-- The P-D's Joe Williams on Sheryl Crow
APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION: Last Wednesday morning, under a sometimes sunny sky, a handful of workers from the C Jones Wrecking Co. began to dismantle an aging structure at 3314 Lemp. The demise of this building, condemned by the city in early 1998, could've been seen as unremarkable; after all, the city is pockmarked by ramshackle housing, and city aldermen seem locked in a race to see who can secure the most funds for demolition in his or her ward.
This little house, though, had a history. The exact nature of that past will be the source of debate for at least a while to come.
The basic issue is this: Over time, the tiny structure at 3314 Lemp had been linked by area residents to the Underground Railroad, which shuttled slaves to safety in the North. Some believe that the location of the house indicates a very real possibility of that -- a cave underneath the building fans out into other, larger caves. Other experts, brought in by the state of Missouri to assess the claims, argue that the home wasn't old enough to have had a part in that portion of pre-Civil War history; they suggest the cave only links it to the nearby Lemp Brewery.
This summer, a group of area high-school students, led by Gateway Tech instructor Chip Clatto, had planned on doing a six-week excavation of the grounds, looking for physical evidence to prove, or disprove, the contested facts.
"This is a potential Underground Railroad site," said Clatto, nearly beside himself as the building's roof was dismantled. "Potential. If it is, why not wait the two more months? There are sites in Illinois, in St. Louis County, but not a single documented site in the city of St. Louis. It's a possibility. That's all we are saying. If we don't find anything this summer, that's fine -- knock it down. If it was, it could've been a terrific moneymaker. It would've really helped Benton Park."
Clatto is one of a small core of people distressed by the city's wait-then-rush approach to clearing the site. With him last week was Edward Schneider, a local resident and a graduate student at Washington University. "I don't know how I get wrapped up in these things," he joked while Clatto ran an errand. But his concern for the site was real: "It seems that putting a fence around it, keeping people out and doing the dig would've been appropriate."
Also upset was Mark Sarich, who lives on the block. A musician, music teacher and founder of the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, Sarich did much of the legwork in identifying the building as a potential Underground Railroad site. "I'm trying to distance myself a bit," said Sarich, watching the building come down. "I feel so passionate about it."
Sarich's work led to Clatto's finding the Lemp Street site, though it happened in a roundabout way. Originally Sarich spoke to Angela DaSilva, of the Greater St. Louis Black Tourism Network. Together they began making calls and lining up support to uncover the mystery of the house. Sarich compiled oral histories from people in the surrounding blocks. Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman wrote a column about their efforts in September. Clatto says that a member of the city's Community Development Agency saw the column and suggested that Clatto's group might find the site suitable for digging.
"We were going to excavate in Grandel Square," he says. "We wanted to do an African-American site this year. This site was suggested to us -- by them -- as a possibility. I had a very good relationship with LRA (the Land Reutilization Authority, the city agency that owned the building). They were very open-minded and wanted to help us."
This is where things get murky.
Ivy Clay, spokeswoman for the Community Development Agency and the LRA, says that Clatto didn't fill out the appropriate paperwork and that he had only spoken to members of the staff about the possibility of using the site rather than securing the permits needed to dig.
"He could have done that this last month, on April 7," she says, noting that the city claimed the building in June 1997. "The way I understand it, he had talked to the staff, but only the board of the LRA can grant permission. He never even got the OK to go before the board. And he knew the building was on the list."
"The list" is a priority group of city buildings that have been slated for demolition. Clay says that 3314 Lemp was ripe for that grouping in that the power had been shut off, the elements were taking a toll and "the process had been stopped for awhile. After it was determined that it was not an Underground Railroad site, we were determined to take it down.
"He wants to take these kids under, into the old beer tunnels. We offered him sites in the Ville and other places, and he wasn't interested in any others. For us, there's two issues: Does he still want to do the digging, and if he does, will it be safe for the kids? There's some fact-finding to do before we decide."
Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th) echoes those sentiments, saying that the building, which stood in his ward, was unsafe: "If we'd have found someone with some money, we'd have been interested in having it up, just for the sake of keeping old buildings," says Schmid. "The timing on this makes it look likes it's happening in a hurry, but it's been going on for years."
The issue that still lies at the heart of things -- even if the very walls in question have come down -- is whether there's enough data to even confirm the possibility of the Lemp site's being a stop on the Underground Railroad.
City officials universally point to a memo written by Douglas Eiken, of the Missouri Division of State Parks, dated Nov. 18, 1998. According to the report, a panel put together by the state argues there's no way that the site could've been either a slave quarters for the nearby DeMenil Mansion or an Underground Railroad site. They tab 3314 Lemp as something quite different.
Reads part of the memo: "Although the house appears to be of antebellum construction, in the opinion of the team, it is more likely a workers cottage constructed by German craftsmen and may be associated with the Lemp Brewery, which used the system of caves beneath this part of the city to store their products."
Like the others, Schmid quotes from Eiken's memo as the final word on the subject. "The only opinion I can have is what other people tell me," he says. "There was a delay in demolition so that the state could study it."
Clatto, though, says he has found support from archaeologists at both Washington University and St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, who believe there's enough evidence to merit a longer-term dig at the site -- exactly what was on tap for this summer. "I think as a city we could've banded together and put up a fence for six months," he says. "It could've been monumental if this were indeed a site."
Clatto's class would've comprised 20 students from a variety of city schools, plus a couple of county students. "There are some very impressive kids in this group," he says. "It's a shame. They're extremely upset, hurt, bewildered. They asked, 'How could they do this? Don't they understand how important this site could be?' It just was not in that bad a shape that it needed to be torn down.
"The city's trying to do a number on us."
Clatto says that he set up the Archaeological Conservation Team Inc. as a nonprofit group, in conjunction with city schools, to help secure grants and outside funds to help with their summer fieldwork. He says that a couple of sources indicated that they would donate money to help shore up the walls at the Lemp site, ensuring that the area was safe for the kids. continued on page 12continued from page 10
As of Monday, Clatto was still involved in a full-on push to keep heavy machinery off the site so that (at the very least) the cave could be checked this summer. City officials seem to offer some mild hope of that happening.
This unfolding story proved rich not only in detail and vastly differing facts and opinions but in irony: For example, the notion of an all-black crew ripping down a house that could've been part of the Underground Railroad. Or the fact that a dilapidated adjoining building at 3316 Lemp was left standing.
Clatto, knowing the city's spin, says, "I know the city's going to try to crucify me on this. But this is wrong. I thought the goal was to educate kids."
At this point, Clatto's nonprofit group may try to buy the site outright, if LRA's willing. Even then, they may not be able to afford the additional fencing and liability insurance and might therefore have to shift to another site just six weeks before the scheduled class. (If a bulldozer comes on-site, it's all over.) And the city, with its tangled branches, is proving its bureaucratic mettle: The proponents of keeping the building up may not have filled out every line on every form, but the city certainly was aware of the efforts and didn't make the process one bit easier.
In short, the system failed at 3314 Lemp. The 20 kids scheduled to have spent their summer at the little house deserved better. The city stumbled badly, also creating an unnecessary PR fiasco. Though the local-government agencies involved may not be able to undo all the bad will they've already created, if they care at all about preservation (even if it's only job preservation), they'll try harder. Not next time, but this time. The clock's ticking. HUNGRY DOGS WALKING: Many letters to the editor have poured into the RFT concerning a piece on feral dogs in several impoverished East Side towns. Occasionally, though, such a sight is found closer to home. Recently, just blocks from the RFT office in tony University City, a lithe gray dog (with freakishly white eyes, no less) secured a giant sandwich from one of the Dumpsters between a pricey deli, Brandt's, and a pricey diner, Fitz's. To be fair, the stinky, strewn-about trash belongs to the pricey deli and its eastward neighbors, not the pricey diner.
It's normal to see crows the size of California condors picking at the Dumpsters in question; routinely the receptacles overflow into the adjoining parking lot, providing nourishing secondhand food to creatures of both heaven (crows) and earth (rats and other small mammals). On this day, though, the coyote-esque scavenger dog beat the carrion birds to the prize, aggressively snatching the large meat-filled croissant before swaggering across Delmar, cars gently weaving to avoid this nervy carnivore.
As is often true in life, there's no moral to this story, nor much of a point. It's simply a story, told for the sake of the telling. We won't even get into the one about the squirrel that was licking a beer bottle like a pint-sized human being!
B(e)SIDES: Our eyes and ears are close to the ground. And close to the press-release file, too. A group called the Black Radical Congress-St. Louis is kick-starting a year-long study series on "U.S. politics, economics and racism and Black activism in St. Louis" called "Arch of Oppression, Circle of Resistance: St. Louis' Political Economy and Black Community Underdevelopment." It'll take place on Sunday, May 2, at the Ujamma Maktaba Bookstore, 4267 Manchester. Call 355-3238 for information. The first guest speaker is Gordon Baum. Just kidding!... Also on May 2, a broad group of community groups will discuss the eyesore formerly known as the Southtown Famous-Barr. The locals will meet at St. Mary Magdalen School, 4323 S. Kingshighway, at 2 p.m. Politicians in attendance had better bring some answers -- and some thick skin. They'll need both. An observant reader notes that "Hit Parade Haiku" is not haiku, because ours has lacked references to a season. This is correct. Shame on the rest of you for not noticing! However, we recite this phrase from the first installment: "bastardizing an ancient art form." For now, "Hit Parade Haiku" is on "Hit Parade" hiatus.... Last week it was mentioned that Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka would be in town to wrestle at Webster University (and to sign personal Polaroids for $8!). Though the Samoan superstar has lost a bit of his muscularity, no one in the Grant Gym could contain themselves when the veteran grappler went top-rope! Yes! Long live Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka!... Fun lunch pairing of the week: Brian McKenna and Onion Horton, sharing pulled-pork sandwiches, fires and a drink at Super Smokers. Let's make this happen!
"HIT PARADE" TOP SEVEN: The Top Seven mixology clinics in which you're unlikely to trip into "der Bergermeister," Jerry Berger (though you never know):
7. Captain's Table
6. Friendly's Pub & Restaurant
5. Betty's Bar
4. Frederick's Music Lounge
3. Big Drink No. 1
2. PT's, Centreville
1. That Other Place
E-mail tips, quips and assorted threats to Thomas_Crone@rftstl.com.