I show up at a Pine Lawn “unveiling” ceremony without a clue as to what’s being unveiled. Mainly I want to buttonhole mayor Terry Epps, who hasn’t exactly been easy to reach. He’s here now, though, and affable, and when he shakes my hand his is as warm and soft as cashmere. Reluctantly letting go, I say, “I want to know your vision for Pine Lawn.” “Well, you’re going to see some of that today,” he promises.
“And I’d like to interview someone who’s lived in Pine Lawn a long time,” I add.
“Well, that would be me,” he says—then steers me over to meet a retired alderwoman instead.
On my way back, I snag a cookie from a party tray. There’s an air of festivity in the old school auditorium, now part of the new headquarters for not-for-profit agency Beyond Housing. A video camera’s recording as teams of architecture and urban design students, some shy, some poised, take turns presenting the projects they’ve dreamed up for Pine Lawn. One team wants to create a sense of place. (“You already have it,” a blond student adds hastily. “We just wanted to enhance it.”) Another team wants to focus on Pine Lawn entrepreneurs. (“Where do I get those resources?” an audience member will ask eagerly afterward.) There are drawings of organic farms taking root in empty lots, of maker spaces and recreation hubs and restaurant zones. (At the moment, Pine Lawn has Mr Fish, a few barbecue joints, and Yang Chen Chop Seuy—spelled that way on its sign.) The next team presents a logo, pine trees at the center. Others find ways to calm traffic, light streets, renovate empty buildings as training centers for cybersecurity. (Someone from the crowd yells, “Like that!”)
When the applause dies down, Epps finds me. “So that’s the direction I want to go,” he announces, beaming. “We can do it without merging.”
Epps leaves me with Ryan Safi, co-owner of gas stations in Pine Lawn and the legendary Goody Goody Diner nearby, and John Jones, a longtime Pine Lawn resident, resplendent in a three-piece suit, silver paisley tie, and black hat.
Safi tells me that one of the best things to have happened lately is the replacement of Pine Lawn’s police department with the North County Police Cooperative, about 60 officers covering seven municipalities:
“You pay better, and they can be more educated and have a better relationship with the community, a better interaction.”
Jones’ eyes narrow.
“A better interaction?”
“Interaction from your point of view.”
“How would you define interaction?” Safi retorts. “Trying to head the other way?”
“I’ve been on the block. Where do you live? Out in the suburbs.”
The tension’s winding tighter. “I’m here seven days a week, 6 a.m. till 10 or 12 at night,” Safi says.
“Well, I live on this block,” Jones snaps. He turns to me as Safi walks away. “I’ve been here for 20 years on this same corner. What Mayor Epps has got going now, I think, is pretty good. But since I’ve seen Pine Lawn police go out of this neighborhood, the atmosphere and the socialization of the police, it went downhill. All they’re trying to do is make some money off us. People are wanting to get their fingers wet, and they ain’t done jack shit. They need to have these police paid good so these police can watch their ass.”
He sighs. “That’s just the way things are here.”
Every community has its landmarks, its anchors and gathering spots. Pine Lawn’s only hangout is Skate King, and that’s flooded by people from all over the place. The community is defined instead by its old stone churches and neat redbrick houses; the low clean rectangle of the new Barack Obama Elementary School, built with optimism while the Normandy School District waited for accreditation; and stately old Garfield Elementary, now occupied by Beyond Housing.
More than a third of the residents live below the poverty line. There’s no MetroLink station. The nearest shopping center is North Oaks Plaza, just west of the city boundary, and every store there is advertising hope: Save-A-Lot, Rent to Own, Dollar Tree, Dream Beauty. In Pine Lawn proper, commercial buildings are old, their paint peeling like bark off birch trees. There’s Piggee’s Styling Salon, open only on Fridays and Saturdays; a faded turquoise building where somebody’s selling used tires; several small daycares, one next to a package liquor store. On the side streets, the ’40s brick bungalows are crumbling like stale gingerbread. At C & K Barbecue, I ask Latoya Smith what she wants for Pine Lawn. “They need to work on fixin’ these houses up,” she says. “They just make it look like it’s just gone.”
It’s likely that what’s now Pine Lawn first belonged to Spain, then was snapped up by Jean-Pierre Chouteau, says St. Louis County historian Danny Gonzales. Natural Bridge Road was once lined with estates belonging to the cream of St. Louis society: the Mullanphys, the Lucases, the O’Fallons. To the south lay the future city’s namesake: 100 acres, thick with dark brushy pine trees, surrounding the country home of Margaret McLure.
She was accused of sheltering Confederate spies, hiding escaped prisoners, and dispatching Confederate mail. She was marched onto a steamboat headed for Mississippi. But when the Civil War ended, she came home and served as the first president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Half a century later, African-Americans who’d been displaced by downtown development swelled Pine Lawn’s census, and it became a stable working-class city.
Then its wealthiest residents began to move west. Population has fallen by roughly 44 percent since that midcentury peak; at the latest census, it was 3,592. Median income in 2015 had fallen to $28,480, and that’s with a lot of census returns missing.
Those pine trees now shade a city that’s nearly all African-American. McClure’s ghost no doubt chilled the air when the Concerned Citizens of Pine Lawn angrily dubbed their community “Plantation Pine Lawn” and decried its white cops’ Klan jokes and “Jim Crow practices.” Aldermanic president Roslyn Brown is convinced that nobody noticed the problems in Pine Lawn because it had “a black mayor—with a white police chief acting as his overseer.”
I ask Alderman Gerald Metts whether he thinks a tiny low-income white municipality would have been ignored as readily. He says he’s not sure: “I think they look at it like ‘It’s a small town, majority African-Americans. We let them handle their own stuff.’”
When he was elected, in 2016, Epps inherited an office stained by greed, eccentricity, and abuse of power.
Former Mayor Sylvester Caldwell had reigned for years. His photo on the city’s website had a backdrop that resembled the Oval Office. (Another photo, described as people receiving donations at the Caldwell Community Help Center, was actually a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo taken at a MERS/Goodwill outlet.) Caldwell ruled with a heavy hand: One ordinance required residents to get permits just to clean their gutters, and the city was towing between 800 and 1,000 cars a year. Several residents and businesses have said that the mayor, who’d appointed himself police commissioner, used police powers to retaliate or intimidate.
Brown clashed with Pine Lawn authorities herself, back in 2013, before she entered politics. Her daughter’s father, Ronald Zimmerman, had stuck up flyers warning residents about re-electing Mayor Sylvester “The Cat” (his Majic 100.7 deejay nickname) Caldwell. Zimmerman was being harassed at traffic stops, Brown says, and the owners of properties he managed were warned not to do business with him.
“What we didn’t know was how Sylvester’s salary was changing,” she adds.
Pine Lawn had a part-time mayorship paying $8,400 a year, but Caldwell’s salary rose to $20,000 and then $60,000—double the average household income in Pine Lawn. “That is why the 2013 election was important for him to win.”
Brown started questioning her neighbors. She says she soon had tears in her eyes as she listened to “the things people were subjected to because they didn’t know their rights or they were scared of the police. And I was terrified of them, too. These are the people who are supposed to serve and protect you. If that falls apart, what else do you have?”
She was no longer living with Zimmerman in 2013, when Pine Lawn officers showed up at her door demanding to know his whereabouts. They wrote out 33 alleged violations of housing code ordinances, said she’d failed to comply with their investigation, and arrested her in front of her 11-year-old daughter, who was sobbing into their dog’s fur. “If you don’t like what’s going on, take it to the next level,” an officer told Brown as he dragged her, barefoot, to the police car.
No, she thought, I’m going to become the next level.
She and other citizens banded together as Concerned Citizens of Pine Lawn and compiled a list of their concerns.
First of all, the mayor didn’t live in Pine Lawn. Residents had been complaining, unheard, for 15 years, since his days as an alderman. “Vicious lies,” he’d retort. “Where do I live if I don’t live in Pine Lawn?” “On Avocado Lane in Florissant, where your wife and kids are,” they flashed back. Sylvester, his mother, his father, and his brother Sidney were all still registered to vote from 4216 Edgewood, a little shotgun house with a bricked-over picture window that his parents had turned over to him in 2006. When the Post dug up water company records, they showed zero use at that property.
Next on the citizens’ list: Caldwell’s unethical business practices and reckless leadership. He held “special” meetings without giving citizens notice; he blacklisted those who challenged him; he ordered the police department, especially powerful Lieutenant Steven Blakeney, to do his bidding.
The Concerned Citizens sent their complaints to all eight aldermen, the St. Louis County Board of Elections, the state ethics commissioner, the state auditor, the Missouri secretary of state, the Missouri attorney general, and their congressional representatives.
“They all referred us back to [St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert] McCulloch’s office,” Brown says. “We wrote him—and got no response.”
“She did get a response,” McCulloch tells me now. “She talked to us and—I can’t say it was her exactly. Over the years I’ve been here, we have certainly had a number of calls about different municipalities. We will generally interview them. If there’s something to it that warrants further investigation, then we will refer to the appropriate agency. In this case, I can’t say it was Ms. Brown, but I know we had calls about Caldwell and about Blakeney. And what we did—I have a group within the office that handles complaints against municipalities and municipal officials. They would have talked to her. I know we did refer someone to county intelligence, and county intelligence was already working with the FBI on an investigation into some activity in Pine Lawn.”
McCulloch’s not sure what prompted the FBI investigation. Brown says that when all else failed, she sent the feds a 30-page document: “They contacted us in three days. They said, ‘Who do you want us to get rid of first?’ And we said, ‘Cut the head off the snake.’ The mayor was indicted. Then the acting chief of police.”
Caldwell had demanded cash bribes from the Pine Lawn Food Market and Eddie’s Towing. The towing company owner described Caldwell’s asking for “a cup of Mountain Dew, uh, full of foam, two times for the Rams,” holding up two fingers to indicate how much cash he wanted. “The green Mountain Dew in the cup” meant to stuff the cash in a Styrofoam cup at the Phillips 66 where they met, and Caldwell’s saying he was “thirsty” meant that he wanted more green stuff.
In 2015, Caldwell was convicted of extortion and attempted extortion. He served 33 months in federal prison.
The next year, Blakeney was found guilty in federal court of conspiring to falsely arrest a mayoral candidate. In another case, a jury deadlocked over charges that while off duty, he assaulted a man outside a bar. The Post reported that an insurer had paid more than $1.3 million to settle abuse claims against Blakeney. Meanwhile, Blakeney, who cooperated with the FBI to nail Caldwell, won a wrongful termination suit.
Policing in Pine Lawn had been fraught for years, the line between enforcing and breaking the law thin and wavering. Back in 1989, the police chief was abruptly fired by the mayor. By 1994, Pine Lawn had gone through eight police chiefs. Cash, a pistol, jewelry, and cocaine disappeared from an evidence locker. At one point, St. Louis County police arrived to find a murder scene in flames, left unattended by Pine Lawn officers.
Pine Lawn detectives regularly made the news for threatening citizens with violence of varying degrees, from “ass-whupping” to kicking, punching, pulling a gun. One resigned after being arrested on suspicion of passing three counterfeit $100 bills. “Most of my policemen who come here have a little taint in their past,” the chief told the Riverfront Times in 2006.
The following year, the policing turned slapstick: Soon-to-be Chief Rickey Collins announced, “The gloves are off with the saggy pants.” Pine Lawn outlawed them, and officers began using golf carts to patrol in stealth, catching perps before they could pull up their pants. In 2009, firepower—AR-15 rifles, courtesy of a federal grant—was added to the absurdity. A year later, Collins fired at a motorist whose car struck a Pine Lawn police officer at a seatbelt checkpoint.
In 2012, a former alderwoman was arrested by Officer Steven Blakeney and charged with interfering with a routine traffic stop. In 2014, two women claimed that they woke up at Blakeney’s house without knowing how they got there, and when they said they were going to call the cops, he snapped, “I am the cops.”
Later that year, after being jailed for traffic warrants and refused medical care for abdominal pain and bleeding, Bernard Scott was found hanging by a shoestring in a holding cell. He spent 11 days in a coma.
In March 2016, Pine Lawn dissolved its police department and contracted with the North County Police Cooperative. Police officers were sent home, a locksmith showed up to change all the locks, and the North County Police Cooperative went on patrol.
Now the door of the old police department at City Hall reads, “The New Pine Lawn. Always Working to Serve You.” A sign taped over it reads, “Police Service provided by North County Police Cooperative,” and gives the number. Another sign says “Ring Bell,” but the day I try, there’s no answer. Some residents tell me they feel safe with the new co-op; others say they rarely see an officer patrolling.
Captain Clay Farmer, who’s in charge of co-op policing in Pine Lawn, sighs when I tell him this. “No matter what department you go to, that’s the oldest complaint. Our response time is two to two and a half minutes. There’s no way could we respond that quickly and not be out there.
“We have a really high call volume in Pine Lawn,” he continues. “We get a lot of bleed-over from the city.” Foot patrols are mandatory, Farmer says, and three officers are focusing on Pine Lawn (unless there’s an emergency call elsewhere) every shift. “I’ve seen a big change from the time we took over, or—I don’t like to say ‘took over’—partnered with the city. We’re getting a lot more cooperation. Before, people didn’t want to get involved at all. They did a survey—I think Beyond Housing did it—and the residents were more happy to have us here. We do a lot of community policing.”
Brown, who was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 2016 and is now president, applauds the new system: “Our community needed to feel safe again. We know the officers assigned to our community, so there’s a small-town feeling.”
Metts thinks Brown’s just sweet on the police captain: “If you ask any resident, they will tell you we don’t have no police services at all. They want to be like St. Louis County, but they can’t. And they charge us almost $58,000 a month!”
I ask the mayor to confirm the monthly cost. He splutters a bit, doesn’t want to disclose the amount, isn’t sure what that has to do with the future of the city. “The co-op is what it is,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re doing a pretty decent job, and as of now, I’m satisfied.”
From 2010 to 2015, the Pine Lawn crimes reported to the FBI stayed pretty constant: fiftysomething violent crimes, one or two murders, zero to five rapes, about a dozen robberies, nearly 40 aggravated assaults, between 100 and 200 property crimes, lots of burglary and theft.
In 2017, the North County co-op made 758 arrests, Farmer reports. Sixty were drug-related; 55 were for violent crimes; 25 were for carrying a concealed weapon illegally.
“The Honorable” is how Mayor Epps titles himself on his voicemail. And he is honorable, says supporter Darrell Gillespie, “a Christian man, deeply rooted. His dedication to the city is beyond belief. We were at a meeting, and they were talking about him packing boxes for a food pantry all by himself.”
In his campaign video, Epps dressed elegantly, a white pocket square matching his white tie and shirt, and held himself stiffly erect as he chatted about the future. As mayor, he retains the dignity—but he doesn’t communicate overmuch. On the city website, it’s hard to find a phone number, and the “Message from Mayor Epps” page reads, “Oops! Page not found.” Alderman Gerald Metts has started attending municipal mayor meetings and claims that he’s the one who informs the board what’s said, with Epps just chiming in at the end.
Epps is far more concerned with integrity than Caldwell was. But according to several residents, Epps, too, lives outside Pine Lawn. Since 1997, he has listed an “owner-occupied” residence at Glen Garry, up past Bellefontaine Neighbors in Glasgow Village, as his address for every financial transaction in the public record. His mother, Virginia Epps, is listed as owner and taxpayer for the house in Pine Lawn that Epps claims as his residence.
“I’m in real estate. I own several properties that are in my name,” Epps says. As for where he actually lives, he says, “Me and my mom share the same address. I have an elderly mother.” He then asks me to keep his address and his mother out of this, unless I want to interview her about the future of Pine Lawn. I say I’d love to and ask whether she’d be willing. “I don’t think so,” he says, the tone firm and dismissive.
When I mention the address question to Brown, she winces and nods. “Yeah. He grew up here, but he does not live in Pine Lawn—and that’s an issue for us, ’cause after fighting so hard to get rid of Sylvester Caldwell…!”
So why not raise the issue?
She shrugs. “Takes a lawyer.”
Epps tells me this is “just something that’s been said since I’ve been in office. Things of that nature are proven to the Missouri Ethics Commission. It was sent in. They said they have no legal grounds to support those allegations.”
I call the commission, which says such issues are handled by the Missouri secretary of state’s office. A staffer there says the only way to challenge an incumbent for not meeting the address requirement is for a resident to sue him.
That takes time and money. Besides, several people have pronounced Mayor Epps the best thing to happen to Pine Lawn in 15 years. Though he squeaked into office in 2016 to finish Caldwell’s term, he won by a landslide—312 of the 490 votes cast—in 2017.
The real powerbroker in Pine Lawn isn’t the mayor anyway. It isn’t the Board of Aldermen or the police, either. It’s Beyond Housing.
The nonprofit is focused on the 24 municipalities in the Normandy Schools Collaborative, building and rehabbing houses to anchor communities. It either sells the houses (keeping, through a community land trust, the lots on which they sit) or rents them at low rates. Beyond Housing counsels residents about jobs and finance and education, coordinates community resources, steers parents to programs that will help their children, helps families through crises.
Sitting in his sunny office, I listen as president/CEO Chris Krehmeyer speaks with enthusiasm about the 41 homes the organization has already built here—31 for rent and 10 for purchase—and the 40 rehabs they’ve done for homeowning seniors. He calls Pine Lawn “a hardworking lower-middle-class community that’s on the upswing,” close to I-70 and the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Express Scripts, but without a big employer inside its boundaries. He describes a “downward spiral that becomes real difficult to put the brakes on: Your school district starts struggling. Your housing stock starts to wane. Your social fabric starts to fray.”
Krehmeyer speaks with bomb squad caution when I ask about Beyond Housing’s relationship with Pine Lawn’s leadership: “We never want to ask for favors. We just want to know what are the rules. We want to be a good member of the community.” The extra emphasis puzzles me until I talk to Cheris Metts, mother of Gerald Metts and a former alderwoman herself.
“The biggest problem in Pine Lawn is, Beyond Housing thinks they own the place, and they don’t,” Cheris announces. “They tore up our streets when they were building new homes, and they refused to fix them. We’ve got craters! And when they build a house for somebody to purchase, the buyer doesn’t get the land. I just call it glorified projects. All of us who have been here any length of time want them gone.”
That’s not entirely true: Longtime resident Anna Jackson is thrilled with the agency. “They just knocked down this house next to me that was full of raccoons and squirrels for years,” she exults. “The older people feel that Beyond Housing’s taking over their territory, because Beyond Housing still owns the lot even after they sell you the house. I don’t understand it myself. But I want to see advancement—see something that’s better, that I can walk out my door and say, ‘Oh, my God, look at that! That’s beautiful’—not the same old raggedy lots. If Beyond Housing can do that, I’m with them.”
Unlike Pine Lawn, Beyond Housing passes its audits with flying colors; an independent audit in 2016 showed about $113 million in total assets. Its newest project in Pine Lawn will use low-income tax credits to construct 40 more rental homes.
“They have a wealth of resources that are great for Pine Lawn,” Epps concedes, but he, too, is troubled by the community land trust. “We all know we’re not going to live forever. Fifty years later, who says the next group coming along is going to build affordable housing?” He says he raised the point with Beyond Housing, asking why they won’t relinquish the land, and “some of their comments were ‘We are not going to do business that way.’ ‘It’s business; it’s not personal.’ Land is wealth. It’s one thing we know for sure is not going anywhere…” He sighs. “But Beyond Housing brings a lot of resources to the community.”
Brown tells me the organization “has been very good with some community engagement efforts, and they’ve been supportive of a lot of the goals we have for our city.” There’s a “but” in her voice, and it soon tumbles out: “We don’t want one entity to own more land and property than the community does. We don’t want one entity to have a complete stakehold and monopoly, creating what some would see as a shadow government because they have so much influence over what’s developed.” Her sigh’s as weary as the mayor’s was. “It’s kind of a catch—we appreciate the efforts, but we do encourage and want other developers, especially minority developers. Right now, it’s only a particular group’s vision.”
She offers an example, small but annoying: The St. Louis County Board of Elections changed Pine Lawn’s polling places to Beyond Housing. “You’ve got three white men of privilege in a room deciding how the election’s going to work. This city’s taxpayers pay for those elections! And Beyond Housing is surrounded by a construction zone! It just wasn’t necessary to move our polling places at all. They would not be trying this stuff in Ladue.”
Or in Velda City, where Mayor Robert Hensley is still upset about McKinley School. He says he had a volunteer-run rec center going for 16 years in the empty school building, and then the Normandy School District gave Beyond Housing all of its vacant buildings. “We tried to buy the building from them, but they didn’t let us have it. We bought land trying to get the other municipalities to come in with us and build a rec center, but they trust Beyond Housing.” A soft snort. “It’s profit for them, not nonprofit. They build houses, but the land still belongs to them. I’m not having that in Velda City.”
One day Brown was driving down Natural Bridge and saw a stranger on a ladder, tagging a shuttered business with a graffiti-style mural that read, “The Rebranching and Rebranding of Pine Lawn.” She slammed on the brakes. She says the painter quickly assured her that he had the mayor’s permission, adding, “This is another area that is broken.”
“The next thing we know,” she exclaims, “there’s an article about dissolving our community because it looks like this!”
She’s referring to a recent article in the Post, illustrated by a photo of the new graffiti, headlining a new Manhattan Institute for Policy Research report. The institute presented Pine Lawn as an example of inner-ring suburbs “so structurally, economically, and politically devastated that they should consider scrapping their borders and joining their adjacent cities.” The Post also quoted the mayor’s protest: “We’re proud of our city. We’re working hard to get the city where it should be.”
Brown urged Epps to have the graffiti scrubbed off. It wasn’t helping.
The only bright spots Brown sees at the moment are the new park and the rental home construction—both Beyond Housing projects. She wants more. “We’re taking back our city,” she says, adding that the council has realized that it’s not enough just to make clean laws and end predatory practices. Pine Lawn needs a robocall system to keep citizens informed, a serious economic development plan, a youth council. She thinks the Great Street Project should continue all the way east from UMSL to the city boundary, creating clear entry points for the tiny municipalities along that stretch and brightening the way with lights and banners. There’s a natural business district along the axes of Natural Bridge and Jennings Station Road, just waiting for developers…
“What’s Mayor Epps doing about all that?” I ask. Brown clears her throat. “Well, they are the ones that took the communication system out. I’m not aware of an economic development plan that he has. I’ve always asked him, ‘What are your goals? What are your plans?’”
I ask Epps which of the ideas presented at the unveiling strike him as practical and a good fit for Pine Lawn. “It’s a seed,” he says, “a seed that’s planted some ideas about development and moving the city forward. My personal opinion is, I want to see more resources in the city of Pine Lawn. More educational tools. Maybe a technical school like Centene’s.” Above all, he’s looking for financial stability: “We have to bring in revenue.”
Last spring, the latest in a series of critical state audits rated Pine Lawn’s court “poor,” citing improper fees, missing records, and almost half a million dollars owed to Missouri Department of Revenue. The real figure is “nowhere near that,” Epps assures me. “We found out there was certain stuff not categorized in the right place.” Pine Lawn’s budget might not be spilling over with surplus funds, he says, but it’s “basically flat, has been for the past 17 years.”
Epps wants to tug the city free of its past—especially his predecessors’ antics. The state should have watched more closely, he says. “But right now, we are policing ourselves. Our courts are used as a model, and the past administration is gone. It’s done with. To still have that linger over our head does us an injustice.”
Pine Lawn was once “a thriving municipality,” he adds. “You had everything you needed right here. We have to get financially stable again so people are willing to put their money into the community, and then we generate our own revenue, and we don’t have to go outside.”
Even when the Concerned Citizens of Pine Lawn were writing every official they could think of to beg for an investigation, they noted, “Many of us take pride in living in the City of Pine Lawn, where we used to be able to manage our lives and property fairly, safely, and successfully.”
Are tiny municipalities uniquely vulnerable to corruption? Pine Lawn’s not alone: A former mayor and alderwoman in Pagedale was just charged with forgery. Kinloch’s former mayor is in federal prison. Jennings impeached its mayor, Yolanda Fountain-Henderson, who’d sued just about everyone in Jennings government, including herself in her former role as councilwoman.
Size itself isn’t the problem, McCulloch says: “We have others that are even smaller that we never hear from. But most are smaller jurisdictions, and they usually aren’t doing well financially.” He’d like to see the state auditor’s initiative pass this year so “law enforcement under certain circumstances would be able to say, ‘We need a forensic audit right now.’ Today, it might take a year.” Another reform he pushed for years ago “that never went anywhere,” he says, is to “make it a crime not to keep certain records,” because when they simply don’t exist, it’s hard to prosecute corrupt officials.
Is the larger solution to do away with these little municipalities altogether? Should they merge with the city of St. Louis, consolidate with one another, unincorporate, let the county provide services?
Krehmeyer says the answer needs to be driven by residents themselves: “The Vinita Terrace–and–Vinita Park merger was about those communities saying that made sense for them. We helped them merge. Now we’re helping Normandy and Glen Echo Park. But bigger government is not necessarily better, and even if all the cities in our 24:1 community merged, that doesn’t fix our schools or housing stock or crumbling infrastructure. We pick up some modest gains and efficiencies. But the bigger problems should get as much attention as all this talk of mergers.”
A few years ago, nextSTL.com posted, “The tyrannical, dysfunctional, corrupt, selfish, incompetent, impotent, wasteful, insolvent municipalities in St. Louis County have to go.” You hear none of those adjectives applied to Huntleigh, one of the nation’s tiniest municipalities—because it’s also one of the wealthiest.
Pine Lawn has very little money. It once made most of its revenue from traffic tickets and court fines, but the Ferguson reforms have capped that revenue. Ironically, many of Pine Lawn’s tickets went to white commuters passing through on I-70, so the city resents being caught up in that sweeping reform. Still, in 2014 Pine Lawn was averaging seven traffic summonses a year per resident. The next year, the number of traffic cases filed went down by 73 percent.
Epps doesn’t want Pine Lawn relying on ticket revenue anyway, but somehow that revenue has to be replaced. If viable enterprise doesn’t emerge, Pine Lawn’s sense of place, identity, and self-governed community will continue to erode.
Latoya Smith, the young C & K cashier, tells me she doesn’t want Pine Lawn to merge with anybody. Why not? “Because it’s Pine Lawn. I mean, there’s so many people that are already together. They just want to put everybody in a bucket.”
Patty Heyda, associate professor of urban design and architecture at Washington University, says when her students explored Pine Lawn and similar municipalities, their first thought was to create a bucket, by means of consolidation. They were stunned to drive 5 miles down Natural Bridge and cross 11 municipalities, each with its own speed limit and court. “One student even came up with a new name, Pasavelda Woods or something,” Heyda recalls. In the schematic, the abbreviation’s the No-Pi-Be-Up-Vc-VV-Hi Area.
Then the students banged hard into the proud boundaries of those communities they’d abbreviated and mushed together. They discussed the democratic ideals of local government and the fact that not everything’s more efficient when it’s combined. A small municipality (OK, maybe not quite as small as Pine Lawn) also avoids inefficiencies. Residents can choose their mix of taxes and services, avoid being annexed, know their public officials personally.
The students took a different tack, keeping each municipality but proposing consolidated court districts, shared police, a park system, coordinated economic development.
The core problem, Heyda says, is that it’s hard to cooperate that closely when nobody has enough money, let alone enough leverage, to lure a big corporation and persuade it to “give back, or at least take less.”
Gerald Metts thinks Pine Lawn may have to unincorporate.
“You hear comments about unincorporating,” Brown says, “but from people outside our community, looking on and not realizing how much hard work we are putting in.”
Metts is hardly an outsider, though; he and Brown sit on the Board of Aldermen together. “I think we’d have more services than we have right now,” he says, adding that people who resist unincorporation “probably think it means they’d get put out or have to move. You got a lot of residents up in age, and they love Pine Lawn to death, they really do. ‘This place was here… We had this over there…’—they’ll tell you everything that was there, then say, ‘They just ran down the businesses. We ain’t got nothin’ now.’”
Nostalgic at 26, he recalls a time when “Pine Lawn felt like home. You knew people there. You felt like you were safe. Now a lot of people have passed, and a lot moved out because of the leadership. Probably only three or four of my classmates still live in Pine Lawn. It’s like a ghost town.”
In “The State of Psychological Ownership,” Kurt Dirks, a business professor at Wash. U., noted that the place we inhabit entwines with our identity. The more intimately we come to know that place, the more we feel we own it and the deeper our investment of self. That feeling of ownership can fade, though, if we lose control over our surroundings or they become strange to us, no longer familiar. Everybody hits that point of disengagement at a different threshold. Then, ties loosen; memories grow remote.
After the unveiling of visions for Pine Lawn, Jones tells me, “We don’t know one another anymore. Nine times out of 10, you are afraid to get acquainted with anybody. You don’t know who he is, and you are scared of what he might do to you.” He gives me a rueful smile. “But other than that, it’s a nice neighborhood.”