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The Commonspace

fall 2006 / communities :: email this story to a friend

Using Bricks and Mortar to Build Community
By Mike Baldwin

So much of what we hear in our time about young people, particularly in poor and disadvantaged parts of the city, portends trouble and a general negative stereotype; in contrast, the Downtown Teens program, which just completed its fifth year of operation, has given the youth of my neighborhood the chance to make a difference in their own community. They do this by performing rehab and demolition services on housing units, undertaking minor home maintenance and repairs, providing landscaping services and completing other community service projects.

The idea was born when several community leaders approached the Pruitt-Igoe Development Corporation (PIDC), in the aftermath of the shooting death of a neighborhood teenager, Christian McCoy. We developed the Downtown Teens program to give these kids something constructive and positive to do after school and on weekends, as well as to provide training that would make them more attractive to potential future employers. In addition, providing meaningful work on projects in their own community could help these teens take pride in the work sites they might otherwise molest.

Beyond just providing labor, the program's participants become responsible community members in other ways: they are required to be in school and on-track to graduate, or earning a GED, with no serious disciplinary problems; they have to help out without being paid on several community service projects each year; they must practice courtesy to each other, our clients and neighbors around us, including refraining from the disparaging remarks common among teens about others' ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, social status and so on.

It sounds simple to those who have grown up around these concepts, but we hope that the youth of our neighborhoods will come to understand the value of community investment and develop job skills and the pride that's concurrent with a job well done. It's part of the overall vision of the PIDC, established 15 years ago to carry out a vision to rebuild the near northside communities in which we operate. So far, we've completed rehab rental and for-sale housing with an investment of more than $2 million, all of which has taken place with extensive community input.

We can always use help in bringing our program to more teens, and to acquire more properties in need of revitalization to bring life back to our neighborhoods. We need direct contributions, adults willing to volunteer as mentors, projects for which you are wiling to employ the skills and services of Downtown Teens, tools and equipment donations. In the four years we've kept detailed tracking data, we've had more than 80 teens participate in our program, including 54 who stayed in the program for more than three months and several who have been with us for its duration.

If you can provide any of these tools to help strengthen the near northside community, or if you're interested in learning more about Downtown Teens, contact us at, or 314-974-7432.

© 2006 The Commonspace