Our Responsibility to the Neighbors of North St. Louis City

By Claire Wolff

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Claire Wolff is the Director of Community Development at Grace Hill Settlement House and a board member at Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and Perennial. She previously served as the Community Engagement Specialist at Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and Program Manager at St. Louis ArtWorks. She received her MSW from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis in 2009. Claire is a North City resident.

New resources, institutions and leadership will undoubtedly emerge in North St. Louis City over the next few years as a result of the National Geospatial Agency’s relocation, an application submitted for a Choice Neighborhood grant, designation as part of the Promise Zone and local elections in 2016 and 2017. Yet residents in the community indicate a deep-seated skepticism toward the potential of these developments to result in economic mobility and opportunity for their families.

Community development professionals and organizations must take on the responsibility of working across silos and alongside residents in surrounding North City communities, and especially with those on the lowest end of the income distribution, to ensure that they actually experience an increase in economic well-being, health, and quality of life as a result of the new investment.

Our field has always known that place matters, but there is new data surrounding the relationship between poverty and place that makes the case even stronger—and it doesn’t look good for those growing up in North City. According to Harvard economist Raj Chetty, for children in households in the bottom 25th percentile of income distribution, each additional year spent in St. Louis City reduces income in adulthood by 0.83 percent, while each additional year spent in Calhoun, IL increases income by 1.33 percent.

This disturbing data indicates that poor families would have more economic opportunity living elsewhere. In 63106, home to much of this impending North City investment, a whopping 72.9 percent of children under 18 live in poverty, according to ACS data.

However, with this unique confluence of attention and investment in North St. Louis City, we must take steps now, even before the development groundbreakings or the elections, to lay a foundation that spurs successful development and economic mobility down the road.

First, we should advocate for robust resident voice in civic process while investing in community engagement staff to make sure residents are informed, included, and heard. Residents are our most prized and valuable assets and we must treat them as such.

Second, we should take a long-term comprehensive planning approach to economic mobility that incorporates best practices from across the country while encouraging innovative, creative solutions on every level.

Finally, we need to demand local political representation that prioritizes equity and empathy and has vision that inspires a better North City. Elected officials in St. Louis have much work to do in order to prove themselves to constituents as partners in success of strong neighborhoods.

Simply put, we must think about economic outcomes for residents when we strive for strong communities on the North Side. We can no longer tolerate a system where families are better off moving out of the neighborhood.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.