Date: February 15th 2011
Location: Maplewood City Hall
Individual being interviewed: Mayor White
Mia: This is Mia and Ann Marie and we our interviewing Maplewood’s Mayor White. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself Mr. White?
Mayor White: Sure I was born in Saint Louis and have lived in Maplewood all of my life except during college and serving in the military. I went to Southwest Missouri State for a year then I went into the military for four years. I got out of the military and went to Central Missouri State and got a degree in Political Science and Criminal Justice. I came out and worked for Saint Louis County police and received my Masters Degree in Urban Planning from Washington University. I grew up in the 1950s in Maplewood. Then Maplewood was booming. There were two major places to shop in Saint Louis which were Wellston and Maplewood. They were great times but over the advent of the shopping malls in the late 1960s downtown shopping folded up and the major retail stores went to the malls and that sent Maplewood on a downward spiral.
Mia: What was the root cause of the downward spiral with the businesses?
Mayor White: It was the shopping mall and the concept of the mall that caused it.
Mia: That was taking place all across the country not just in Saint Louis?
Mayor White: Yes it was all over the country not just in Saint Louis and that really stopped the main street local shopping district. I have lived through some bad times here. The government in Maplewood was a strong mayor form of government and the Mayor ran the city government. The Mayor would have some of the other elected officials in charge of the police, fire, public works, and the library. It did not work there was a lot of infighting within the city and there was a lot of things going on that people didn’t like. It really culminated into a recall election of the Mayor and he was recalled; at that time a group of city residents formed a charter commission. So they developed a charter for the city of Maplewood. The most significant thing to come out of the charter was Maplewood became a City-Manager form of government. So the city manager runs the city he is in charge of all the departments police, fire, public works, street. They all report to him by charter; the Mayor and elected council people we cannot really go to a city employee and tell them to do something.
Mia: It all has to go through the city?
Mayor White: Yes it all has to go through the city manager. This was the first time Maplewood had a professional person running the city. To me it was probably the most significant change to happen to Maplewood.
Mia: How did the city adjust to that?
Mayor White: It was difficult at first.
Mia: I imagine getting the citizens to accept the change was difficult; people do not like change.
Mayor White: Exactly and we were a blue collar city. We hired the city manager at what many people felt was an exorbitant pay and it was based on the old axiom you get what you pay for. There was squabbling over that for a year to a year and a half; then people started seeing different things happen and the city running in a more professional way eased people’s concerns. Then we all started to come back.
Ann Marie: What year did Maplewood hire a city manager?
Mayor White: I would say in the late 1970s. I’m not sure the exact date when they hired the city manager.
Mia: Getting back to you and your experience what year where you born?
Mayor White: I was born in 1943 and I’m 68 years old.
Mia: So you grew up in Maplewood in the 1940s and 1950s?
Mayor White: Yes
Mia: What was it like growing up in a suburb of Saint Louis which is a bigger city? How can you compare growing up back then to a kid growing up in Maplewood now?
Mayor White: Well we had one TV in the neighborhood in the late 1940s early 1950s and all the kids in the neighborhood would hang out and watch the television. We played outside it was much more active we would walk to the grocery stores and the shopping districts. Cars were they just didn’t have them like everybody has them today. I got my first car when I was 17 and I paid 200 dollars for it so you know what that was like. It was really different. Today every kid has a car; I went through this with my five children they were going to college they all needed transportation and started branching out to other schools then the local district. It was considerably different then it is today.
Ann Marie: I noticed John F. Kennedy visited Maplewood during his 1960 Presidential Campaign were you living in Maplewood at the time?
Mayor White: Yes I was I saw him two blocks from where we lived between Sutton and Elm Avenue. He drove through there with the motorcade it was a very exciting time. We were kind of the original suburb next to the city so good things were happening and then the decline started.
Mia: Just from growing up in the 1950s it seemed as if there was more foot traffic? When we were getting our tour it seems as if Maplewood is trying to get back to that foot traffic especially in the downtown area shops.
Mayor White: We are trying to develop a walkable community not only for people coming in from other areas but for our citizens. Really you can walk anywhere in the city to get your groceries or drug stores. There is also Shop ‘n Save, boutiques, restaurants. You can walk up to the library and the pool. That’s what we’re trying to get back to it seems in Maplewood that is what our group of younger citizens want is that walk ability and safe walk ability.
Mia: You said that you were born in Maplewood. You went to school here and you only ventured out to go to college. Why did you stay in Maplewood after all these years when you could have lived in the city or gone anywhere else in the country?
Mayor White: Sure. One of the things growing up is when we did get more mobile to a car we were central to everything Highway 40. Highway 44 was not in yet but you could get to everything very easily from here. Growing up in the 1950s Lindbergh Boulevard was way out there; we had some relatives in Bridgeton and that was a long drive. There were no big highways at the time and the people here were the main attraction. They always looked after each other the people kind of took care and helped out.
Mia: So you had that sense of community?
Mayor White: Definite sense of community. When I worked for the county police I worked for the Superintendent of the police at the time and Maplewood did not have a good reputation. At the time and he said “Jim when are you moving out to West County and be out there with us?” I said “when was the last burglary in your subdivision? He said “about two weeks ago” and I said “the street I live on there hasn’t been one in 43 years”. So while we had some areas with un-savoring things going on the predominant subdivisions were people lived were very safe.
Mia: It seems that you have maintained that safety all the way into 2012
Mayor White: Yes
Mia: What were your efforts in keeping it safe?
Mayor White: It’s not me it is the citizens. The citizens are around so we try to encourage the citizens to get involved. When I first took over as police chief I went to a whole bunch of different neighborhoods and had block parties. I went to about 8 block parties and people knew each other; they were having fun the kids knew each other. I found out that those 8 streets had the lowest crime rates within the city because they knew everybody. You knew when a car was out of place or you knew that person hanging down there didn’t belong.
Mia and Ann Marie: Everybody was watching each other?
Mr. White: Yes and you have to do that within a community there are not enough policemen; the community has to participate in it.
Ann Marie: I’m not from Saint Louis but I noticed Maplewood has a lot of historical businesses Such as the first bowling alley west of the Mississippi. I was wondering what your favorite local Maplewood business is?
Mayor White: The bowling alley was definitely unique! As a young person we would hang out there and play pool. Many people came to town and that was a destination place. You’ll hear the term destination community and that is kind of what we are becoming. There were a lot of very unique places; you know the places I loved as a kid that you don’t see any more are the grocery stores and confectioners shops on every corner. The penny candies, chips, soda and the grocer was so friendly. Most people back then I remember going to the store for my mom and having the grocer put it on credit because there were no credit cards back then. But there was a deep sense of trust; this individual knew he was going to get paid. Or sometimes you couldn’t pay and he would hold off until the next month or so. That kind of trust for the person borrowing it put a sense on that person that I really need to pay this person back because they trusted me.
Mia: If you were talking with a young couple that was considering moving their young children to Maplewood what would be one of the things you would tell them?
Mayor White: Well I just had a daughter move back with her husband and three children. I would say when I was growing up and had my children here my children didn’t go to the school district they went to private schools. The school had a very bad reputation. Today my grandkids are in the local school district and it is wonderful; it has changed dramatically. The district will tell you 20 years ago 48 percent of eligible students in the district were going to Parochial schools. I think now that percentage is down to 12 percent. Very drastic change; the atmosphere I joke the early childhood center they have a barn with chickens. The kids go out feed the chickens and collect the eggs. They have another gentleman who has a beehive and they put their honey in little jars. This school is award winning. That’s one reason my daughter with the children moved back. My youngest right now she goes to kindergarten down here and the other one goes to the grade school. That’s probably the most dramatic change is the schools. You cannot thrive without good schools. The value of your community is dependent on the school district.
Mia: You have to invest in the kids it sounds cliché but they are the future.
Mayor White: Even when my kids were in parochial schools anytime a bond issue came up for the school district we always voted yes because my wife and I realized that’s our investment in our community. The better our school district is the better our community and property values and we are going to be better.
Ann Marie: What kind of caused the change in the school district? Was it a change in teachers?
Mayor White: Leadership. We had a new Superintendent appointed a number of years ago who use to be Superintendent in the Clayton school district. She came over with a whole new attitude and mindset of how to teach children. Mind you an old person like me had a lot of problems with some of her concepts but you can’t fight success. You can’t quarrel success and she is successful. The things she did turned out fabulous and she pulls in the teachers that supports her concepts and she has good people around. The kids are doing fabulous things and every time a bond issue comes up it’s passed. We have probably the highest school district tax in the area.
Mia: But that just reflects on the values the community and its citizens have on Maplewood and its future.
Mia: This next question ties into that; what do you hope Maplewood to be like in the next 10, 20, 50 years?
Mayor White: Its cycles we are seeing the demise of the shopping centers. Crestwood Mall, Northwest Plaza, Jamestown their all going down because people like that walk ability and the downtown atmosphere will that cycle again? There’s a very good chance it may cycle again and go to mall popularity. But what will hold us together are not those big stores but the unique stores. Boutiques, and unique restaurants. I don’t know if you have been to our Boogaloo but they have saddles and swings you can sit in. There are things that you don’t see other places. The food the cuisine Maya café it’s a Latin cuisine. We have a wine bar or Cicero’s is an Italian restaurant. But you wouldn’t know it because it doesn’t serve heavy pasta, has small portion sizes and the food is very unique. Schafly’s you go out there and every time their crowded. Their restaurant is basically organic everything they grow most of their vegetables in the back and they have a program with the school district where some of the classes go down to help plant and harvest. What I hope is we keep the uniqueness. We need something that you’re not going to find at the mall if the mall comes back. Where you can only find it in Maplewood or U-City is another area that has that unique setting. You have to attract younger people. The city is having professional people move back in. We’re definitely changing from blue collar; we use to have almost every area in the city eligible for Federal grants based on immediate income. I think we have one little parcel now that’s eligible. We have a lot of young professional people moving in with families. My housing stock is 80 years old it is unique. The whole housing stock is like that. It’s not the cookie cutter every house looks the same West County type thing where everything looks the same. Its unique if you look around you can find something that’s attracts you; whether it’s a third floor attic that you could make into a studio. Those are the kinds of things we need to develop and nurture in Maplewood to keep it going for 20 or 30 years.
Ann Marie: I noticed on our tour they mentioned a lot of young professionals move to Maplewood as young renters instead of more permanent residents do you think that affects the sense of community?
Mayor White: Definitely. 51% of our housing stock is rental and that definitely affects it. Many years ago during the decline the government power at the time states parceled out funding based on population. So the more people the more money you got. They would tear down two to three large homes and build an apartment complex that would house 60 to 70 people where three large homes sat. That started a whole change that doesn’t happen anymore. Now we have a lot of rental property and it’s very difficult with renters to get them to have that sense of community.
Mia: I’m sure a lot of the renters are college students
Mayor White: You would not believe the number of college students. We have a 15% Asian population all behind the Wal-Mart in the apartment complex. Many in the Bellevue apartments are Wash. U and SLU doctors in Maplewood. I go out and visit doctors and many remember I lived in Maplewood. That transient nature of rental property is difficult and their so busy they just don’t put the investment within the community that a homeowner does.
Mia: Was there anything else you’d like to add
Mayor White: I don’t know how much contact you have had with Rachelle? But the police chief they brought on board was male. And she was the first female working and she said “I need a couple policemen for this project were going to do a Let Them Eat Art in Maplewood”. I said a “what” she said “Let Them Eat Art in Maplewood” I thought okay I’ll send a couple of policemen. I said “This girl is crazy! A Let Them Eat Art in Maplewood?” But then I went up there I had never seen so much foot traffic in Maplewood since the 1950s.
Mia: Tell us a little more about the Let Them Eat Art?
Mayor White: It’s where the different restaurants they will have a harpist, jugglers, art displayed in their store. It’s actually become so successful we have an agency to manage it; Rachelle can’t do it anymore. That Monday after the festival I went to her office and said if you ever need any policemen for anything you let me know. I didn’t believe it but she produced it and for older people it’s difficult for those type of concepts. Were used to doing things a certain way. New ideas are sometimes difficult to get behind and support. But our city manager one of the things he wants his staff to be is supportive of each other. You don’t see a lot of support in other communities; were the police doesn’t like the public works. But we don’t have that here and we have a really good sense of cooperation. Rachelle has put together an ability to sell the city. We had it we liked it but nobody else knew about it and now they do. We have become a destination city. Five or six years ago if you would have told me we’d have valet parking in Maplewood I would have said you’re crazy. Things have changed dramatically for the good; but you need a sales man and Rachelle is the salesman. Whatever you take away, take away the concept that if you have good things the only way to keep it is by having good people that put their full effort in it. Good people are essential. When I played sports I had a coach who said “if you don’t enjoy it anymore quit because you are not doing yourself or the team any good.” It’s the same way in life if you are in a job that you’re miserable at get out. If it’s making you ill and you’re not helping the company get out. I couldn’t imagine going to work and not doing something you like. I can’t emphasize good people enough.
Mia and Ann Marie: Thank you so much for your time Mayor White.
Mayor White: Sure no problem. Good luck to you guys.