“It’s in the soil. There’s greatness there.”
Since 2017, Michael Burns has been serving the Ville community as president of Northside Community Housing, founded 44 years ago. The founding agency for NCHI was Northside Community Center. Burns reflects that, “The first issue they dealt with was hunger, because they saw back in the 70’s a lot of people were resorting to eating cat food and dog food.” This led to the birth of the Meals on Wheels program, providing much-needed nutrition to community members. Once the issue of hunger had been addressed, the next issue was housing. NCHI strives to revitalize housing through renovation, updates, and preparing people for home-ownership. This initiative encourages people to stay comfortably in the Ville, as well as to provide a stable home base for youth.
These projects hold a lot of significance for Mr. Burns, who was born in Homer G. Phillips hospital and grew up in the Ville. In his words, “I’ve walked these streets. I walked to school. I got bullied on these streets… I’m happy to be playing a role in helping to bring back the area with other developers [as we] bring this area to the original grandeur that it once was.” As Mr. Burns reflected on the changes in the Ville in the last century, he recalls growing up with a lot of businesses, barber shops, record stores, and restaurants. He would stop at the confectionary store on his way home. “You knew who the police were, you knew who the teachers were, you knew what people’s professions were… there was a lot of camaraderie.” Much of this is gone now. There is no grocery store, mailbox, fast food, cleaner, coffee place, ATM, or bank. Crime has become an increasing issue. The neighborhoods are filled with vacant lots, derelict units, and vagrants living in foreclosed properties. Mr. Burns explained the cyclical economic decline as a symptom of disinvestment. As businesses left the Ville, they took with them the employment, resources, and money. Now, there is nowhere for Ville residents to spend their money and reinvest it in small businesses.
Mr. Burns also cites the issue of bussing students. He no longer sees a stream of backpacks flow into the local schools. Instead, students are forced to wake up early, sleep on the bus, and go to a different St. Louis school. This excludes students from extracurricular activities and adequate sleep, since bussing takes so much of their time. Although this picture of the Ville may seem bleak, Mr. Burns boldly declares that “there is [hope] and there will continue to be.” He is encouraged by the youth of the Ville stepping up to preserve their history and heritage. He is encouraged by the positive growth NCHI has witnessed in establishing stable homes and teaching financial literacy. This gives them the “ability to grow.” After providing the basics of food, health, and housing, people can be empowered by their own self-sufficiency. Although this physical and spiritual revitalization may seem overwhelming, Mr. Burns encourages the community to “Keep on striving… It’s in the soil. There’s greatness there.” Mr. Burns is certainly not alone in this sentiment, and the work of him, NCHI, and the innumerable community members contributing in their individual ways is having an indelible impact on the Ville and future generations to come.
Written by Audrey Feldman, Notre Dame Volunteer Intern 2021