house in Shaw in South City St. Louis
GROWING OUTSIDE THE GARDEN
Namesake Henry Shaw would smile approvingly if he could see how this neighborhood is thriving.
By Jane Louis
Photographs By Theresa Arnold
Neighbors walking their dogs down tree-lined streets, children outside playing—it’s hard to believe that the area surrounding the quiet Shaw neighborhood was notorious in St. Louis for gunfire and drug deals just a few years ago. Now that improvements and renovations are being made to its once crime-ridden surroundings, Shaw is proving to the city that it has what its residents have always known it to possess: resilience.
“The Shaw neighborhood for a long time has had some strength, even when neighborhoods around it haven’t been doing well,” says Pete Salsich, a resident for 15 years.
Bounded by two major thoroughfares (Grand on the east, Interstate 44 on the north) and two major parks (the Missouri Botanical Garden on the west, Tower Grove Park on the south), the historic Shaw neighborhood reflects the vision Henry Shaw had when he laid out his plans in the 1850s.
The population boomed in the late 1800s when cable cars arrived in St. Louis, increasing the speed of travel between Shaw and the city. The variety of housing options brought a mix of citizens: The wealthy occupied most single-family homes, and two- and four-family homes attracted laborers and minorities to the area. The result was a community filled with people of various nationalities, races and income—and that’s what Shaw residents love best even now, says George Robnett, executive director of the Garden District Commission.
The commission was formed in 1998 to “improve and help stabilize the area around the Botanical Garden,” Robnett says. Members focused on McRee Town, a neighborhood just north of I-44 and the Shaw neighborhood. Property values in the area took a staggering dive between 1990 and 2000 as a result of increased crime and negligence in maintaining buildings. The commission undertook a community-based agenda to revitalize the area—a plan, Robnett says, that was “all about the quality of life.”
The result is an entirely new development called Botanical Heights. Residential homes and buildings—56 percent of which were deemed dilapidated and uninhabitable—were razed, and new single- and multiple-family homes are being built in their place. The new homes, designed to echo the style and character of surrounding buildings, are so popular that potential buyers camped out the night before lots became available in August 2004.
Robnett says plans for Botanical Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods flow directly from what the community wants and needs. The commission will continue working with the Missouri Botanical Garden to improve local schools and set up neighborhood-watch groups with the help of local law enforcement, he says.
But Jim Roos, founder and president of property manager Neighborhood Enterprises, says the Garden led the project with one priority—building expensive single-family homes—and unfairly took more than 100 of his habitable buildings by way of eminent domain.
Despite the controversy, the Shaw neighborhood is flourishing. New businesses— including a coffeehouse, the Thurman Café— have opened. Co-owner Shannon McGinn describes the café as a place to walk to and meet neighbors. She says there has been a great amount of support for the opening of the coffeehouse and hopes it will give homebuyers confidence that locally owned businesses will come into the neighborhood.
Other points of interest in the neighborhood include Flora Place, home of the annual Historic Shaw Art Fair, a top-rated arts and crafts fair benefiting the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association. The SNIA also sponsors the Historic Shaw Holiday Home Tour, an annual tour of historic houses and buildings in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood features several community-oriented services, including Covenant House Community Service Center, an agency that provides assistance to at-risk youth, and the Missouri School for the Blind, the first school in the Western Hemisphere to teach Braille. At the Shaw Dog Park, an off-leash park at the corner of Thurman and Cleveland, dogs run and play freely.
Neighbors love the close-knit community of Shaw and its proximity to downtown St. Louis—and they are proud of both its history and current improvements. “We’re thrilled to be here,” says Salsich.