Good and bad on the West End

Monday, November 12, 2001

SIKESTON, Mo. -- Two days before he was found shot to death in a wheat field outside Sikeston last May, 22-year-old Jason Robinson sat on the floor in the office at Mission Missouri in the Sunset Addition, reading the Bible.

"That was a wake-up call," says Janie Pfefferkorn, executive director of Mission Missouri. "That's how close we are to what's going on."

Mission Missouri runs a soup kitchen and programs that provide mentoring, job training and placement, computer classes, day camps and Bible study out of the former Green Memorial Church on Dixie Street. Since the closing of Lincoln Elementary School in the 1960s, Mission Missouri is the closest thing to a community center in Sunset Addition.

Faith-based Mission Missouri grew out of the Christian Block Party, an annual summer event that drew thousands of blacks and whites together for a picnic. It is one of several organizations and individuals struggling with the evil that sometimes lurks in the West End's dark streets.

Another force working to turn the community around is the not-for-profit Business Research Institute. After forming in 1993, BRI used grants, loans and tax credits to build a $1.5 million apartment complex in Sunset for seniors and people with mental disabilities. The complex has 100 percent occupancy and a waiting list.

More recently, BRI obtained 35 houses from the Sikeston Public Housing Authority -- at $1 a house -- and is working through banks and brokers to qualify potential buyers for loans without a down payment or by paying only the closing costs. These were buildings the housing authority had renovated but was unable to sell itself. The first owner closed on one of the houses the first week of November.

BRI also has acquired about 15 vacant lots in Sunset with the goal of building more houses. Jessie Redd Sr., one of five directors of BRI, says the housing stock in Sunset deteriorated when older people who owned their houses began dying off. Many of their children had moved out of town by then and became absentee landlords. "We had a bunch of dilapidated houses," he said.

Crack users began hanging out in the houses and starting fires, said Redd, a former Sikeston policeman. The city then began tearing the houses down.

"There are no vacant houses now," he says.

Crack the major cause

Most of the problems Sunset once had have moved over a few blocks to Clayton Addition, but crack is still the major cause, Redd says. "So many young people have gotten hooked to the point where they don't want to work ... . Crack cocaine affects their brain. The only thing they care about is getting another dollar to get crack cocaine."

Many blame violence and substance abuse in the West End in part on the lack of activities for youths. "We're trying to come to an understanding of the problem," Pfefferkorn says. "For many years, the idea was: Throw everybody in jail and it'll take care of itself."

Redd's son, Jessie Redd Jr., says the community needs recreation centers.

"When people stand around all day, something is going to happen."

Some think Lincoln Elementary School, closed in 1968 and used sporadically since then for programs like Head Start, should be reopened as a community center.

Jessie Bonner runs a program called Community Coming Together, which tries to teach children self-motivation and how to combat negative peer pressure. They have brought in well-known speakers to deliver anti-drug messages.

Bonner and others involved in the program once hung out on the same streets and turned away from that life. "I used to be on the streets with that bad crowd ... . If you haven't been through it, you can't give out too much information," he says.

Bonner was raised in Sunset in the projects. "My mom taught us right," he said. "I always wanted that fast life." He had been living that life in Texas for 20 years when he decided the time had come to return to Sikeston. That was two years ago.

The reason "was basically God," he said. "I saw my life was headed in wrong direction."

He recalls a young man at a barbershop recently telling him he'd like to be a drug dealer because of the fast cars and jewelry.

"I asked him, 'How many drug dealers you know are retired?' There's not one. You're going to die or you're going to prison."

He saw friends die in shoot-outs and from shooting drugs into their veins. "I don't want these young men to go through the things I went through," he said. "You can do and be anything you want."

Changing attitudes

Part of the lawlessness that arose in the Sunset Addition in the 1980s and 1990s is due to the fact that police ignored problems as long as they were contained in the community, says resident Emory McCauley. "The police department got so complacent with things. Until things get real bad, that's when they do something.

"People can do things wrong so long they think they're right."

He favors strict enforcement of the laws, though he knows all the lawbreakers have police scanners. "If you report a crime, you're targeted as a snitch," he said.

He likes the "no-nonsense approach" of Drew Juden, the new chief of the Department of Public Safety.

Violence in the West End seems to have cooled since Juden became the chief in April. Lawbreakers may just be waiting to see how his department will respond under his guidance.

"I've always been very proactive," Juden said. "I think that's had an effect."

Under Juden, the police have asked the courts to accept only cash bonds in cases involving civil unrest. "It makes a big difference if you have to post $2,500 bond instead of just $250," he says.

Juden grew up in Cape Girardeau and began working for the Sikeston Department of Public Safety in 1978, five years after Arthur Bruce's 17-year tenure as chief had ended and about the time crack cocaine began appearing in Sikeston. "I heard stories that there was a philosophy that as long as problems stay down there, we're not going to worry about it," he said. "That's definitely not the process now. That was 30 years ago. Society totally took a different attitude in that era."

Back then, police often escorted an intoxicated driver home instead of to jail, he said. And there were beat cops. "They had a handle on what was going on in their area," Juden said. "A lot of things they handled one-on-one."

In the middle of the 1990s, the Sikeston DPS opened a substation in the Pin Oaks Sunset Housing Authority, and a fire station is being built in the same area. "It will have a DPS presence," Juden said.

Daughters of Sunset

For 17 years, the Daughters of Sunset have been raising money to help people who live in the community. The organization got started when neighborhood women heard that some Head Start children couldn't pay the $1 weekly charge for snacks. "They would be set aside while the other children had snacks," said Jessie Lane, one of the organization's founders and now its president. "That just upset me no end."

Since then, the 16 members have cleaned cemeteries, volunteered at the hospital and raised money to provide college scholarships -- $1,500 worth last year. In October, the group conducted a diabetes awareness program at Missouri Delta Medical Center.

Sue Marble, another founder, became the organization's first president and served until stepping down this year to take care of her ailing mother. Born in Sunset in 1928, Marble says violence and crime seem to have dissipated over the past few years. She notes that some of the old shacks have been torn down and people are talking about rebuilding.

Sunset Addition sits on relatively high ground in flat Sikeston. "I think it's going to be a beautiful place to live," Marble says.

"If you were born and raised there, you have that love for it. You watched it die, and your watching the rebirth of it gives you a good feeling."

Some of the violence and drug dealing has moved to the Clayton Addition seven blocks from Sunset. In December, Mission Missouri and an organization called Southeast Missouri Community Partners for Progress plan to open a pre-treatment substance abuse center in Clayton Addition.

"People need a door they can go through when they have hit bottom," Pfefferkorn says.

Pfefferkorn is white and married to a physician and does not live in Sunset Addition. To some, that makes her suspect. "I have been seen by some as a white woman trying to come in and control funds and take money," she said. She points out that the board and staff of Mission Missouri are predominantly black. The organization's president is Michael Harris, the city's only black city councilman.

Mission Missouri is funded through grants and donations. Whites were supportive when Mission Missouri first opened in 1998, Pfefferkorn said. "But when it's gotten down to basic beliefs, that we're serious about this, a lot of doors have closed from the white community."

She thinks some whites are concerned about the impact Mission Missouri could have "to change the way things have been for generations.

"I think it gets down to the point where people have to really look at themselves and understand they might actually have feelings of prejudice that maybe they don't want to admit," she said.

"They're there and it's hard to change."

The churches -- both black and white -- along with community organizations and individuals are going to have to cooperate to raise Sunset and now Clayton addition out of the morass, she said.

"It's going to take everybody working together, but it's not impossible."

Marble says the community just might be maturing. "A lot of people are growing up maybe," she said. "A lot of the people we call 'corner people' are in church now. Some of them are even preachers, believe it or not."

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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