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Jul 2003 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

When News Breaks
By Tim Woodcock

My parents didn't want me to become a journalist. Journalism was "cut-throat" and "dishonest," they told me once after a high-school parent-teacher conference in which a teacher suggested that I consider it as a career option.

As someone who has made a living off journalism for the last five years (first in London, now as a staff writer with the West End Word in St. Louis), I can now say that my parents were wrong: journalists are not parasites reveling in other people's misfortune — or never letting the truth get in the way of a good story, as the popular caricature would have it.

Yet every stereotype has some basis in the truth. Although most reporters are fundamentally honest in intent (the occasional Jayson Blair excepting), there is something in the process of gathering and disseminating news that inevitably twists words and simplifies ideas and all too often leaves the subjects feeling abused. But is willful dishonesty the problem? No.

It is just the nature of news.

"A journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate. Avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and falsification by distortion, selection and misrepresentation." — the National Union of Journalists' Code of Conduct, point three.

In February of this year I began to write about McRee Town and, specifically, a contentious plan drawn up by the Garden District Commission, the Missouri Botanical Garden's redevelopment arm, to redevelop the neighborhood. Put simply, the plan divides McRee Town into two six-block areas. The blocks between Thurman and Tower Grove: selective rehab and infill. Thurman to 39th: raze it all and start over.

McRee Town Back then I had only passed by McRee Town — go down Vandeventer, or along 44, you will see it — but never gone through it. Neighboring Forest Park Southeast, yes, I'd spent a fair bit of time there, but earlier this year McRee Town was to me just a name and a shape on a map. Five months and three stories later, that, of course, has changed.

McRee Town residents and advocates for the area are becoming more vocal in their opposition to Missouri Botanical Garden's plans to redevelop the 25-acre area bounded by railroad tracks, Highway 44 and Vandeventer Avenue, my March 3 story went.

Both the Garden District Commission and defenders of beleaguered McRee Town agree that the area needs to be redeveloped — but the question is how many buildings need to be pulled down and how many families will be displaced.

With this, as with many issues that polarize people, I was as interested in the rhetorical devices that people used as the issue itself: the hysteria and breathlessness, the outlandish claims, the bogus statistics and the bombastic clichés — in short, the hallmarks of tabloid journalism. But because I was trained by the book, which means essentially learning to submerge your opinions, I think it is almost always better to report an issue straight than to editorialize. A fair story balances one statement against another — and, when passions are running this high, it needs to balance one overstatement against another.

"One of the most promising neighborhood revitalization plans in the history of St. Louis is moving forward," says the spring 2002 McRee Town Update newsletter, a publication produced by the Garden District. The newsletter is peppy in tone and gives the impression that the community speaks in one voice. There is no hint of dissent. "The St. Louis Board of Aldermen has given unanimous approval to the McRee Town Redevelopment Plan, which could potentially attract up to $50 million in investment to rebuild McRee Town," it says. It goes on to give a list of seven bullet points describing the "community's distress," including 44 per cent population loss since 1970 and the claim that 56 per cent of the structures are considered dilapidated or "nearly unlivable." And also, "A staggering crime rate that peaked in 1993 and in 1994 when, during a 19-month period, eight murders and 20 shootings raked McRee Town — an area of less than one square mile." It's propaganda of course, hyperbole leavened with statistics. But I've never heard anyone dispute those figures.

What really rankled residents and advocates was the assumption that the neighborhood could not turn itself around by conventional means. Over the past five years as conceptual plans solidified into the working plans, and different developers showed an interest but then backed away, the Garden District has consistently insinuated that in the eastern part of McRee Town the criminal element was so large that it dwarfed the regular population, and anyone who remained committed to McRee Town — that is, wanted to live there in its current state — was either in cahoots with crime or a fool.

The Garden is making the housing crisis worse! A number of the neighborhood's residents, landlords and community groups had banded together — taking the name Citizens for a Fair Plan in McRee Town — to challenge the mighty Missouri Botanical Garden. As the Garden bought up more of the empty lots and vacant buildings, and began filing for eminent domain control of the other sites, the protestors ratcheted their efforts, writing screeds of letters and picketing outside the Garden's gates every Saturday in an eleventh-hour attempt to embarrass the commissioners into reconsidering the plan. The group had identified 90 buildings out of the 240 in the demolition zone, which they considered livable-if-rehabbed, and it wanted the Garden District Commissioners to look at these on a case-by-case basis. (The flipside of this, it should be noted, is that even the neighborhood's greatest defenders acknowledged that well over half of the buildings need to be pulled down.) The commissioners, of course, did not entertain the idea of looking at the buildings individually — it could result in pockets of land, suitable only for infill housing. Clear it all and you have a pristine, if secondhand, six-block site.

One member of the group, the Rev. Gerald J. Kleba of St. Cronan's Church in Forest Park Southeast, wrote some text for a flyer, cleverly reworking phrases he had spotted in the Garden's Climatron, which has a display preaching the merits of environmentalism. His flyer says, "Recycle the adequate homes in McRee Town rather than destroy them" and "The destruction of McRee Town (a largely black community) is causing the alarming loss of diversity at the very entrance of the Missouri Botanical Garden. It is threatening the health of the human community in St. Louis." If you want to nail what was hypocritical about the Garden's plans to redevelop this neighborhood its backyard, you couldn't do it much better than that.

He also noted how a motto used by the city's neighborhood stabilization team — "You don't have to move to live in a better neighborhood" — manifestly did not apply in this portion of McRee Town.

Another activist told me about how when the Garden Commission first circulated its favored plan, the information went to every person in Shaw and Southwest Garden, the more affluent neighborhoods to the south, that had been vocally wishing there was something less shady on the other side of the highway. No one in McRee Town — no one whose home was going to be torn down — received the first mailing. A glitch in the mailing system, the Garden told the activists at the time, and there was never a problem with mail-outs beyond that. (I asked a Garden spokesman about this incident. He flatly denied it, and went on to tell me how inclusive the "community-based planning process" was and how the Garden followed "due process.") I don't know if the selective mail-out allegation is true, but the fact that it is widely believed to be the case indicates how "inclusive" the process felt if you lived in McRee Town.

"A journalist shall only mention a person's race, color, creed, illegitimacy, marital status (or lack of it), gender or sexual orientation if strictly relevant." — the NUJ Code of Conduct, point 10.

I invited myself along to a Citizens For a Fair Plan in McRee Town strategy meeting, and sat there silently taking notes, soaking up the issue. Pretty quickly, it transpired that all of the dozen people around the table were involved with this campaign in some professional capacity. None of them actually lived in the affected area of McRee Town. For all the huffing and puffing about being a grassroots campaign, it was hard not to see this as white liberals speaking out for poor blacks. No, that's unfair; some of the people at the strategy meeting I had attended were African-American, and at subsequent meetings and protests there was a fair share of McRee Town residents.

Activists represented one extreme, the Garden District the other, but what was the word on the street? I decided to go and walk the streets of the neighborhood and just talk to people — journalism the old-fashioned way, as if telephones and e-mail didn't exist. Yes, I would go and gather some quotes. Gather: that verb implies that quotes are there for the taking, like fruit waiting to be plucked from a stem. I misjudged myself and I misjudged McRee Town spectacularly.

I wasn't looking forward to going down there, primarily because the February freeze wasn't budging and I couldn't postpone the task another day. And I was apprehensive about asking provocative questions in an area in which I had spent no time. But at least this was a topic that people would have an opinion about. I wouldn't have too much explaining to do.

About that at least. Here I was: a white guy with an English accent that takes more than a single conversation to get used to, in a predominantly black neighborhood, which the city government and a major institution wanted to rub out and replace. The nearest I got to any statement against the Garden's plan was from a youth who spat out, "They ain't taking shit from us," howling almost, aiming as much at the sky as at me.

I did my best to explain my interest with some polite patter ("Hi, I'm a reporter with the West End Word. I am working on an article about McRee Town. Can I ask you some questions about the Botanical Garden's plans for the area?") On one occasion it yielded: "You got questions, give us ten bucks, I might answer them." I was thrown by this savage and funny reply; to save face I said, "Nah, I don't play it that way," walking away.

Clusters of teenagers hung round on the street corners, despite the intense, bone-chilling cold and the biting wind. Smaller groups of smaller kids trudged home from school together. One family getting out of their car with groceries, I thought was a certain bet. I gave the mother the shtick and the 8-year-old boy, who presumably only picked out the phrase "Botanical Garden" from my British English, asked if wanted directions to get there. Why else would an Englishman be in McRee Town? I could only be lost on my way to the Garden. I clarified my question. The mother looked ready to talk but it was really too cold to be hanging around outside. "I don't know anything about that," she said. Isn't your building one of the ones that will be torn down, I asked. "I believe so," she said, scurrying inside.

That same afternoon I saw a women open her front door and toss out a floor lamp into the vacant lot next door. It didn't quite clear the fence that ran alongside the house, but stumbled over like an over-optimistic hurdler just back from an injury, clipping the top of the fence but making it over, leaving the cord trailing over her side of the fence. The door slammed shut.

I approached a woman, who was glassy-eyed and jittery, wearing nothing thicker than a plaid shirt for warmth. She had only just "been moved here" and hardly knew the area, she said.

All I got that was usable from that two-hour venture was this: Sam Hamid owns Regal Foods in the 3900 block of McRee Avenue, the only store in the neighborhood. It, too, will be demolished. "If the store closes four people will lose their jobs," Hamid said. "I am looking for a new location." And that was a matter of getting a phone number to call later. A crackly cell phone and two immigrants' decidedly un-American versions of English didn't make this an easy phone call, but I got four sentences of copy out of it.

Good Neighbors Come in All Colors Measuring the afternoon another way, I learned a good deal. The gap between white and black was greater than I had ever realized and more unbridgeable than what I had experienced in Britain. I also saw the outside advocates in a different light. When defiance means a heartfelt-but-hollow, "They ain't taking shit from us," with an implicit scorn for community meetings and all things establishment, then advocacy by outsiders is necessary and legitimate. Most of all I became aware that as crumbling, boarded over, burned out, messed up as McRee Town is, people — lots of people — live there and call it home.

Subsequently I did find residents who were happy to talk to me, by going through my contacts at Midtown Community Center. I'd resisted this route because I thought it was less valuable to have quotes from people who had been primed and had already been "used" by other journalists. But these people weren't neighborhood rent-a-quotes. They certainly didn't idealize the area or oppose redevelopment per se. Take 67-year-old Charlie Finley and his wife Louise, residents of McRee Town for 28 years. "A lot of the buildings are rundown and people don't look after their property — I realize that," he said to me. "As for the redevelopment I think the neighborhood needs it. But we should be able to save some of the better homes, those that people have put money into, like we have." Primarily he is at an age where the idea of moving house, no matter what else is offered, is not attractive.

Or David Jones, a handyman, who put it bluntly: "Most of us are living there because we can't afford to live elsewhere," yet he added, "I'm satisfied with where I live."

Just before the article came out, a public relations firm contacted me to ask me to go on a tour of the neighborhood with George Robnett, the Garden's "point person" for all things McRee Town. Robnett and I had spoken on the phone a handful of times (and my piece quoted him abundantly because he was the only Garden employee who would speak to me). It was odd that at this point — when they knew I was writing something, but not exactly what — a P.R. firm should enter the picture.

Anyway, we fixed up a date and went for a drive. We slowly drove up every street, Robnett enumerating the neighborhood's problems and the Garden's good works. He had worked for McRee Town Neighborhood Association before taking his job as the Garden District's executive director and he knew the neighborhood inside out. He pointed out things I would have missed on my own: the unmarked police cars, parked and looking out for drug deals, and the house where a family had lived for a decade without utilities. He told me again about the millions of dollars this would bring to the area, and why a developer needs a large tract of land, not just infill sites dotted about the same locale. The relocation packages, the revitalization — with the right euphemisms it could all sound so good.

When conversation came around to the persistent protests, his attitude — whether a personal belief or the "party line," I'm not sure — was that outside agitators were stirring up trouble. In actual fact, he said, almost all the residents were glad to move, either to one of the houses available in the rehabbed portion of McRee Town, or to somewhere else entirely.

"History is written by the winners" — origin unknown

This June the plan was given the final stamp of approval by the city. The remaining homes will be taken by eminent domain — it is a matter of when, not if. McBride and Sons, a Chesterfield-based company that is better known for suburban housing estates, has signed on to do the rebuilding. I wanted to ask someone there what the company would do to ensure this area would looked like a part of a revitalized city and not a misplaced slice of West County, as the garden repeatedly assured me it eventually would. But the company never returned my numerous phone calls.

"Botanical Heights" is the name of McBride and Sons' six-block residential development and there is even an idea floating around in City Hall to rename McRee Town, one of 79 official neighborhoods listed on city maps, as Botanical Heights.

Perhaps it is true that the winners (re)write history — but I am glad I helped with the first draft.

Tim Woodcock is a Brit living in St. Louis, displaced from his homeland by choice. He is a staff writer at the West End Word.

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