North St. Louis is as misunderstood as it is under-served. It is home to some of the most beautifully built houses in the region. Its proximity to downtown, the Mississippi River and the airport make it geographically ideal. Many of its neighborhoods wrap around some of the largest public parks in the city. Yet people have continued to leave north St. Louis by the thousands every year because of the many daily reminders that the governments of St. Louis City and the State of Missouri just don’t give a damn about this area which makes up roughly 40% of the city and one-third of its total population.
As one of the middle-class people still living in north St. Louis, I can tell you firsthand how frustrating the situation is. We choose to live here. It is our home. I grew up here and now I watch my own son ride his bike on the same street where I learned how. We can afford to move to plenty of other places, but for my family and many others like us, the day we leave north St. Louis is the day we leave St. Louis altogether.
Gun shots in the distance that come with the dogwood trees blooming, sure signs that spring has arrived. The insult felt when a business you called for service tells you they don’t come to your part of town. The frustration of driving past under-performing public school after under-performing public school in your neighborhood on your way to the other side of town to take your child to a good public school in someone else’s neighborhood. These are all part of the daily indignities black folks endure living where most black people live in St. Louis City.
But none of these things are as frustrating or as heartbreaking as the regularity of murders occurring in our community.
So I understood the frustration of young Alderman Brandon Bosley when I read that he was calling for the governor to declare a state of emergency in St. Louis and send in the National Guard. The idea itself is ridiculous. I have seen firsthand what harm militarizing a situation can cause. The presence of such equipment acted as kerosene on an already fiery situation in Ferguson in 2014. That is not something we want in north St. Louis in 2019.
But as a former alderman who dealt with a mayor even more indifferent to our situation than this one, I get it. It’s frustrating—maddening, even—that mayors and police chiefs claim success while night after night citizens are being victimized by violence. It says the lives of the people being killed, or the citizens being terrorized by the daily violence, don’t matter. It makes you feel invisible. Powerless. Unheard.
As a city alderman, it is even more frustrating, because residents living in these areas call on you to do something about it, even though you have no direct control over the significant resources allocated to address these problems. All of those resources fall under the mayor. But they don’t call the mayor. They don’t expect anything from the mayor. Just as so many people have given up on calling the police.
In St. Louis a very strange circumstance exists: white citywide officials are not held accountable for the conditions of their black constituents.
It’s odd. It’s not something you see in other majority-black cities. In fact, very often, white mayors of majority-black cities go out of their way to show how comfortable they are in the black community. They are savvy when it comes to maneuvering issues of race and in dealing with topics central to this important constituency. That doesn’t happen here.
Here, Mayor Lyda Krewson, like her predecessor Francis Slay for 16 years before her, can go months and never have to answer a single question on the death and violence driving black people out of north St. Louis. The mayor feels no pressure to call a press conference after a weekend of north side violence destroys more lives-—certainly not like after a single act of violence downtown or in the Central West End.
And so I understand young Bosley’s frustration. It’s not fair that he should have to carry the weight of what is happening in the 3rd Ward all by himself, without the support, leadership and resources of the mayor and the rest of the city. No more than the alderman from the 7th Ward, Jack Coatar, should have to carry the weight of developing and maintaining downtown all by himself. No, the city clearly sees the importance of a vibrant and safe downtown. But for north St. Louis, home to 100,000 citizens, the message from this city is clear: We’re on our own.
That was something I realized quickly when I too was a young alderman. Once I realized that, I did my best to come up with holistic solutions that did not require the involvement of a mayor that obviously did not care about what was happening in my community.
We organized, tripling the number of active block units. We innovated, creating the city’s first ward-wide surveillance camera network. We opened after-school centers for kids in my ward, programs that are still going, which my wife and I still pay for personally. Very soon, we started to see results, with homicides dropping a whopping 80% in my ward.
It can be done. But there are no short cuts. It involves the hard work of many people and organizations. It involves the resources of middle-class people, critical to keeping communities vibrant. It involves a long-term strategy that recognizes the awful truth of the matter: In north St. Louis, we don’t have a mayor. We don’t have a police chief. We don’t have a functioning and responsive city government. All we have is each other.
It shouldn’t be that way. But for those of us entering another spring and summer in a long-ignored part of town, we have work to do, with or without the rest of St. Louis. As young Bosley reminded the city, lives depend on it.