Photo Flood 98: Walnut Park West

photo by Diane Sieckmann

Walnut Park West is a neighborhood on the far north side of St. Louis. Its definition is complex in the same way that the challenges facing most neighborhoods in north St. Louis are complex, though this community is better preserved and closer knit than many. Learn more below from Ward 27 Alderwoman Pamela Boyd, who was gracious enough to grant Photo Flood Saint Louis Founding Director Jason Gray some of her time.

photo by Sue Rakers

photo by Ann Aurbach

 

photo by Mike Matney

 

photo by Diana Linsley

The articles on this site tend to follow a certain trajectory. They provide background for the history of each location and attempt to communicate the current experiences of residents. While our membership is large and varied, we do not have members representing each of St. Louis’ 79 neighborhoods (not even close) to provide first-hand accounts. As such, we rely a bit on what we learn from the people we meet in each community (our most enlightening example is probably the interview that PFSTL member Donna Burch did with a resident of Tiffany for that neighborhood’s Flood) and contemporary reporting from other sources. Of course, this can be problematic on occasion, or at the very least, incomplete.

In our last article, on Walnut Park East, which has a history that is nearly identical to Walnut Park West, we were only able to paint a portrait of contemporary life with broad strokes, so it was that we leapt at the opportunity to learn more from Ward 27 (includes the neighborhoods of Walnut Park West, Walnut Park East, North Pointe, Mark Twain, Baden) Alderwoman Boyd, a public official with more than 40 years dedicated to serving the people of her community.

photo by Jane DiCampo

 

photo by Joe Rakers

 

photo by Diane Sieckmann

PFSTL: 

What was your path to becoming an Alderwoman in St. Louis? 

Alderwoman Boyd:

Well, it was really… it wasn’t a path in the beginning. I started a block unit because I was concerned about issues that were going on. That was with the Federation of Block Units with the Urban League, and they kind of taught me how to coordinate with the people in the community. What disturbed me [initially] was that people were so scared to make a change or to challenge anything. I was pretty much solo, and I had people- I laugh about it now, but I had senior citizens on that block [who] were my army. So, they were my eyes and ears when I was out. They would keep me abreast of things that were going on. 

When I [first] moved over there it was in the mid-wintertime, and you know, everything is calm and shutdown in the winter. But, as the seasons changed, it started opening up, and I started to see things that I didn’t think was right. My car had been stolen twice from in front of my house, and then I found out that there were, like, five drug houses over there. So, me and the seniors started working on it. Then [other] people started getting involved, they started to take more pride in their homes and their community, and so, I felt good about what we did. I mean, it was a hard struggle; people didn’t realize it, but it was a hard struggle because we were trying to change the culture and the mindset of that community. 

So then, I started working with the person that became the alderperson. I helped him get elected, Greg Carter, and then I worked with him for twenty years. He kept saying, in ’08, I’d be straight. And I was like, “What are you talking about?” [He replied,] “I want you to be the committeewoman,” and I said, “I don’t want to do that. I just want to be a block unit organizer. I am just a lady working in the community.” And he said, “No.”… So, in ’08, I ran for committeewoman, and I won.

Then, he got killed in 2012 in a car accident with his UPS truck, and so, I was just devastated. I had just been on the phone with him that night (we talked every night to plan our next day), and I get a call a couple of hours later saying that he was dead. And so, I tried to run for his position, but I just wasn’t mentally in shape to do any of that. So then, in ’17, I ran again, and I won. It’s funny.. I always say, if you want to make God laugh, you plan stuff out.

It wasn’t my plan to become an alderperson. It was my plan just to help people within the community. I love what I do, though. It’s a stress relief for me when I see problems and try to fix them for people. Because I’ve invested over 40 years in this community, I know what it is capable of being. I just [also] know that it is going to take the community to work with me to do it. I can’t do it by myself.

PFSTL:

It’s got to come from the inside. It is sort of two-pronged, right? You need the community to focus on rebuilding, and then you have to also confront all of the systemic challenges that the north side has faced for years, and years, and years.

Your Ward, Ward 27, is one of the most vital, interesting and layered of all the communities in St. Louis. You have [areas] like North Pointe and Walnut Park West, that are, you know, among the most tidy and intact neighborhoods anywhere in St. Louis– Boyd: Yeah, yeah. –You have communities like Walnut Park East and Mark Twain that are transitioning, and then you have Baden that sort sits right in the middle, possessing characteristics of both. So I am wondering, how do you balance all of those needs, for all of your constituents?

Alderwoman Boyd:

The one thing that I am really trying to do [in Walnut Park West] is educate, because [many] are seniors, so I am trying to educate them on how to ensure that, if something happens to them, their properties stay where they are at. It’s not [a situation] where kids are coming in, and destroying what they took years to build. North Pointe has the heavy [density of] home owners, though a lot of people are dying off, and they haven’t- as I say it, ‘”They don’t have their business in order.” So, I am trying to teach them to make sure that they have their business in order. “Who’s going to be the next person to take the deed to your property, who will be responsible, what are your wishes?”

So, I’ve been doing that and I’ve been talking to SLDC [St. Louis Development Corporation] about bringing in development to those areas to keep them stable, and that’s what we are trying to do. Trying to keep [North Pointe] as stable as possible. 

For Walnut Park East and Mark Twain, our challenge is, as you said there, Jason, is the transitional nature that we have, where people are moving [out]. I have an education committee that works to help those families to become home owners [before they move away]. So, we are looking at, like, Justine Peterson and organizations like that, that can start teaching them how to become homeowners. And that’s where we are. They teach them how to save money, you know to place the down payment, which also helps us to [keep] residents and sustainability in our community. [Additionally,] it will help to make sure that we get some of those houses taken care of, that are empty. So, two fold. 

We are looking at LRA [Land Reutilization Authority] properties– My dream is, now Jason it’s a dream, to work with St. Patrick’s Center, because I’ve had conversations [already] with them, to work with the homeless to see if, through our housing corporation, we can acquire some of the LRA properties to get those people able to become home owners. Yeah, so that’s what we are trying to do.

photo by Jason Gray

 

photo by Sue Rakers

 

photo by Mike Matney

PFSTL:

Yeah, I think that’s great. So, I think that what I am hearing is a really interesting strategic distinction: There is an approach, in terms of revitalization, that is geared toward stabilization and security for existing residents, which it sounds like that is what you are looking toward, and then there are approaches where the neighborhood or committees, or whatever, try to attract a whole bunch of new residents,– Boyd: Right. –and it doesn’t seem like that’s where you want to go. You want to make it safe and secure first, at least,– Boyd: Right. –and build up those businesses, build up those homes…– Boyd: Right. –I love that.

Alderwoman Boyd:

Yeah, so that’s what our goal is. Like I said before though, if you want to make God laugh, come up with a plan.– PFSTL: Ha ha. –“Yeah, ok, so that’s what you think is gonna happen.”– PFSTL: “Here’s a curveball!” –Yeah, so that’s my dream. You know, it took me and Alderman Greg Carter twenty years, [working] as a team, to build up that Ward, so I know that it is going to take time. In the meantime, I’m trying to find somebody to mentor, because [being an alderwoman] is not my longterm dream, you know, to run as the alderperson. But, I am real particular. It has to be someone that’s invested and cares for this community.– PFSTL: Right. –I tell people, we are fifteen minutes from anywhere. We are sitting right at the highway, so we can take advantage of this and start building. I’ve been talking to developers to look at bringing in development to kind of help to boost the Ward up. [Though] they know how I am about the old buildings; I am just real clear that I can’t destroy the historic buildings that we have here in our community.

PFSTL: I think it’s evident too, as you walk around the neighborhoods, that there are a lot of old buildings [still there], and there are corridors- like, if you look at Lillian, in Walnut Park East, and even in Walnut Park West, there is great preservation of those buildings and those commercial corridors, right? There is a great sense of that history. And it is so interesting to me that that was an inside-the-neighborhood commercial district, it wasn’t on the main streets that are the borders and thoroughfares, it was right in the middle, and that just suggests such a liveliness and potential for the neighborhood.

Alderwoman Boyd:

Yep. And so, that’s what we are trying to do- we have a business association, and they are rebuilding themselves, and I am proud of them because now, they are bringing businesses in, they’ve got the bylaws… They literally have a map to kind of say, “This is what we are expecting for businesses in our community.” They have the bylaws to say, “This is what will not be accepted; this is what you have to do.” They are marketing the businesses [in the district]. They are saying how the appearance of the business should be. So [again], I’m pretty proud of them because it is a learning experience for all of them.

photo by Maureen Minich

 

photo by Jane DiCampo

 

photo by Ann Aurbach

PFSTL:

In my articles on Walnut Park, at least in the previous one, I characterize the neighborhood as, sort of, working class- and that is its history.– Boyd: Uh huh. –But I wonder if that is too simple of a description to describe how, particularly, African Americans have settled into those neighborhoods following the end of segregation. Is that, [working class], too compact a term to really describe the community that exists there?

Alderwoman Boyd:

You know, it’s interesting, Jason, because thinking back- you know, the Germans came over here, and [eventually] they started migrating out. The people that came in [after], the African-Americans, they were middle class, working people. I look back on where I was raised, like on Taylor in north St. Louis, and so the people that lived on my street were teachers, doctors, lawyers, police. Over in the Walnut Park area, in the 27th Ward, that’s who was over there, that’s who moved over there- it was policemen, firemen, city workers, some teachers, they had some factory workers, like General Motors workers, so they had those people that were living in that area. A lot of them are still there, [though] they have retired, and some of them [have] moved on to the County. I don’t think people understand that a lot of them [that] left just walked away and bought a whole new house (I have properties where people just left the house, with everything in it). [They] moved to the County because they figured that it was better. 

Back when my parents bought houses, it was a powerful thing for an African American to have property because they never thought that they would. When my dad bought his home, you know, he thought he was doing something. He had accomplished something. I just think that, as those generations died off, that [sense of accomplishment] wasn’t passed on. I think, in our generation, our people- well, like mine, I try to make sure my kids knew the history, but other people are not letting kids know what the history was, or what they themselves went through, so that [the kids] can appreciate it and take advantage of where they are at now.

PFSTL:

Yeah, between redlining, and all of the other real estate [and lending] practices, it was an accomplishment.– Boyd: Yes, yes, yes.

Over the last 8 years of Photo Flood STL, we’ve spent over 200 hours walking the streets of St. Louis (almost 400 hours if you count our expanded events), from corner to corner, and I’ve always felt that it is a great sign when people in a neighborhood come out. [When] residents, they stop or come out of their homes to see what we are doing; to check in on what we’re up to. For me, that suggests community engagement, community pride, and a willingness of neighbors to look out for each other.– Boyd: Uh huh. –We’ve never experienced the level of curiosity and concern that we experienced in Walnut Park East and West (that we kind of talked about a little bit [earlier] before the interview)– Mutual laughter –To the degree that you were contacted multiple times, and personally drove out to investigate, which I love. So, I am wondering if you would mind commenting on that. Why do you think Walnut Park East and West, or particularly people living in your Ward, have such an interest in looking out for each other?

Alderwoman Boyd:

You know what? And those people… it’s funny because I just feel that- uh, I told the media when I first got elected, when they were like, “What are you going to do to address the crime? How are you going to do blah, blah, blah…?”, I was like, ‘You know what? First of all, people need to understand that these families that are over here have invested over 50 years into this community. They have seen it to the highest and to the lowest.” I said, “But, they understand that it’s their community, and they take ownership to that. And I love that about them. They are compassionate. And and a lot of times, I am just a sounding board for them. They are frustrated because they feel like they are getting the raw end of the deal. If there is a murder that happens in our area, it’s all big news, but if a murder happens somewhere else [in the city], you barely hear about it, and they’re like, ‘just do us like you do other communities.’” You know? 

What they have learned is, and what I [have] found out, is that when these things are happening, Jason, I’d say 8 out of 10 times, those people [committing the crimes] don’t even live in our community. They’re coming from other communities to cause havoc on our community. And so, now my residents see that, and they understand it, and they were like, “Oh, ok. We didn’t know that.” Walnut Park is not the “murder capital of St. Louis.”– PFSTL: Right. –Walnut Park is an African American- [though] ironically, people don’t understand that we don’t have just African Americans coming into our community. Now we have Asians that are moving in; we have people from India that are moving in. [They are] buying homes, and they want to be a part of our community.– PFSTL: Right. —So that’s my thing, I just think that our community gets a raw deal because it is majority African American, and [the media and the city] just feels that “these people don’t care”, but they do care. They care a lot about their community and they just want what’s due to them. That’s all.

PFSTL:

And that’s you know, historically, as soon as you see large populations of African Americans owning property, you hear that [point of view] coming from city [leaders] and from the larger white community in the region. So, yeah, I can certainly see that, and the misconceptions that exist about the north side [in general]. One of the things that I always start a presentation with, when I give a presentation on Photo Flood Saint Louis, is a quiz called “Where is it in St. Louis?” I show photos of streetscapes and buildings, and I ask the people who come to those presentations, you know, “Where is this located?”. And I tend to show photos of Baden, and St. Louis Place, Lewis Place, uh, North Pointe, etcetera (and I will be adding Walnut Park to that, now that I’ve photographed it). The answers that I always get are “Soulard, Southampton, Lafayette Square, Central West End”, you know, all of these iconic places that are on the south side of St. Louis. Part of why I do that is to try and encourage people that are in attendance, largely white attendees, to confront their own misconceptions about what the North Side is, what it can be, and what it is to the people that live there. Maybe it’s too simple to characterize these [viewpoints] as simply misconceptions, because there are sometimes more sinister things behind that, that we need to overcome as a community, but I wonder, how do you try to correct some of those misconceptions?

Alderwoman Boyd:

Well, how I try to change it is when- well, it’s funny because when [residents] see a group of Caucasians coming into our community, their first thought is that, ‘They’re buying up the property, and they are gonna get us out of here.”– PFSTL: Yeah. —That’s their first instinct. And so, the first calls that I got [about PFSTL] were, “What are they doing? They trying to buy up all the property! They are taking pictures of everything…” And I’m like, “No, I don’t think that’s what’s going on at all, but let me check into it.” Then, when I got a couple of more calls, I said, “You know what? Let me find out, who are these people?”

So, I think what I’m trying to [say to] people in our community is that, “You have prime property at this time, and people are going to be interested in it, but you have the control to make the choice on whether you want to stay or go. That’s your choice. And so, you can’t have anybody forcing you, or distorting you.”

It’s ironic when they talk about defunding the police and all of that. My community is not there. That’s not where they are. They are not for defunding the police. They are not for people tearing down properties, and building places to get them out of there. That’s not what they are for. They just want their community enhanced. They just want me to let people know that they want to live there, and they do, Jason. They want to live in those communities because they’ve invested a lot in those communities. We have residents that have bought property after property within the Ward, just so that they can have sustainability in the Ward. They don’t want people to just move in and take over. They want to be able to control what happens in the Ward.

photo by Diana Linsley

 

photo by Maureen Minich

 

photo by Joe Rakers

Today, Walnut Park West is a great microcosm for north St. Louis. The community, largely African American, faces the simultaneous challenges of perception, stabilization, depopulation, and social, educative and economic opportunities, yet, it remains mostly intact, if not entirely in appearances, then in mindset. Ward 27, where Walnut Park West resides, has the additional merit (I think) of being something of a canary in the coal mine for the neighborhoods north of Delmar. Though it may not have the cultural significance of, say, The Ville, or the built pedigree of, perhaps, Hyde Park or some others, it does operate as something of a Southampton or Boulevard Heights for the north side. To put that another way, it is the African American version of those mostly white neighborhoods where the city’s working middle class, not only reside, but formulate their identity- an identity that is as intrinsic and necessary to St. Louis as anything else. To lose that would be a tragic signal.

Fortunately, some dedicated folks, like Alderwoman Pam Boyd (and their armies of seniors and other community-minded helpers) are here to help prevent that possibility. People that are willing to dedicate their lives to lifting up communities that otherwise get the raw deal.

photo by Sue Rakers

 

photo by Jason Gray

 

photo by Jane DiCampo

 

Special and sincere thanks to Alderwoman Pamela Boyd for taking time away from her busy and important schedule to chat. Your thoughts and warmth were much appreciated.  

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