St. Joseph Housing Initiative Showcases a Model for Regional Collaboration in Dutchtown

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 Much like other parts of St. Louis, the decline has slowed, or in many cases, been replaced by increases in population.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.

Graph provided by Downtown Dutchtown

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.

Advertisements

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.

Advertisements

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.

SJHI Block Cleanup Volunteers – Brian Adler

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.

Dutchtown Shop: https://www.dutchtownstl.org/shop/product/dutchtown-proud-yard-sign/
Advertisements

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.

Advertisements

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 missourimetro@gmail.com

Cross Grand and the Small Business Revitalization of Dutchtown

Chip and Tasha Smith are here to stay. “I can see the future”, said Chip, as he gazed in wonder at his extravagantly remodeled storefront in the heart of Downtown Dutchtown on Meramec Ave. Living just steps from their store, Chip and Tasha could not be more bullish on their neighborhood. Chip, a photographer and artist by trade, has South City in his bones. Tasha even serves on the DT2 (Downtown Dutchtown) Board, influencing decisions that support local businesses, community events, and infrastructure.

Editor’s Note: The photos taken for this piece are sure to pale in comparison to what Chip is capable of.

For nearly a decade, Chip has been building his photography and videography business. It was only 10 years ago that he bought his first camera, and here Chip sat in a chic, modern studio of his own making. Brand new flooring, popping colors, wood accented walls, and a classic old South St. Louis ceiling grace a location that those just wandering in might expect in a New York City boutique. Much of the work came from the Smith Family’s own sweat, with Chip, Tasha, and their children putting in dozens of hours of physical and creative energy. Chip even put in many of the floorboards himself, save where sloped flooring posed a challenge more suitable for a general contractor than a photographer.

Chip and Tasha Smith

“Cross Grand represents where I am from”

Chip Smith

According to Chip, there has never been a better time to be starting a business in Dutchtown. With the Community Improvement District (CID), Downtown Dutchtown, and Neighborhood Innovation Center nearby, there is a large group of community-oriented individuals collaborating to support the neighborhood. Coupled with the incredible amount of development nearby and beginning to spill into Dutchtown itself, the “South Sider” Chip witnessed all these architecturally gorgeous buildings and storefronts and saw nothing but potential. Then he met the people and the community in Dutchtown, one of St. Louis’ most dense communities in terms of population, and saw the value of a strong and supportive community, both in terms of the residents nearby and the support infrastructure described above.

Every step of the way, Cross Grand found encouragement and support from the Dutchtown community. John Chen, founder of the Neighborhood Improvement Center just a block further East on Meramec, has advised on certain elements of the project and provided as much support as he can as the owner of the building.

The potential of Dutchtown is readily apparent as soon as you enter the neighborhood. There is an expansive infrastructure already in place comprised of incredible, historical housing stock, a walkable street grid, businesses that have been around for nearly a century, and critical retail corridors on Grand and Meramec. The Meramec corridor in particular evokes a similar feeling to Manchester in parts of The Grove, or even parts of Maplewood. A dense cluster of restaurants, boutiques, and age-old retailers sit in 100+ year old, brick-clad buildings with mansard roofs with ample room for outdoor dining.

Cross Grand Studio- Brian Adler

That’s not to say that they didn’t need to put in the work to make their storefront shine. To see the incredible transformation of the space, look no further than these photos Chip provided of the space before they saw its true potential. Drop ceiling hid the gorgeous ceiling pattern visible today, and the floor was in need a complete refresh. Perhaps someone could have envisioned an office or small store, but to imagine and create the Instagram-worthy color scheme and modern aesthetics is a true feat.

With Cross Grand, Chip and Tasha are combining their interests into a full service experience for creators like themselves in Dutchtown. Chip now does most of the video and photography work in the community, with many of his photos available on the Downtown Dutchtown website. Tasha, with lots of events in the small event world, and Chip with photography and videography, found that they could create a space that catered to both needs. They plan to bring other neighborhood creators into the studio in addition to the members of the community they hope will view their work, take photos, or hold small events there.

Chip hopes that the curated space will be a destination for nearby residents to get creative and see themselves in a new light. Far from only shooting weddings, Cross Grand will offer photo sessions, photo books, and event space. Chip is also looking for ways to capitalize off of the unique style that’s new to the Dutchtown neighborhood. Whether it is featuring the work of local artists or perhaps catering to a podcast and vlogger community, Cross Grand has a special space and a set of services that Dutchtown previously lacked.

Cross Grand Studio- Brian Adler

Grateful for their community support from the CID, DT2, Thomas Dunn, and the Neighborhood Innovation Center, Cross Grand owners Chip and Tasha are plainly excited to finally bring their dream to the community. To have a space to bring clients besides Starbucks, meet their neighbors who just walk in the door, and to show their kids the product of hard work are things that make Chip extremely proud and eager about this space.

The Grand Opening

Cross Grand is set to open to the public this Wednesday, October 21 with a Grand Opening and After Hours Happy Hour co-hosted by Downtown Dutchtown. The event will feature Chip’s first photo book, a Dutchtown/Cross Grand hoodie collaboration on display, a drummer playing live music, and possibly discounted packages in addition to the hoodies and photos being on sale. Members of the Dutchtown community and beyond are encouraged to stop by and witness all that Cross Grand has to offer. The Facebook event can be found here, and you can find more information about the event on Downtown Dutchtown’s website as well here. The event will take place from 5:30 to 7:00 PM and visitors are encouraged to meet neighbors and stick around for a drink.

“Cross Grand is here to stay. We are going to add value to this neighborhood.”

Chip Smith

Small business entries speak volumes about a neighborhood’s trajectory, and their value is even higher in the middle of an elongated Pandemic. Cross Grand is a project that rose from the community itself. It does not pad the pockets of national developer groups bringing in luxury units with no affordable housing, raze historical architecture, or displace other residents or businesses. That may sound like a low bar, but often developments in St. Louis do all those things, and while they can still offer plenty of intrinsic benefits, real neighborhood improvement and community stabilization comes from within and supports its residents.

Small businesses are the heart of truly equitable economic development that lifts communities up. The infrastructure provided in Dutchtown by community organizations is beginning to show what it is capable of. Combined with the incredible built environment, the nearby ecosystem is poised to keep pushing Dutchtown in the right direction with a focus on a community driven approach. While not as flashy as a 300-unit tower or several phase development, small businesses driven and supported by their communities have an incredible impact and make urban areas shine.

Cross Grand Entry – Brian Adler

Thank you for joining Missouri Metro on the first edition of our Small Business Series

%d bloggers like this: