by Michael R. Allen
Here is the house at 1941 Wright Street in September 2006. This is a modest side-gabled brick house with corbelling and a centered dormer, like many other late 19th century houses on the near north and near south sides. These buildings were actually tenements, with no internal staircases and no indoor plumbing. Access to the second floor came through a rear gallery porch. Typically, these homes were extended by a narrower half-flounder addition at rear of anywhere from two to four additional rooms. The addition created a covered ell where a gallery porch typically stands; the additions rarely have original internal stairs. This house has a notably deep rear addition.
Never mind the vinyl windows and other historically inappropriate alterations that the house has accumulated. This photograph shows a structurally sound, reasonably maintained occupied dwelling. Shortly after I took this photograph, on October 30, 2006, a new owner filed a warranty deed showing a sale of the property for $109,250. The new owner: Sheridan Place LC, a holding company controlled by developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. The sellers moved out, and Sheridan Place LC and affiliated companies subsequently purchased every building on both sides of this block save for one large row to the immediate west of 1941 Wright.
Moving forward to April 2007, we find very different conditions at the house.
All of the windows and doors have been stripped, and the yard is strewn with litter. Most disturbing, however, is the building’s interior where the first floor rooms are piled with bags of construction debris.
Inside of these bags is white pipe insulation, heavy with asbestos. Someone wanting to avoid the dumping fees of this waste chose to stash the bags here. Sadly, this is a common practice in the city of St. Louis. Bags of asbestos-laden waste can be found in neglected vacant buildings and on vacant lots all over the city.
In just six months of McKee’s ownership, the house at 1941 Wright Street has gone from housing a family to being packed with hazardous waste. While obviously McKee and his agents did not dump the waste and cannot prevent such incidents, they have total control over the enabling factors. McKee decided to buy occupied housing units and remove the residents, thus creating opportunities for nuisance crimes and illegal dumping. McKee has avoided maintenance of these properties down to the basic act of boarding up a building like this one. (Citizen’s Service Bureau registered a citizen complaint for unsecured vacant building at this address on December 19, 2006 with resolution of sending the owner a secure notice.)
There is no doubt that McKee wishes to collect the land assemblage tax credits that are part of various bills pending in the Missouri Legislature. The house at 1941 Wright is just one of over 100 historic buildings, many occupied at time of purchase, that McKee has purchased for his north St. Louis project. The decline of its condition is a story that could be repeated address by address in Old North St. Louis, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou with different variants like fires, brick rustling and drug dealing. When locals are in doubt about whether or not a sale to McKee’s companies have gone through, they only look at a house. If the windows are gone and the door is wide open, they know that the new owner has taken possession — the sad creation of an “eligible parcel” under the proposed land assemblage tax credit.
Could any reasonable person assume that McKee and his agents have conducted due diligence of compliance with city codes for vacant properties? The contrary seems true — flagrant contempt for those codes. McKee’s companies have perpetuated demolition by neglect on a huge scale. If the aim of the endeavor is to “bulldoze the ghetto,” as a flier circulated earlier this year stated, there seems to be inflation of supply and demand by the agents of the project. Taking occupied houses and safe blocks and allowing them to be stripped, pillaged and burned creates a ghetto that did not exist before. The effect creates more dramatic images of blight for public relations purposes. Yet the cause is falsely attributed to the very people who were displaced and are no longer around to create the ghetto — and who were probably afraid of such conditions as those that have now befallen their homes.
While Mayor Francis Slay may urgently call for passage of the tax credits, his silence on the specifics of McKee’s operation is telling. No apology could hide the conditions of the over 640 properties now controlled by McKee’s companies. All narratives inspire counter-narratives beyond political control; best to go clinical and talk of static things such as “blight” and “parcels.” Any narrative would have to include the white flight and the inability of city planners in 1947 to do anything but wish to kill neighborhoods like the ones affected by McKee’s project. The story would include a culture of political apathy where white mayors and black aldermen alike ignored the causes and blinded themselves to the symptoms. The story would have to admit that racially-explosive notions of “depletion” became public policy by default, and that the current actors on the near north side have just appropriated old ideas as their own rather than seeking innovative new policies. The story that could be told would discredit almost everyone.