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“Sectored off”: Meacham Park
June 9, 2020
Winter White-Banks, sophomore, and her friends rushed through the halls on Friday, discussing where to go as school let out. The group bounced ideas off one another, but ultimately failed to decide on a location, so Winter invited them to her house.
With her offer, however, the group grew uneasy–Winter lives in South Kirkwood, an area better known as Meacham Park. Finally, one girl spoke up.
“How about we go get pizza?”
Annexation and Kirkwood Commons
Before 1991, Meacham was Kirkwood’s southern neighbor —a primarily black, unincorporated part of St. Louis County surrounded by wealthier and whiter communities. Timothy Griffin, current Mayor of Kirkwood, said once Meacham Park students started attending KSD, a movement began to annex the historical community.
“Over the years there was neglect in Meacham Park from the county, and they were not getting the services the community of Kirkwood was getting,” Griffin said. “The communities were getting closer through schools, and in the late ‘80s, [people started saying] ‘Let’s annex if the residents of Meacham Park and the citizens of Kirkwood want to annex. They’re already part of our community, so let’s make it officially a neighborhood in Kirkwood.’”
When Kirkwood moved to annex Meacham Park in 1991, more than 70 percent of Meacham Park residents voted in favor, hoping their more affluent neighbor could bring improved city services. Romona Miller, assistant principal, began teaching at KHS in 1992 following a career in real estate development, after Meacham Park became a neighborhood in Kirkwood.
“I can remember early on when I first came here, I looked at [Meacham Park] and made a statement that any [land] speculator who was coming in and looking to make money, that would be an area to do it,” Miller said. “In my role, that’s what I did. I took an area and changed it from what it was because it was prime real estate.”
With the relatively small houses, the cheap land surrounded by wealthier suburbs and the proximity to Interstate 44, Miller said Meacham Park was prime real estate. So she was not surprised when Kirkwood announced the construction of Kirkwood Commons, a new shopping center housing Walmart and Target, on the new territory. Griffin said the majority of Meacham Park residents supported the construction because they believed it could bring economic opportunity to the community.
“For the most part [Kirkwood Commons] was very much supported by the residents of Meacham Park,” Griffin said. “There were some [residents] who didn’t favor it but the great majority were part of it, gave input on it and felt it would be a real improvement to the community, and it has [been.]”
However, to build the shopping center, Kirkwood needed to buy two-thirds of the residential property in Meacham Park. Many residents sold their houses to the city voluntarily, but others had their homes taken through eminent domain, in which the government takes private property and compensates the owner. Griffin said some of the residents left permanently while others agreed to have a new house built in Meacham Park through house-for-a-house. Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association (MNIA), said the conditions for building a new house made many residents of Meacham Park feel like second-rate citizens.
“The house-for-a-house was with restrictions, and the restrictions were you could have a house-for-a-house if it was built in [Meacham Park], not if it was in Kirkwood proper,” Patton said. “A person that owned a house in Meacham Park could not be awarded a house on Adams Street in Kirkwood, even though the annexation would [mean Meacham is in] Kirkwood.”
Griffin cited improvements such as better roads, housing stock and increased economic opportunity, but the construction project caused Meacham’s population to drop by 28.3 percent, according to St. Louis Magazine in 2008. Some residents felt like Kirkwood compromised their community and others felt cheated or separated from the rest of Kirkwood.
Kirkwood City Hall shooting and aftermath
According to St. Louis Magazine, a Meacham Park resident named Cookie Thornton strongly supported both the annexation and the construction of Kirkwood Commons, believing Kirkwood would offer his asphalt and demolition business construction contracts on the project. When the developers did not hire his business and he received numerous tickets for parking his construction equipment in a residential neighborhood under Kirkwood’s new ordinances, Thornton believed Kirkwood was participating in a racist conspiracy against him and Meacham Park. He filed a federal lawsuit against the city, protested outside Kirkwood City Hall and disrupted City Council meetings without success.
“I think most people realized that the city really wasn’t treating Cookie badly,” Griffin said. “Cookie was one of us, and I knew him since I was a kid. He had some beefs that probably weren’t legitimate, but [they were] legitimate from other people’s perspectives.”
On Feb. 7, 2008, Cookie Thornton once again walked into a City Council meeting. He held two handguns and a sign saying “The unrest in Meacham Park will continue until the racist plantation mentality of the Kirkwood officials are addressed.” Then, he opened fire on the council members, killing six people. The rampage elevated Kirkwood’s divisions.
“I think it brought the conversation to, ‘Even if there’s not realities, what [are the] perceptions of all of this; what is it that a resident of Meacham Park may think about the city?’” Griffin said. “‘Is it a bad perspective, and should we be doing something differently to make sure everyone feels more included?’”
Griffin said he and the rest of the City Council invited in the Human Relations division from the Department of Justice to lead discussions among residents of Meacham Park, Kirkwood city government and the rest of Kirkwood. This morphed into the Human Rights Commission, which is an ongoing forum for conversation about race relations in Kirkwood. The Kirkwood Police Department began periodically grilling hot dogs with residents of Meacham Park. The attempts to bring the community together also went beyond government, as churches and civic groups worked to cross the divide through seminars. Kirkwood United Methodist Church, a predominately white church near Downtown Kirkwood, held the funeral for Cookie Thornton to bridge the gap and now hosts an annual prayer vigil the Sunday after the shooting as part of its Kirkwood Social Justice Coalition initiative. According to Jess Horsley, director of youth and family ministries, creating these spaces for the community to come together is essential to addressing the divide in Kirkwood.
“I think whenever there is a tragedy like the shooting, it makes people focus on not only the tragedy itself but then the causes,” Horsley said. “ That’s just natural human reaction. There are a lot of people who are willing to engage with each other and have these conversations and be a part of the solution.”
Patton and MNIA worked closely with Kirkwood city officials to give Meacham Park a more prominent role in the community and Griffin said Patton plans activities the City of Kirkwood participates in. One of their primary goals was to create a positive dialogue between residents of Meacham Park and the rest of Kirkwood.
“Ever since 2008, it’s been more coming together, working together and staying together,” Patton said. “You see organizationally, our structure has been built around positivity.”
Patton said this positivity showed at the 2019 fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at KHS, a collaboration between MNIA, KSD and Kirkwood city government. As Miller, Horsley and a diverse crowd looked on, Patton, Griffin and other city leaders linked hands on stage. Patton emphasized one phrase.
“More coming together.”
“They’re not considered Kirkwood kids”
Despite the show of Kirkwood solidarity, they all agree progress can still be made. Miller said she particularly sees the disconnect between students from Meacham Park and students from the rest of Kirkwood at KHS.
“It’s all Kirkwood now, but they are still referred to as our kids who come from Meacham Park,” Miller said. “So there still is an implicit bias there just by the fact that they’re not considered Kirkwood kids. They’re considered kids from Meacham Park.”
Meacham Park’s location plays a role into its isolation: Interstate 44 borders it to the south and east, while Kirkwood Commons shields it from other Kirkwood neighborhoods to the west. When Latanya Caffey, junior, moved there almost two years ago, she saw it as physically and socially separate from the rest of Kirkwood.
“You don’t associate with anyone else, you only associate with the people inside Meacham Park,” Caffey said. “When you go outside of Meacham Park, you go out with the Meacham Park kids. You don’t go out with anyone else.”
Winter does go out and talk to other people, like the friends she leaves seventh hour with. She’ll introduce herself, make small talk and the conversation will be going great, until she mentions that she lives in Meacham Park. Then, the conversations become tense—she said they see her neighborhood as violent and dangerous. They see her neighborhood as technically part of Kirkwood, but not truly a part of the community. They see her neighborhood as an area beyond a wall of stores at Kirkwood Commons that they have never ventured to.
“It’s weird to [know] the people I go to school with can’t come over to where I live even though it’s around the corner from where you’re hanging out,” White-Banks said. “People think of Meacham as dangerous, but I don’t think of it that way. I’m a part of the community and I see the inside of it.”
Winter said she sees a neighborhood that welcomed her when she moved in. She sees a neighborhood where kids play in the park and everyone comes together for barbecues. She sees a neighborhood where her mom is everyone else’s mom and her friends’ moms are her mom. She sees her neighborhood, Meacham Park, as one big, loving family.
“We’re not any different from you,” White-Banks said. “The only difference is we live in someplace sectored off. It’s not [your] fault, but don’t make it seem like it’s ours either, so try to make an effort.”