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THE NATION

Political protest hits a brick wall

St. Louis officials say the mural is too big. Its author says they're against the message, not the medium.

July 13, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — When this city declared the aging Bohemian Hill neighborhood blighted and opened the door to the possibility of using eminent domain to redevelop it, social activist Jim Roos decided to protest in a big way.

He hired an artist to paint a two-story-high mural on the outside of a duplex, turning a late-1800s brick facade into a massive declaration of outrage easily spotted from the city's major arteries.

The mural, which says "End Eminent Domain Abuse" inside a red circle with a slash through it, has annoyed civic leaders and led to a legal battle.

The city is asking a federal judge to order Roos to get rid of the painting. The city's attorneys say it isn't art or constitutionally protected free speech but simply a sign that's too big.

Local codes restrict signs in the city's residential areas to 30 square feet in total size, said Matthew Moak, an associate city attorney. The mural is 24 feet across -- 15 times the maximum.

"I don't care what it says. . . . If it had been dogs playing poker on the side of the building, it'd still be a problem," Moak said. "You cannot erect what amounts to a two-story piece of graffiti."

Roos -- who runs a company that manages rental units for low-income residents, including the Bohemian Hills duplex -- acknowledges that he didn't apply for a city permit before commissioning the mural. When he tried to get one after the fact, the city denied his application.

Roos believes it's the painting's message -- not its size -- that St. Louis lawmakers truly object to.

"If this were advertising McDonald's or beer or the Cardinals, there'd be no discussion or debate," said Roos.

"The city just can't stand that someone is protesting what they're doing in such a loud way."

The lawsuit is to be heard in the spring.

Since the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that local governments could seize private property and hand it over to developers, the battle over the practice of eminent domain has led to a slew of state legislation over the issue.

Some states, such as California, have few restrictions, said Larry Morandi, director of state policy research for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, lawmakers in Sacramento failed to pass a measure that would have prohibited local governments from acquiring homes, churches and farmland through eminent domain.

Last month, California voters shot down a proposition that would have phased out rent control and limited the government's ability to take private property. (Voters did, however, pass a measure protecting owner-occupied homes from eminent domain.)

Missouri's law prevents governments from using the process solely for the purpose of economic gain or to increase the tax base, "but that adverb -- solely -- gives cities some wiggle room," Morandi said. "It tells local governments: 'You'd better make sure you've done your homework before you try to take a property.' "

City officials say the measure has helped St. Louis. Like many Midwestern cities with old housing stock and numerous abandoned properties, St. Louis has used eminent domain as part of a broader effort to redevelop neighborhoods. And the city has faced the legal battles that often follow.

For Roos, who is spearheading a grass-roots effort to have a measure further restricting eminent domain placed on the November ballot, this fight goes back decades.

When he unsuccessfully ran for alderman here in 1987, his campaign focused on letting neighborhoods revitalize naturally, rather than "be rushed by a bunch of developers," Roos said.

Several years ago, the issue became personal when the city invoked eminent domain to acquire and tear down two dozen buildings managed by Roos' group, Neighborhood Enterprises Inc.

"When some of our tenants started getting letters from the city last year saying, once again, the city was interested in acquiring their homes, I felt like something drastic needed to be done," Roos said.

The mural is on a building in a wedge-shaped residential area on the city's near south side that faces the point where interstates 44 and 55 merge. In the 19th century, Bohemian Hill was home to Eastern European immigrants drawn to the city's industrial boom. It later fell into decay and was partially cleared to make room for the merging interstates.

Today the area is a hodgepodge of elegantly rehabbed condominiums, modest low-income housing, and rows of boarded-up brick homes that date to the turn of the 20th century.

"I've had city officials tell me that if [the mural] were smaller and painted on the front of the building, then it'd be OK," Roos said.

"But then what's the point? No one would see it."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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