2015 Sweet Potato Project Neighborhood Walks: In their own words
Essays by the Young Entrepreneurs of the Sweet Potato Project Neighborhood Walks: 2015
“You are the young, urban pioneers who will help revitalize our neighborhoods and create jobs and opportunities for your siblings and peers.”
This is the message we share with our students every year. Since 2012, the Sweet Potato Project has provided summer jobs for at-risk teens. During the 10-week period they learn how to grow, market, package and sell food-based products. We teach them entrepreneurial skills they can employ today, within their own neighborhoods.
One of the ways we teach community ownership is through our annual “Neighborhood Walks.” With notebooks and pens in hand, we take them to different parts of St. Louis just to look, observe and note the types of businesses, advertisements, signs and neighborhood conditions they see. Below, are some of the student’s essays about this year’s “Neighborhood Walks.” Like us, I’m sure you’ll find their frank observations, experiences and visions for their communities concerning, enlightening, and down-right inspirational.
– Sylvester Brown, Jr. Executive Director
by Travion Johnson
As we explored different communities this summer, me and my peer Sweet Potato Project students made different observations. Out of the many neighborhoods we observed, ranging from best to worst, I would say South St. Louis is much more economically stable than the North side of the City. Starting from vacant homes and businesses to just keeping an overall clean community, many simple things could be done to taking steps forward in rebuilding parts of the North Side. In this essay, I will compare and contrast the observations I have made. Also, I will include my opinion of how improvements can be made to reach positive changes in these communities.
The first area we toured was South City, specifically Arsenal and S. Grand Blvd. On first sight, everything around looked well maintained. None of the buildings were vacant; there was no trash blowing in the wind, and you noticed small things like the nice cars driving by. The demographics were different from any other part of the City. In most parts of the City, the areas are divided and dominated by one race or culture; not in this case. The communities and neighborhoods were very diverse and still seemed to have all of the stores to provide everything to successfully maintain a community.
The second area observed in our walks was the Natural Bridge and Newstead neighborhood. This area was much different than the previous one we visited. There were vacant houses and businesses; sidewalks and parking lots were trashy; police were pulling over citizens at random on the streets, and the list goes on. On the contrary, I had a conversation with a resident that impacted me more than anyone else I had talked to during these Walks. He shared his personal issues that lie within his community. We had small talk, shared a few laughs but, by the end of the conversation, he left us with wisdom and hope.
The Sweet Potato Project is helping expose me to view things around my community in ways that I have not realized…
The Sweet Potato Project is helping expose me to view things around my community in ways that I have not realized before. The issues in my community that I have never imagined are now being brought to my attention. Furthermore, not only are we coming together as a group to discuss these problems, we are also making movements to create products and bring wealth back into different communities as well. After bringing money into a neighborhood we can invest in things that will benefit the surrounding buildings and businesses. This is a more ethical and morally correct way, rather than using methods such as gentrification.
More residents in these low-income communities should take ownership and begin to create businesses within their own neighborhoods. More of these neighborhoods should generate businesses like the ones on Grand and Arsenal; make it where you don’t have to leave the community to buy anything because everything you need is already there; spend money within the community and keep it there; support locally-owned businesses and create products of your own; become your own boss. That way, you are in control of what’s going on within your surroundings. Take control of the power you already have and become dependent on your own knowledge to provide for a community of your own.
by Edie Adams
Why is it that some communities strive while others struggle to get by? We visited two communities in the same city, but were different worlds. With simple things such as one being clean and the other dirty; one making you feel welcome while the other making you worry. Even the businesses are so different; on one side we have a variety of businesses while the other has only so many to choose from.
“South Grand is a neighborhood for everyone with respect by everyone”. As we took our walk in a neighborhood in the Grand and Arsenal area this sign was proudly displayed around almost every business. When I read it, I smiled. I smiled at the idea of everyone being welcomed. The sign was also posted in the small area where people could come and sit and relax or converse with friends; there was a water fountain in the area next to a yoga spot. The streets were clean and there wasn’t much litter and trashcans were on every corner. It was a neighborhood with so many businesses and so many cultures coming together. These businesses thrived together and coexisted nicely – not overpowering each other. There was a Thai cuisine restaurant as well as a Mediterranean market, Wei Hong Bakery & Barbeque, Moroccan Cuisine, a business called “The Vine,” a Falafel bar, Hookah lounge and a Juice bar just to name a few of the many businesses on the strip. They were just a few that made South Grand an enjoyable community.
“We Must Stop Killing Each Other” and “EBT Accepted” were two signs that popped up frequently in front of houses and businesses as we walked around the Newstead & Natural Bridge area. I didn’t smile at these signs. They weren’t welcoming and made me wonder why those two signs were displayed so frequently. “We must stop killing each other”… a powerful message, but who is “we?” If “we” means blacks, whites, police and civilians then I love the message and proud to see it on display. But if the signs are referring to just the people in the community, I feel it takes on a different meaning and I am against what it stands for because it’s not tackling the bigger picture.
“We Must Stop Killing Each Other” and “EBT Accepted” were two signs that popped up frequently in front of houses and businesses…
Why is “EBT Accepted” displayed so bold on almost every window of almost every store? Is it because the neighborhoods are filled with people of color in poverty? With streets filled with litter and trashcans toppled over, it seemed as if no one cared about the neighborhood.
Check-cashing places with “MODOC Available,” packaged liquor and Rent-A-Center are just a few of the businesses I noticed in the neighborhood. There is nothing wrong with these businesses, it’s just bothered me that none seemed to be owned by the people who looked like the people in the community. Also, there weren’t really any major supermarkets nearby. The businesses seemed like “every man for themselves” instead of everyone working together so everyone could flourish.
Both communities stick out for different reasons and could learn a thing or two from one another. My solution to make both communities flourish would be, first, make sure there is unity among the businesses and the members of the community around them. In the south Grand community, even though they had signs that were welcoming, the people didn’t have the most welcoming looks as we walked by. In the Natural Bridge area, several people asked questions and some even stopped to talk with us about what we were doing. That’s something the south Grand community could take from the Natural Bridge area. On the other hand, the Grand community kept the streets pretty clean while the Natural Bridge community…not so much.
The solution to this problem is fairly simple; we as members of the community can simply do our part and pick up trash we see lying around. Also, there weren’t many vacant or empty lots on Grand Blvd. but there are tons of them in the Natural Bridge community. This is also a problem that isn’t too hard to fix. If we, the members of the community, started buying these vacant properties, fixing them up and adding the things the community needs in these spaces, we, too, can coexist and keep the money inside the community-which, in return, will build a stronger, cleaner and safer community.
by Michael Smith
Today, I saw a friend. She was slow-stepping down the walkway on the subway in some dirty old cat slippers and she looked dirty. There are many variations of these examples that I observed throughout the North side of town. As I walk through the ‘hoods I see foreign investors buying everything such as liquor stores, car washes and laundramats, and using it to profit off the ‘hood.
In my observations, I concluded that the money going into foreign investor’s hands is being spent elsewhere. I believe that if it were a more pleasant-looking place more money would be staying in the ‘hood. If it was cleaner and more buildings were built on vacant land, we would have better businesses. The reason I focus on business is because everywhere it’s the same in one way or another.
The only thing that sets them apart is their buying power. An upper-to-middle class friend is in a better position than a lower-class friend. If we want a better community, we need more economic activity flowing through the community. We need money everywhere, but in order to do this, we need to buy or lease and tend to the city land and buildings so we can own something and be able to do something with it to make money.
The South side is basically like a nice North side with a better economy. There are the same people on the South as the North. The only difference is the economy. I feel like instead of waiting on someone to come bring us some money, we should just fend for ourselves. We just have to do it in a way that inspires a movement.
In nicer cities, there are more businesses. Period. Sometimes, when I walk through my ‘hood, I think to myself; “This could be better.” I feel like we can improve the area if we cared enough. Being in the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) helped me care more because it shouldn’t be like this. SPP gave me a new outlook on the financial and real estate aspects of STL.
Sometimes, when I walk through my ‘hood, I think to myself; “This could be better.” I feel like we can improve the area if we cared enough.
One time we visited a lot where a man contracted with the government to sell them fresh produce. They provided him with the land he needed for just five dollars a year. I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears. I would like to make future preparations to do the same but on a larger scale since the land is so cheap and easy to get. I would like to make a company that contracts with the government to fix homes, tidy up places all around the city and use fixed lots as places for economic activity.
Being in SPP also taught me how to be more respectable towards all because business cannot go smoothly between opposing parties. Most importantly, the Sweet Potato Project taught me how to have good energy and a good attitude towards life because success is not built on negativity and self-doubt never wins.
In light of these observations, I conclude that in order to profit, we must prosper morally, economically and continue to work together.
Neighborhood/ Community Walk…
by Marquita Williams
Over the past couple weeks, we have visited two different neighborhoods and comparing the two was very interesting. We saw a lot of things in the “good neighborhoods” that should have been in the torn down neighborhoods and vice versa.
In the better community (South. Grand) there where book stores, lots of coffee houses, banks, bars and lounges, different ethnic restaurants, cell phone stores, pawn shops, a Medicine shop and eye-care places. In the torn down community, there were more things like buildings that were either closed down or just vacant; a Sav-A-Lot with a pharmacy attached and a check-cashing place with a MODOC inside and there was trash everywhere.
One thing I did love was this building called the “Dream Center.” It’s been around since 2000 and what they do is feed people, give out clothes and provide a place for the homeless to shower. What really caught my eye about the Dream Center was that they really help out and give back to the community by helping the less fortunate.
One place that really stood out for me was MoKaBe’s Coffee, the only place with different quotes and signs. The one that stood out was “We Will Never Forget Mike Brown, Jr.”
There are so many things that need to be changed in our community so we can become better as one. I also like how there were many signs that were motivational like “Respect all Voices” and “Instead of War, invest in our people.”
We as a community need to come together to make change by helping out with the trashiness and creating safer living environments for our youth. Until that is done, we will continue to be strangers to each other and our communities.
by Antonio Johnson
During the summer of 2015, the Sweet Potato Project students went on this thing we call “Neighborhood Walks.” The “walk” is where we go to observe and compare differences between urban city neighborhoods and suburban county neighborhoods. This year, we chose to go to Grand & Arsenal and Natural Bridge & Newstead. We went in, walked around and took notes from each area to better understand what we can use to make urban communities better places to live, shop and support.
On our first Walk we chose to view Grand & Arsenal. When we first stepped out of the Sweet Potato van, I noticed nicer buildings than usual. As I looked to my right, I saw a welcome sign for tourists; something I don’t normally see. As we continued walking down Grand, I noticed that the only brown-skinned people around were the people we came with but the more we walked I saw more. As we crossed to get to the other side of Grand, my curious mind told me to push the button on the stop post. When I did, it started to talk. I thought somebody was trying to talk to me or something.
As we started to cross the street, there was this white guy coming the other way. He grabbed for his wallet as if we were going to pick his pockets. Doing that made me feel as if we were not welcome in the neighborhood without them thinking we were trying to steal something.
As we started to cross the street, there was this white guy coming the other way. He grabbed for his wallet as if we were going to pick his pockets.
For our second urban city “walk,” we chose the Natural Bridge & Newstead area. When we stepped out of the van, I noticed that we were somewhere I’d been before. As we walked down Natural Bridge I saw more liquor stores and “Free Phone” sights. My first thought was that this was a perfect example of how the government slowly tries to take control and keep track of the numbers.
As we continued walking, I noticed how more and more of the stores that were open had been closed. Another thing I saw was two different grocery stores only three buildings away from each other. At the end of the oldest store, we crossed the street and I ran across a friend of mine from school. We talked about what we were doing to make our community better.
We continued. I noticed this time there were more colored people than the ones we came with. The more we walked, I noticed people looking and wondering what we were doing. We came across this man who asked what we were doing and what it was for. We took the time and told him about the things we were doing to make the community a better place. After talking with the man, he changed his perspective about the safety of the youth in our community.
The purpose of doing these “walks” is for us to take note of the things we can use and build on in urban city communities. We’re shown how we as a black community need to come together and start supporting each other and build with one another. The two locations showed us there is a difference in urban and suburban neighborhoods and we need to make change. The world has made the black male/female to fail, so we need to start with us as a community to build and start more black-owned businesses.
This is what the Sweet Potato Project is trying to do; teach kids to give and build back in their own urban communities.
by Keon Williams
Every year the Sweet Potato Project goes on a neighborhood walk (‘Hood Walk). The purpose of the walks are to compare our North Side community to ones in South City. On the North Side walk I saw different billboards advertising liquor, cigarettes, teen pregnancy and drugs. These billboards are not advertising things that teens should be focused on like education or having a brighter future. Teens who see these billboards, it makes them want to try or buy legal drugs. There are so many check-cashing places because people think it’s the quickest way to cash their checks. They buy lottery tickets and liquor because they probably think those are important.
Business owners think about what they think people want instead of focusing on the kids and making communities better. Actually, it’s tearing the community apart even more. I’ve noticed over the years that African Americans degrade themselves more and more as time goes by. But on the up side, people on the North Side did ask what we were doing and they were polite.
I felt uncomfortable in South Saint Louis, though. People would stare and one person even grasped his wallet as he walked past us on the street, as if we were going to take it out of his back pocket. But on the upside, people on the north side did ask what we were doing and they were polite.
In the south community I saw that people cared about their community, the trash was in the trashcans and people took pride in their community. I saw not one liquor store and store owners trying to keep money in the community. The owners help the local food supply store in the area; which is what I think our north community needs.
I felt uncomfortable in South Saint Louis, though. People would stare and one person even grasped his wallet as he walked pass us on the street, as if we were going to take it out of his back pocket. Not one person asked us about what we were doing or even said “hi.”
The way we can make our North community like the South side is by bringing the same stores in South St. Louis to our urban community. We can bring BreadCo to our community and provide a safe place where people can eat in a mellow and peaceful environment. Also we can bring a store supply house to our community so our store owners will not have to get shipments from who knows where and try to keep our money in our community.
Comparing and Contrasting Economic Business
by Keyundra Baker
As a student in the Sweet Potato Project, it’s our job to learn the different aspects of business. We take these skills and apply them to our nonprofit organization to help develop great marketing techniques. This week we took trips to both thriving businesses and businesses in low-income-based communities. The observations I discovered was that different businesses choose their locations for many different reasons.
When walking down Grand Blvd., I noticed a large variety of businesses: coffee shops, banks, pharmacies and some ethnic restaurants. The streets were nicely paved with no debris or no visible potholes. At the crossing sections there are talking buttons to push that helped people cross the streets. Restaurants seemed to cater to the neighborhoods nearby by offering seating arrangements outside their facilities along with free Wi-Fi. It seemed like anything a person could want could be found along South Grand. Towards the end of the strip, I noticed a business that was quite different from the rest of the shops. It was titled; “International Supply House” and inside were different products that the other businesses in the neighborhood needed to run their stores. By having these products, the profits possibly remained in the community.
“I noticed a business that was quite different from the rest… It was titled; “International Supply House” and inside were different products that the other businesses in the neighborhood needed…”
Business tactics like this is a great demonstration of how to build communities from the ground-up. In my opinion, having businesses around that cater to the neighborhoods around them, keeps a constant flow of money within the community. By providing a supply house that feeds all the businesses on the strip, they also make sure no competitors got that money.
The next “walk” we took was down a less profitable area along Natural Bridge. The area is mostly surrounded by African American families. I barely saw any black-owned businesses. Stores like payday loans, auto shops, “Chinese Food” and beauty supply stores mostly surrounded the area. The streets were cracked and badly paved with potholes every ten feet. There was no outside seating areas like we saw on Grand Blvd. and the crossing signs did not have talking buttons.
When looking at the houses, there was visible damage from weather and the bricks were old and color-faded. The only visible flowers were weeds growing through cracked sidewalks and the gravel on parking lots. Most businesses had heavy security and sold what they believed the community needed. There wasn’t a supply shop visible, which left me to ponder where the profits went.
I learned that not all businesses work in harmony. When businesses use the “every man for himself” technique, the community around it will suffer. In other neighborhoods, each business would have to put together an amount of money to build the supply house and request to keep specified supplies in the store. I believe, if the money is used correctly, the profits will become visible in the landscaping around the business strip. Fountains, flowers and decorative borders over the doors of the businesses would provide a welcoming feeling to customers.
A good solution to bringing up neighborhoods like Natural Bridge would be a community tax on every dollar made in that designated area. This would mean each business would put money into the community surrounding their businesses. The taxes would go towards construction and decoration to make the area more welcoming. The businesses would still have the freedom to sell what they want but the new appeal would attract more customers.
By observing these two different neighborhoods and business practices, I learned that it’s important to create the environment around your business locations. Also, working with other neighboring businesses can help create a chain of income that can be used to lift up the community. Since Natural Bridge in North St. Louis is mostly occupied by black people, I feel the majority of business owners should be black. They would know what the community needs more than any other race. By minimizing what black people need, that forces them to eventually leave the community and spend money somewhere else that has more variety.
by Arthur Scott
“You must be the change you wish to see in the World.”-Mahatma Gandhi
With this year’s neighborhood walks, we viewed two very different communities. At Grand & Arsenal the communities are a lot safer and the streets are cleaner. Then we viewed Natural Bridge and Newstead where there were a lot more vacant lots, vacant housing and liquor stores.
In the Grand area, I saw a lot of minority businesses in the community and shopping plazas. In Natural Bridge, I saw lots of Arabian-owned corner stores and liquor stores. The shopping plaza on Natural Bridge was missing a business and had a vacant spot. On Grand, all the spaces were being used. Also, the shopping plaza on Natural Bridge had a lot of the same type stores where Grand had a variety of stores.
The people on Grand were of different races and cultures, all living in the community as one. On Natural Bridge I saw one race of people-black people, separated from good communities and high chances to succeed.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”-Martin Luther King, Jr.
The community is very important because it’s your habitat. If you don’t change it or help in any way, who will? It takes more than a parent to raise a child; children also learn from elders in their communities who should set good examples for them.
“These two different neighborhoods aren’t just about who lives in them. It’s really about who cares for them.”
In our communities are elementary schools that are getting shut down rapidly and abandoned. It’s not just houses; schools are even becoming vacant lots or vacant buildings. New buildings are being built in Downtown and South St. Louis, which supplies the communities with jobs and opportunities. It is in North and West St. Louis-where people really need jobs in their communities and steady tax dollars rolling in that give people a chance to spend money in their own neighborhoods.
These two different neighborhoods aren’t just about who lives in them. It’s really about who cares for them. Take care of your community and it will most definitely take care of you and your family.
So What Makes a “’Hood?”
by Ranesha Sutton
Not every neighborhood is “bad;” not every mother is “unfit,” and not every father is a “deadbeat.” So what makes a “’Hood?” What makes a child “bad?” What provokes children to live the lifestyles they live now?
We have been stereotyped and led to believe that the neighborhoods we live in or brought up in defines our characters. The ‘hood doesn’t define us as human beings; we define the ‘hood.
Over the past two years, I have had the pleasure of digging deep inside what most people call “the ‘hood.” Although we visited several today, I will only focus on two; Grand & Arsenal and Natural Bridge & Newstead.
Grand and Arsenal turned out to be a pretty busy and clean neighborhood. There were lots of successful businesses and signs urging people to “stop the violence.” The businesses were mostly close together, almost like neighborhood apartments. Everything seemed so peaceful and organized. There were a variety of restaurants ranging from Vietnamese, Chinese, Mediterranean and more. I could tell there is a lot of money flowing on Grand. I’m not suggesting that the area is perfect, but it’s certainly not corrupted.
“We have been stereotyped and led to believe that the neighborhoods we live in or brought up in defines our character. The ‘hood doesn’t define us as human beings; we define the ‘hood.”
The other neighborhood we had the pleasure of visiting was the Newstead & Natural Bridge area. This is a neighborhood that can use a lot of work, but could also stand on its own. This is a neighborhood that could teach youth like me to use what we have and make the most of it. After all, they made something out of what most people claim to be nothing.
I noticed the neighborhood had a liquor store or church on almost every corner. I saw a lot of stores and inside almost all was a sign that read; “We accept EBT.” To most eyes, this is where the stereotypes come in. I ask myself, “Is this what makes a ‘hood a ‘hood; Is this where the word ‘hood’ originated?”
My observations don’t just stop there. I noticed a variety of abandoned houses and lots in the area. The paint was chipped off roofs and corners of houses. Located in the yards of some of the owner’s houses were little black and white signs that read: “Let’s stop killing each other.” The businesses were very small, but like the ones on south Grand and Arsenal, they seemed successful.
We cannot help where or what we were raised in or around. We can only change ourselves. To do this, we have to be the change we want to see. We can start by maybe picking up trash we see around our neighborhoods. We can plant more sweet potatoes in more lots, maybe around the vacant homes we see on the streets.
It’s not a lot but it’s impossible. I believe today’s youth can accomplish anything. All we need is a helping hand.
Sweet Potato Project Neighborhood Walk
by Tytianna Parrett
The differences in every neighborhood so close to each other are bigger than most would think. I found this out recently during our “hood walk.” Our first walk was on Grand & Arsenal. In my opinion, the area was very neat and well kept. I saw no buildings going through foreclosures. They also have signs promoting clean streets and safety. The variety of places was astonishing. One place really surprised me; a Chinese Barbecue restaurant. It was unique and very unexpected.
Growing up in the south, I was never able to see the things I’ve seen in St. Louis, good and bad. It’s these experiences that really kept me here. The yoga park on Grand was GREAT and it is one of the places that will forever stay in my memory and I will be going back to visit Ritz Park in South city again. I loved how everyone in South city was so friendly and how the stores made it look like it was a small town in the City.
I wasn’t sure how to react to a neighborhood closer to my home and seeing the damages there. Liquor stores were on almost every corner, which was different from the south which barely had any.
We made our way back to north city on Natural Bridge and Newstead. The differences were very noticeable. I wasn’t sure how to react to a neighborhood closer to my home and seeing the damages there. Liquor stores were on almost every corner, which was different the South which barely had any. The way the two differ is major from race-to-religion. On the north side I saw a lot of trash in the street and on poorly-conditioned sidewalks. The broken and badly damaged sidewalks make it difficult for elderly and disabled people. Fast food restaurants surrounded the North side area, as well as abandoned houses and buildings. Even crossing the streets are different because on the South side the street crossing poles tell you when to walk. On the Nnorth, they don’t tell you when it’s safe to cross.
As you can tell, the areas are very different.
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