by Michael R. Allen
On Saturday, June 26, two blocks of north St. Louis’ Penrose neighborhood were abuzz with rehabilitation work — 15 homes’ and 300 volunteers’ worth of rehabilitation, to be exact. The 4000 and 4100 blocks of North Taylor Avenue, scene of the action, are lined by mostly one-story brick homes enjoying the same setback line. A few gambrel-roofed one-and-a-half story homes are peppered in with one-story shaped-parapet and bungalow houses from the first decades of the twentieth century. At the south end, the street closes at a robust two-story brick fire station — its boxy, flat-roofed form contrasting with the gentle residential setting around it.
This lovely neighborhood setting, however, has its problems. Every one hundred year old house that has been continually occupied needs repairs, but often accumulated repairs bring costs beyond the reach of residents on modest incomes. City home repair money is in short supply. People want to remain in their houses and in their neighborhood. What to do?
Alderman Antonio French (D-21st), who represents the Penrose and adjacent O’Fallon neighborhoods, is working on a solution. This year, he has brought in Rebuilding Together St. Louis to bring home repair to residents. Saturday’s repair blitz was the second of six planned this year. The operation is simple: residents identify crucial repairs, including structural problems, and apply to be part of the weekend blitz. Rebuilding Together assesses the problems and, if needed, brings in professionals to prep work that can be completed by general volunteers. Rebuilding Together coordinates materials donations and volunteer labor. Then, on the weekend, volunteers and residents work together to get repairs done with amazing speed.
Here is one crew consisting of volunteers from the Boeing Company and the owners and residents of the house that received extensive interior repairs.
Alderman French is funding architectural survey of Penrose to create a historic district. That designation, which is more than a year away, will bring tax credits to rehabilitation work. However, some buildings needs immediate assistance, like the house at the corner of Taylor and Margaretta avenues. The sturdy bungalow has been vacant and owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority for years. Alderman French put it into Saturday’s blitz program. Volunteers removed loads of trash, removed failed roofing and began gutting the interior. In coming weeks, the house will be fully rehabilitated. French is leveraging Rebuilding Together’s presence to turn around a derelict, city-owned property.
This house on the 4100 block of North Taylor received a new roof Saturday. The old roof was torn off, sheathing and joists replaced as needed, and the new flat roof completed — all in a day.
Not all work was as daunting as entirely new roofs, of course. One of the great things about the program is that it responds to needs big and small. The coordinated work schedule means that residents of a block experience an inspiring day where the block’s condition is uplifted at once.
The Rebuilding Together program in the 21st Ward is an excellent model for neighborhood preservation. For one thing, once homes go vacant, their reuse becomes very, very expensive. Tax credit projects are complicated to put together, and are only meaningful amid other more extensive stabilization efforts. Big projects like Crown Square and Dick Gregory Place involve dozens of buildings, not hundreds. And we have thousands of buildings at risk of going vacant through deferred maintenance and the cost of upkeep.
The Rebuilding Together program won’t save all of them, but it is an excellent way to leverage private donations to stabilize neighborhoods and even tackle city-owned property. We need to expand this program to keep existing buildings in use and residents in their neighborhoods. The 21st ward program really is a holistic historic preservation program. Coupling the home repair program with historic district designation puts the widest number of rehabilitation solutions on the table as is possible.
By the way, Rebuilding Together is always looking for volunteers. Find out more on the organization’s web site.