The mere mention of the St. Louis’ Dutchtown neighborhood to your average St. Louisan invokes a wild arrangement of responses from ardent passion to a cratering negativity. The neighborhood, one of the most dense in population in St. Louis City, has Germanic roots and became a popular working class community. That is, until the mid 20th century when St. Louis began seeing its decades-long population decline led primarily by “white flight” – a demographic transition that contributed to vacancy and abandonment across the city and region.
Dutchtown saw its population halve, but that’s hardly the full story. Much like other parts of St. Louis, the decline has slowed, or in many cases, been replaced by increases in population. This particular community also diversified significantly and is currently experiencing a modest population increase – a rather historic milestone that may not have yet been noticed by most in the region.
It’s not terribly surprising then that those outside of Dutchtown often speak of the decay. There’s some truth to that perception too. Driving throughout Dutchtown, there are plenty of boarded up buildings. This is particularly tragic in many ways as we have plenty of unhoused people in the region and extensive housing stock simply not being used. The architecture in Dutchtown is also stunning. With gorgeous brickwork as far as the eye can see, corner shops, and mixed-housing from dense multifamily interspersed with single-family homes, the neighborhood has the same architectural quality and urban design as Shaw or Forest Park Southeast.
Their perception is really only half the story. Dutchtown’s many challenges aside, it appears to be in the midst of a steady, community-driven revitalization thanks to the incredibly hard work of its residents. While that work is evident in the higher home values, the many rehabs taking place through its streets, and the shops opening up within its boundaries, the real evidence is within the people. Their hard work has been channeled into multiple mission-driven organizations that collaboratively work together for the betterment of Dutchtown. When Annie Purcell, the St. Joseph Housing Initiative Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator reached out to me about their May 1st cleanup, she emphasized the collaboration of the many community organizations. I agreed to cover the Spring Block Cleanup, already familiar with SJHI and Dutchtown organizations more broadly, but had never attended one of Purcell’s events before.
The May 1st Block Cleanup hosted by St. Joseph Housing Initiative is but one of their many volunteer events. For those unfamiliar with the housing initiative, it is an organization that works to revitalize housing in Dutchtown to resolve vacancy and then offer their renovated units below market-rate. They hope to tackle vacancy and increase home ownership opportunities and subsequently equity for low-income residents as a tool for financial security. They frequently tap into their volunteer network to put in the long work of painting, landscaping, cleanup, and more to make the process as affordable as possible. Unlike some housing and renovation programs, SJHI genuinely puts forth a good product with above average finishes, solid appliances, and with respect for the historic architecture in the city.
It turns out that many of the SJHI volunteers also are active in other neighborhood and community organizations. This particular event was sponsored by a whole cohort, including Cure Violence, Downtown Dutchtown, Dutchtown South Community Corporation, Employment Connection, St. Mary’s High School, and Operation Brightside. Newly elected Alderwoman Schweitzer attended the event as well and contributed to the cleanup efforts. The event was packed, with dozens of volunteers ranging from local families to leadership at the many organizations described above. Most volunteers lived within the neighborhood, but there was also strong attendance from people in the County who may have grown up in the neighborhood – some truly shocked to see the neighborhood clean and picking up steam. There were also some members of big STL area institutions, bullish on Dutchtown. One such member who wished to remain anonymous clarified the importance of bolstering not just South City, put all parts of North City as an essential mission for St. Louis.
That mission and striving for equity across St. Louis reverberated throughout the many conversations I had with volunteers, and there was a palpable aching for more regional collaboration. This event featured a host of organizations, a strong Dutchtown presence with some additional members of the broader STL community, and the success of the event appeared to contribute to a longing for more like this in the region. There were at times members of different organizations connecting, discussing how similar efforts could be recreated across the city – and this very reporter was invited by multiple organizations and institutions to not only report on their progress, but to be a part of it and a connector for such efforts.
Regional collaboration is a sore spot for the St. Louis region. With a sharply divided City and County and a deep history of racial segregation, working together and finding common ground is far from easy. That said, if any community is finding that link, it is Dutchtown. With a growing, diverse population and tough, decades-long challenges, Dutchtown has found a sense of identity and purpose. It is that identity that leads to a single organization like St. Joseph Housing Initiative being able to pull the kind of volunteer crowd it does and simultaneously pull focus on the regional collaboration it has helped cultivate.
It’s also far more than one event. The regional network of organizations fuels and promotes events for all of its partners underneath a core brand. With its ‘Dutchtown Proud’ campaign, it’s common to find yard signs, T-Shirts, and branding everywhere across the community. There is significant buy-in among residents and local business owners. New businesses are often introduced to the network prior to ever opening their doors, or even finding a location, instead seeking guidance from the CID and DT2 first.
Combined with the nearby efforts along Meramec St. from the owners of Urban Eats to create a food hub in what is technically a food desert, the Neighborhood Innovation Center and its efforts to boost community engagement and innovation, the Thomas Dunn Learning Center, and more, the neighborhood is booming with activity and it is all connected. As St. Louis’ neighborhoods each individually find their footing in this century, perhaps the next challenge will be to expand the collaboration for a more unified city and region. St. Joseph Housing Initiative and Dutchtown more broadly have the foundation, the volunteers, and the potential to serve as a model for the region.
Note: If you or your organization are working in St. Louis’ North or South neighborhoods on projects geared toward equity, inclusion, and revitalization, please reach out to Missouri Metro at firstname.lastname@example.org