Mayor Slay’s Administration Brings St. Louis A Federal Grant That Could Transform North City

Under the cloud of alarm and dismay following the 2014 tragedy of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis City galvanized his administration and applied for a Choice Neighborhood Grant— an extremely prestigious, competitive federal grant awarded by the Choice Neighborhood Program, which offers funding to cities through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The selection process began with the awarding of $500,000 transformative planning grants, and then the program picked a handful of applicants from that pool for more substantial grants, in the $15- to-$30 million range. At the urging of Sandra Moore and Esther Shin of St. Louis’s Urban Strategies, the Mayor decided to throw St. Louis’ hat in the ring. It wouldn’t solve everything even if the city did win a grant of that magnitude, and though buzz phrases like “progress” and “move forward” have been consistently tossed out as vague definitions of headway, this would undoubtedly be a step in a positive direction which most everyone could agree upon.

It’s been two years since Mayor Slay and his team began the application process. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro visited St. Louis to meet with Mayor Slay and personally announce St. Louis’s Near North Side as a recipient of a $30-million grant. In the midst of his 16th year as mayor, he has seen the city and county—a strange divide, at best—through times of booming, poetic revitalization and times of sheer anarchic terror. Today, he’s glad we get to talk about the former. “I’m really glad you’re covering this,” he says, the gleam of his shoes the perfect complement to his uniform: suit and tie, every day.

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Mayor Slay gave a speech to announce the news at an organized press conference. After a round of remarks thanking Secretary Castro and expressing gratitude for the grant, Mayor Slay remained equally steadfast in discussing a truthful portrait of the city’s problems as they are and his expression of hopefulness about the potential for change that could come about from a grant of this magnitude. The Near North Side of St. Louis City, the recipient of the grant, is an isolated and depressed urban island, statistically speaking. “The challenges we face are similar to those across the country: racial disparities, poverty, crime and education are some of the big ones,” he says. “As the former site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development just adjacent to us, the Choice Neighborhood—the Near North Side—can speak to the powerful and lasting effects of broken systems with unique authority, and it remains a severely distressed neighborhood—the poorest in the city.”

Back at his office in City Hall, the Mayor describes the site where Pruitt-Igoe once was, the infamously failed federal-housing complex intended to bring sustainable, improved quality of life for the St. Louis population living in poverty. Coming full circle, the Near North Side of the city is also in the same neighborhood as that old Pruitt-Igoe site, which was demolished in the latter half of the 20th century. “If you look at it, now it’s 30 acres of weeds covering up demolition debris. It’s been forty years. Trees, weeds—it’s got a big fence around it. It’s not pretty,” he says. “That was one of our arguments for receiving the grant: it’s an opportunity to rectify this failed federal-housing project and policy that was in effect for a number of years. It just didn’t work.”

Mayor Slay also notes that the fragmentation isn’t unique to the North Side of St. Louis. Block to block, you never know what you might get while walking around in the city, even if you’re a native. One block may be beautiful Victorian townhouses, and the next could be crumbling brick buildings, with the irony of giant holes in the walls next to boarded-up windows. Strangely, the Near North Side nearly touches the booming Downtown metropolis, which has overseen extraordinary growth over Mayor Slay’s tenure. Hence the Mayor and his team had, and have, their work cut out for them.

With help from Urban Strategies, which had originally brought Slay the idea for the grant, their primary focus was on engaging the community and allowing residents to drive the plan. “That was the whole purpose of the grant,” he says, describing the vantage point of the federal government. “It was, ‘We’ll give you this money, but you have to show us that you’re serious about this neighborhood, and you’ve got the local support to do something substantial, rather than taking $29.5 million and fixing up some buildings.’”

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Rendering of proposed Preservation Square Street

In order to get the residents on board in a meaningful way, Mayor Slay cites many meetings with residents specific to the Near North Side of the city and creating community partnerships. He implores people to believe that the plan will be truly transformative. “When you’re doing development of homes or amenities in a neighborhood, particularly a distressed area, the human component is the most important. The bricks and mortar are essential, but you can’t just build buildings and not have the proper human components that make it a livable community.”

The original plan submitted for the grant application aimed to develop over 700 affordable and mixed-income housing units. There will also be a brand-new community center, job training, public-health and safety initiatives, and a new early-childhood center, with the key component of neighborhood involvement from the very beginning. Now, with the grant officially awarded, the plan will have the chance to move from an intention on paper to a life-affirming neighborhood structure.

While the grant will serve as a stimulus for one area of the city, the Mayor plans to propose a sales tax for the ballot in April, part of which would go towards a light-rail expanding North to South, St. Louis’s undisputed dividing line of race and socioeconomic status. One of the proposed stops would go through the Near North Side. “A third of the people in North St. Louis don’t have access to a car. Probably more than that in this neighborhood. So it’s hard to get to work, hard to get to the grocery store, hard to get to the hospital, hard to get to the doctor’s office, to get your kids to school. It’s disconnected from opportunity.”

After 16 years, Slay has publicly announced that he will not be running for another term. As far as the light rail, he can get it on the ballot, but his term will be over soon after the people vote, at which point it will be up to someone else to finish championing the job. Much progress has been made, though not always linear. It’s been hard on his family—his own children, in their 20’s and 30’s now, were growing up when he ran for his first term. It’s true that his wife also doesn’t want him to run for another term. “But she didn’t want me to run in the first place.”

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