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Around the same time, the parks board approved a plan to beautify the re-engineered creek.
The residents of the integrated neighborhood at 47th and Virginia did not welcome Gates' arrival. They complained that he rented his houses to ex-cons and allowed them to live in squalor. "There were people living there without water," says Ralph Levy, a former resident. Levy says he used to leave out a garden hose so Gates' tenants could wash their dishes.
At one point, Gates acknowledged that he hadn't been a good neighbor. "My intent was never to keep the houses but to tear them down," he told the Star in 1995.
The Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, a city agency that grants tax breaks, found the area blighted. Gates continued to acquire property. The owner of a liquor store in the area filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission, claiming that Gates had misused the knowledge he gained as parks commissioner. An investigator assigned to the complaint recommended that no further action be taken.
Levy, meanwhile, was the last neighborhood holdout and felt as if he'd come under siege. His home was burglarized three times. One day, when Levy left to replace his stolen VCR, he came home and found that his living-room window had been smashed with a rock.
After one incident, Levy went to the liquor store and joked with the owner that he expected to hear soon from Gates. Sure enough, when he got home, he learned that Gates' lawyer had called his lawyer and asked if he was ready to sell.
"You cannot make any connections," Levy tells The Pitch, "but it was kind of strange coincidence."
Gates eventually offered $90,000. Levy, an IT specialist at Jewish Vocational Service, took the money and moved to Liberty.
With the help of $500,000 in tax-increment financing, Gates opened a new restaurant on the site in 2000. A 20-foot "Struttin' Man" sign stands outside the building. The interior pays homage to the family's original 19th and Vine location.
Gates thanked God for allowing him to build the new place. "It's happening because my mother's always praying," he told the Star before opening the restaurant's doors. (Arzelia Gates died, at age 95, in 2005.)
Levy went on to write a concise book about the block that had made way for Gates Bar-B-Q. It's available online.
Gates didn't know about the book until a Pitch reporter told him. He says those were bad times for him as well. He didn't like the city taking his property. He didn't like having to pay $90,000 for a house that was worth far less.
"I was unhappy about a whole lot of things," he says. "But that's a part of life for me. Sometimes you're happy. Sometimes you're sad."
In February, Gates and other proponents of the Black Heritage District went to Jefferson City to make their case. They found that state lawmakers respond slowly to new ideas.
First, the team had to fight some old battles. Jeff Kaczmarek, the head of the Economic Development Corporation, a city agency that administers TIF, dealt with questions from Sen. Victor Callahan, an Independence Democrat, about the use of incentives in well-off areas.
Other concerns seemed to stem from piety. Sen. Jason Crowell, a Cape Girardeau Republican, questioned whether the tax-free zone would attract bars and strip clubs.
The bill did not make it out of the Economic Development, Tourism and Local Government Committee. John Griesheimer, the committee chairman, who lives 50 miles outside St. Louis, says the concept — which would allow any Missouri city to designate a tax-free area — is noble, but he worries about setting a bad precedent.