Lee Phung has owned Egg Roll Kitchen in north St. Louis since 2000. But he’s been a part of the community since 1968, when his father opened the restaurant on North Grand Boulevard.
Although Phung, who was born in China, no longer lives in north St. Louis, he went to Soldan High School and considers the area his second home. He has a close relationship with his customers.
When Alderman Sam Moore, who represents the area, recently suggested that north St. Louis members of the Board of Freeholders should not include Asian Americans, Phung and other Asian Americans in St. Louis described the comments as insensitive. It struck many as another example of their community being ignored.
“I support this area,” Phung said. “I go to the neighborhood meeting, I go to all the boards and stuff on free times. I do a lot of community stuff.”
Moore touched a racial fault line when he insisted that only black people should represent the area on the Board of Freeholders, which will consider ways to change government in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
“On the north side of St. Louis, we don’t have any Asians unless they’re selling rice in the chop suey place,” Moore said at a Nov. 19 meeting of the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. He was responding to a suggestion by Alderman Bret Narayan, the city's first Asian American alderman, that north St. Louis members of the Board of Freeholders should include members of different communities.
“This is a very polarized city. It’s always been black and white,” Moore told Narayan. “I know you’re just getting down here. But the issues have been black and white since I’ve been down here 13 years.”
Moore declined to comment for this story. After the meeting, he said he meant no disrespect toward Asian Americans.
But Moore’s comments exposed old wounds. For some Asian Americans, his views reflect how much their community has long been ignored, even as the region's demographics continue to change.
That troubles Eileen Cheong, a Chinese American who’s lived in north St. Louis since 2012.
“I don’t think that it is inclusive or very appropriate to generalize that as like being representational of the entire north side,” Cheong said.
Asian Americans have been in St. Louis for more than a century. For decades, many lived in Hop Alley, a downtown St. Louis community with hundreds of Asian businesses. By the 1960s, much of the area was demolished to make way for Busch Memorial Stadium, leaving many Asian-owned businesses and residents displaced.
In recent years, a stretch of Olive Boulevard in University City has welcomed Asian and immigrant-owned businesses. Now, some of those businesses could be displaced to make room for a development project near Olive Boulevard and Interstate 170.
If the region's politicians want the region to thrive, ensuring that all communities have a voice is essential, said Caroline Fan, the founder of EARLY, a statewide Asian American nonprofit.
“I think it is incumbent upon elected officials to business leaders to civic leaders to make space for people at the table,” Fan said.
“Here's my question: Are we only good enough to be counted for the purposes of receiving city, state and federal funding?” Fan asked. “Or do our voices actually count for more, and do we deserve representation on decision-making boards?”
But Adolphus Pruitt, St. Louis NAACP chapter president, wondered if Moore was talking about those who make their money in north St. Louis but live in other parts of the region.
“The people who live north of Delmar, 90% of every dollar that they take in is spent either outside of that community or spent with businesses in that community,” Pruitt said. “They're going to spend that revenue that they take in outside of the community, which means that those dollars aren’t circulating within the community.”
Moore could have expressed his concerns differently, Pruitt said. But the NAACP president said Moore likely was trying to make the point that the majority of north St. Louis residents are African Americans, and they are still are seeking equity.
The area’s demographics are beginning to change.
Estimates from the 2017 American Community Survey run by the U.S. Census Bureau show that Asians represent about 3% of the city's population, and Latinos nearly 4%. The city's African American population has decreased to about 48% in the last decade.
"When we get into this debate about St. Louis city being a black-and-white city, for the most part, probably the narrative is still true," said Ness Sandoval, an associate professor at St. Louis University who studies demography and urban sociology. "But the neighborhoods themselves are becoming racially integrated."
Sandoval said that some political leaders in St. Louis are already noticing and preparing for these demographic changes and that it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the city accepts that, too.
“If these trends continue, the city is going to change,” Sandoval said. “Demography is destiny.”
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