Under a scowling summer sun, Kaveh Razani squints out the second-floor dormer window of a South City rehab-in-progress. “It’s gonna be interesting,” he says, looking up the street. “There will be six artists living within 100 yards of each other.”
Razani is the director of operations at St. Louis Art Place Initiative. It’s a nonprofit that, thanks to $750,000 in pledged funds from Kranzberg Arts Foundation and Incarnate Word Foundation, snapped up two dozen derelict city-owned properties in the Gravois Park neighborhood. The goal now is to renovate them and then sell them to artists of low-to-moderate income.
The first artist scheduled to move in is Stan Chisholm. He’s peering over Razani’s shoulder, watching a wrecking crew across the street work on a second home. Chisholm is a meditative 34-year-old with dreadlocks and a tendency to speak in quiet bursts—that is, provided he’s not on stage rapping with the experimental group TheOnlyEnsemble. Going by the alias 18andCounting, Chisholm spins on a regular basis at The Royale, has painted murals at the City Museum, and teaches art at Kairos Academies. He says he’s looking forward to dropping ideas with his soon-to-be neighbors/creators. “It’ll be nice to know you always got someone who understands ‘half-finished’ versus ‘undone,’” he says. “That’s the thing I like about being around artists. They can speak process.”
The initiative’s own process is also somewhat under construction, says Razani, who’s the co-founder of the Cherokee arts hub Blank Space. So far, they’ve advanced as follows: In the first round, interested artists had to submit applications; 24 did so. (Chisholm hit the deadline, Razani notes, with four minutes to spare.) A scoring system gave priority to applicants who have strong links to the community. That scoring narrowed the field to six finalists, including Chisholm.
The idea is that he’ll secure a loan for the house, put money down, move in, and pay down his mortgage over time, building equity along the way. If he ever wishes to sell, deed restrictions will limit him, in effect, to selling to the next artist in line for the same purchase price; this will ensure that the real estate stays in the program. Meanwhile, he gets to walk away with all that built-up equity in his pocket.
Not that Chisholm is thinking that far ahead. He drifts around the newly poured concrete basement and eyeballs the ceiling height. Tall enough, he concludes, for large frames and vertical storage. He imagines alcoves all over the house for specific artistic endeavors—writing, drawing, playing with synthesizers or sequencers or drum machines. Having these spots prearranged will cut down on procrastination, he predicts. He wonders aloud about sound-treating the walls (because true sound-proofing, he laughs, is impossible).
Bothering a lot of neighbors with music, though, would require effort. Gravois Park is not highly dense. It has struggled for years with vacancy, boarded-up houses, and overgrown lots. The initiative bought 24 parcels here and one in Dutchtown. The project’s first phase involves seven single-family homes sprinkled over four contiguous blocks. The general contractor is Habitat for Humanity, which, for the first time, has agreed to play solely that role in a housing project. One reason, says Habitat’s real estate development manager, Michael Powers, is that the initiative offered some parcels to Habitat so that the latter could mount its own projects and shrink its waitlist of around 500. “Having a nonprofit partner with a long-term interest in this part of St. Louis makes this a perfect scenario for our buyers,” says Powers. “We’re not going to go it alone any longer.”
For now, the initiative is handling the artist applications and the real estate, but Razani says the board is discussing the possibility of turning over those tasks to another entity in the works: a community land trust—that is, a nonprofit with inclusive, hyper-local representation that owns and manages property for the common good. That arrangement wouldn’t be unique; according to the consultancy Grounded Solutions, there are 225 community land trusts across the country. The local nonprofit Beyond Housing operated one for a while, though it has gone dormant after a loss of funding; a different one sponsored by both the city and state is being organized for North St. Louis. But a land trust set up specifically for artist housing, if it comes to fruition, could be sui generis. Razani says he searched in vain for another example.
Whatever responsibilities the land trust ends up having, Razani says, it will probably own an art gallery, about six parcels converted to green space, and some commercial spaces on Chippewa. The latter properties may provide enough revenue, he says, to contract out management of the trust to a group such as Dutchtown South Community Corporation, which has helped steer the initiative from the outset.
The house reserved for Chisholm was built in 1897. At the back of it, he and Razani look out a window at a ladder leading up to the flat roof. The artist vows to spend time up there. “You’re not supposed to go up to the roof at any other place,” he says. “When it’s yours, you go.”
Chisholm seems reticent about his upcoming purchase. Later, he’ll explain why: “I’ve been strung out emotionally with this whole process,” he says. “It’s a lot to think about. But I’m done going through the Do-I-Deserve-This? phase.” Asked to elaborate, he says, “When you don’t grow up rich and something ‘rich’ happens, you think you don’t deserve it. But I don’t have any more emotional juice to pour into it. I’m diverting my attention to all the other things that I’m doing.”
He strolls through the unfinished first floor. Sunlight blasts through newly installed windows. His natural habitat is darkness, he jokes, so he’ll need curtains. He glances around. Strokes his chin. Lets himself feel something—just a bit. “It’s gonna work,” he says.