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Bridging regional divides by getting to know each other – and other neighborhoods

St. Louis residents and community leaders (from left) Kevin McKinney, Al Willis and Sal Martinez discussed the goals of the Neighborhoods United for Change initiative.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis residents and community leaders (from left) Kevin McKinney, Al Willis and Sal Martinez discussed the goals of the Neighborhoods United for Change initiative.

It takes less than 20 minutes to drive between the Lewis Place and Holly Hills neighborhoods in St. Louis. Yet that relatively short trip from north to south  – or vice versa – is one that many people in the Gateway region are unlikely to take.

That’s according to Lewis Place resident Al Willis, who took a bus tour of Holly Hills along with a group of his neighbors in an effort to bridge economic, racial and geographic divides around the region. A contingent of Holly Hills residents participated in a tour of Lewis Place on the same day, and for both groups the experience proved eye-opening.

“Many of them had not ever been across Delmar [Boulevard] … for both of the neighborhoods,” said Willis, referencing the street that can sometimes feel like an invisible wall between north and south.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with Willis about the vision behind such neighborhood tours, which are an initiative of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations. Also joining the discussion were SLACO’s executive director, Kevin McKinney, and Sal Martinez, another participant in the effort.

Known as Neighborhoods United for Change, the program not only takes neighbors from disparate parts of St. Louis on Saturday tours of each other’s communities but also brings them together for lunch and conversation about what they observed and how they might build relationships going forward. About 10 neighborhood groups are signed up so far for dates that begin later this month, with space for about 10 more available this spring.

McKinney said that when his organization launched the idea two years ago, it was unclear what the results would be. He’s been pleased with how it seems to foster understanding between individuals, communities and races.

“We really [all] have the same things in mind,” McKinney added. “We want clean, safe places to live, we want great opportunities for our kids to go to school, we want good jobs, and we want decent, safe housing and we want police protection. That was from Baden all the way down to Tower Grove South. That’s what everybody wants.”

Martinez, who is affiliated with the North Newstead Association, noted that there are “too many things that divide us” and sees Neighborhoods United for Change as a unique opportunity to recognize how much common ground can also be found in the midst of differences.

“I think history will show that Neighborhoods United for Change has truly helped unite this city,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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