The City Body At War With Itself: Street Blockages in St. Louis

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This article is an expanded version of the catalog essay that accompanies artist Lauren Pressler’s installation Latch and Plaque, currently on view at the Cecile R. Hunt Gallery at Webster University.

If St. Louis’ street system has a defining and unique characteristic, it is the street closure. The great river city never completed its circumferential parkway system, with only parts of Kingshighway hinting at the promise realized in Kansas City’s boulevard system. With the Gateway Arch project, the city erased its oldest and most picturesque streets. Our streets are significantly tree-lined, a true gift, but disrupted so often that a stranger might well avoid entire neighborhoods altogether. The city body seems at war with itself at each blockade.

The city street system reflects a pattern of willful disruption and alteration that essentially seeks to smother the urban circulation patterns with a suburban-style overlay. More than crime prevention, speed reduction, child safety or the semblance of exclusivity, St. Louis’ grid was severed to replicate the hierarchy of traffic ways and belonging found in the suburbs. The result is not just a hierarchy of streets — it is a hierarchy of spatial privacies, rooted in restricting pedestrian access and public gathering as much as the noise of cars.

Privacy seems coterminous with tribal identity when barrier placements reinforce class and racial divisions. Walking through the Central West End, one hits elegant iron gates or even mundane concrete barriers north toward Olive Street, which despite a gentrifying nature is still divided from the genteel streets to the south. The barriers also seem to protect the neighborhood from the largely black neighborhoods north, like Fountain Park, which suffers its own circulatory convulsions around barricades and one-way streets. The physical demarcation of racial divides like this only echo Cee-Lo Green’s pondering lyric in Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy”: “Every now and then, I wonder if this gate was put up to keep crime out or keep our ass in.”

IMG00104-20100123-0923

Such a dichotomy in purpose also embodies the twentieth century planning theory that sought abolition of the historic city grid. One of the most influential tracts advocating the replacement of the urban street grid with a new street plan was Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer’s City Plan (1927), a foundation for modernist approaches to cities. Hilberseimer proposed that cities be structured around large expressways for efficient delivery of private automobiles, and residential streets and even business districts be set upon ancillary streets that did not necessarily have to be through streets. Hilberseimer and his contemporary Le Corbusier expressed deep hostility not just for street grids but for the ways in which older patterns of settlement bound urban experience. The modernists sought to replace the unpredictable world of streets, many of which were narrow irregularly-placed in their native European cities, with a mechanical engineering of sorts. Key was segregation of pedestrians and vehicles, needed to support modern high-rises that repeated the divisions of uses and people vertically.

In St. Louis, the modernists had great influence on City Engineer Harland Bartholomew, whose revulsion at St. Louis “antiquated” street system appear in his 1926 transportation plan. At Bartholomew’s urging, the city first sliced proto-expressways through neighborhoods. While Bartholomew first aimed to simply impose new types of arteries for rapid vehicle transportation over the existing city, eventually he came to the conclusion that the entire grid needed removal and replacement in older districts whose buildings he also wanted to remove. The Bartholomew-authored 1947 Comprehensive City Plan repeated Hilberseimer’s ideas that truly modern, sanitary and safe neighborhoods needed to supplant their older street systems with arterial systems in which secondary streets were simple spokes that did not necessarily carry through traffic. The Plan‘s plates showing proposed modernized Soulard, DeSoto-Carr and other neighborhoods made it clear that Bartholomew wished to impose the same mode of order found in the new suburbs around the city in the heart of the city. If the plans seemed acceptable, it was due to the influence of modernism — and the side effect that new spatial order would have for a city starting to demographically upheave itself amid the Great Migration.

Still, St. Louis left its people free passage across the city body until 1961, when the Board of Aldermen passed its first street vacation ordinance, which eliminated 23rd Street at Washington Avenue in the wholesale district. Federal funds for urban renewal clearance propelled studies for more street vacations, and by the mid-1950s when neighborhoods like Mill Creek Valley and DeSoto-Carr fell to subsidized evisceration, their grids disappeared along with their shops, residents and buildings.

However, blockades to impede those traveling across the city did not appear until 1977. By then, a major theoretical underpin came from Washington University professor of architecture Oscar Newman, whose hagiographic research into St. Louis’ private streets and its doomed Pruitt-Igoe public housing project led him to conclude that old cities required “defensible space” — streets that did not pass through, to allow monitoring of who used them. Newman’s work was publicized in his book Creating Defensible Space (1973), which was endorsed in practice by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Newman popularized the street-grid hostility once found in the dense works of European theorists.

Across America, in storied urban settings from New Orleans to Buffalo, few traces of Newman’s theory can be found. The ideas resonated only as far west as Skinker Boulevard and could not cross the Mississippi River, it seemed. Newman’s locality seemed to encourage street blockages in St. Louis. Newman himself credited the city’s private streets, with their gates and closed ends, as the genesis of his theory:

The residents owned and controlled their own streets, and although anyone was free to drive or walk them (they had no guard booths), one knew that one was intruding into a private world and that one’s actions were under constant observation. Why, I asked, could not this model be used to stabilize the adjacent working and middle-class neighborhoods that were undergoing massive decline and abandonment?

The city’s official Saint Louis Development Program, an interim comprehensive planning document approved by the City Plan Commission in 1973, supported Newman’s recommendations under the rubric of traffic control, stating baldly that “There are many streets whose primary purpose is not to carry through traffic.” Traffic, of course, is the passage of people as much as it is of any particular form of vehicles.

While many of the resulting closures seemed to engender division, property abandonment and even demolition, the first blockage in city history is rather gently tucked into a stable historic neighborhood at Grand and Crittenden. Since this blockage in 1977, some 261 others have followed, with a staggering 104 blockages signed into law by Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl in his terms between 1981 and 1993.

Neighborhoods like Skinker-DeBaliviere, Shaw, Forest Park Southeast and others are now confusing places to outsiders, with a plethora of gates, culvert pipe ends nicknamed “Schoemehl pots” for the mayor, one-way streets and other devices that manifest Oscar Newman’s theories. The origins behind each device are not as straightforward as lore would have it. In Shaw, the closure on Flora Place records strong sentiment to protect the stately street of large homes from traffic, but it does not record significant dissent among residents when the closures occurred in the 1980s.

Planning theory may influence street-block proponents to this day, but there is no consensus on their benefits or utility. Their persistence remains remarkable, however, because rarely do they disappear – and other cities facing the same traffic and crime issues as St. Louis have never implemented them with as much vigor.

In 2009, local television news showed St. Louisans a mother of a shooting victim who was distraught that four barricades impeded the arrival of emergency responders. St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson became a rare city official who criticized the closures. “This has been an ongoing concern of the fire department’s. We don’t like them. They severely impede what we do,” Jenkerson said at the time. Since Jenkerson’s remarks, the Board of Aldermen has passed and Mayor Francis Slay has signed many bills closing streets and alleys across the city.

Philadelphia consultant Ira Goldstein authored a Market Value Analysis study for the St. Louis Community Development Agency last year. As Goldstein traversed the city, he was struck by the lack of connections between neighborhoods, often caused by physical obstructions in streets. In January 2014, he told St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tim Logan: “I’ve never seen that anywhere. You have these big flower pots at the end of the street. You might want to rethink that.”

Yet many St. Louisans take the occluded street system for granted by now. Locals expect iron gates and “Street Not Through” signs to stop their attempts to explore and connect. The insulation of neighborhoods spatially perpetuates the interior/exterior dynamic reflected in our fragmented government and racial segregation. The pattern is suburban, in intent and effect — although strangely St. Louis County has proportionately fewer blocks, making its pathways more open to all.

Wayfinders inside and outside of the local culture, however, find the street closures present a mysterious form of behavior modification. In The Image of the City, planner Kevin Lynch reminds readers that elements like street blocks don’t present an isolated impact on people’s minds. Lynch writes: “Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences.” St. Louis’ street system now inflicts upon public perception doubt about the openness and accessibility of the city itself. The blockages insulate entire areas and isolate the parts that make the city whole and connected. The city is at war with itself at each blockade.

Streets Not Through_Analysis of the Blockages and Barricades to the St. Louis Street Network by nextSTL.com

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  • NL7

    Just wanted to chime in here that I’m not a fan of the street closures. When I have some free car-time, I like to wander around city neighborhoods and see how they feel. I consider myself perpetually window-shopping for a neighborhood where I might eventually want to live. I’ve done this sort of wandering in most of the cities and regions where I’ve lived, starting with STL county growing up.

    I find the closures frustrating to navigate as an outsider to these neighborhoods. I think residents tend to acclimate to the inconvenience, but to visitors it’s an unwelcome hassle. It gives a very different feel from the suburban dead-end streets of my youth, where the disconnectedness is seldom so transparently arbitrary. Throwing down some Schoemehl pots on an otherwise paved road, or placing a curb and a narrow strip of grass, makes it really obvious that this used to be a through road but this road really only exists for local traffic. It’s inherently unwelcoming, even if naturally friendly St. Louisans don’t realize it.

    When I’m wandering through neighborhoods, evaluating them as potential places to live and buy a house, I inevitably get very negative feelings about any location near a severed-limb road. I don’t recall seeing many arbitrary closures in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom in DC, or in Lincoln Park or Gold Coast in Chicago, or in Pacific Heights or Nob Hill in San Francisco. Maybe those neighborhoods had a few closures and my memory is outdated or faulty, and I know that the hills in SF cause a few detours or closed alleys. But my recollection was that it was relatively easy to drive or walk into most of those areas (though not necessarily to park) and homes in those neighborhoods tend to have ridiculously high price points.

    • Alex Ihnen

      The (really) short answer is that decision making for a our streets has long been abdicated to our 28 alderpersons, who answer to about 100 people. Absent any city plan or applied authority, you can a lot of little really bad decisions that serve very few people.

  • Steve Kluth

    I know I’m late to the discussion. I just want to say really excellent discussion on this topic. Love that we can have disagreements without it becoming personal. I just have to make a couple comments.

    The city grid is a relatively recent paradigm. Most Old World cities grew far more chaotically – look at the original City of London or Jerusalem or Istanbul, etc – and it was only when large tracts of land were developed, especially in the New World, where the grid concept took hold. It’s easier to develop a plan with a grid. (Yes, there were a few places that were planned with a grid, but they were the exception.) The constant is that both gridded and non-gridded communities were developed for slower traffic and pedestrian traffic, with no need to account for vehicles traveling at 40+mph, until the 20th century.

    The other constant is both types of communities also had a mixture of residents, commercial, and even (sometimes hazardous) industrial development within walking distance. Even in large cities, it wasn’t unusual to be able to do anything you needed to do within a small walkable area. Both cities and suburbs have lost this blend. One block may have had a few small houses, a large manse, a few shops with housing behind and/or above, a tannery or blacksmith, a few gardens, etc.

    Many of the most livable neighborhoods still have this mix. I do think maintaining the connectivity within a neighborhood helps this mix. We need to better figure out how to do this within the modern city while dealing with groups that want to isolate their communities within and from the larger community.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Nice comments. I’d say that the “grid” is really just (sloppy) shorthand for connected streets at times. The major European (and Asian) cities we can cite may not be on a grid (though London and Rome do show a surprisingly regular layout), but have incredible connected street networks that serve multiple modes of transportation and more dense development very well.

  • stldoc

    I’m mixed on this. I do agree that some streets that are closed definitely need to be reevaluated, and many reopened. Although personally living on a closed street in the CWE and having our young kids running or biking up and down the street to and from their friends houses everyday, we really appreciate it being closed. Our street has considerable foot and bike traffic cutting through (which is awesome) but without any of the cars using our street to cut through at high speeds. I also feel like it rewards or incentives the people that walk or bike in the neighborhood over cars. Which I think is great. So I do see both sides of the discussion, and maybe for selfish reasons, would prefer to keep my street closed. Thanks and as always I’m enjoying the intelligent discussion and dialogue.

    • onecity

      If the streets are all open, no one is using your street to “cut through” any more than they are any other streets, unless the other streets have been closed. If you open up ALL the streets, you will see a negligible difference at best, and the completely awful traffic on the streets that serve as arterials will be less.

    • Easy

      Yes. “Closed” is really a short-hand for “Closed to cars”, but where people mostly have a windshield-perspective, the last part goes unsaid and unconsidered. A street without car through-traffic is even more open to people walking, biking, or playing than one dominated by cars.

  • Luftmentsch

    A couple thoughts on this excellent article and the comments. First, I agree that most of these barriers should go. Having said that, I think the ideological, absolutist movement against barriers is absurd and based on false premises. Yes, most American cities are built on a regular grid. No, that is not the model for successful cities worlwide, and it’s not even the norm everywhere in America. Older cities in Europe mostly depend on grand boulevards for getting around. The little streets are effectively cut off from through-traffic (unless you really know your way around and down mind endless loops and turns). As someone below noted, there ARE advantages to this in that the cut-offs create a nice “village-y” sense of community. Living in Skinker-Debaliviere, it’s hard not to see this. We have an incredible sense of community here that I doubt would exist without these barriers. I’m not sure the neighborhood itself would exist – given what I know about the flight outta here in the sixties and seventies. Yes, let’s think critically about the choices we made around this city. No, let’s not rush to embrace a new ideology with a new set of blinders.

    • Alex Ihnen

      There perceptions continue to be interesting. An article about Skinker-Debaliviere after the barricades were inserted highlighted an increase in crime due to the lengthy, and predictable, police driving pattern winding through the neighborhood. Its inaccessibility presented an opportunity for crime. IMO – the bigger picture is that the Skinky-D is a good neighborhood today due to its proximity to Washington University, The Loop and Forest Park. Again, barricades proliferate across north city, and basically absent from south west city.

      Regarding other American cities, or European cities, it’s certainly not the norm to close existing streets. This isn’t the norm in NYC, Boston, San Francisco…just about anywhere. It’s much less about a “regular grid” than it is about disrupting an established development patter. It was a response here, and in some other economically declining cities, to try and create a city that appealed to people leaving for the suburbs. IMO – it didn’t work in STL. If we think it did work, then our premise is that STL City would be worse off (lost more residents and businesses) without our barricaded streets. That’s truly difficult to imagine.

      Barricades are not determinative of safety. They don’t lead to economic development. That said, to me the problem isn’t barricades or not, but that we close streets at the request of a few individuals, or one institution without any clear understanding of why, or the consequences of doing so, and with virtually no process by which to reassess and/or remove them. I see no ideological or absolutist movement against barricades.

      • Luftmentsch

        Just to clarify: my point about European cities (and some older American ones) is that they are not built on grids. Neighborhood streets there – in contrast to boulevards – tend to curve around unpredictably or end up in cul-de-sacs. If you don’t know where you are going, you get lost, and cutting through such neighborhoods by car is difficult or impossible. That is not the same as building barricades, but the effect is not so different. My street in Skinker-Debaliviere in fact has a pretty similar feel to my old street in Prenzlauer Berg (Berlin): traffic is light, walking and biking is pleasant, kids literally play in the street. Our “boulevards,” furthermore, provide a barrier that heightens our sense of community. I see your point that this model hasn’t worked in other parts of the city, but I’ve had a lot of conversations with old timers in this neighborhood, and I think they’re perceptive about what kept this neighborhood together over the years. It was definitely NOT proximity to Wash U (a big lie that Wash U administrators love to perpetuate), nor was it the Delmar Loop. Barricades were not the magic bullet. They never are. But, in this case, they were part of the solution, and anyone who rejects that possibility out of hand is letting ideology trump analysis.

        • onecity

          There is not a single reason in the world to trust the opinions of old-timer residents of STL as they pertain to civic matters. Richard Bose is the only person in S-D you should consult.

        • Alex Ihnen

          You may think the WUSTL influence is a big lie, but the demand for housing created by the university has been significant. In fact, if anyone wonders why the vast majority of investment is happening in STL’s central corridor, it’s because that’s where the institutions are located. You can’t simply state that having thousands of (many very well paid) employees, and 10,000+ students (many with disposable income) wasn’t a factor in keeping the neighborhood in good shape. There are many neighborhoods across St. Louis every bit as attractive (and with barricades) as Skinker-DeBaliviere. I would contend that the location, not just to WUSTL, but in general, is why it’s a healthy neighborhood today.

          • Luftmentsch

            The question isn’t whether Wash U. has had a “positive impact,” but rather what, ultimately, kept middle class homeowners and renters from abandoning Skinker-Debaliviere the way they did other neighborhoods. My impression is that Wash U. was largely on the sidelines during the years when things hung in the balance, and that relatively few Wash U. employees chose to buy here. Students lived here, yes, but that was a mixed blessing, with many of them renting single-family homes and subdividing them into party houses. Even today (in spite of the Wash U. subsidy for home buyers), I’ll bet there are more UMSL, SLU, & Webster profs in this neighborhood than Wash U. So, what kept this neighborhod together (besides, of course, the profound pre-natal contributions of Richard Bose)? I don’t know for sure, but it seems like residents, often tied to neighborhood churches, with an unusually strong vision of a mixed-race, mixed-income neighborhood deserve the lion’s share of credit. “Defensible space” was part of their mantra. They might have been naive, but I think that, in this case, the strategy worked.

          • onecity

            Not being redlined kept SD neighborhood together. Don’t kid yourself that it was the unique and special snowflake residents. Without insurable property, SD would have suffered the same divestment as near north nabes like Fountain Park. One thing definitely didn’t keep the neighborhood together, though: street closures.

          • Luftmentsch

            “Snowflakes?!” Wow. There are so many assumptions built into that slur that I don’t know where to start (so, I’ll leave it alone). Where is the evidence that there was no redlining in SD?

          • Alex Ihnen

            Redlining was widespread in a sense, but whole areas of St. Louis were institutionally redlined, officially redlined. SD suffered and I assume renovation and purchase loans may not have been easy to get, but it was never “redlined”, that is, literally crossed out on a map and not eligible for federally insured housing loans.

          • onecity

            You haven’t seen Fight Club, eh? If you think it is a slur, I assume for white(?), you’ve spent way too long in the bizarro world vacuum of STL racial politics. If you want to see maps of STL redlining, they are readily available on the mapping decline website. It is no coincidence that the CWE’s empty blocks are where they are, or that Delmar is the northern border of SD. Your neighborhood was spared from racial redlining, and therefore insurable, so residents continued to invest in their property. So as much as the old timers like to think they did something special to save SD with their funny little street closures – the same funny little street closures that did not work in Fountain Park, Visitation, Academy and other neighborhoods within the redlining – it was insurers that sealed the fate of which STL nabes thrived and which struggled.

          • Alex Ihnen

            This is an interesting and important conversation. Let’s do what we can to not make it personal.

          • onecity

            Okay. Also, when are you going to move to STL so you can run for mayor?

          • Luftmentsch

            Unless I’m missing something, the FHA maps (“residential security ratings”) posted on Mapping Decline have Skinker-Debalivere coded identically with vast areas of the city that were obviously redlined. According to Colin Gordon’s book, he was not able to get actual neighborhood-specific information about mortgage insurance, etc, from before the late 1970’s. What do you guys know that he doesn’t?

          • Alex Ihnen

            I use redlining loosely (sorry) to mean several things. 1) housing covenants prevented black St. Louisans from moving into SD, 2) the city’s 1947 comprehensive plan (image below) labeled broad swaths of the city as obsolete or blighted, but not SD, 3) the FHA labeled SD “housing security” as “Second Grade” on a scale of four. That second grade designation was shared by large parts of north city, but SD was surrounded by the “First Grade” housing, the most stable designation. Once the lowest grade, “obsolete”, and “blighted” areas of north city fell into disrepair and neglect, other adjacent areas suffered. Of course today, many streets in north city are as nice as SD. Maybe that helps clarify?

          • Alex Ihnen

            FHA Residential Security Map

      • rusty

        Skinker debalivier is great because its close to the county, great

  • Imran

    Closing a street does give the impression of security street but motivated criminals still have the same access since the alleys are always open.

  • FreeSTLStreets

    Unblocked streets sound like a good idea that is well-intentioned by very good people but it can also bring in more crime to an area. Take for example metroLink. Crime shot up in the Brentwood shopping area near and at the mall by double. Same problems for the Delmar Loop area, and most recently, Ballpark Village with people being robbed. In open areas where people are free to pass by, it has a great potential to bring in a lot of crime. See these 2 articles for references.

    http://www.riverfronttimes.com/2008-08-20/news/out-of-control-shoplifting-at-the-st-louis-galleria-violent-attacks-in-the-delmar-loop-is-metrolink-a-vehicle-for-crime/

    http://time.com/author/gerald-early/

    Are you willing to support unblocked streets if it meant that crime or anti-social hostile behavior would double in the area? Is that a desirable trade-off? Which is more important? Free passage on streets but with more crime/hooliganism or blocked streets but with less crime/hooliganism? Why were these blockades put into place in the first place? What was the thought process behind it? Maybe these barriers were erected because we live and work in a high crime city? Now, if crime increases after all the streets are freed from blockage, then what could happen next? Would people leave the city by choosing to live and work elsewhere?

    Again, think carefully about what you want and the consequences of unblocking all the streets in the city. How would it affect the crime rate? Would you accept a crime rate in STL that is double than what it is today? What if it caused 8% of city residents to leave the city? Is that acceptable? Again, think carefully about what it is that you want or, more specifically, what is more important to most people. Everything is a trade-off in life.

    You can do an experiment and unblock a few streets and see what happens in terms of crime in the area. If crime increases, then are you willing to live with it by tolerating it? Crime will be different in different locations, of course.

    We have blocked streets because STL has high economic inequality, poverty, crime, racial division, and cultural divisions. If we were a more equal society, I would vote for unblocked streets. As it stands, it could bring more bad than good. Crime would easily double. St. Louis already carries stigma.

    • Justin

      I think it is unlikely that crime would double and not sure how you arrived at this conclusion. If so, then closing streets would probably be most effective crime deterrent known to man.

      Additionally, the two examples you provided were instances where public transit was expanded, and not the opening of streets that have been closed. I would argue that opening streets is distinct from expanding public transit, as you likely have different groups using public transit when compared to personal automobiles.

      Lastly, is there any evidence that these street closures worked to reduce crime in the first place?

      • FreeSTLStreets

        Closing streets does not deter crime at all times, of course. Crime can certainly occur in blocked off areas and crime can occur in unblocked areas. But the particulars matter–type of area, street, people in location, lighting, etc. Maybe blocking does help to deter some crime in certain areas like Delmar divide area.

        I will tell you a real story that was in the local news maybe 5 or so years ago, not exactly sure. I have a former co-worker whose BFF from high school has a brother whose ex-girlfriend lived in south city. I know that it is a lot of connections. Let’s just call her “girlfriend”. Now, “girlfriend” had a roommate, a female police officer. While they were at home in south city, their home was broken in to by 2 men who forced their way in. The “girlfriend” was ordered by one of the men to carry the TV to their car. Next, the 2 women were ordered to go into the basement. The female police officer knew that this meant that the 2 men were going to execute them and leave them to die in the basement so she started to fight back. The 2 women tried to fight back but were shot. The police and ambulance came for them but the ambulance could not make it through one of the blockades (Schoemel pots). The ambulance was not able to come quickly enough to save life and had to navigate to find a way to both women. I know that the “girlfriend” died for sure since the boyfriend suffered many years of grief. Crime can still happen in blocked off streets as this story shows. One solution is to train police, fire, and ambulance to better navigate streets better. Perhaps recent navigation systems are better updated today than it was some years ago when this crime happened.

        If you want unblocked streets, then it is your right to pursue it. I’m just saying that it could lead to more crime in that area when there is “greater access” or opportunities for bad-intentioned people to commit crime. I used metroLink as an example to show how “greater access” led to an increase in crime in the Brentwood area, Delmar Loop, and most recently in the local news Ballpark Village (after its creation but the metroLink stations were already opened before that). I see “greater access” by way of metroLink expansion as somewhat analogous to “greater access” by way of unblocking a street. More public access is likely to bring potentially bad elements to any area.

        Some people in STL are sensitive to the badmouthing of metroLink, expansion or otherwise, but the truth is that it has led to an increase in crime in particular business and entertainment areas in STL. Wherever metroLink expansion goes, so goes the potential for increased crime to that area.

        • rusty

          People are sensitive to badmouth metrolink because it has nothing to do with crime. Try again

    • kjohnson04

      By that logic, city like New York should be swimming in crime. It also has “high economic inequality, crime, racial division, and cultural division.” So does Los Angeles, Seatte, Little Rock…you get the picture. Block streets are what’s causing the crime. Mass transit has little, if any impact on that, or mass transit would not be clamored for in areas that are not served or under-served.

      • FreeSTLStreets

        To find out, one experiment to use is to unblock all streets in STL in 2015-2019 and then compare crime in those areas with 2010-2013 crime data for the same areas during when the streets where blocked. I just picked a recent time period to compare and contrast. If you see crime astronomically increase in the areas that are “unblocked” in the 2015-2019 period relative to the 2010-2013 period “blocked” period, then you can make a correlation argument: unblocked streets are associated with more crime and blocked streets are associated with less crime. Of course, you would need to take into account the type of area. Some areas may not experience an increase or decrease just because of its particulars– say a police substation exists nearby for example and police officers are visible on the streets. Or, people in the area are very vigilant and retirees hang around to make sure nothing is going on.

        Based on what I’ve read and have seen in the Brentwood and Delmar Loop area, I think mass transit has contributed to an increase of crime because it creates greater access for bad people to do the crime. You could go visit the Galleria mall in Brentwood and find a handful of store managers that have been there before the metro link expansion and are still there and see if they see metroLink expansion (giving greater access to this location) has contributing to the rise in store thefts. I’m not blaming the “vehicle” but attributing the “greater access” (unblocking) as a factor. MetroLink expansion to those public areas (Brentwood, Delmar Loop, and most recently Ballpark Village after its creation) has led to more crime in those areas is my generation sense from following local news. When greater access or ease of access is allowed, crime shoots up in an area.

        Now, at the next metroLink station that opens up brand new, see if crime shoots up in that area after some months go by.

        • Alex Ihnen

          “my general sense from following local news.” I think I’ve identified the problem. 😉

          • FreeSTLStreets

            There’s nothing wrong with local news. They report most accurately most of the time. I rely on local news and find they do a decent job. I don’t have any issue with them.

            People have common sense, anecdotal evidence, street smarts, and human experience. Crime happens at metroLink locations. People get robbed, have their cell phones swiped from their hand, women stalked and raped, etc. . . Those are the realities that come with metroLink stations with the particular demographics that are present in St. Louis.

            I would recommend that metroLink continues with its expansion across the region and that the city of St. Louis unblocks all of its streets. See what happens and learn from it. Experiment. St. Louis is a very interesting place for it.

            Are well-fortressed (less accessible) areas better in terms of attracting business and experiencing less crime? Do they become thriving areas? Or, are unblocked, hence very open areas witnessing more crime and less business? This latter question is counter-intuitive and interesting. You would expect more accessibility and openness to bring more people into your location and so your business would be thriving. But the opposite may very well happen–less business may occur perhaps due to more crime which drives people away.

          • Justin

            I don’t think Alex was saying that the local news is inaccurate, but was getting at the types of stories they choose to cover and how the types of stories covered influence perception.

            It appears that most local new over emphasizes violent incidences. In fact, some research suggests that those who watch the news on regular basis perceive the world as a more dangerous place than those who do not. When in reality such perceptions may not be justified.

            To me, it appears the local news can sometimes paint St. Louis as war zone when in reality it is not.

        • “Based on what I’ve read and have seen in the Brentwood and Delmar Loop area, I think mass transit has contributed to an increase of crime because it creates greater access for bad people to do the crime.”

          Despite what you and many others have been led to believe, a public train or bus — with cameras both at the station(s) and within — makes for a poor getaway car.

          Same with crime actually ON Metro buses and trains. It doesn’t exist. Or, at least it’s such a minuscule occurrence, it might as well not.

    • onecity

      Crime shot up in Brentwood because of nationwide trends toward urban poor moving out of inner cities and to the suburbs. That it happened to coincide with Metrolink expansion is irrelevant.

      • tbatts666

        Good point. So what you are saying is that we have an expanding ring of poverty, and we built a train through it?

        That doesn’t mean the train caused it

    • Alex Ihnen

      In my opinion, you’re selling fear without regard to the benefits of a connected city. Crime, crime, crime, crime…here’s a story about crime…here’s another story about crime. Crime has soared in North County – perhaps the most disconnected, most suburban setting in St. Louis. Should we then conclude that Intestates and cul-de-sacs increase crime? I think we’re better off looking at the experience of other cities, as well as asking what kind of city we want to live in. What do businesses and new residents want? What do cities successful at attracting new residents and businesses look like? kjohnson04 makes a smart comment below. Let’s think about this issue instead of selling fear.

    • “We have blocked streets because STL has high economic inequality, poverty, crime, racial division, and cultural divisions.”

      And blocking streets does nothing to address any of that. It just doubles down on each, basically saying “this part of the City in which you live is for us, and this other part is for for you” and repeats it, to this point, 300+ times.

      The bromide you’re using is almost, verbatim, the suburban exodus line of thought…there are problems here, so let’s go where there aren’t. I do understand that mindset, though it’s not one I subscribe to. But to disconnect large swaths of a City or, in some extreme cases, individual streets, goes against what a City actually is.

    • rusty

      In the words of the BFIBS “what a moran”

    • STLEnginerd

      First off. Give credit for FreeSTLStreets for pointing out the issue that people REALLY care about. The too much traffic argument has always been code for the ‘wrong kind” of traffic.

      Secondly saying as fact that blocking streets doesn’t deter crime is as hard to prove as the idea that it does deter crime. One thing is certain it gives a significant portion of people a sense of security against crime whether real or imagined because their streets are quiet and they don’t see a lot of strangers around their houses. There is certainly reason to think it worked. After all the CWE was spared the worst of the decay while areas immediately north of the barricades deteriorated. Anecdotally the barricades are perceived to have saved the CWE. Blocking Thurman might be seen to have saved Shaw from the problems in McRee Town. I’m not saying it did, just that its easy to see a pattern that suggest it did.

      Also saying he ignores the advantages when so many avoid talking about the negatives (at least the perceived negatives) is a little disingenuous.

      I personally am a bit mixed on the idea. I definitely think its time to start opening up some streets. Particularly in the Grove and Shaw. North Side of CWE I think should also open up a few more streets but maybe not all right away. Downtown there should NEVER be a street closure. In some other parts of the city I am not as familiar with I can’t really comment other than to say each should be considered carefully and both the residents of the street as well as the connectivity of the neighborhood and the public safety of the city should be weighed.

      • Alex Ihnen

        I think this may well highlight how our perceptions can be heavily influenced by familiarity. There are many, many closed streets in the more/most dangerous parts of the city. I believe people see some nice areas, see barricades & equate the two. Fountain Park, just north of the CWE has plenty of barricaded streets. Clayton has none. I understand the perceptions many hold, but hope we can think about this issue in a broader, more informed context.

        • rusty

          Not sure what clayton has to do with this, but they most certainly have barricaded streets

          • Alex Ihnen

            Clayton certainly has some neighborhoods that follow a more suburban development pattern – like Compton Heights in STL City, or University Heights in U-City, but it hasn’t disrupted its established residential street patterns. We have a full map of all City of St. Louis street closures. We know the history. We basically understand why it was done. But trying to find causation between barricaded streets and reduction, or generally lower, crime lacks evidence. The huge swath of southwest St. Louis City has almost no barricades. It’s also has the least amount of crime in the city, but far.

    • rgbose

      I swear that RFT article will be cited for eternity. How have things been for the 6 years since it was written? The mall is still open; we know that. Hilton wasn’t deterred from building a hotel nearby. And that Gerald Early bought into it and did some smoke and mirrors connection really annoyed me. Metrolink access from ESTL to the Loop has been there since 1993. I’d place more blame on social media and cell phones for the rapid gathering of teens in the Loop. On another note the Loop used to be terrorized by motorcycle gangs in the 70s. They didn’t have to close Delmar to get rid of them.

      Shaw has many blockages, TGS doesn’t, how do crime rates compare?

      In some cases a criminal might prefer a blocked street. A bugler would be seen by fewer people. A get away car could be on the other side of a blockage. So if pursued the blockage gives them an advantage.

      If access is a major component, then we should close highway exits as they make it easy to drive in to buy drugs, patronize prostitutes, illegally dump, etc. If access for carless black teens is a major component, as in the two articles you cite, then how does opening some streets to car traffic make a difference for them?

      With any potential opening we should weigh the pro and cons of course, but I’m tired of the fear mongering. It feeds people’s emotional reaction that shuts down the conversation which is the case in my neighborhood. We did a whole expensive neighborhood plan to chart our course for the next 30 years, and we couldn’t even talk about it. All the wasted miles driven and extra traffic on the streets that do go through and making it harder and longer for emergency responders to get to you like in your example, be damned. Our perception of ourselves as welcoming sure isn’t reflected in our streets. Same goes for the city as a whole.

    • tbatts666

      There are blockades all over North City.

      It would be easy to design an experiment to try it out, and return back to normal later.

      We could remove the lighter blockades and institute traffic throttling for a a few weeks or so. See what happens.

  • ScaredtoMerge

    Sorry for the rant but these things are absolutely infuriating.

    I’m a newcomer to the city (a year in) and have had a hard time acclimating to the fundamentally stunted civic/city planning issues the city is mired in. These closed streets have become a daily advert to leave the city.

    As mentioned in the article, the closures are on a scale I haven’t seen in any other city I’ve ever lived in and on a scale that borders on paranoid.

    The result? I turned down purchasing several homes precisely because of their location on bollard-ending streets. The irony is what folks here perceive as a benefit has been the deciding factor on why our family chose not to live on your streets.

    Thanks for this article. It explained a lot and will definitely be part of my dinner party crusade of eradicating these things from St. Louis!

    • kjohnson04

      At least in the city of St. Louis, the bollards are removable. In most of St. Louis County, it was by design, rendering subdivisions maddening during certain times of day. “You can’t get there from here.”

  • kjohnson04

    A truly great city has a regular, uniform grid. New York, Chicago, and even London have them. Cul-de-Sacs, one-way streets, and loopy parkways interrupt what streets are supposed to do; connect people with places in an efficient manner. A private, gated street is fine every once in a while, but when when street after street is inaccessible, it makes biking, mass transit routing, and driving more complex than necessary. Heal and restore the grid, and you heal and restore St. Louis (with a heavy dose of density).

  • matimal

    Who’s up for a ‘Breaking Down Barriers’ Campaign? Let’s get the protesting kids working on this.

    • matimal

      no one?

      • matimal

        St. Louis will change when you change it.

        • onecity

          I’m down with this and have been forever.

          • matimal

            Great. No effort is wasted in this direction even if it might seem so.

  • Mike F

    I find it extremely amusing that the same City officials thirty or so years ago who proposed street closing also advocated for the paving of historic brick streets, the paving of which increased average speeds by at least 15mph. And now here we have folks worried about speeding vehicles.

    I have been to Washington, D.C. several times, and the aforementioned ‘humps’ are currently in use there, and I see them as being more effective at deterring speeding than completely blocking of streets. The problem–as I have observed here in Dutchtown, at least–are those who are absolutely do not obey the stop sign posted every block (eg, there are EIGHT stop signs on Meramec Ave. in the ELEVEN blocks between Broadway and Grand!), and they either completely blow through the sign–period–or they gun between EVERY sign. The increased posting of signs has actually resulted in LESS safe streets, in my opinion. Closing streets only serves to detour drivers through other streets, and the same behavior I’ve mentioned is simply moved to those alternate thoroughfares (Much like closing down a ‘drug house’ simply moves the activity to another block). It seems to me that this imparts an unfair and perhaps even a morally dubious advantage to those who have had their streets blocked off.

    Rather than demand an advantage for one’s own block, perhaps we can demand a comprehensive plan of action to designate which are the most dangerous and abused streets–in EVERY neighborhood–and seek out the remedies which work, then implement those remedies. If some see doubt in this, maybe test cases can be implemented and evaluated, then presented to the public for observation.

    Free the Streets!

  • onecity

    These blockages are one of the first things I noticed in the city, and one of the first things visitors tend to notice, and not in a good way. They need to go. All of them. Now.

  • Catherine

    This was a really fascinating piece. Thanks Michael! Although my parents have been on Crittenden in Tower Grove East for 30+ years, even they didn’t know it was the first blocked street. Thanks for that little piece of history!

    As St. Louis City tries to compete regionally, and nationally, I look forward to seeing how reconnecting the original street grid plays a role. In the meantime, keep up the good work informing us citizens!

  • Danielson

    I agree that an open concept would be much better for the city, but I also worry about speeding traffic on my street. I live on an open street, and cars constantly cut down it at high speeds. It’s so bad that I do not let my kids play in the front yard for fear they they may run out into the street and get hit.

    • onecity

      Perhaps they cut down your street because other adjacent routes have also been blocked, forcing metal box traffic into an arterial pattern. I’ve lived in an open grid in a busy city and traffic isn’t an issue except on the main commercial thoroughfares.

      • Danielson

        I’m on Bruno Ave. just east of McCausland and one block north of Manchester. I think traffic builds up on Manchester, and people cut down our street to turn right on McCausland. Dogtown has an open system, which I like, but most of the streets are one way because they are so narrow. I’ve wondered if we switched the direction of our one way street if that would solve the problem.

        • onecity

          Bruno is the only thru street that connects Big Bend and Hwy 100 in RH, and it shaves more than half a mile and a couple unpleasnant Manchester intersections off travel down BB to 100 E. If Gayola, Lydover, Lohmeyer, Rupert, or Zephyr connected to Manchester you’d see a lot less traffic on Bruno. Also, that whole area, though urban by late 20th c standards, is still pretty windey burb development, so it has a lot of arteriality going on. RH isn’t a real grid.

    • If you live in the city, you could ask your alderperson to build neck-downs at each end of the block. Narrowing streets at corners reduces vehicular speeds while maintaining an open system.

  • tbatts666

    I guess this topic has something to do with the whole road vs street vs stroad concept.

    Can’t limiting access points (and development) to the major arterial help improve flow?

    …Or does the power of connectivity of the grid more important?

    Can these blockades improve routes for bicyclists? (bicyclists can often fit past the blockades). Anyone else feel that they make things safer for bicyclists?

    This is a confusing topic. I need to find the time to read this paper! I feel that blockades might not be bad all the time. In the mean time I trust everything Michael R. Allen says!

    • onecity

      Grids are always better. Eliminate parking minimums, then buildings don’t get torn down to satisfy parking requirements, things stay close together, less driving required, parking no longer a problem. Bam! They are also far easier for cycling, because of the sheer number of easy alternate routes. I’ll take an open grid over any alternative, anyday, as a cyclist.

      • Dhej

        Yeah your probably right! The best way to convince the neighborhoods is probably to emphasize traffic calming as the solution to their fears.

        These blocked up streets need an enema.

  • Josh Hirschfeld

    Didn’t modot spent millions of tax dollars trying to relieve traffic jams on highway 40? When in reality these street blockades are damming us. Cutting off smaller veins prevents natural flow, jamming up major alternatives to highways like Forrest Park Parkway or Manchester. I wonder this everyday I drive home from downtown.

    • kjohnson04

      Yes and the ultimate result of a “New I-64” is the same bottlenecks tax money was wasted on to ‘fix.’

  • I think there needs to be a citizen-led campaign to remove these barriers. The Michael Brown tragedy should serve as a turning point to begin to heal the divisions that this city has intentionally created over the decades, the Schoemehl pots and blocked off streets being the most glaring example. I understand the original intent was to discourage car thefts and drug deals by limiting automobile thru traffic, but the flip side is that it leaves streets dark and quiet that are foreboding pedestrians and fewer eyes on the street. We’ve got a city full of clogged arteries, which has contributed to our high collective blood pressure, and inevitably leads to congestive heart failure. It’s time to take active steps to improve our health. If we didn’t know it ourselves, the observations made by the planner from Philly makes it clear that St. Louis needs to get with the program.

    • T-Leb

      Who will lead this public safety campaign? Anything can be accomplished in the name of public safety. Have the Chief on record saying it impedes the work of emergency responders.
      “This has been an ongoing concern of the fire department’s. We don’t like them. They severely impede what we do,” Jenkerson

  • Alex Ihnen

    We have Schoemehl Pots, I think we need Slay Humps. Traffic humps would slow traffic, not damage cars, and be easy for bikes to navigate.

    • Matt Kastner

      I’m with you here Alex. Some of these pots are ridiculous, but others were put up because traffic going the side streets can go too fast (I have seen cars going 40+ MPH flying down Nebraska and Compton in Fox Park). But if they changed the speed bumps rule you could solve that problem better without sacrificing the street grid. Maybe if the idea is presented to the Mayor with his name affectionately attached to it like this, he might support it more.

      • onecity

        If there were viaducts over the RR valley every .5 miles connecting central and south city, you would see far less of this, as everything wouldn’t be forced onto Grand of KHwy or Jefferson to go south to north. The lack of S–to-central connectivity, in my opinion, causes a ton of these sorts of problems.

        • Mike F

          This!^^^

        • Matt Kastner

          A good point. A lot more expense to fix than removing pots and demolishing cul-de-sacs, but there are certainly areas to improve. Always thought it was a shame that Taylor didn’t continue south to Vandeventer from Manchester. Or that streets like Oleatha and Utah/Flyer in Tower Grove South don’t run from grand all the way to Kingshighway.

    • Presbyterian

      I do like the concept, but we might want to work on the name.

      • onecity

        How about “bumps not idiocy”

    • Dhej

      We need Slay humps!! Is that the same thing as a neck down?

  • Stephanie H

    I don’t love the blocked streets, but I do wonder if it has added to Shaw’s feeling of a clearly defined neighborhood in any positive manner.

    • moe

      I think in some vague sense it does. Or should I have typed it did. But the question is why? At one time Shaw was right next door to a very high crime area and many vacant buildings. But then look next door…TG East, South have few if any of these pots or other road blockages…same age of neighborhood, many of the same demographics, many of the same structural issues, etc. So again…why? More importantly…why are they still there? What purpose do they continue to serve? Do our leaders lack the political will to move them? Or do the leaders think they are protecting their ‘turf’. Now expand that city-wide.
      The physical history we know. I think many are glossing over the mental history. The question moving forward is, what have we learned and are we willing to change…if that change is needed at all. (for the record, I think many of these could be removed, other forms of traffic calming can be used, and in some rare cases, some should stay)

    • chaifetz10

      As a former resident of Shaw (I moved from Russell Blvd to downtown last June), it was utterly annoying to have to find a select few ways into the neighborhood. The one way barriers on Spring north of Flad are horrible, as well as the dividers that block off access from many of the side streets to Grand.

      • kjohnson04

        I find it trying as a cyclist. One of the things I hated most about McRee Town (now Botanical Heights) was the excessive one way streets, and blockades. The fastest way to Grand is an alley. There’s something wrong with that picture.

  • Christopher

    Taylor between Choteau and Manchester has always boggled my mind with this. Every side street is blocked with giant concrete spheres, yet every intersection still has stop signs.

    • Jenn

      This is the case all over the Grove. You might have noticed that there are pedestrians trying to cross these streets, albeit not often are they crossing at the corners with stop signs.

  • Dhej

    Nice article I have noticed these all over the city.

    As an almost exclusive bicyclist most of these blockades are easily biked through. It has never really occurred to me that they limit mobility for people….

    I would imagine there are important ways these blockades could prevent dangerous traffic from entering a neighborhood. Washington avenue is pretty decent to bike on because of these blockades.

    I think it makes sense to open these streets to the grid if the streets are designed for slow traffic.

    If they are designed for high speeds and we open up flow we could be in a world of hurt… Judging from the pictures this doesn’t seem to be the case.

    • onecity

      As a cyclist, they probably make the main thoroughfares significantly more dangerous by forcing all car traffic there, while only making side streets marginally safer.

      • kjohnson04

        They force cyclists and cars to compete. Pedestrians have more trouble with speeding cars due to irate drivers being forced to divert to Timbuktu to get to place that is either on their left or right.

        • onecity

          Yes. The whole, I can see it 300 feet away but I have to drive 2 miles to get to it problem. You get it.

          • kjohnson04

            This is a what a pedestrian feels every time they go into the wild, untamed suburbs of St. Louis. You need hiking gear, I tell, ya.