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Public service comes naturally for St. Louis Alderman Joe Roddy

Democrat Joe Roddy has served the diverse residents of the city’s 17th Ward for 23 years. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
August 24, 2011
Joe Roddy is one of four children from an Irish Catholic family raised in a rather rough, middle class neighborhood located in the heart of St. Louis. He chose the euphemism "a neighborhood in transition" to describe his boyhood stomping grounds.

Manchester Avenue was a short walk from the Roddy family's Gibson Avenue home. Once a hub for neighborhood commerce, Manchester Avenue by the 1960s was in serious decline. Roddy recalls walking home from St. Cronan Catholic School one afternoon and stopping to play in the rubble of what had once been the neighborhood movie theater (Manchester Theater, 1922-1967).

Today, Joe Roddy is a 53-year-old husband of 17 years to wife, Lisa, and father to the couple's two high school-aged boys — Joe and Brendan. He works as a principal with Polaris Financial Strategies in Clayton, but is most known as the 23-year alderman representing the city's 17th Ward.

Roddy knows a thing or two about local politics. His late father, also named Joe, was a powerful St. Louis Democrat, serving as 17th Ward alderman from 1953 to 1968, St. Louis Circuit Clerk from 1968 to 1982, and as Mayor Vince Schoemehl's appointee to clerk of the city court until 1991.

Roddy said his father, who died in 2005, was a disciple of Roosevelt's "New Deal" brand of politics.

"He was a man possessed of a strong work ethic who was very much a part of the bygone era of big city politics," Roddy said of his father. "My dad was probably the classic back room, traditional big city politician. It was very different in those days. That model doesn't work any more."

As circuit clerk, the elder Roddy directly, or indirectly, controlled as many patronage jobs as any politician in the city. Roddy said his father probably had the largest pool of people in the state to activate on behalf of a Democratic candidate.

"It was in 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, that Missouri Governor (Warren) Hearnes appointed him circuit clerk," Roddy said. "I think Tip O'Neill said that 'all politics is local,' and here we had people fighting in the streets outside the convention, and there they were in a Chicago hotel more concerned about who was going to be circuit clerk of St. Louis than president of the United States."

Roddy said growing up in a politically active, Irish family meant the Kennedys "were very big," as was the 21-year mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley. In 1976, Roddy remembers ducking out of his first semester at Mizzou for a trip to the Windy City with his older sister, Mary. Daley had died that weekend, and the Chicago experience surrounding the buzz of Daley's death had a profound affect on him.

Another experience that drew his attention to big city politics also came in 1976. Roddy was just out of high school, Chaminade, and Jimmy Carter was running for president.

"My dad was kind of the head of the Carter caucus for the state of Missouri and he went to the Democratic National Convention in New York," Roddy said. "I went to New York for the convention, my sister and I, and we had an absolute blast. I was 18 and in New York and my parents were doing their own thing. The news people and political celebrities were all around us — in the cabs and in the hotels. I fell in love with the excitement of the city, and with its beautiful architecture."

Roddy completed his bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Missouri-Columbia, followed in 1982 with a master's degree in finance from the Olin Business School at Washington University.

At age 24, Roddy said his plan was to move to New York. But when his father lost his circuit clerk election in 1982 to Freeman Bosley Jr., plans to relocate changed, and Roddy opted to stay in St. Louis.

The elder Roddy was appointed by then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl to clerk of the city court in 1982, which meant he could no longer hold his position as 17th Ward Democratic Committeeman.

The young Joe Roddy was appointed to his father's committeeman position, a post he would hold for five years. It was then that 17th Ward Alderman Tim Dee took a position with the Schoemehl administration, and a special election was held to fill his vacated seat.

"In a special election the party selects the candidate. As committeeman, I was in a position to appoint the Democratic nominee for alderman. I thought about who would be best for this job and, gosh, it would be me. I'm kidding, but yeah, I appointed myself," Roddy said.

Learning To Fix Cities

Twenty-three years later Roddy is still representing the diverse people of the city's 17th Ward. The ward extends north to Lindell Boulevard, taking in part of the Central West End. To the south, the ward extends roughly to Interstate 44, includes the Dogtown neighborhood to the west, and to Grand Avenue on the east.

"When I got elected I thought I knew everything. Today I think about how little I knew relative to now. And even now I know I don't know very much," Roddy said. "The biggest thing I learned about myself was that I thought I liked politics. I thought I wanted to run for higher office. My dad was a master at getting people elected to office. He enjoyed his role as a political operative. I thought I was going to like that, too, but I developed an interest in learning what you have to do to fix cities, to reverse trends."

Though a long process, Roddy said the 17th Ward is trending in a positive direction. According to Park Central Development, a community development corporation serving the 17th Ward, since 2000 the ward has seen an estimated $2 billion dollars in new residential, commercial and institutional development as well as historic renovation.

"We're extremely fortunate in that so much of the activity in the 17th Ward was made possible because of some of the many institutions around us, and by lots of people who were willing to take risks to make improvements possible," Roddy said.

Some of those institutions include: St. Louis University, Washington University Medical Center and BJC, Cortex (a national and regional hub for life sciences research). Organizations include special taxing districts Central West End South Special Business District, Central West End Southeast Special Business District, and Grove Community Improvement District, which all work to improve business and security in the area.

"Institutions, with Washington University and St. Louis University as the most significant, are so vested in their areas that they can't really relocate. Through good corporate citizenship, or through enlightened self interest, those institutions became involved in the neighborhoods around them," Roddy said.

The aim, said Roddy, is to convince people to invest in the city.

"Investment is like a magnet, once you get some investment in a city, it will be followed by more investment," Roddy said. "During my dad's era, the city dominated the region. No longer. We are in very stiff competition. When people are leaving the city, that's telling you something — that there's no demand for it. You have to think about what you're doing wrong and create that demand."

Part of creating that demand lies with the city's unique neighborhoods — places where cars are not needed, and where nearby shopping and entertainment areas stir excitement and a "sense of place." While "new urbanism" communities are springing up throughout the country, Roddy said the city boasts "the real deal."

"There is a real value in creating a sense of place. What I've learned is that even in a tax-strapped city it's OK to spend money on sidewalks and streets, urban planning, good architecture and public art, because that creates a sense of place. If we are going to compete with our suburban neighbors, that's what is different about us. While they are trying to create this artificial urban environment, we have it naturally. We need to embrace that."

One of the best 17th Ward examples of a place that has come to be embraced is the Grove — that same Manchester Avenue commercial strip where Roddy once played in the rubble of a demolished movie theater. Over the past dozen years the Forest Park Southeast locale — with its retail, restaurants, bars, art galleries and more — has become a testament to the success of city revitalization.

"I've been learning for 23 years, and I've learned that thing can take a very long time. One of the projects I'm most pleased with is what has been going on along Manchester. A lot of people have been involved in bringing that area back."

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