Gangs, Crime, and The Recreation Tax
So, yesterday the RFT again (re)discovered that, yes, the City of St. Louis does have a gang problem.
This week's article focuses on the murder of 17-year-old Robert L. Walker after getting off the Lee bus in Walnut Park. As I noted after it happened in May, something similar happened back in 1992 at about the same location.
Five years ago, the RFT's story was about white kids from Arnold getting shot after a drug deal gone bad at Illinois and Potomac in the Marine Villa neighborhood.
That article came out about one week before I closed on my first house -- on the 3800 block of Indiana in Marine Villa.
And this week's article, while it starts in Walnut Park, follows the police gang unit south, visiting the 3200 block of Ohio (the 3200 OCG gang, whose markings I know well since that's only three blocks away from my house. Of course, I think some other gang "controls" the problem blocks of 3200 and 3300 Nebraska -- directly behind my house. Lovely.
Everybody grieves in their own way, I understand that. But I don't quite get attaching teddy bears to street light poles. I guess it's an attempt to reclaim lost innocence, because really, I don't think these guys who get shot in gang-related activities had played with teddy bears for a very long time.
I saw such a memorial appear back in January on the 3200 block of Nebraska near Wyoming. That was after a young man was shot and killed at that location while allegedly trying to rob a cab driver -- who himself got in some hot water because he was on probation for a Federal crime.
The other perplexing thing is: unlike Walnut Park, Benton Park West is a neighborhood on a strong rebound after decades of disinvestment. While the 3200 OCG's may still hang out at Wyoming and Ohio getting high off codeine and Nyquil, that same corner is now the site of a major gut rehab by Millennium Restoration and Development at 2647 Wyoming, converting a former multi-family + corner commercial building into two townhouses. Sale prices are $300,000 and $350,000 -- far beyond what I'll ever be able to afford, that's for sure!
Millennium a few years ago completed a similar project across Ohio, converting the large building at 2701 Wyoming into two townhouses. They won a 2003 Homer Award for that development.
With such high-end redevelopment occurring, and less expensive but equally important moderate rehabs being undertaken by homeowners and investors across Benton Park West (and to some extent, Marine Villa and Gravois Park), eventually these neighborhoods will resemble Tower Grove East, Benton Park, or even Tower Grove South, way more than they do Walnut Park.
But at what cost? Will we simply displace low-income families to points further south?
Redevelopment is great, but gang activity doesn't stop just because of a gut rehab or two. Even in Walnut Park, heavily subsidized new construction of houses -- including a wacky plan that moved a handful of 1950s ranch houses from the Bridgeton airport expansion area onto new sites in Walnut Park -- has not really changed the fundamental dynamics of gangs and drug activity.
But what are the solutions? Jobs -- more of 'em and better paying ones. Better schools. More recreation programs. These are not simple nor easy to achieve.
And, I hate to say it, but I really am skeptical about the mayor's proposal for a new 1/8-cent sales tax to fund recreation programs. There's already been active NIMBYish opposition to the proposal to build a new rec center in Carondelet Park. And that location is not ideal to serve the sections of the Southside that really need it. Also, it would cost money to get in -- although they claim scholarships would be available.
A similar center planned for Fairgrounds Park would be better situated, but what about the Walnut Park neighborhood (and for that matter, Baden)? There's really not much up there -- sure, Walbridge is a Community Education Center, but there's no pool there. Maybe Northwest High School has some facilities, but are they open to the neighborhood kids? I think Wohl Recreation Center is the closest one for all of Northwest and Far North City -- no wonder it's so busy all the time!
Also, Fairgrounds Park already has a swimming pool, as it has for many decades. If a recreation center is built, plus the long-discussed football stadium for St. Louis Public Schools / Public High League, how much park land will be left? Sure, it's better than putting a Walgreens inside the park, as Ald. Bosley once proposed, and it's not exactly a nature preserve (the historic bear pits are cool though), but every neighborhood needs some public open spaces. And, no, overgrown LRA lots don't count.
We're actually a little better served on the Southside, with the facilities at Cherokee Recreation Center (now run, oddly, by one-time Board of Aldermen President Tom Zych) and the Marquette Park swimming pool. But, those places really need a lot of reinvestment and catching up on deferred maintenance.
I just don't like the idea of a sales tax for the rec centers and programs. Sure, it's easy to administer, but aren't there other options? Sales taxes are regressive -- the poor pay more, proportionally, than the rich. If that passes, and the talked-about statewide sales tax for rebuilding I-44 and I-70 passes, the total sales tax rate in the city will be well over 8%. On restaurant food, it'll be about 10%.
That's too high. I agree we need better recreation programs and facilities. But, trying to build something in Carondelet Park that somehow is on a par with places like The Heights in Richmond Heights or Centennial Commons in University City, seems unrealistic.
Let's find another way to fund improved recreation programs, and focus first and foremost on improving our existing underfunded, underappreciated facilities. I suggest a small property tax increase, which would also be earmarked and not just go into general revenue.
In 2004, city voters passed Proposition K, a 19-cents per $100 assessed valuation property tax earmarked for children's mental health services. A slightly higher tax, maybe 30-cents per $100 assessed valuation, would probably provide enough money for improved recreation programs and services.
A separate bond issue could be tried later, if they still were insistent on building all-new facilities.
At this point, I just cannot support a sales tax for recreation.