This post is ninth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.
With just four screens and an unassuming Art Deco marquee, the 24:1 Cinema in Pagedale, Mo., may not seem like much to an outside observer. But to Alderwoman Marla Smith, the one-year-old movie theater’s lights are “eye candy” and a herald of the renaissance she fervently wants for her city.
“When I was a little girl, Pagedale was popping,” says the 44-year-old mother of three. People owned their homes and lived in them in this small municipality that is one of two dozen northwest of St. Louis, Mo., known collectively as the 24:1 Community. Big employers such as the Lever Brothers soap factory and the Stix, Baer and Fuller department-store warehouse anchored the community.
But by the mid-1980s, many Pagedale businesses were in decline or had shuttered. Unemployment rose, and X-rated movies were showing at the Olympic Drive-in. There hadn’t been a grocery store since the 1960s. Houses went dark when homeowners lost their jobs and mortgages.
In the 1990s, Mayor Mary Louise Carter and the neighborhood development group Beyond Housing began working together to replace dilapidated homes and vacant lots with affordable housing. Then about 10 years ago, they began meeting with residents to ask what else would make their lives better.
“Everybody agreed that a grocery store they could walk to and get fresh fruits and vegetables and get healthy meals was one of the first things they wanted,” Carter says.
It seemed a simple enough wish, but enticing a developer to build a store in a low-income community proved challenging. In the end, Beyond Housing financed construction with local taxes, and discount supermarket chain Save-A-Lot agreed to run the store, which opened in 2010.
A flurry of other development projects aimed at making Pagedale more livable and walkable has since brought in senior housing, a bank, and the cinema—all within a few blocks of each other. The city has used grant funding to repave the formerly uneven, unlit sidewalks near the theater and supermarket and has added streetlamps. A barbershop, health clinic, and county social services center will open next to the theater this year.
Because the cinema and supermarket are owned by a community land trust, their profits fund neighborhood development, which is a boon for Pagedale and the surrounding municipalities.
Though it might take some time, one of Smith’s biggest hopes is to attract a family restaurant to downtown Pagedale.
“Who wouldn’t want to go have dinner and go to a movie?” she says.