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Countdown: Old North St. Louis making big strides, but still has a way to go

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 6, 2011 - Crown Candy Kitchen sits at the corner of St. Louis Avenue in Old North St. Louis. Inside, time feels like it's on pause, with old booths filled with families, a soda fountain and a glass display filled with freshly made candy.

Outside, though, much has changed since Harry Karandzieff and Pete Jugaloff first built here in 1913.

Andy Karandzieff, now the third generation here, never saw this neighborhood at its best. At 47, he thinks he's seen it at its worst. And now the neighborhood he calls home is changing once again. (Old North is roughly bounded by North Florissant and Cass avenues, Branch Street and Interstate 70.)

"It's been a very slow and very gradual upswing," Karandzieff said. "This neighborhood didn't fall apart overnight, and it's not going to get fixed overnight."

Over the last decade, though, the numbers show a gradual upswing.

From 2000 to 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau shows a 28 percent growth in Old North's population. The community added married couples and its average income increased. During that time, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group partnered with the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance to build new housing and rehabilitate old housing as well as redevelop the old 14th Street Mall into the new Crown Square.

Still, the revitalization is a work in progress, with pressing issues remaining to be resolved, from the general perception of north St. Louis to schools and safety.

Don Roe, acting director with the Planning and Urban Design Agency with St. Louis, agrees that disinvestment in the neighborhood didn't occur overnight.

"The momentum you're seeing is a momentum that's continuing."

A Matter Of Perception?

While a core group has stayed in Old North, and others have come back after moving away, many newcomers have come from outside the area, says Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

Often, people who've lived in the metro St. Louis area have ideas about certain neighborhoods, "and a lot of times they don't reflect the current reality," Thomas said.

Veronica Holden, owner of La Mancha Coffeehouse on 14th Street, moved with her family to Old North 11 year ago. She's originally from St. Charles.

"In the general population, there doesn't seem to be an awareness that there are areas of the north side that are really great and are recuperating and recovering," she said.

The perception of the whole area is stereotypical, she said, and she thinks some of the problems come from the news media.

"I think the media needs to change the tone about the north side."

And to Karandzieff, a change of tone might be called for all around.

"People like to consider north St. Louis a war zone."

But it's not, he said.

Yes, there's crime in the city.

"That's part of our reality, those things happen," Karandzieff said, but they happen everywhere. And, he added, he's seen things here much worse.

The neighborhood has added a grocery co-op, a farmer's market and a community garden.

But LaShawnda Jones, a newcomer to Old North, says many empty lots remain around her house. Like Karandzieff, she'd like to see a greater police presence in the neighborhood.

"There's crime everywhere, but there is a substantial amount of crime around my neighborhood," she said.

In 2010, the crime index in Old North was 294, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. The crime index measures the total number of crimes, from property to crimes against people. In Old North, 207 of the crimes were property crimes. In comparison, downtown had a total crime index of 1,507, and of those, 1,337 were property crimes. The Central West End had a total crime index of 1,392, with 1,281 property crimes.

Thomas thinks that now more people are inclined to report crimes. Old North has had some neighborhood watch trainings with the police department, he said, and a growing number of residents communicate with each other and look out for one another.

In Business

Old North has always something of a non-traditional population, says Will Winter, with the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, has lived in Old North since 1995. That includes advocates, rehabbers and now an influx of young, white bohemians and an active Catholic Worker group.

"It's still kind of an astonishing little community," he said.

Lately, Karandzieff has noticed some new additions to the community.

"Now the biggest thing is you're seeing more middle-class black families living in the neighborhood, in the area," he said.

But some of the empty storefronts in the new Crown Square concern him.

"It's hard to entice people to come down and open a business up in north St. Louis because there are so many options out there," he says.

Right now, he says, the economy's not really working in anyone's favor. But Roe thinks the area will make it through a rough economy because of the historic qualities of the neighborhood and how planners played up the best of Old North.

"It's incredibly attractive," he said.

What the neighborhood needs, Karandzieff thinks, is a business person with some guts.

"Somebody's got to take a risk," he said. "We need someone to take a chance."

In fact, some have.

According to Thomas, of the 12 commercial spaces, half have signed leases, with another two in the works. Next to Old North's office, a police substation is set to come in, he said, and across the street, a resale shop will open up July 1. There's also a salon, and a women's boutique. Operators of a new store -- Rambles -- just signed a lease. The store, which sells art, jewelry and home decor, among other things, according to Old North's website, was also considering the Loop and the Central West End.

A "Reel in Rambles" campaign was started, which included a flood of messages on Facebook from residents of the neighborhood. Rambles will open in September.

Here to stay

Schools may be the final piece of the puzzle in revitalizing Old North, like in many neighborhoods in the city. Currently, two elementary schools serve the neighborhood -- Confluence Academy, a charter school; and Ames Visual and Performing Arts School.

Webster, a middle school, has sat empty for a few years now, Thomas said, and the building is up for sale.

Winter looked at American Community Survey data from the Census and found that of the K-12 children living in the neighborhood, 90 percent attend public schools compared with 78 percent of students in St. Louis as a whole. A number attend Confluence, Winter said.  The estimate doesn't account for children who are home schooled or attend private or parochial schools.

The issue, it often seems, is the need for a stronger school district to attract families with children. And from 2000 to 2010, the neighborhood increased the percent of married couples by 6 percent, and people younger than 18 by 13 percent.

John Burse is an architect who lives in the neighborhood and played a key role in planning. He said the St. Louis Public School district is challenged by substandard housing and children often being moved around.

In Old North, he said, there is quality, affordable housing, both market rate and subsidized, "and so it's helping solve part of the equation."

Who we are

Despite the fall and now rise of the neighborhood, Karandzieff has never thought of relocating Crown Candy.

"This is part of who we are," he said. "We are 98 years on this corner. My family, my grandfather, my father, this is where we've been."

He credits the upswing he sees to concentrated efforts by the Old North group, as does Roe.

"You value your strengths," Roe said.

And that may be a lesson for other neighborhoods, too. Value the strengths, the things that make a neighborhood what it is, remind yourself of them as a community, and make others aware of them, too.

Just where Old North is headed next is, to Karandzieff at least, still pretty open.

"I think it's still trying to figure out what it's going to be," he said.

He's excited about what's happening now in his neighborhood.

"I'm also a realist," he said. "I'm both excited and frustrated by the progress in this neighborhood all at the same time. I'm glad to see things are going well. I'm frustrated to see things aren't getting better. But I think we're getting there. It's just gonna take some time."

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