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Book Review; “Down Town, True Tales of Trial & Triumph on the Mean Streets” by Robert E. Lipscomb

I’ve never been homeless and hope that is the case throughout my life but one should never assume they will never be in that situation. Author Robert Lipscomb takes the reader through his journey from the good life (penthouse apartment overlooking Forest Park) to, at 51, living homeless living in various shelters downtown.
After talking with a priest at the suburban church where his father was a founding member, Lipscomb prepares to be homeless:

“I’m heading into society’s version of Hell, called poverty and invisibility. The living ghost existence. But I am encouraged. I feel stronger than I have felt in a very long time. As I have virtually nothing, how can this be? Choosing not to examine this too closely right now, I begin selecting which items can fit in my backpack, which will contain the sum total of my earthly possessions for the future to come.”

Lipscomb’s strength turns to fear and anger and back to strength through his “adventure” on the streets. Along the way we learn how the “normal” homeless make fun of the ones who are crazy, the best wearing brand of shoes, and where to get a meal. Lipscomb’s writing was very engrossing, making me want to continue through to the end without a break.

Down Town is preachy only to the extent of the importance of “God” to Lipscomb, a perfectly reasonable expectation given the circumstances. The book’s intent is not to make those of us with homes feel guilty so that we give to charities. Furthermore, the book does not make out the homeless to be a homogeneous society we should all pity. Instead, Lipscomb shares his experiences and mindset as he goes from being new on the streets to being more seasoned.

Lipscomb also talks about What’s Up Magazine, the street newspaper sold by homeless to raise money, and its program director Jay Swoboda. Swoboda, if the name sounds familiar to you, is the main person behind the EcoUrban modular green housing project. Lipscomb was an original writer & vendor for What’s Up when Swoboda started it.

There were many times in the book where I could not keep from getting watery eyes. This book is an emotional roller coaster ride — a ride all of us would just as soon never experience in person.

I don’t want to give away any more information but I do highly recommend this book. You can order the book directly from Lipscomb at Eagle’s View Press, I bought my copy at local independent Left Bank Books. Or if you must, Amazon.


A “proud Catholic” Takes Me To Task…Anonymously

Two years ago the big controversy in town was the tug of war between Archbiship Burke and the lay board of St. Stanislaus Kaska over their property, building and substantial endowment. Although excommunicated, to my knowledge the lay board still controls the church’s financial matters.

Recently someone stumbled onto my post from December 5, 2005, St. Stanislaus Kostka to Welcome Father Mark on Christmas Eve, and had a few things to say

You do yourself and your readers a deep disservice when you write out of such ignorance and limited knowledge. Not being a Catholic (or Polish if that has anything to do with it) you show your ignorance of the governance and organization of the Roman Catholic Church when you write about the lay board being more able to govern the finances of the Archdiocese as well as when you write about St Stan’s “belonging” to the parishioners. Study your American Catholic history, friend, and you will find millions of immigrants and native-born ethnic folks who have given their last pennies to their Catholic parish, not because it belongs to them, but precisely because it DOESN’T–it belongs to God, as does all glory, laud and honor. And because the Churches belong to God and not just people, the Catholic Church entrusts them and their finances to the existing Church reporting structure so that prideful, controlling manipulating people don’t try to “own” what belongs to God! I know this is much after the fact, but I just read your blaaagghh and totally disagree. And please keep the judgement call about “harshbishop” Burke to yourself unless and until you ARE Catholic AND Polish!

I’ll be the first to admit that I know little about the Catholic Church, what I do know doesn’t impress. Although I was not raised in a specific faith, my mother was raised Mennonite. My upbringing was largely based on what my mom learned from being raised Mennonite in a small farm community in western Oklahoma (the 2000 census shows a population of less than 600). That whole side of my family is filled with Mennonites and Friends/Quakers. One of my mom’s aunts was a missionary in Africa (the largest Mennonite population is in Africa) and another uncle was a published theologian. One of the things that appealed to me about my family’s history and faith is that it was built around a simple life and local control – values I hold very dear.

So for me the notion of a local man, himself controlled by a man in Rome, having power over a group that has for decades fought to save their church against very high odds is just a foreign concept. Did God make up these rules or men in power? Then we have people giving their “last pennies” to a church that then closes — using those pennies to build new facilities in exurban areas in the region while abandoning areas in the urban core. If the churches belong to God then God needs to do a better job maintaining the buildings that have been left to deteriorate.
As far as my views, I will continue to exercise my rights of free speech and freedom of religion. If you don’t like what I say, you have the freedom to ignore me or vocally disagree. Catholicism is not the official religion here in St. Louis despite my alderwoman referring to areas by their parish. I am curious though, now many “proud” Catholics against a lay board running the finances at St. Stans support the lay board running the finances at St. Louis University?


St. Louis University is a Secular Institution, Not a Catholic or Jesuit University

Yes, you read correctly, Saint Louis University is neither a Catholic or Jesuit University. Now I know what you are thinking, that I’ve gone off the deep end this time. Everyone knows Saint Louis University is a Catholic University, right? Well, just hear me out. First, I personally agree with most of you the university is most definintely a Catholic University run by Jesuit priests. So where does this proclamation come from saying the university is secular and not a religious institution? There is a group, which I will reveal in a minute, who are making this claim and doing so in court. The case is on the docket for the Missouri Supreme Court to review on Wednesday February 21, 2007.

Interestingly, the group claiming Saint Louis University is not a Catholic University is…. Saint Louis University! Really, you just can’t make up stuff this good. Saint Louis University (SLU) is saying they are secular and they’ve got at least eight million reasons for trying to convince the court that is the case. Confused yet? Let me help you out but you’ve got to pay close attention because this is a complicated issue.

In short, some years back the city approved a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) plan for the Grand Center Redevelopment Area (itself blighted for some 30 years). Several projects were to be funded with this TIF including the SLU Arena, the old Woolworth Building and the Metropolitan Building. In total, 24 projects were listed within the district totaling some $80 million in TIF funds. Through some clever wording it turns out, critics claim, SLU will get all the area’s TIF money for the next seven or eight years — all going into the new arena, which broke ground last year. This might be as much as $14 million, they claim.

In the United States we have this pesky little provision in the constitution requiring separation of church and state. The Missouri constitution, I am told, goes even further in its wording on use of public money at religious institutions. So the question before the Missouri Supreme court is the use of $8 million in public TIF funds for the construction of an arena at a Catholic university. With $8 million in public tax money at risk, SLU has been quietly arguing in court they are not a Catholic university.

Now, I’m no theologeon but I kinda get the impression from SLU’s mission statement they are indeed a Catholic University:

The Mission of Saint Louis University is the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity. The University seeks excellence in the fulfillment of its corporate purposes of teaching, research and community service. It is dedicated to leadership in the continuing quest for understanding of God?s creation, and for the discovery, dissemination and integration of the values, knowledge and skills required to transform society in the spirit of the Gospels. As a Catholic, Jesuit university, the pursuit is motivated by the inspiration and values of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and is guided by the spiritual and intellectual ideals of the Society of Jesus.

SLU’s argument is their board of directors are mostly lay persons, therefore they are not of any religious creed. Of course, all evidence is to the contrary. Here are some more tidbits from their mission statement page suggesting how they support the above mission, the university:

  • Strives continuously to seek means to build upon its Catholic, Jesuit identity, and to promote activities which apply that intellectual and ethical heritage to work for the good of society as a whole.
  • Nurtures within its community an understanding of and commitment to the promotion of faith and justice in the spirit of the Gospels.

There are numerous examples of SLU stating they are indeed a Catholic University, these are well cited in the various court briefs that I have been supplied. Here is one from a press release on the arena groundbreaking:

Saint Louis University is a Jesuit, Catholic university ranked among the top research institutions in the nation. The University fosters the intellectual and character development of 11,800 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Founded in 1818, it is the oldest university west of the Mississippi and the second oldest Jesuit university in the United States. Through teaching, research, health care and community service, Saint Louis University is the place where knowledge touches lives.

Interesting, in the same press release SLU makes it sound like the full TIF is being paid solely from revenues generated by the arena:

The Arena will be funded through fundraising, $8 million in TIF funding and bonds, which will be paid off with revenues from the Arena.

If the arena were a single project TIF, such as say a downtown loft building, this would be completely true. But, the arena is part of the Grand Center revelopment area which was expanded to include the site, even though it is a substantial distance away from what we think of as Grand Center.

Basically the incremental increase in property taxes, sales tax and such from redeveloping the district are to be used to help fund projects. The reality is other property owners in the area are involuntarily helping subsidize SLU’s new arena. I was told by one opponent, intimately familiar with the issues involved, that one commercial property’s taxes were reassessed so that taxes increased from $5,000/year to roughly $35,000 per year.

By getting the property taxes raised, on the argument the district has increased in value thanks to SLU and former Alderman Mike McMillan, the owners are helping fund the TIF. Their choices are to pay up or sell. Say you’ve got a great building in the area and you want to redevelop it yourself or sell to a developer. You, like developers throughout the city, look for TIF and/or tax abatement to help make the project feasible. Here is where it gets a bit tricky.

First, you are graciously given a B or C bond on within the TIF. But, the chances of you ever getting any money on this bond are way down the road, after SLU has received their money first. SLU hold a “B” bond which is subordinate to their “A” bond. All other bonds that have been issued are subordinate to both of the SLU bonds which total over $10 million. So say you decide to go foward without a TIF but you want tax abatement to lock in the current (and increasing) property taxes at the current rate. Oh, sorry — no can do. What that means is even if you raise a substantial amount of money to complete a project within the district the property taxes will go up immediately and you’ll be helping fund, with public money, the arena for SLU.

Through a number of ordinances the city has determined that up to $80 million in TIF bonds can be sold. These will be broken down in A, B and C bonds with the A’s getting paid first and so on. SLU’s arena project got the first A bond, worth $8 million. The master developer for the area, Grand Center, Inc headed by former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, has the authority to increase the bond by up to 30% making the $8 million bond rise to over $10 million. The second bond for SLU at $2.5 could easily go to $3.25 million. If that is not enough, and the tax revenue is there to support it, the Board of Aldermen could simply pass another ordinance to subordinate other bonds and issue another to SLU. SLU’s President, Father Biondi, argued in a deposition the TIF was necessary for the arena:

Q. Is it your opinion that the eight million is a necessity, and, if so, why?
A. Yes. It is a necessity . . . Athletics plays an important role here at St. Louis University. . . Why is an arena important? Because it’s an attractive venue for students from across the United States to come to this campus to be educated in the Jesuit
tradition. [emphasis mine]

They come to be “educated in the Jesuit tradition” at a non-Catholic, non-Jesuit university? I don’t think so.

Several issues are at play here. First, Grand Center has been blighted for decades and has a blanket TIF to aid in redevelopment but all the tax revenue is going to a single SLU project located a good distance from Grand Center. Second, SLU does not need the funds so the criteria used to determine if a project is eligible for a TIF, the “if not but for” test fails. SLU could build the arena without the $8 million in public funds. And finally SLU is a Catholic, Jesuit university and therefore is ineligible to receive public moneies based on the Missouri constitution.

I haven’t told you who filed the original lawsuit challenging the use of TIF for SLU, the Masonic Temple Association of St. Louis. Yes, this is the Masons vs. the Jesuits. Both sides been through a couple of rounds with SLU coming out the winner. The stakes are big and others have submitted “friends of the court briefs” on both sides the issue.

In addition to the above links, here are documents for your review:

Articles in the Press:

Most of the above articles are from the St. Louis Business Journal and all of those show a clear bias in favor of SLU and the TIF subsidy.  Basically this seems like an unfair deal and it explains why projects such as the Metropolitan Building and the old Woolworth have not gone forward.  No TIF for them, no project for us to consume.  With both TIF financing and church-state issues all wrapped up into one this will certainly be interesting to see how the Missouri Supreme Court rules on this case.


Edwardsville Church Votes for Sprawl

Edwardsville’s First Presbyterian Church voted a week ago yesterday to begin construction of a new larger facility on a large tract of land on the edge of town, next door to a mega church. For decades the church has been located in a very cute neighborhood just blocks from Edwardsville’s Main Street and literally around the corner from the Post Office. From their website:

First Presbyterian Church was founded March 17, 1819. It has the distinction of being the first church organized in the city of Edwardsville, and one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in Illinois…. Construction on our third and current home of worship took place in 1924. A large Christian education annex was added in 1960. Several improvements including the elevator, and a covered courtyard called “The Inner Room” were completed in association with the 175th Anniversary celebration in 1994.

Apparently some years ago the church purchased a 30 acre tract of farmland on the outskirts of town  as an investment. Indeed, the land has increased in value as expected but now a faction of the church wants to relocate to the sprawling edge- to be more “visible” in the community. With a vote of roughly 90 to 68 they’ve decided to begin the process of building a new church and apparently make plans for a gym. Visibility in the community no longer means being in the midst of a neighborhood in the center of town where a pedestrian might be alble to hear your service as they pass by but on a busy road where motorists can read your flashing sign from hundreds of yards away. Some look at sprawl and auto-centric development as a reaction to poor inner-city schools and white flight, but neither are the case in Edwardsville where they have a single school system and are nearly 90% white (87.7% per 2000 census data). So what explains all their sprawl? Auto-centric development has become completely ingrained in our society from homeowners, business owners, developers, bankers, architects & engineers to elected officials. Sprawl is the norm. What does it say about our society when a church votes to leave a charming neighborhood adjacent to an equally charming small town main street? Normal Rockwell would paint a picture of the current setting but wouldn’t go near where they plan to locate. Sadly, all the moves to the edge are ruining what was a picturesque landscape. I’m certainly not going to tell people what sort of faith to have but I will question the motives of a church for leaving the place where they’ve been for decades simply for a big parking lot, a gym and visibility on the scale of a fast-food restaurant. Churches have an important role as part of the community, not helping destroy the community by bolting to the suburban fringe. I talked with a couple of the members just days before the vote, they were hoping to stay put. Some members of other nearby Edwardsville churches were also lending support as they collectively want to strenghten the core of Edwardsville rather than see it left behind as sprawl engulfs the nearby farmland. I hope those that wish to stay in the center of Edwardsville do so, including their money. The suburban group may not be able to raise the $3.8 million they need to build their gym with attached santuary (in phase II). Update @ 8:10am — By the way, I forgot to mention that FBC’s architects are St. Louis Design Alliance which has offices on the Delmar Loop near the MetroLink stop.


Rumor: St. Aloysius Demolition to Start This Week

stal_01.jpgSadly, it sounds like demolition of the lovely St. Aloysius Gonzaga will begin later this week. I don’t have any details but I’ve heard rumors that someone was in talks to buy the property as-is from the current developer but a deal never materialized. I have been unable to confirm this information.

This unique setting is to be replaced by 25 ordinary homes as part of a development called Magnolia Square.

Just how spectacular will the view from Magnolia be next week? From all over the neighborhood one can see great views of the steeple. I have a feeling that many of the people that didn’t think this would be a big loss will wake up one day and realize they’ve lost a great view.

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