Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
Maplewood's Rachelle L’Ecuyer and Marty Corcoran
The next hot topic among urbanists in St. Louis is the so-called inner-ring suburb, the term for a community that rose up on the city’s border in the early 20th century. Often accessible by way of mass transit, “streetcar suburbs” are home to walkable urban neighborhoods. Yet these peaceful refuges have arrived at a moment of reckoning: The houses are 100 years old, and the residents must decide whether to reinvent their towns or move on.
Case in point: Maplewood.
More than a decade ago, the city’s leaders realized their community needed a new spark, a new call to action. At the time, the city’s face, the commercial strip along Manchester and Sutton, was suffering; at one point there were more than 15 vacant storefronts, indirect reminders of business stolen by Crestwood Mall half a century ago. So they started by ensuring that longtime businesses such as Sunnen Products and Citizens National Bank would remain in the community.
Still, people needed another reason to visit Maplewood, recalls community development director Rachelle L’Ecuyer. So rather than focus on attracting chains (with the exception of niche businesses like Penzeys Spices), Maplewood and its longtime city manager, Marty Corcoran, encouraged small businesses. L’Ecuyer also organized and promoted dozens of events, from Schafly's farmers market to brokers’ tours, to drive foot traffic.
At the same time, the business district embraced environmentalism, which helped improve revenue. Consolidating dumpsters and recycling bins, for instance, increased recycling while delivering savings in reduced hauling expenses. (In fact, Maplewood won the EPA’s Green Power Community of the Year Award last year.)
Yet as the shopping district grew, the Maplewood–Richmond Heights School District floundered. When Linda Henke became superintendent, in 2000, the district was fulfilling just 57 of the 100 requirements for state accreditation—the bare minimum to remain accredited. The district had cycled through four superintendents in five years, and one eighth-grade class had burned through seven math teachers in one year. The school board faced two choices: The district could dissolve, or it could change. Fresh with new members who stood behind the superintendent, the board went to work. First, Henke terminated more than 30 percent of the teaching staff. She also began to combat the district’s image as a training ground for teachers to gain experience before moving to more prosperous districts. She credits the educators—“quiet saints,” as she puts it—who found a way to thrive. She fought to update historic school buildings and insisted on five teachers per grade level. Henke also sought to make Maplewood a “boutique district,” one that modeled itself on prestigious private schools such as Crossroads College Prep and The College School. And, perhaps most important, she worked to instill greater pride in the district.
At one point, a mutual friend suggested that Henke contact social entrepreneur Karen Kalish, who introduced her Home Works! teacher home visit program. The two realized that reviving the link between school and home was critical to resurrecting Maplewood’s schools. When the program was first implemented, about one-third of parents responded enthusiastically; another third were indifferent, and the last third never responded. The two women knew that it was perhaps most critical to reach this last group. Eventually most of the recalcitrant parents came around.
By 2003, the district was scoring 100 on accreditation goals—a record level of improvement.
Kalish largely credits Henke—“the power of one person and her vision”—for the turnaround. Yet Henke and others community leaders are reluctant to take all of the credit. They humbly insist that it was a communitywide effort. “Business owners said, ‘What is good for Maplewood is better for me,’” says L’Ecuyer. “Maplewood is The Little Engine That Could.”