The August 17th meeting of the Old Ferguson West Neighbors at the Corner Coffee House in Ferguson could only be described as a love fest between neighbors and neighborhood. Such a happening is in sharp contrast to the bitch sessions that defined the early days of this neighborhood organization.
Two years ago, Shannon Howard had a vision that her corner of Ferguson, Missouri, a North County suburb of St. Louis, could be turned into a place that people choose to live. With Howard's confidence that the neighborhood could be better, and the help of a lot of committed neighbors, the area known as Old Ferguson West has turned into a much more unified and positive community. It took at least six months, however, for the neighbors to get the piss and vinegar out of their systems and come around to seeing the neighborhood through Howard's eyes.
The Old Ferguson West Neighbors' website describes the area as "a diverse small town community in the heart of St. Louis." Neighbors take great pride in the small-town feel of Old Ferguson
West. Some even refer to the neighborhood as a modern day Mayberry, complete with a school built in 1880 that is still used today, and a frozen custard shop located in the restored Ferguson train depot.
Before the Old Ferguson West Neighbors picked up speed, the neighborhood was thought to be in the midst of a decline. Thanks to the neighborhood association, the tide is turning, and young couples are buying and renovating many of the historic Victorian and Craftsman-style homes that can be found within the borders of Old Ferguson West. Other neighbors, seeing the investment in their neighborhood, are choosing to stay and fix up their homes, too.
Much of the credit for the neighborhood turnaround can be attributed to Howard, who, as one neighbor expressed at the recent meeting, was "the instigator of all this, and I hope it continues for a long time." The city of Ferguson credits Howard and the neighborhood association for encouraging people to invest in their homes and remain in Ferguson, despite the exodus of residents from many North County municipalities over the past twenty years to points westward.
When Howard first proposed her idea to the city about starting the Old Ferguson West Neighbors she was met with resistance from leaders who believed that the renaissance of Ferguson depended on the development of the downtown business district. While business is a cornerstone to any community, without neighborhoods and the people in them, a community would not exist. Howard thought the city's focus should be more on neighborhoods, and rejected the suggestion that she should just voice her concerns at Neighborhood Watch meetings. She took charge instead, and motivated her fellow neighbors to make positive changes in the neighborhood.
Howard says the group "wouldn't have taken off had there not been a need for it." She also notes, "It can't be underestimated what neighborhood associations have done to shift the business focus of the city back to the neighborhoods." Thankfully, the city administration changed hands and with it came a recognition that the neighborhoods are indeed what make Ferguson the community it is.
The Old Ferguson West Neighbors have become a catalyst for other neighborhoods in Ferguson to start their own groups. Several representatives from other neighborhoods in the city have attended Old Ferguson West meetings to see how all the work gets done, all while maintaining a positive attitude with the specific purpose of neighborhood improvement.
Members of the presently dues-free association are quick to brag about the neighborhood's success stories and programs from the past two years. A major success was the renovation of a home on Tiffin Avenue that was a well-known eyesore. Neighbors pitched in to help clean out the house, a rehabber purchased it and turned it into not just someplace livable, but a neighborhood gem, and the house was sold at a more than respectable price.
The group tries to keep a hawk-like vigilance when it comes to run-down properties or code violations in the area. Howard stresses that one of the main missions of the organization is to keep the neighborhood stable. The residents believe that those who invest in their properties are more likely to stay in the neighborhood.
Along with keeping housing stock viable, the neighbors like to get together to socialize and celebrate their achievements. Old Ferguson West Neighbors host an annual Spring Fling party, and earlier this year also had a Mardi Gras party. This fall members of the group plan to make a trip to St. Louis area wineries.
A major Old Ferguson West initiative that has evolved from complaints to action is the group's focus on neighborhood youth. In the early days of Old Ferguson West Neighbors, many residents complained about teens hanging out and walking the streets. A number of neighbors decided to offer the children and teens activities to keep them off the streets. The group has attracted children to its Heart of Ferguson Double Dutch Jump Rope Team, Soccer in the Streets, Mini Basketball Camp, Kids Cooking, and a recent Neighborhood Jamboree at Dade Park featuring a softball game between neighbors and Ferguson Police.
The police have been big supporters of Old Ferguson West, stepping up patrols and comprehensively addressing the concerns of the residents. Lt. Ray Nabzdyk of the Ferguson Police Department attends the group's meetings, giving updates and getting tips and feedback from residents.
Old Ferguson West Neighbors can be proud of what's been accomplished in just two years. Much thanks can be given to Howard, who provided inspiration and encouragement to residents to come out of their houses, meet their neighbors, and see what good could happen.
Jen Stephens is an Old Ferguson West Neighbor and is happy to report it only takes her three minutes to get to work each morning, four if she has to wait at the light.