Building a better neighborhood

Esther Shin in the Urban Strategies, Inc. offices
Esther Shin, AB '94, MSW '98, president of Urban Strategies, Inc., is striving to revitalize St. Louis' Near North Side with help from community partners and a $29.5 million federal grant. Photo by James Byard

In 2016, St. Louis was awarded a $29.5 million Choice ­Neighborhood Implementation grant by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to revitalize the city’s Near North Side, an area blighted by vacant and decaying properties, poor public transportation and little economic opportunity.

One of the leaders in transforming the area is Esther Shin, AB ’94, MSW ’98, president of Urban Strategies, Inc. (USI), a ­national not-for-profit organization that specializes in comprehensive neighborhood revitalization. USI is a lead implementation partner on the Choice Neighborhood team, which is working closely with the city of St. Louis and many others to revitalize the Near North Side. The target neighborhood also sits in the Promise Zone, a federal designation that encourages strategic projects to improve the quality of life in vulnerable areas. Plus, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is set to build a nearly $2 billion headquarters in the neighborhood.

“We’re at a crossroads,” Shin says. “There’s a real opportunity for St. Louis to be innovative.”

And if anyone can push St. Louis in the right direction, it’s Shin, who has been working in community development for nearly 20 years. She studies neighborhoods all over the country from a macro level, looking at schools, employment ­opportunities, ­transportation and other issues, and also on a micro level, ­talking to families to discover what they need.

Shin started doing community development in Forest Park Southeast as part of a practicum while a student at the Brown School. After graduating, she met Richard Baron, the chair of Urban Strategies, who hired her on the spot in 1998.

For her first years with the organization, Shin worked in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, where she project-managed the reopening of Adams Elementary School and the building of Adams Park Community Center.

“Very quickly after we started to work together, I was impressed by Esther’s intellect and her ability to peel back the layers of issues,” says Sandra Moore, AB ’76, JD ’79, who was ­president of USI at the time.

Over the years, USI grew from working in two neighborhoods in St. Louis to supporting more than 30,000 families in 24 neighborhoods in 12 cities across the country. Shin rose right along with USI, moving from community development coordinator to project manager to vice president and then executive vice president. Along the way, she worked in New Orleans; Minneapolis; Columbus, Ohio; San Antonio; Wichita, Kansas; and many other cities.

Shin and USI have refined the idea of “responsible redevelopment.” “To us, that means there is a concerted effort to build not just the bricks and sticks, but also the human capital,” Shin says, “to ensure that people who have lived and struggled in a ­community get to stay there, thrive there, work there and really be a part of the success.”

In 2015, Urban Strategies received a planning grant under the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. USI conducted more than 150 community meetings, engaging more than 600 partners and ­stakeholders in conversations.

“We really get in the trenches and engage with residents,” Shin says, “because ultimately they have to live with whatever changes happen in their community.”

The feedback was clear, and the development plan for the federal grant addresses the major concerns of Near North Side’s residents — such as employment, public safety, sustainability, education and health. The plan includes bike paths, a community center, spaces and support for small businesses, access to fresh produce, transportation solutions and mixed-income housing.

Thanks in part to the comprehensive planning, HUD awarded the grant, and a few months later USI announced that Shin would become its president in January 2017.

The choice was an easy one, because for Shin her mission is clear: create neighborhoods that support and sustain residents. “I always tell people,” she says, “I’m trying to work myself out of a job.”

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