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April 6, 2017; Los Angeles Times

St. Louis’ innovative nonprofit Beyond Housing opened the 24:1 Cinema in early 2016 near Ferguson, Missouri, with the idea that there’s more to solving urban blight than putting up affordable housing and fixing broken windows. Movies are the archetypal windows to the American soul, and the hope was that the new venture would be a beacon of hope and a draw for more commercial development money, the two key pillars of any city’s renaissance.

24:1 is the name of a legally associated compendium of 24 towns within the Normandy school district of North St. Louis County with largely African American demographics. The movie house that bears its name stands tall and proud in an area with very high murder rates and very low life expectancy, in stark contrast with the beatific white-dominated enclaves of Clayton and University City a few miles down the road in a more affluent milieu.

Cinema manager Dave King, a veteran of the St. Louis theater scene, shocked his former associates by taking on this daunting task of planting an oasis of entertainment in a rough-and-tumble outpost of struggling St. Louis. His retort to all that skepticism perfectly sums up how to reframe a mission towards positivity: “It’s not the hood—it’s a movie theater in a neighborhood.”

King noted he had a hard time adjusting to his new mise en scene, having borne witness to the particularly violent and ugly traits of the 24:1 area. “When we first opened, it was a bit of a shock. We’re on the road to a cemetery and we’d see these funeral processions from people killed in gun violence going by. You really couldn’t avoid it.”

Beyond Housing’s nonprofit cinema, a rarity in the movie industry, is but a part of its larger 24:1 Initiative, which has put the nonprofit formed in 1975 on the map. On its website, the Initiative is described as “taking on multiple challenges formed over decades in North St. Louis County.”

The name 24:1 was chosen by the community and represents the 24 municipalities in the Normandy school district with one vision for successful children, engaged families, and strong community.

Beyond Housing’s approach brings lasting results because we listen to the community, act as stewards of their vision, and bring together partners to support that vision and generate results.

Our truly holistic approach was formed by the voice of community members taking part in hundreds of local meetings. Success is fueled by the collective impact generated by the participation of dozens of nonprofits, businesses, churches, government officials, and agencies from within and outside the community.

The flagship 24:1 Cinema may be the most ostentatious and press-garnering component of this enterprise’s multi-pronged approach to addressing urban socioeconomic and political struggles that have hit the St. Louis area. One recent patron summarized Beyond Housing’s effect in a clipped way, saying, “This place gives people stuff to do that’s better than a lot of the other things they could be doing.”

The American movie theater industry is dominated by a ever-condensing number of giant movie chains, and solo acts such as the 24:1 Cinema independent theater have a hard time showing first-run movies because they are expensive when initially released. Major studios need convincing, and comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian gives high-fives to the independent cinema operators for their tenacity and devotion: “What I love” he says, “is how independent theater owners never give up and stay passionate about the movies.”

24:1 Cinema’s success with Fox’s Hidden Figures probably won it a place in the sun with the major studios, as its roll-up-your-sleeves effort to pack the house weekdays as well as weekends was a landmark example of the drive that made the groundbreaking movie a blockbuster. While 24:1 Cinema is proving itself as an affordable draw (tickets and snacks are priced several dollars lower than in typical theaters) in an impoverished area (90 percent of Normandy school district children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches), one Beyond Housing board member, Jason Purnell, a Washington University of St. Louis professor, cautions that a larger, more integrated economic dynamo of change is needed. Even though he praises the theater’s ability to inspire people and bring them joy they won’t have to go far out of their way to experience any more, “there is a real danger with targeted place-based interventions like this that [they don’t] become connected with regional economic engines and actual sources of jobs. We have to figure out ways to make that possible.”

But it’s a start, an anchor point, not a one-shot example of some poorly planned something-is-better-than-nothing effort. Beyond Housing, a unique organization with left-wing ideals and a right-leaning approach to provide private rather than governmental solutions to social problems, seems to have a highly successful and methodical approach for urban renewal that engages a community and respects its needs not just for food, shelter, and clothing, but for the more intangible sustenance of art that can touch hearts and relieve the stress of a poor community’s daily struggles. The question is, can the nimble and diverse 24:1 Initiative, and its 24:1 Cinema in particular, serve as a new model of addressing urban blight holistically, as it promises? That’s a cliffhanger, a scene that remains to be seen.—Louis Altman