Students and the City

Introduction

About the Micah Program and This Site

The Micah Program of Saint Louis University brings together students from every region of the United States and from a wide variety of faith traditions and academic majors. Participants live together in community during their early years in college, studying the problems of the urban poor and performing long-term community service in light of what they learn. Many stay involved with the program for four years, often completing an academic concentration in Urban Social Analysis with us.

This site makes available research projects on urban problems written by our students over the last few years--most commonly when they were freshmen, but in some cases when they were seniors completing the equivalent of a minor in urban studies. Virtually all the essays have to do with issues of special relevance to the Historic Shaw Neighborhood just south of the University's Health Sciences Campus, where Micah has made a long-term commitment to serve the more than two thousand residents who live in poverty and to learn as much as we can about their problems.

Our initial aim in publishing these projects on the World Wide Web was to make them available to our own students, who analyze and discuss them as part of the assigned reading for our freshman writing class. We also wanted to share our experiences and reflections with the people of the neighborhood, who have welcomed us with great warmth and generosity. We are grateful for all that they have taught us, and we hope that the site will serve as a modest return for the time and attention that they have given our students so freely.

We also hope that samples of our work will be of interest to a wider audience. Some of the proposals put forward in the essays have potential applications in a variety of urban settings and may be of value to students, teachers, and directors of community organizations in other cities. Our practice of encouraging students to write for real audiences--addressing difficult issues out of direct personal experience, rather than simply churning out library research papers to be discarded at the end of the term--may also be of interest to teachers of writing. We trust, finally, that the site will be visited by people with less pragmatic aims who are simply concerned about the seemingly intractable problems posed by urban poverty and who would like to see what our students have learned about them.

A word about coverage. The papers address only a sample of the many worthy rehabilitation and revitalization projects that have recently been undertaken in the Shaw Neighborhood. Although we would love to explore more of them, two constraints limit what we can do. One is pedagogical. Since students do their best work when they are allowed to choose their own topics, we encourage them to follow their heads rather than to fill in gaps in an idealized project outline. On that system, coverage is never complete. A second constraint is curricular. Because Micah is a service-learning program focused on urban social analysis, our courses necessarily give more attention to the challenges that remain in Shaw than to those that have already been addressed.

The photo gallery at the end highlights some of the efforts not covered in the essays. The photos show, for example, brick-and-mortar projects currently underway to bring back houses and businesses, new infill parks and neighborhood gardens, and a sampling of the area's unusually innovative public and private schools. As the images suggest, Shaw is a lively and beautiful place to live, one that is both socially engaged and socially engaging.

About the Shaw Neighborhood

Located just south of the Saint Louis University Health Sciences Campus, the neighborhood has about 8200 residents and is the most densely populated area in St. Louis. With a racial composition of roughly fifty-six percent African Americans and forty-four percent caucasians and members of other races, it is unusual in that it has always had a full spectrum of economic classes within its boundaries. Mansions and large homes owned by people of means line Flora Place, the shady divided boulevard running through the neighborhood from east to west. Handsome but less costly houses, virtually all built in brick between 1890 and 1930, occupy nearby streets. As one travels from Flora toward the neighborhood's boundaries at Interstate 44 to the north and at Tower Grove Park to the south, concentrations of duplexes and small apartment buildings appear, many of them now rented by people of limited income. Thirty-ninth Street, a main thoroughfare running north and south that was once the site of the business district, is now lined with a variety of community organizations and small retail and service establishments.

Established by the nineteenth-century social visionary Henry Shaw, the neighborhood nestles between the Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park, for both of which Shaw was also the principal planner and developer. These great green spaces make the neighborhood a particularly attractive place to live. The Botanical Garden ranks with the New York Public Gardens and the Kew Royal Gardens in England as one of the three great botanical research institutions in the world, and its grounds are one of St. Louis's most beautiful and frequently visited attractions. Tower Grove Park was designed on the model of New York's Central Park and is one of only a handful of major Victorian walking gardens in the United States that is still fully preserved. Its more than twenty pavilions, designed in a wide variety of architectural styles, draw residents from all over the area for picnics, family reunions, birthday and graduation parties, and cultural events.

Since Shaw is relatively safe, and is close to downtown St. Louis and to most of the city's major cultural and educational institutions, location is its greatest advantage. Its greatest resource, however, is its people, who have been unusually creative and energetic in preserving it from decline. Between 1945 and 1990, when the surrounding city lost nearly sixty percent of its population to urban flight, the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association established close-knit block organizations, redesigned traffic flow through the neighborhood to limit congestion and crime, created a neighborhood watch, and took other steps to encourage home ownership. Since 1990, the number of interested buyers has increased substantially, sparking a good deal of rehabilitation.

Nonetheless, the neighborhood has a long way to go to regain the strength and stability that it once enjoyed. In many respects, Shaw is a microcosm of the larger city of St. Louis, reflecting some of the same social and demographic trends over the last half a century and sharing many of the same challenges. For that reason, it is an ideal site for college students interested in understanding the forces at work in America's inner cities and in addressing problems of the urban poor. About twenty-six percent of the residents of Shaw live at or below the Federal poverty line. It is for them that Micah has made a long-term commitment to study and serve in the neighborhood.

Samples of what we have learned about Shaw and its residents over the last six years are provided in the essays that follow. We begin with those bearing on the recent history of the neighborhood, then turn to the resources available to address its problems. We conclude with some of the ideas for long-term improvement that we think most promising.

Debts of Gratitude

The first impetus to create the Micah Program came in 1996 from Michael Garanzini, S.J., who was then Academic Vice President of the university and is now President of Loyal University in Chicago. My warmest thanks to him and to Dean Shirley Dowdy, who gathered the first group of faculty and staff to develop the program. Thanks also to Dean (and now Provost) Joe Weixlmann, Dean Michael May, and Associate Dean Mary Elizabeth Hogan, who have so unstintingly supported the program over the years.

In editing Students and the City and in developing its website, Micah has benefited greatly from the support of the Department of English and its Chair, Sara van den Berg. We have also been very generously supported through a grant from the VOICES Project of Saint Louis University, directed by Mary Beth Gallagher. In providing funds, VOICES drew on a major grant from the Lilly Foundation earmarked for projects such as ours that allow students to explore personal vocations to lay or clerical ministry.

Much of the work to select and edit student essays for the project was done by my Associate Editor, Annie Papreck, and all the work to design the web site, provide photographs and illustrations, and work with students to complete their revisions was carried out by Debra Wilson, the Micah Coordinator. My warmest thanks to Annie and Debra. Without them, the pieces could not have come together as they have.

Other debts are harder to detail. In 1996, when we began designing the Micah Program, we named it for the Old Testament prophet Micah, whose teachings on social justice have served as a special inspiration to us. The program was also grounded in the mission of the Jesuit Order, which has been committed to serving the poor from its earliest beginnings in the sixteenth century. Our most sincere thanks to the Society of Jesus and to our many supporters among the faculty and staff at Saint Louis University. Without them, Micah and its ongoing work in the Shaw Neighborhood would have been impossible.

Donald Stump, Director
Micah Program

"What does the Lord require of you but to do justice,
to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)