Claire Wolff, community activist, amateur photographer, small business entrepreneur and Washington University graduate…Claire came to St. Louis to attend college and along the way found her passion in community development. She is now a community development specialist for the University of Missouri Extension. She’s also worked at Grace Hill, where she helped create a neighborhood leadership program. As a board member of The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, her skills and experience contributes to this community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the physical and social dimensions of the community in a manner that respects its historic, cultural and urban character.
As a transplant to the St. Louis area, what brought you here and what do you like the most about living in the city?
I came here for college and never left. I love the character of all of the different neighborhoods in St. Louis, the people who believe in the potential of this city, and the resilient, entrepreneurial, feisty spirit of this place.
It's noteworthy that your career in community development/activism started with teaching photography to St. Louis city youth. How did that come about and why do you think it put you on the career path to where you are today?
Through getting to know the kids and families in Old North through the initial photography teaching experience, I fell in love with the community as a whole. As an outsider coming in, I felt very welcomed and I could see that this was a special place. From that point on, I couldn't stay away! I kept coming back-- to help open the Urban Studio Café coffee shop, to move into an apartment in the neighborhood, to work at the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, to purchase my first home... although I recently moved out of the neighborhood, I return often to visit with friends and neighbors, attend community meetings, and of course get a cup of coffee or a BLT!
Is there a "vibe" in living and working in the Old North area and how would you describe it?
I am from North Carolina and so all of my relatives are far away, but my community in Old North had a very strong family vibe. Tight-knit, supportive, I knew people were watching out for me. There’s always willing hands to help, and a barbecue or a celebration going on.
Looking back on your formative social entrepreneurship days how did you get the idea to launch a not-for-profit community coffee shop that could fund art and community programs for neighborhood youth?
The café idea actually came from within the community and that support was key to launching it. At one point, a survey was done in Old North asking residents what they wanted to see in the then-empty storefront. It was a collaborative effort from the start. Local residents wanted employment opportunities as well a gathering place to socialize and enjoy a great cup of brew. This led to applying for a social change grant to initially launch this project. With creative ideas from local residents, I helped develop a business sustainability plan which won a Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition, sponsored by Washington University’s Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. This funding helped get the Urban Studio Café up and running.
The Urban Studio Café closed then reopened under a new name (La Mancha) and a new owner. What led to your decision to exit and do you have a relationship with the new owners?
I want to be very clear that I believe La Mancha’s success is due to its current owners, Veronica and David Holden! I was not the right person to run the coffee shop and the model that the Urban Studio Café team used was not the best or most profitable model. The Holden’s took the menu and service to the next level, and they were able to expand the coffee shop and make it a great success all while retaining its community-focused vision.
Your work with the University of Missouri Extension as a community engagement specialist involves helping local leaders improve their neighborhoods. What is a typical day like in your job --- and what are some of the challenges you help people to overcome?
Every day is different! But the best days are when I get to be in a room with local resident leaders who are all passionate about their neighborhoods and willing to devote their skills and strengths to making their communities more cohesive, more equitable, and more vibrant. There are certainly challenges facing many neighborhoods, and my role is to help residents identify the assets that exist within their communities, and to access the civic decision-making tables where residents’ voice are needed.
What do you think are the most overlooked benefits and unique assets that the Old North area offers to St. Louisans?
Old North has beautiful historic architecture, walkable city living, creative local businesses, a strong, organized community, and obviously the best chocolate banana malts on earth.
What do you think the impact of Next NGA West will be for the neighborhoods and residents in the Old North area? Do you think it will be a catalyst for change and will it have an impact on the people you work with?
I think with intentionality, investment, and relationship building, NGA could partner with residents and businesses to positively affect the near Northside.
The views presented are those of the participant interviewed and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or NGA, or any of their components. No endorsement is expressed or implied.
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