A strip of street in Columbia’s First Ward became a symbol for troublesome conflicts in the community when City Manager Bill Watkins described it as a “haven for crime” last August. He vowed to increase police efforts to stem violence, prostitution and drug activity in the area, which is bordered by Madison Street, Providence Road, Business Loop 70 and Ash Street. The area, often referred to as the Garth Corridor, is bisected by Garth Avenue.
I spent four months walking the 2.5-mile length of Garth Avenue, from its southern-most start near the MKT Trail to where it pushes into Columbia’s growing northern subdivisions. I met people who have lived on Garth all their lives and those who are new to the street.
What I discovered were racial and economic divisions that are vestiges of discrimination and segregation. I met residents working to improve their neighborhood. But I also found a great deal of indifference about the heart of the Garth Corridor — indifference from people living in the wealthier sections to the far southern and northern ends of Garth and from people living smack in the middle of Garth Avenue.
This story takes a walk down Garth Avenue to introduce the people who live there and the issues they face.
From behind his door at 600 S. Garth Ave., Robert Smarr Jr. has watched the world change around him. His father built this house — the southernmost residence on Garth Avenue — in the summer of 1930, when Smarr was a boy. Except for four years during World War II, when he was stationed in Alabama with the Air Force, it has been his home. He and his neighbors enjoy spacious yards and housing values averaging about $180,000. The neighborhood is 96 percent white.
Thirteen blocks north, Tameka Williams spent a year dreaming of the day she could move from the two-bedroom house at 504 N. Garth Ave. Her mattress lay on the floor and an occasional cockroach scurried up the walls. Outside, sirens blared by at night, and Williams never let her children play in the small front yard. Houses here average $48,000, and 56 percent of her neighbors are black.
Moving another 12 blocks north, Ennis McClanahan’s house sits on the corner of North Garth and East Phyllis avenues. His yard is well-kept. A second-story deck overlooks a small gully. McClanahan moved to this house in 1965, in the neighborhood known as Parkade. Homes north of Interstate 70 have an average value of $95,000. Like the section of far southern Garth Avenue, this northern edge is 96 percent white.
Walk this single street — 2½ miles long — and you’ll walk through a divided Columbia. These three residents may share a street, but they might as well live in three different cities: the new Garth subdivisions north of I-70, the old Garth neighborhood south of Broadway and the controversial Garth Corridor that sits in the middle.
The biggest divider in their lives — one that goes back decades and is encoded in early city policy — is Broadway, the thoroughfare that bisects the city from east to west.
“Broadway is a natural boundary. It was a natural boundary before Interstate 70 was,” says Boone County Assessor Tom Schauwecker.
That boundary separates more than geography.
Broadway is a boundary for local government precincts, dividing the First and Fourth wards.
Broadway is a boundary for census tracts, determining how information is compiled.
And Broadway is a boundary between race and economics.
The divide begins
Addresses in the midsection of Garth make frequent appearances on the crime blotter. This is the area where Tameka Williams lived until she could get out. Peppered with small older homes in need of repair and newer high-density apartments, in recent years it has spawned news headlines and civic headaches; officials have stepped up efforts to eradicate an “infestation” of drugs and prostitution there. Last fall, City Council meetings became forums where residents catalogued their frustrations about limited services and lack of attention from the city.
Impassioned residents pleaded for zoning approval of a black-owned business they believed would bring hope to a downtrodden area. The multi-use development, approved last October, will include apartments and a grocery store on the corner of Garth Avenue and Sexton Road. In response to concerns about crime, the city won’t let the store sell alcohol.
“We’ve got a criminal element down there that’s taking advantage of the area,” Columbia police Capt. Stephen Monticelli said in an interview in September. “It’s an area that the community hasn’t stood up for in the past.”
There is some evidence they were heard. Police presence was increased.
But the question remains: Why is the section of Garth Avenue between Broadway and Business Loop 70 deteriorating while neighborhoods north and south of these boundaries are thriving?
Part of the answer can be found in history.
In the late 1800s, a gravel path was cut through Jefferson Garth’s old cattle farm from Broadway north to U.S. 40, which is now Business Loop 70. The land along this street was later divided and sold, and the path became a road. It was named for Garth, who was a delegate for the Whig Party and served on several councils in the city. He also was a prominent slave owner. Between October 1854 and July 1862, Garth ran several advertisements in the Missouri Statesman offering rewards for “runaway negroes” and “warning” Columbians not to hire his slaves without his permission.
It wasn’t until 1916 that Garth Avenue was extended south of Broadway to connect with neighborhoods already existing south of Stewart Road. This connection was contentious as Judge Stewart, the owner of the land, wanted to keep his property.
Since then, Broadway has served as a boundary, dividing the northern and southern halves of the city.
That boundary was eventually codified. Columbia’s first city plan, compiled in 1935, describes Broadway as a “natural boundary” between high-density living to the north and low-density living to the south.
The same plan also explicitly identifies Broadway as the boundary between white and black residents; it includes a map that labels North Garth Avenue as a “Negro” section of town.
A slide into decline
Robert Smarr, 86, has lived at the southern tip of Garth Avenue since he was 10. He remembers walking up the street to attend Grant Elementary School. He moved back into the house after World War II, built an addition onto it and started R.L. Smarr’s Florist, the business he ran for 35 years.
Back then, he says, South Garth Avenue was the address of MU professors and other affluent professionals.
“Except for us,” says his wife, Jane Smarr. “And we got to furnish flowers for them — all of their entertaining and stuff.”
The sidewalk that once led to the flower-shop door is now covered with overgrown grass. Other than that, Robert Smarr says, “Garth just hasn’t changed much.”
At least not this part of Garth. Most of the houses from his place up to Broadway were already there when the Smarrs built here during the Great Depression. Back then, Providence Road hadn’t cut through town, and Garth served as the city’s major north-south artery.
As for the more modest houses north of Broadway, Smarr remembers many of them from the old days, too. He says they were better cared for then — not so many abandoned or run-down homes. And he doesn’t remember crime being a big problem.
That memory is shared by many longtime residents of Garth Avenue’s midsection.
“It used to be a nice quiet respectable place,” says one man who has lived in the Garth Corridor since he was a child. “It was a well-kept black neighborhood for the time.”
The man asks not to be identified; he says he fears he’ll be targeted for vandalism or worse by some of his neighbors if they knew he spoke out. Crime, he says, started becoming a serious problem 10 or 15 years ago.
The area referred to as the Garth Corridor is now home to a disproportionately high number of crimes in Columbia.
In 2005, police reported 149 major crimes in the area; major crimes are rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, murders and auto theft but not drug arrests.
There were 132 drug-related arrests reported by the narcotics department in the area, which includes possession of a gram or more of a controlled substance, sales, distribution and manufacturing of drugs.
In 2006, there were 131 major crimes reported in the Garth Corridor and 192 drug-related arrests.
Compared to other areas, these numbers are high. In 2006, a similarly sized residential area along Garth Avenue north of Interstate 70 reported 44 major crimes.
The stretch of Garth south of Broadway, which is much less populated, reported 31 major crimes.
The crime rate has slowed so far in 2007, with 31 major crimes between Jan. 1 and March 1, compared to 53 during the same period in 2006.
There were 11 drug-related arrests during that same two-month period in 2007.
“I can’t tell you that it’s because of our efforts,” says Columbia police Sgt. John White, noting that police may have been aided by the harsh winter. “Crime is very affected by the weather. However, the sheer number of complaints from citizens has decreased drastically.”
Since last July, foot patrols have been assigned to walk the Garth Corridor in teams of two, allowing police to get to know residents better and to be more of a presence in the community.
“These guys are completely proactive,” White says.
The increased patrols also help disperse crowds that gather along the streets and often are the source of the neighborhood’s problems. Many of the problems are created by people who don’t live in Columbia, but come to Columbia from bigger cities, like St. Louis, police say.
“We see many young women with children who are seriously trying to make a difference in their life living in that area,” White says. The frequent source of problems: a boyfriend’s friend from out of town who is sleeping on the couch.
Finding a way out
Tameka Williams says living in the Garth Corridor for a year was one of the worst mistakes she’s ever made.
“I don’t want my kids living on Garth,” she said, standing on her porch there one day in September. “Garth does scare me.”
Her daughters — ages 8, 6 and 3 — stayed with relatives in another part of Columbia while Williams resided at the corner of Garth Avenue and Worley Street, in part because Williams didn’t think it was safe for them to play outside in the Garth neighborhood, and in part because she was having trouble juggling work and pressures at home.
She would sometimes let friends in need stay with her for a few days or a few weeks. But things got out of control: There was a constant influx of people in and out of her rental house, putting her at risk for eviction. Sometimes, Williams says, she had to step over people sleeping in her living room. When her lease expired in December, she was eager to move.
But her options were limited because she relies on a Section 8 subsidy to pay the rent.
Officially called the Housing Choice Voucher Program, Section 8 is a federal program administered locally by the Columbia Housing Authority. Eligibility for the housing vouchers is based on income: Families earning less than 50 percent of the median income in Columbia are technically eligible for the program, but 75 percent of the vouchers are reserved for those making under 30 percent of the median income.
In Columbia, 50 percent of the median income is $24,800 a year for a two-person family and $27,900 a year for a three-person family. Thirty percent of the median income is $14,900 a year for a two-person family and $16,750 for a three-person family.
Several homeowners along Garth between Broadway and Business Loop 70 blame the high numbers of Section 8 rentals for the area’s decline.
Last October, a man was shot outside a duplex at 1007 N. Garth Ave., a few blocks north of Williams’ old house. Joe Mahan owns the duplex. He says criminal activity has been an issue in the neighborhood, and that some of it can be traced to transient residents. But he says the police, community and the city are working hard to upgrade rental properties.
“I’m kind of like everybody else that has property over there,” says Mahan, who lives in southwest Columbia. “It would be kind of nice to have that area cleaned up.”
He owns several other rental properties around town and says he’s had good and bad tenants in all of them. The Garth duplex is the only one he rents through Section 8.
“That’s the only way to rent it and get your money out of it,” he says, noting that people who can afford to pay full rent on their own would likely choose to live in a less dangerous or less run-down neighborhood.
When Williams wanted to move, the Columbia Housing Authority gave her a list of places that accept Section 8 vouchers. Many of the addresses were well east of Columbia — “all the way out,” she says. Williams doesn’t own a car and has never learned to drive.
But then through what Williams called a “miracle,” she found an address for an apartment north of Business Loop 70 off Range Line Street. She had saved enough money for the deposit and moved into a small two-bedroom unit Feb. 1.
Williams works part time for her father’s commercial cleaning business, and he drives her to work now. She walks from her apartment to the Aldi grocery store, about a mile away. One of her daughters is living with her now, while the other two are still with relatives. She is hoping to save enough money to get her whole family back together soon. She misses the proximity to downtown and the public library, but feels more secure in the new apartment.
“I’m just happy to be off Garth Avenue,” Williams says. “These people don’t bother me, and it’s a lot quieter.”
A dream in decline
About a half-mile north of Williams’ former rental and Mahan’s duplex, Garth passes beneath I-70 and leads into Parkade, a neighborhood that personifies one version of the American dream. Middle-class families moved into these cookie-cutter subdivision houses in the 1960s when Columbia began to expand.
Ennis McClanahan was the first African-American to move here, a year after he retired from the military and returned to Columbia, his hometown. It was 1974, and McClanahan says some of his neighbors made it clear he wasn’t welcome.
Shortly after he moved in, he says, he was approached at the grocery store by a man who threatened to “tear up his house” unless he moved. He says some neighbors made comments when his son joined in play with white children, and one neighbor has been bullying him to move away since he moved in 33 years ago. He can recite incidents of vandalism to his landscaping and car.
“You know where it is good for you to live and where it’s not good for you to live,” McClanahan says, adding that he knows other blacks who moved into the area but left because of the racial tensions. “You read about things like this and you wouldn’t think it would happen to you.”
McClanahan emphasizes, however, that 90 percent of his neighbors were accepting of him and his family. It’s the other 10 percent that have made life difficult north of Business Loop 70.
He grew up in a house on the corner of North Garth Avenue and Worley Street and remembers the neighborhood of his childhood as good for families. But after serving in the Army for 20 years, the Columbia he knew had changed — and not for the better.
His childhood house is vacant today, like many along North Garth Avenue that hold up caved-in porches and broken windows bearing “no trespassing” signs. “That house should be torn down or re-fixed,” McClanahan says. “If it was anywhere else it would be.”
White, the police sergeant, calls this kind of mild urban blight “Broken Window Syndrome.” If one house is in disrepair, odds are the house next door will be neglected, too. And the next, and the next.
“We’ve got some landlords who’ve gotten lax, and some neighbors who have gotten lax,” White says.
The city is battling the problem with programs that offer low-interest loans for homeowners who violate city code, as an incentive to improve their properties; as a last resort, the city can take legal action against homeowners and condemn property.
Limited by zoning
The decline of the Garth Corridor also might be linked to city policies — specifically, to zoning laws.
Mid-Garth Avenue is a hodgepodge of zoning, with high-density apartment buildings allowed next to single-family homes. There are even commercial zones dropped in occasionally.
“This is a little bit surprising to me,” Boone County Assessor Tom Schauwecker says as he pulls up the zoning map of Columbia on his computer, taking note of the variance of zoning when asked about it last fall.
By contrast, the area south of Broadway is zoned entirely for single-family use, meaning a house can’t be chopped into multiple apartments. The same is true of the area north of Business
“The zoning really is driving the land use in these areas,” Schauwecker says.
He refers to the “highest and best use” of property that drives zoning theories. For example, Perry Chevrolet, on the corner of Garth and Business Loop 70, is maximizing returns on a piece of commercial property, while homes south of Broadway have higher value as single-family units.
Still, he says, most of the houses along mid-Garth Avenue remain single-family rental units even though many of them are zoned for high-density housing.
But one thing is certain: the corridor has changed hands from homeowners to renters.
Schauwecker says renters tend to spend less time and money maintaining their residence than homeowners, leading to decreasing property values. According to the 2000 census, the housing along Garth between Broadway and Business Loop 70 was more than 80 percent renter-occupied; South Garth Avenue was 20 percent to 40 percent renter-occupied.
The zoning of Garth Avenue dates to the first city plan, drafted in 1935.
The document uses Broadway as a boundary between black and white neighborhoods and then schemes ways to keep blacks where they are.
“Effort should be made to concentrate future population within these principal sections and avoid scattering into other sections of the city,” the document reads in a section about racial composition.
Douglass Park is revealed as a creation based on racist motives: “In order to stabilize the Negro district and to concentrate this population in one area so far as possible, it is most desirable to provide recreation facilities within their own district.”
The density zoning laid out by the 1935 plan still hasn’t changed for North Garth Avenue; that, some say, may be driving or holding down property values.
Consider: The East Campus neighborhood was zoned as high density in 1960 — similar to mid-Garth. As a result, many properties were turned into rental units and became a residential mecca for college students. In 2002, police cited an increase in the area of disorderly conduct-related crimes, such as noise violations, and launched a crackdown on rowdiness to respond to homeowner complaints.
Homeowners went a step further and lobbied for a change in zoning regulations. Today, residents in East Campus — 86 percent of whom are white — can waive the cost of having a property rezoned – about $350 per petition. One by one, houses in this area are becoming zoned for single-family use again.
No such program exists for the houses along the Garth Corridor. Nor have residents there been able to organize and lobby for one.
Neighborhood for rent
Melvin Gibson bought a house on North Garth Avenue near Forest Avenue 15 years ago. He fell in love with his house: the hardwood floors, the deep backyard and the functional kitchen. Perfect for a single man, he says, proudly giving a tour that ends in his basement, where he spends evenings playing bass guitar and writing music.
The neighborhood was mostly owner-occupied when he moved in, he says.
Chatting from his porch last October, he talks about the moving trucks that come in and out, filling and emptying the rental houses around him.
“The old people died off, and a lot of this property came up for rent,” Gibson says. “When I moved in this was a nice, peaceful, black neighborhood. But in the last five years, everything went sour.”
At night, the duplex next door seems like a convenience store because so many cars drive in and out, he says. His front yard is littered with trash by morning.
Gibson stakes claim on his front porch and tries to make his presence known.
“They’re more scared of me than I am of them,” he says, laughing as he points to a cordless phone he carries in case he needs to call the police, or at least pretend to do so.
Gibson blames the crime along the Garth Corridor on landlords who don’t screen their tenants. He says landlords need to check their properties, questioning how many people actually live in them.
“I wish they had to live up here,” he says.
House by house change
But there are signs of hope.
Five days a week, Laura Spradling, 30, walks her 6-year-old son two blocks south on Broadway to Grant Elementary. The school sits on the corner of Broadway and Garth. Spradling says she loves the proximity of the school and the Columbia Public Library across the street. And she loves the brand new two-story, three-bedroom house that she and her husband, Jim, bought a little over four years ago.
At the time, friends, relatives and the real estate agent warned the Spradlings about the area. Their house was robbed two months after they moved in. And it took conversations with police to keep the noise down at the McCambridge Center, a rehabilitation clinic for women that butts up to the Spradling’s backyard.
The problems and perceptions have not all gone away. “Usually, when I say we live on Garth, they assume we live south of here,” Laura Spradling says of chats with fellow churchgoers. They respond, at first, by commenting on the lovely historical homes along the street.
When the Spradlings correct them and say they live north of Broadway, the conversation shifts.
“People told me, ‘That’s a rough neighborhood,’” says Jim Spradling, a horticulturist who works in landscaping. “But we can’t afford to live anyplace else.”
And Laura Spradling says she has found neighbors who are friendly and look out for one another. She describes their house as sitting between the two different faces of Garth Avenue: “I’m comfortable with it.”
The Spradlings bought their home through a program developed to help first-time homebuyers. The Down Payment Assistance Program, run by Columbia’s Department of Planning and Development, provides up to $3,500 for a down payment and closing costs, which can serve as barriers for many low-income families. The grant allowed the Spradlings to gain a mortgage with monthly payments of about $30 more than they were paying in rent.
The locally based nonprofit Enterprise Development Corp. started the assistance program. The city recently took over the program, which has issued more than 500 grants in Columbia totaling $1.2 million, executive director Mike Crist says. In order to receive a grant, a two-person household cannot have an annual income exceeding $39,700.
Crist says the grants are targeted at economically depressed neighborhoods with a high proportion of rental units.
He cites two common problems in such areas: Landlords can’t charge enough rent to pay for improvement of the property, which stymies housing values; and renters often don’t upgrade their homes because there is no return on that investment.
That’s a cycle the Enterprise program is trying to break, and one officials hope has a ripple effect.
“It has had a substantial impact on those neighborhoods,” Crist says.
Past meets present
During the school year, the final bell rings at Grant Elementary at 2:45 p.m. The playground soon floods with students seeking the parent or school bus there to collect them. Watched from the third floor window of the Columbia Public Library, the children can be seen playing together.
Asian, black, white, Hispanic — they all mix, oblivious to close observation from the library window.
Then the division occurs, one family at a time.
Of those on foot, the black children, with a few exceptions, head north along Garth Avenue across Broadway. The white children, with a few exceptions, head south.