Politics

Revamped St. Louis neighborhood at core of dispute

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Among his supporters, Dan Scott is practically a savior, a 44-year-old community activist and self-employed property manager whose youth boxing gym and chess club help keep troubled St. Louis teens off the streets.

His critics — including city prosecutors and a long-serving St. Louis alderman — offer a different portrait. They call Scott a volatile bully who relies on fear and intimidation, stokes racial unrest in the diverse, up-and-coming Forest Park Southeast neighborhood and neglects his rental properties while bemoaning other improvement efforts.

Scott could face up to a year in jail after his conviction on a misdemeanor harassment charge. A sentencing hearing scheduled for Friday was continued and a new date was not set. Scott's case prompted a judge to take the unusual step of barring the single father from his neighborhood for nearly two years as a condition for his release pending trial.

The situation also raises larger questions of how city leaders, usually desperate to praise engaged citizens, react to styles and tactics not found in the halls of local government. Tucked between an iconic urban park and the trendy Tower Grove retail district, Forest Park Southeast is a neighborhood in transition, one which Scott said was once a "good place to get killed," defined by crumbling buildings and open-air drug markets.

In recent years, a renaissance of sorts has emerged, as young professionals drawn to the location along the Interstate 64 corridor — many affiliated with the nearby Washington University School of Medicine/Barnes Jewish Hospital medical complex — have flocked to Forest Park Southeast, boosting property values but creating tension in a community outsiders once avoided.

Scott owns a commercial building and several residential rental properties in the area. He calls himself a community watchdog who has started a community garden, keeps the streets clean of trash and employs some of the young people he once tutored at his gym, which doubles as an informal teen center.

Scott, who is biracial, has suggested that developers and city leaders want to price out "undesirables." Homes he once bought for $25,000 now sell for five or even 10 times more, with Washington University among the more active investors.

Court documents and The Associated Press' interviews with neighborhood residents, who refused to identify themselves for fear of provoking Scott, describe erratic dealings with Scott, an admittedly animated man whose conversations are marked with sudden vocal outbursts and frequent hand gestures.

His legal problems began in May 2012, when he was charged with five counts of misdemeanor harassment and two counts of obstructing government operations. Prosecutors cited Missouri's prohibition on "any communication that frightens/intimidates/cause emotional distress ... or offensive physical contact," citing five incidents that occurred between August 2011 and March 2012.

The charges involved verbal altercations with four people: a neighbor, a city code enforcement officer, an artist hired by Washington University to paint traffic signal boxes for a street beautification project and Alderman Joe Roddy, whose ward includes Forest Park Southeast.

"Dan Scott's behavior and conduct put honest, hard-working people at risk in the very place everyone should feel safe —in their neighborhood," concerned residents wrote in a letter to the court. "His conduct creates an environment that is rife with fear of violence, danger and violation."

Roddy, a 25-year alderman, says Scott frequently and aggressively chastised him at neighborhood meetings over the availability of federal community development grants. Scott feels entitled to "handouts" for his youth outreach efforts, Roddy says, and more deserving than already-entrenched nonprofit groups.

"He portrays himself as being an advocate of youth," Roddy said. "I think there are a number of people who would question him as a role model." Roddy said Scott went too far on March 2, 2012, when Scott was accused of blocking Roddy's car and cursing at him. He also alluded to an incident five years earlier in which Scott spray-painted "Pray for Joe Roddy" on one of his buildings. Roddy called it a veiled threat; Scott insists his message was earnest.

Scott was found not guilty on all but one of the counts. He was convicted on the remaining count, however, which accused him of "angrily yell(ing) obscenities" and "using profane language while making references to race" while he and two unidentified accomplices accosted the female artist. The woman, who is white, said the incident "made her frightened and fearful of her safety," according to court documents.

Scott hasn't always been a thorn in St. Louis' side. The overstuffed file folders he keeps on his criminal case include photos of him with Mayor Francis Slay as well as previous police and fire chiefs. And whether writing the court or defending his honor on Facebook, Scott's supporters have been equally as vocal as his detractors.

"At all times, I have found Dan to be hard-working, reliable, committed to the neighborhood and truly concerned for the people in his vicinity and beyond," wrote retired business owner and developer William Souders.

While Scott was barred from the neighborhood, staying on his ex-girlfriend's couch, he wore an electronic ankle monitor. He has since returned to the neighborhood he's called home for 17 years. For now, anyway.

"This is everything," he said in an interview. "This is my nest." Whether Scott receives jail time remains to be seen. In November, 22nd Circuit Judge Michael Noble ordered a pre-sentencing psychological evaluation as well as an opinion on "reasonable probation conditions ... that would make the community safe."

Last week, Scott's attorney, Nick Zotos, asked the judge to delay the hearing. While online court records showed no decision had been made by Thursday afternoon, Zotos told the AP that he expects a delay.

Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier

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