Judging a city by its headlines in the national press is often an unfair exercise. St. Louis knows that all too well. Yet it's not uncommon for visitors to arrive with an earnest, two-dimensional curiosity about a place they may only know from recent coverage in the New York Times (or, worse, Breitbart News).
To your aunt from Jefferson County or cousin in California, the image of St. Louis is likely flattened by their exposure to viral Facebook posts and their preferred cable news channel — sources that amplify scandal over nuance, and drama over complexity. It's why visitors still misunderstand the basics about the region, like that out-of-state friend asking you if Busch Stadium is next to Ferguson or whether all those protests "did anything."
But those questions, aggravating as they are, also present an opportunity — a call to understand this under-studied and overly-dramatized region. It's not just out-of-towners: Even St. Louisans could use a trip outside their south city (or west county) bubble. Despite the not-always-accurate shape of St. Louis' news footprint, with just a bit of effort, anyone can visit the real places behind those headlines, and come away more informed for it.
To start things off, why not journey straight to the elephant in the room? There is no way to talk about St. Louis' recent history without talking about Ferguson. But even through a car window, Ferguson just looks...normal, working class and largely residential. On a drive through this suburb, you'll pass quiet, home-lined streets interrupted by shops, fast food chains and modest strip malls. It is neither an urban wasteland nor a posh suburban enclave.
Outwardly, there's little here to advertise the tensions that reached a critical mass on Canfield Drive in Ferguson on August 9, 2014.
What began with a white Ferguson police officer killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, quickly became something more. In less than 48 hours, protesters swelled with anger at the treatment of Brown's body, which had been left on the scene for hours — but others in the crowds took advantage of the chaos. By the time national news outlets arrived, it was the looting and arson that caught their camera crews' lenses. And for many, their first introduction to Ferguson was not the photos of peaceful protesting, but of a QuikTrip on West Florissant Avenue burning in the night.
After it was destroyed, the QuikTrip site became a staging ground for peaceful protesters. Here they massed, chanted and marched along West Florissant, a stretch of street that witnessed multiple nights of mass arrests and tear gas used on demonstrators.
Today, the modern brick building that holds the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center (9420 West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson) sits on the site of the immolated gas station. Completed in 2017, the center created a new source for job training programs and youth outreach. It represents a rare concrete symbol of the change that rocked Ferguson and its north county neighbors.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Visit Michael Brown's memorial to pay your respects to the slain teen who launched a national movement.
One block south of the center is Canfield Drive. Down the road about a quarter-mile, a sidewalk plaque presents a permanent memorial to Michael Brown. But if you or your visitors were inspired by Brown and the protests that followed, you should also remember that the memorial isn't a tourist attraction or an Instagram backdrop. If you visit the memorial, keep it brief and respectful.
However, there's no need to leave Ferguson on a note of grief. This place is still alive with people, businesses and food. Do yourself a favor and indulge in the latter, as you're just a half-mile from a bite at Sweetie Pie's (9841 West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson; 314-942-1701), and a few additional minutes of driving will take you to Cathy's Kitchen (250 South Florissant Avenue, Ferguson; 314-524-9200). Both black-owned businesses offer good food and a way to support a community that's weathered some hard times. And Sweetie Pie's offers its own national profile; owner Robbie Montgomery is not only a former backup singer for Ike and Tina Turner, but also the star of Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, the reality show that aired for nine seasons on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Ferguson may have exposed the rot eating through the region's courts and police departments, but in a landfill twelve miles west, a rot of a different, more literal type attracted its own headlines. Here, the West Lake Landfill (13570 St Charles Rock Road, Bridgeton) presents as almost an alien landscape, the ground covered with a grayish-green "cap" punctured by black hoses, with a vast area surrounded by fences adorned with radiation warning signs.
Some 700 feet away, beneath hundreds of feet of garbage dumped at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill, a fire is smoldering. And that fire is moving toward West Lake and its cache of radioactive waste, which was left over from the Manhattan Project and illegally dumped there in the 1970s.
- KELLY GLUECK
- Beneath the West Lake Landfill is a cache of radioactive waste.
Despite what superhero movies might suggest, in real life, there are no known positive side effects that come from being exposed to nuclear waste or burning trash. For years, nearby residents sounded the alarm about rare cancers and childhood illness in the area. Finally, the CDC acknowledged in 2018 that residents' exposure to nuclear waste had indeed "increased the risk" for developing various cancers. Also in 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency vowed to remove the radioactive waste. That effort is ongoing.
You can learn more about the literal (and metaphorical) garbage fire in the 2017 HBO documentary Atomic Homefront. For now, though, you'll want to get back on the road.
From Bridgeton, I-70 will whisk you through a dozen north county municipalities on the way to the city of St. Louis. But instead of proceeding toward the Arch like any old tourist, hang a right onto Cass Avenue. A stone's throw from downtown, the street reflects the uneven conditions allowed to fester in the city's northern neighborhoods. On one block, you'll pass crumbling brick structures and grassy vacant lots. On the next, the desolation gives way to modern apartment buildings shrouded by tidy lines of trees planted on both sides of the street.
At 1849 Cass, the site of the James L. Clemens House (1849 Cass Avenue), all that's left are overgrown bushes. An opulent and unique structure, the historic mansion was built in 1858 by a relative of Samuel Clemens — the writer known as Mark Twain — but was left to decay for years, until a fire in 2017 ravaged what was left. The next year, a demolition team finished the job.
The fate of the Clemens House outraged preservation activists, who had long accused its owner, developer Paul McKee, of reneging on promises to rehab and preserve more than 100 properties within the footprint of his promised $8 billion NorthSide Regeneration Project. McKee's rehabs were initially planned for completion in 2011. They never happened.
In the summer of 2018, St. Louis officials made headlines when they filed paperwork to find McKee in default on the decade-old agreement for exclusive development within some 1,500 acres. The solution to developing north city — and saving places like the Clemens House — remains elusive.
If you really want to see examples of active problem solving in St. Louis, you may have to set your sights a bit lower than "reversing decades of depopulation and disinvestment." Slowing down speeders on Compton Avenue? Now that's a problem St. Louis officials enthusiastically tackled last year, although its success remains a matter of hot debate.
The city's traffic abatement strategy involved placing concrete spheres at strategic intersections. Of course, this opened the door for a certain journalistic outlet to produce a veritable banquet of headlines involving variations on "St. Louis' Balls." It's not just us: Colloquially, the balls are referred to as either "Ingrassia Balls," after the alderwoman who placed them in intersections around Compton Heights and Tower Grove East, or "Slay Balls," after the former mayor of St. Louis.
Regardless of jargon, the balls have been a hit with fans of crotch jokes and safe driving alike. Crafty residents have even added personal touches, creating costumes and "hats" for the otherwise drab spheroids. (The RFT's resultant news coverage should give some sense of the inspiration they've provided: "St. Louis' Huge Balls Keep Getting in the Way," "Woman Crochets Giant Ball-Sized Hat to Warm Up St. Louis' Giant Balls," "Now Someone Turned a Slay Ball Into a Pot of Gold" and, of course, "Someone Keeps Putting Their Mustache on St. Louis' Balls.")
- VIA ESTATELY
- The former Greitens home: The catalyst for 2018's biggest Missouri scandal.
With your tour nearly complete, you'll want to make your way west to the Central West End. In September 2017, protests erupted over the acquittal of a city cop charged with murdering a suspect in cold blood, and the cosmopolitan neighborhood just east of Forest Park became a tension point, with protesters and police facing off in the streets. (One reason? Mayor Lyda Krewson, who became a target of the protests, lives here.)
In the Central West End, as in Ferguson, the protests brought police, and then chaos, to the streets. On the night that former officer Jason Stockley was acquitted, St. Louis Police fired tear gas and swarmed the neighborhood in full riot gear. When officers got to Pi Pizzeria (400 North Euclid Avenue, 314-367-4300), the tear gas came with them — angering owner Chris Sommers, who took to Twitter to blast the cops as "dimwits...terrorizing our town, hiding under tactical gear."
Despite the protection afforded by their body armor, some police officers took Sommers' words with the howling injury of a knee-scraped toddler. Blue Lives Matter called for a boycott, a call amplified by the local police unions. Facing a torrent of harassment, Pi found itself in the spotlight even as protests over the acquittal gained momentum.
However, the police response to the protests would prove to be far more damaging to the department's reputation than the pizzeria's. Days after the incident, officers employed a "kettle" to mass arrest protesters downtown — and soon it came to light that officers beat one of their own undercover agents trapped during the roundup. This year, that beating lead the city prosecutor to charge multiple officers with assault and lying to investigators.
Meanwhile, Pi still serves great pizza, so you can grab a bite there or at any number of eateries in this walkable, lovely neighborhood. While you're here, why not take a detour a few blocks over for another spot that figured prominently in political scandal in recent years? Just down the street from Pi at 4522 Maryland sits the stately home that formerly belonged to disgraced Missouri governor Eric Greitens. The scandal that preceded Greitens' resignation dominated local newspaper headlines last spring, with accusations that the former Navy SEAL had bound and photographed a woman in this home's basement without her consent.
On a more uplifting note, you could finish your magical history tour in one of the city's prettiest locations, Forest Park (5595 Grand Drive). For visitors who may envision St. Louis as a crime-ridden urban shell in the shadow of the Arch, the park's spacious greenery, plentiful museums and ornate architecture should do much to reset that stereotype. The park, which hosted the 1904 World's Fair, has grown into a second life as the city's cultural hub.
The same cannot be said for its Confederate Monument, which drew protests in the summer of 2017. The inscription on the 32-foot-tall memorial eulogized the "purest patriotism" of fallen Confederate soldiers — a message spray-painted over two years ago with the words "End Racism."
After some legal debate over the monument's ownership, the monument was dissembled that June by the mayor's executive fiat. Its heavy granite blocks went to storage under the stewardship of the Missouri Civil War Museum, with the stipulation it could never be displayed publicly in St. Louis city or county.
The timing proved eerily prescient. Two months later, the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — which was organized by a coalition of various bigots opposing the removal of a Confederate monument — turned deadly, pushing several states to confront (and tear down) their own Confederate monuments as St. Louis had just done.
Today, the former monument's home is an empty patch of grass that's sandwiched between a running trail and Grand Drive in the north end of the park. Even Confederate Drive, the road which for years curved around the memorial, has been plowed over.
And so as our tour comes to an end, it's worth noting that a pessimist might look at St. Louis and observe that much of its recent national attention has been negative. But an optimist would argue that we're taking inventory of more than a century of past wrongs — and working to right them whenever we can. Even if that's just tearing down symbols of a falsely remembered past .... or slowing the traffic on Compton.