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“We all kind of came together”: Volunteers clean Jeff-Vander-Lou to deter crime

Volunteers clear brush from a community garden in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood June 24, 2017.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Volunteers clear brush from a community garden in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood.

At a community garden half a mile north of Powell Hall, Marcia Martin spent Saturday dragging branch trimmings into piles to clear out the greenery that had overrun the garden. Martin and her husband were joined by about a dozen other volunteers working on the lot at the corner of Montgomery and Coleman in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood.

“When we started on this project you couldn’t see the grass,” said Martin, 60, of St. Louis. “There were four of us down here working, and then all of these other people showed up. It was just amazing.”

Around the corner, five men from Holland Construction Services boarded up the windows of an empty building and used chain saws to cut down the thicket of trees behind the house.

At other blocks throughout the neighborhood volunteers tackled similar projects on more than 70 lots, blocking the entrances to abandoned buildings, picking up trash, and cutting back overgrown greenery.

Organizers estimate more than 400 people participated in the cleanup, which was spearheaded by Better Family Life, Habitat for Humanity St. Louis, the Jeff-Vander-Lou Housing Corp., and the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club.

The cleanup’s goal is to deter crime and make it safer to walk the streets.

“If you are living next to a building that is vacant and it’s not boarded up, then there has the potential of illegal activity coming in and out. And then if it’s also surrounded by overgrowth and trees, then you can’t really see if somebody is behind it,” said Avis McHugh, family services director for Habitat for Humanity St. Louis.

“Some of our families were saying that they’re afraid for their kids to go back and forth to school, or the bus stops. Some of the bus companies actually started saying that their drivers could not come into the neighborhood, that the kids had to walk and meet them at the main street. And that just shouldn’t happen,” McHugh said. “So we all kind of came together and brought our muscles and our hearts and said, okay, let’s do what needs to be done.”

“Jeff-Vander-Lou is one of the strongest, and most solid African-American communities in the St. Louis area, and has been for generations. So the history here is rich, the potential of what the neighborhood can be is amazing. And we just kind of want to get it back to what it was,” McHugh said, adding that plans are under way to clean up other neighborhoods too.

Follow Camille on Twitter:@cmpcamille