planning and parks with Wildwood, agrees.

"Unfortunately from a time standpoint, the start of the economic crisis and the slow down in residential building starts all kind of hit at the same time," he says.

A builder working with the people of Westland Acres also passed away at the time, says Dr. Harvey Fields, the pastor of Union Baptist Church at the end of Church Road in Westland Acres. Then, other builders backed out, and the coalition of people working toward Frazier's dream fell apart.

A Future For Their Past

For all its history, many people know nothing of Westland Acres.

"I do think it's a hidden treasure," Fields says. "It's a living remnant of the legacies of slavery in the area."

Within that legacy is a history of vision, he says, of a former slave who bought land and passed it down to his family, many of whom still live there now.

Among those in West County, and Fields doesn't live there, he adds, Westland Acres is viewed as somewhat of an anachronism. It's gotten support from some, resistance from others, and he guesses that people thought if they just left the community alone, eventually, they'd go away.

But they haven't.

Vujnich, with Wildwood, sees Westland Acres a bit differently, though.

"Westland Acres has a rich and long history in the west St. Louis County area, and the city of Wildwood has always tried to be respectful of that history," he says.

Issues with zoning in the past tried to meet the needs of both cities, understand the concerns of surrounding residents who feared overdevelopment on the property while still respecting Westland Acres right to develop, he says.

And as Frazier has pointed out in the past, Vujnich says, the people of Westland Acres didn't complain or oppose development as it grew around them.

"It's his feeling they want to do just what others have," Vujnich says, in developing their land. Currently, the people of Westland Acres are on well water and private waste-water treatment systems. It would be a substantial cost to them to add those services now, Vujnich says, and only about half of those in Wildwood are part of the city's water and sewer services.

When the development does move forward, however, he says that will be included.

And he does believe there's a future for the community. "If residential building picks back up, I think the area will be one of the first looked at by development entities interested in building homes," Vujnich says.

The planning and zoning would have to be looked at again, he adds, and "refreshed," but he thought that could occur with minimal impact.

If Frazier is no longer the head of that effort, however, Vujnich isn't sure where the community goes next.

"He was the force behind the project, he and his wife," Vujnich says. "Certainly their absence would be a major issue."

A Legacy Of His Own

Of the Frazier's six children, none lives in Westland Acres.

"I have mixed feelings about living in Westland Acres," said one of their daughters, Maria Frazier, who currently lives in Kirkwood. "I would love to return and roam the streets like I used to, but that is just unrealistic. I would have moved back to be near my parents if I could afford to have a house there."

High property taxes, she said, were the main obstacle.

According to Doris Frazier, her niece, Kimberly Thompson, is the next natural leader of the community and the two could work together on development plans in the future. Thompson did not return calls for comment.

The church, which dates back to the site from 1921 and has roots in the community from before that, is also a stakeholder. Union Baptist owns the land where it sits, Fields says, and will be a part of any plans for development in the future.

Fields, who has known the Fraziers for years, thinks the outlook for the community isn't as dire as it may sound. He had hoped that Frazier would pull out of his health problems, as he had in the past.

In the next year or so, Fields thinks, things will start moving again with the redevelopment of Westland Acres.

And even without their longtime leaders, Vujnich is also confident that the community could see progress.

Like his great-grandfather before him, Frazier has left a legacy of his own, Vujnich says, with the zoning that's currently in place. That zoning can eventually allow smaller and more affordable homes to be developed and create a space for the community to continue.

"So it's not like somebody has to start from the beginning like Mr. and Mrs. Frazier," he says. On Thanksgiving day, Frazier passed away, surrounded by his family, according to a family friend.

His home in Westland Acres remains, as does the community where William West settled down nearly 130 years ago, looking for a place to live and thrive as a free man.

Barbara McDonnell, Kirkwood, has been interested in Westland Acres for more than 10 years, since a job of surveying cemeteries introduced her to the area and the Fraziers.

Kristen Hare