Hey, Neighbor!Michele Duffe

Neighborhood development activist, Michele Duffe
Photo provided by: Michele Duffe

With decades of experience in public and private neighborhood development projects in North St. Louis neighborhoods, Michele is well-versed on the potential and challenges that come with renewing and renovating the city that she's proud to call home.

You have a very impressive background in urban redevelopment in Hyde Park and other neighborhoods in St. Louis. What was the catalyst for getting involved in this effort?

My husband and I returned to St. Louis in 1971 after he finished his naval service and our plan was to purchase a home in the city. My father-in-law was the chief of staff to former Mayor Cervantes. What we didn't realize at the time is that our relocation experience attracted the mayor's personal attention. We found a home in the Shaw neighborhood and started applying for a loan. After seven lenders turned us down for location issues, the mayor stepped in and we finally got a loan approval.

Our personal experience opened my eyes to what was happening to the residential fabric of the city and motivated me to become active in the Shaw Neighborhood Association. I obtained my broker's license, organized house tours and chaired a problem property committee. From 1982-1988 I ran the city's Land Reutilization Authority and that experience made me very familiar with North St. Louis neighborhoods, their residents and local leaders.

With your long history in the area, what are some of the subtle progress signs towards revitalization and community building that you see happening in these neighborhoods that others might not be seeing?

The central corridor and its historic neighborhoods are now stable with increasing values and rents. Adjacent neighborhoods are generating greater interest from buyers and renters who want to be city residents.

The technology-based and professional jobs within the city are also increasing, along with the number of young, educated professionals wanting to work and live in the city. We're seeing an encouraging uptick in young families who are embracing city living because they like the lifestyle and the selection of housing architecture options.

What are some of the understated, or overlooked, attributes to living and working in north city neighborhoods, and what are the challenges in promoting them to friends, family, and others?

The neighborhoods north of Delmar were built with more money than the city's south side. The beautiful architecture features found in many north side neighborhoods are wonderful but these homes also require greater financial resources to maintain them and in some cases that increased cost is more than owners can afford. Unfortunately this has led to disinvestment in these neighborhoods, which drives property values down and limits what a current owner or prospective buyer can borrow to renovate their home.

These neighborhoods need a new breed of urban pioneers to turn them around. The locations these new residents will pick will probably have a high concentration of single-family homes, and less rental properties near other areas of investment in either housing or businesses. Hyde Park, Old North St. Louis, Jeff-VanderLou, Academy-Sherman Park and West End are some of the neighborhoods that could provide these opportunities.

Both local and national media paints all of North St. Louis with one crime-filled brush, but I personally know many residents who are great neighbors that anyone would like to have. My friends and business acquaintances who live in these neighborhoods feel as strongly about their community as I do and take great pride in where they live.

As a downtown resident and community business leader what do you think the key is to unlocking the full growth potential of neighborhoods like St. Louis Place, Hyde Park, College Hill and others?

Good public and charter schools are key to removing what has become the "Delmar Divide." Home buyers look for locations with good schools, even if they do not have school-aged children because good schools equate to stable property values.

From your own personal perspective what are the benefits of living and working in the city?

The city is made up of neighborhoods that are like small towns connected to each other. Hyde Park and Old North St. Louis are places that I love for their architecture, the residents, local leadership and of course Crown Candy and Pieketowski's sausage. I feel very at home working in Hyde Park and enjoy being part of this wonderful community.

Above all, our local neighborhoods provide a walkable experience where you get to know your neighbors. Because homes are close to each other, children can play outside, explore their environment and grow up living in a mixed-income, mixed race community. No matter which neighborhood you live in, you are close to our great amenities which include great restaurant options, sports, free concerts, theater, and libraries which are conveniently close by.

What do you think the impact of Next NGA West project will be in neighborhoods in and around St. Louis Place?

NGA's new location should help contribute to removing the "Delmar Divide" by inspiring how people think and act about living and developing areas close by this new and huge investment. It will be a great thing if the NGA investment helps promote and support good school options for local families, then more homebuyers will consider buying and renovating the historic homes in the adjoining neighborhoods. The renewal that has recently occurred in places like Forest Park East (now known as the Grove), or Cherokee street. can also occur around the new NGA campus.

What kind of contributory roles do you see NGA employees playing in transforming St. Louis place and surrounding neighborhoods?

NGA employees could help find resources for after-school and summer enrichment options for neighborhood children, summer jobs for youth, coach sports teams, support local businesses, buy and renovate investment property. Or, better yet, relocate to the neighborhood and help create change within and ultimately deter disinvestment.

The views presented are those of the participant interviewed and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or NGA, or any of their components. No endorsement is expressed or implied.

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