Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A plug for the neighborhood

We're trying something new this year...a community yard project. Here's an email that went out over our block email list:

Dear Neighbors –

Is the soil under your lawn so hard it feels more like concrete than earth? Does your grass struggle to grow and then go downhill from there? I know ours does. Mike Miller from the KMOX Garden Hotline says the best thing we can do in St. Louis to improve our lawns is to core aerate the ground once or twice a year (mid spring and fall). Core aeration is the process of removing little plugs from the ground to improve air flow into the soil and root system of the lawn. When the process is complete, your lawn looks like it has hundreds of little wine corks laying on the ground.

Home Depot rents core aeration machines for $80 per day (24 hours). We’ve set this Friday/Saturday as the day to rent the machine for our block. We’ll either divide the cost by participants, or collect $10 per household. Any surplus funds will be applied to 2009 block party expenses. It should take about 45 minutes to an hour to do each front yard. If we pick up the machine around 5 pm Friday, some of us can get stated Friday evening, with the rest using the machine on Saturday.

Note: Home Depot will not make reservations. They rent the machines on a first come, first served basis. The man in the rental office said that if we came by Friday around 5, we should be able to get one of the machines.

The block captain will sign for the machine and handle the funds. We will need some help picking up and returning the machine. It takes two people to load and unload it, and we will need someone to donate the use of a pickup to help with delivery and return. If you have access to the use of a pickup Friday after work and Saturday around 4:30, please volunteer. Without a truck, the project won’t happen. We need your help. Please volunteer if you can help in this regard.

The last thing is, it would be great if we had an idea of when you’d want to use the machine. (Friday evening till around 8 PM, Saturday morning – from 7:00 AM – noon, or Saturday afternoon till 4 PM.) If we could have interested folks sign up for one of those three time slots, we’d be able to make the most efficient use of the machine.)

After core aerating your lawn, it’s a good time to put down new compost/soil supplements, and new grass seed. If this project works this first time, we could try again in the fall and continue it as a block tradition. If we stay with it, our block could have great lawns in the coming years.

Thanks for your help and here’s to good gardening

Now while this yard improvement project will be a good community building effort (we've already got about ten neighbors signed up and an offer of a donated pick up truck), I have to ask the question...where are all those industrious snow shoveling/lawn maintenance people?

In all our years living in the City, we've had twice yearly deliveries of fire wood, mulch haulers offering to mulch our yard (with the free mulch from Carondelet Park - maybe, fine by me, that mulch pile looks like Mount Everest), snow shovelers offering to shovel our walks after every deep snow, but never anyone offering to aerate our lawn. An enterprising person could make money by the wheel barrow load if they offered to aerate your yard for $20-$25.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Our house is haunted too...

Guide books say that St. Louis is one of the most haunted places in the country. From "Bloody Island" during the Civil War, to the Lemp Mansion and all around Alton, there are lots of stories about hauntings here. Come Halloween, St. Louis leads the country in commercial haunted houses. The whole thing to me is good fun. I never thought much more about it until these past few weeks.

A month or so ago, a woman was driving slowly down our block. I was doing work in the front yard. The lady was looking at all the houses. She stopped to talk to me through the car window. She said she was trying to find someone. I didn't recognize her or the name of the person she was looking for. She was a little agitated, and her appearance out of sorts.

She appeared dazed, as if she wasn't sure whether she belonged there. She was slight of build, with a pale complexion and dressed in loose fitting clothes. She drove away. I was a little concerned about her and her search, but I didn't think much about it after that.

Then last week, a very unusual message came across our neighborhood listserve. A member reported that their house was haunted and they were looking for someone who could come over and cleanse the place of spirits. This person was worried because they said this ghost was very strong and capable of causing injuries.

Other posters replied how their homes were haunted too, and that the whole thing was fairly common. They said the best thing to do was to call a priest because they are the best at removing restless spirits. Even a protestant poster said the best thing to do was to call a Catholic priest.

I chalk up the whole spirit and haunting stuff around St. Louis to our historic nature and strong Catholic culture. Lots of our neighborhoods are very old. There are many generations ahead of us here. Our cemeteries date to the early 1800s. A lot of people died violent or plague sickness deaths. It's no wonder we have more than our share of unquieted spirits.

So yesterday, I'm working in the backyard and the mysterious lady from last month returned, only this time she was much more specific in her search. She walked down the gangway and approached me. I was standing there with a power saw in one hand and dead tree branches in the other. She had the same unsettled appearance. From a distance, she looked like she could be in her early 40s, but once she was within a few feet, she looked much older. She might have been 50 or 60. It was very hard to make a close estimate of her age.

This time as she spoke, she was very focused in her questions. She asked me how long we had lived in the house. I told her that we had lived here for about four or five years. She said she knew that, and that when the house was up for sale, she had gone through the home back then. She began asking questions about the same person she was looking for on her last visit.

She said the man she was searching for was her sister's son. She gave me the impression the man had some connection to our house. I asked her his name and she said it was "Tom O'Toole". "O'Toole" is an old time St. Louis name. We know a family of "O'Tooles", but no Tom O'Tooles.

I told her that I had never seen nor heard of a Tom O'Toole, but that I would ask around for him. If anyone reading here knows of a Tom O'Toole that lived in South City, please reply.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Time for City-County Reconciliation?

The Great Divorce happened in 1876. Now, there is talk of the city reentering St. Louis County. I like the idea. I'd like to hear from people in St. Louis County about it, because for a reconciliation to happen, it has to be a marriage of equals.

Both sides bring value to the relationship. Will it happen? It will take some serious relationship counseling. One thing is interesting. Note the map above. The City is almost the perfect size to become the eighth County Council District. We'd have a member on the St. Louis County Council. Doesn't that sound good?

Selling fear with that furnace

The old saying in advertising is, "don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle". People are looking for more than a product when they buy something; they're buying an experience. They want their purchase to make them feel good. So marketers are always looking for that something extra to make a sale. More and more, that something is fear.

Today in the car I heard a radio commercial for a heating and cooling company. They were advertising for the sale of furnaces and air conditioners. The angle they used to promote their business had nothing to do with quality or value or customer service. They were making the case that their employees wouldn't commit a crime against you, their customer. Isn't that wonderful? Doesn't that make you feel good? This ad is running on the St. Louis area's leading FM conservative talk station.

The ad described how you don't want just anyone coming into your house or your basement. How you wouldn't want dangerous people around your family. It went on to say how this company turns away 97% of their job applicants (obvious implication being these unhired individuals are working for their competition). Then it said the leading trades taught in prisons are plumbing and heating and cooling. God knows no one would ever want an ex-con working on their air conditioner or going down in their basement.

Listen to the tone of conservative talk radio. Check out the advertising, whether it be for service companies or school choices. How often are we being sold to our fears? Does this approach cross the wide spectrum of society, or is it targeted against certain demographic groups?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bloggers Unified...About What?

Following up on yesterday's discussion, if there was an effort to unify blogs, what sorts of things would make sense to address? Progressive efforts range from national issues to very place-based concerns here in St. Louis.

The range of possible issues is very wide. From updating our region's waste water management system, to promoting the notion of St. Louis City reentering St. Louis County, to historic preservation, to urban design. Plus a lot more.

Going in too many directions dilutes the message to the point of having little impact. Are there areas where unified bloggers might help bring about community progress? Or is that happening already and maybe things should be left alone?

How about ending the policy of no beer sales at high school baseball games? That's a real head scratcher. Young ball players grow up from kindergarten through 8th grade playing at athletic association fields across the St. Louis region, where family and friends gather to enjoy watching games and share a beer if they like.

Yet when these same ballplayers make it to high school, playing on these same fields, the snack bar shuts down the tap. What's the difference? Maybe this is a topic better sought by the beer bloggers (they are out there, aren't they?)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Blogger Unification

I follow a number of blogs, a few regularly. The ones I read are grouped in the link section of popular urbanist blogs like Ecology of Absence. I think a big reason blogs are popular in some circles is because you can find information about things you're interested in written by people with an active interest in the same issues.

In the case of the urbanists blogs, the writers tend to be our neighbors, working in their daily lives on the issues they write about in their blogs. So there's a sense of involvement, community activism, and common interest.

With the growing use of online communications, what if the bloggers tried to focus on a few key issues? Would they be able to have a bigger impact? Or are bloggers just too independent a group to develop a set of shared priorities? If they did identify some priority issues, what would they be?

Historic preservation gets a lot of attention in the blogs, as does the idea of "form based zoning". Cycling and transportation planning are other areas often written about. All of these topics are part of the realm dealt with by government and community process. How would bloggers influence these arenas?

When attending neighborhood meetings, the impression I get is that most average citizens do not read blogs. So they wouldn't be aware of a unified blogger voice. Meanwhile, a good way to get a cold shoulder is to arrive at a neighborhood meeting, unknown to neighborhood regulars, coming from another part of town, pushing an issue or agenda. It seems for bloggers to have a bigger impact, there needs to be wider use of electronic communications by average residents and a wider sense of community beyond individual neighborhoods.

Maybe that's an issue blogger unification might address? Building a wider sense of community across neighborhood boundaries? How might that happen? Maybe it takes years since it is going against the grain of St. Louis tradition.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Neighbors Dedicate St. Cecilia Historic District

Saturday morning, neighbors met with elected officials and representatives from other interested organizations to dedicate the new St. Cecilia Historic District in South City. The new historic district is in the Carondelet area, bounded by Grand on the west, Delor on the north, Virginia on the east, and Bates on the South. The anchor institution in the district is the beautiful St. Cecilia Catholic church (photos available at links below).

Dignitaries including State Representative Jake Hummel, 16th Ward Alderman and Director of Institutional Advancement for St. Cecilia's parish, Donna Baringer, 13th Ward Alderman Fred Heitert, newly elected 25th Ward Alderman Shane Cohn were present, along with about 80 neighborhood residents.

The St. Cecilia historic district nomination was prepared by historians Nini Harris and Lynn Josse. Nini and Lynn were introduced and described some of their work in preparing the nomination, including the amazing fact that 673 of the district's original 700 buildings remain standing. After a brief presentation, the professionals turned the dedication over to young people living in the St. Cecilia area.

Carrying an American Flag, 2007 St. Cecilia graduate and current sophomore at Bishop DuBourg High School, Thomas Pollitte, led a processional of young people ranging in ages from about five to twelve to the front of the room. There they stood together, and took turns narrating the story of the historic St. Cecilia area.

The narratives were accompanied by historic images of the area. They spoke of South St. Louis Vernacular architecture, bakery brick buildings, and Arts and Crafts bungalows. They spoke of "window coolers" (someone still has to explain what those are), "coal chutes", and "laundry poles". In the middle of the presentation, right on time and wearing a big smile, one of the youngest presenters marched through the audience holding high over her head an antique wash board made at the Cupples Wooden Ware factory in downtown St. Louis.

After the young people completed their presentation, a choral group from St. Cecilia Academy came to the front of the room. With keyboard accompaniment, in a preview of their upcoming April 30th "Broadway or Bust" musical show, they sang wonderful renditions of "Meet Me In St. Louis" (twenty years of loving that song, and never knowing it had verses to go along with the "Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie" chorus), "There's No Business Like Show Business", and the theme song from the hit Broadway musical "Rent". The singing and music were excellent. STL Rising encourages readers to attend the April 30th, 6:30 p.m. concert.

Fr. William Vatterott spoke of the growth of the parish, now seeing average Sundays draw over 2,000 parishioners, including a solid hispanic base. St. Cecilia's is one of the most beautiful churches in the St. Louis Arch Diocese. Former Arch Bishop Burke authorized St. Cecilia's to take the name, "Cathedral of the South Side".

The St. Cecilia Historic District nomination is a story of people from various backgrounds coming together for the betterment of the overall community. City and state officials, local institutions, historic preservation professionals, neighborhood residents, and local business all supported the effort. At the dedication, there were members of the 2009 graduating class of St. Cecilia Academy, along with graduates from the 1930s and 40s!

Visit these links for more information about the church and school.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

50 Downtowns

The map above is from a 1920s book about public transportation in the St. Louis area. What I like about it is the way it shows all the little downtowns dotted across the bi-state area (click to enlarge the image).

It would be a fun outing to travel the roads connecting these historic settlements. I wonder how many of them resemble the way they looked back in the 1920s? In between towns, many old farm houses and commercial buildings would still exist.

Monday, April 13, 2009

No Free Zoos

Ray Hartmann has written an interesting article for St. Louis Magazine about why the Zoo Museum District ("ZMD") in St. Louis City and County should be expanded to adjoining counties, and why free admission to tourists ought to be eliminated.

He is clear in that free admission should continue for residents of the ZMD since, after all, we are the ones paying the taxes to support the system. However, Hartmann points out that over 50% of the region now lives outside of St. Louis City and County. Tens of millions of dollars would be raised by expanding the ZMD and charging admission to out of town tourists.

In the print edition of the article, there's a chart comparing prices for zoos across the country. A free admission zoo is nearly unheard of, and most zoos charge $15 or so per person for entry. I don't think an admission charge for our zoo would hurt tourism. But I like the idea of starting with a lower admission fee at first - say under $10. After folks get used to it, then slowly raise the fee, a little at a time. Raise it gradually, so that within 5-10 years, we're on par with national averages.

As far as residents of adjoining counties joining the ZMD, that's a different question entirely. Now, they enjoy the benefit for free. Some might consider the free use of the ZMD an incentive to move to an outlying county. So how do you convince people to start paying for something they already get for free? I suppose you do it by giving them a choice - charge them at the gate if their county does not join the ZMD.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cardinal Red

Working downtown, I get to watch the parade of Cardinal fans walking through downtown before and after games. The fans are easy to tell apart - they're mostly wearing Cardinal Red.

Cardinal fans are for the most part good natured people. They're here for a good time, and they love the Cardinals. But for a lot of them, for years, attending Cardinal games would be one of the few reasons they would visit downtown.

However, for the past couple of years, there's been an interesting change. Now before and after ballgames, you see more and more baseball fans actively exploring downtown. They are parking further and further from the ballpark and walking to the stadium.

On the way, they are stopping and looking in lots of storefronts. They are noticing lots of redeveloped buildings and cleaner streets. By the curious and sometimes a little surprised looks on their faces, I think their impressions of St. Louis are changing, for the better.

Lots of people were critical of the deal to keep the Cardinals downtown. They didn't like taxpayer financing of a stadium for rich players and richer owners. Yet, if you think in terms of the improved goodwill for downtown and the rest of St. Louis, those tax payer investments just might be paying off.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Turtles Rising

Since tomorrow's the official start of the weekend - a holiday weekend for many - that makes today the eve of a long weekend, and for many the getaway day. As Friday's are usually slow days for serious stuff, to get in the holiday spirit, STL Rising will start things off with a low key story about some of the little day to day things that make neighborhood life special. The following is a story about one of our old neighbors we lived across the street from for about ten years.

There are a million different stories. I am reminded of our elderly neighbor, now deceased. She used to give our young son, then about 6-9 years old, baseball cards in little brown paper bags she’d dig out of her basement. Nothing of great collectible value, just a thoughtful gesture from her. Matt didn't know the difference, and at that age, he just liked getting the cards. Our neighbor was widowed by this time, and she sort of adopted us as her family across the street.

She had one daughter who lived down on the gulf shore, and another here in St. Louis. The local daughter lived in a home our neighbor owned over in the Lindenwood neighborhood. Years previously, the house was given to our neighbors by some old friends of theirs. The Lindenwood couple immigrated to the US from Europe and met our neighbors.

Our neighbors hosted a wedding party for the Lindenwood couple in their home over near Lindenwood Park. After the party, the couple left things the same in the house, and when they passed on, they willed the home to my neighbor, with decorations from the wedding party still up in the dining room.

Our neighbor friends never changed a thing, they never uncovered the furniture, anything. Then when her one daughter moved in the place, the place was more than she could handle, and it started to show the wear. My kind neighbor didn’t know what to do about her daughter's situation; she was just trying to help her.

Meanwhile, she mostly kept to her self in her little brick house with the old air conditioner installed by her husband back in the 1950s. She never went on vacation and wore old clothes. When she died, I learned she was worth close to $3,000,000. From as far as I can tell, it was all left to her two daughters and grandkids.

After her death, the house across the street remained vacant for years until the heirs finally sold it. In the intervening years, it too was starting to show the signs of being vacant for an extended period. Our neighbor would have been embarrassed about that. She and her husband had always kept the yard perfect and they kept pet turtles they would find on country drives and bring back home to St. Louis.

In the winter the turtles would burrow under the ground to hibernate. Every spring our neighbor would wait for them to dig themselves out from under the ground and start foraging around her yard. She could tell if they all came back because she painted little numbers on their shells with nail polish so she could tell them apart. She gave them all different names. "Oscar" was one of them. I wonder what ever happened to those turtles?

Anyhow, when we first moved in to the neighborhood, it was our neighbor who invited us to attend our first neighborhood association meeting. My wife later became president of the organization. That was back in the mid ‘90s. My wife, way more techie than me, started the neighborhood listserve. It operates to this day with hundreds of subscribers. Although our old neighbor never had a computer, I'm pretty sure she would be very happy about that.

The houses and old buildings in St. Louis are great, but it is the people and neighborhoods that make it really special. I think I would rather have a neighborhood with 10 percent vacant buildings and engaged residents working together, than a fully occupied neighborhood with little sense of community. In St. Louis, you can find that.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Maybe she can't read?

Driving again, I pass a number of bus stops on the way downtown. This morning, at one of the old stops where the sign is covered up with the announcement regarding Metro's disruption in service, a woman was bundled up waiting for something, a bus maybe. Do buses still stop at the stops where the signs are covered up? Is she waiting for a bus that will never come?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Alley video cameras?

With the lower cost of video technology, some communities are considering the idea of installing video cameras in alleys and on street corners to keep an electronic eye out for suspicious behaviour. Is this too much of an infringement on personal liberty, or something we should consider?

No more electronic voting for me

In the last primary election, I decided to give electronic voting a try. I didn't like it. The machine seemed a little quirky, and I didn't like not having the feel of a depositing a paper ballot in a box. Today, I voted with a paper ballot - much better. Which gets me to the main point of today's post - what the hell happened in the 9th inning of the Cardinal's home opener yesterday?

Great outing by starter Adam Wainwright. Cardinals take a 2-run lead in the bottom of the eighth with a home run and an insurance run. Everything is set up perfect for a win on opening day. Then everything went wrong in the 9th. You know that things were pretty horrible when after the game, on one of the post game talk shows, the host said that the best thing about yesterday's game was that there is another game today. That's about it.

Still, I don't get it. First off, why leave Jason Motte, the closer, in the whole inning? The Pirates were roughing him up. He was totally ineffective, yet LaRussa leaves him the entire inning, and he gives up four runs, blows the save, and loses the game. Questions...

With two outs, and the Cardinals still leading by one run, runners on second and third, why not walk the batter to load the bases? Walking the batter would have created a force play at any base. Instead, Motte pitches to the batter and hits him. Same net result, but not good for the space between Motte's ears, which by now is must sound like herd of charging elephants.

Okay, so now there are two outs, bases loaded, Cardinals leading by one run, and Motte still pitching. That screaming noise of pressure is exploding in his head. He makes a pitch and the batter lifts a fly ball to medium deep left field - over the outfielder's head for a double. Three runs score. Pirates up 6-4. Game basically over. Cards go on to lose 6-4. Okay, so why was the left fielder playing so shallow? The ball did not even reach the warning track, but it lands over his head for a double? I don't get that. Can someone explain?

Electronic voting machines? Never again. Motte? Yes, we will give him another chance.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Downtown Then and Downtown Now

After attending the dedication of the new Post Office Plaza on Friday, I thought about all that has happened in the last ten or so years in downtown. Riding Metrolink, I started a list of the memorable things. In no particular order...

Metropolis lots
Last Seinfeld episode
Men's Final Four, Walk to the Arch
Women's Final Four, Walk to the Arch
Record crowds attending Komen Race for the Cure
Mardis Gras parades, VP Fairs and parades, St. Patrick's Day parades
Rams Super Bowl Victory Parade
New Busch Stadium
Cards win World Series at home
Cards Championship Parade
New Schnucks under construction
Well-attended loft housing tours downtown
Thousands of new downtown residents
Illumination of the Arch
Illumination of Washington Avenue
Lots of completed historic rehab developments
Last Seinfeld episide
Street vendors selling lunches to lines of customers
Reversal of a corporate HQ decision to close the 6th and Olive Starbucks
Dedication of Old Post Office plaza
Soon to dedicate new sculpture park on the mall
Nicest casino in region
Roberts Tower going up
Possibilities of reconnecting the Arch, downtown, and riverfront

I started working downtown about 15 years ago. In those days, it was empty. There was nothing going on. In the evenings and on weekends, streets were empty. A lot has changed.

Now, it's hard to find a parking space on Saturday mornings. There are always things going on. Every day you see people walking dogs or babies in strollers. Downtown is a neighborhood again.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Illinois poised to adopt MO-styled historic rehab tax credit?

While attending a conference on neighborhood redevelopment tools, I heard from a colleague active in the Metro East that the Illinois legislature is considering a new bill to create an Illinois Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit.

According to my contact, the bill is being modeled after Missouri's successful historic rehabilitation tax credit program. If anyone has any more information on the possible new Illinois historic preservation and development program, please reply in the comment section. Thanks.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Old Post Office Plaza debuts this weekend

At 4:00 PM Friday, city leaders will dedicate the new Old Post Office Plaza. Festivities will continue throughout the weekend.

The Old Post Office Plaza will be the city's second major park/open space under private ownership and management, the other being Tower Grove Park.

Programming for the Old Post Office Plaza will be managed through the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis.

Note: Thanks to a reader for emailing a question re. the ownership and management of Tower Grove Park. Check the comments section for a clarification of the status.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Building better neighborhoods one block at a time

With spring upon us, people are coming out of their houses. Parks are getting crowded with baseball practices and dog walkers. It's the season to work in the yard and in the neighborhood. St. Louis is a neighborhood city, and one of things that makes neighborhood life worthwhile are the interactions with good neighbors.

This year, we plan to rent a core aerator for the block and share it with all the neighbors. I'm the volunteer who thought this up, and there was enough interest from other neighbors, so we're going to give it a try sometime this spring.

We've got a block wide email list, so word about neighborhood stuff is quick and easy to circulate. Planning the aeration project was simple enough. To make better neighborhoods, we need to do more good neighbor projects. We need to do more little stuff that adds up to a better sense of community and more people knowing their neighbors.

What a difference St. Louis is from the commute-dependent place where I grew up. There, neighbors hardly knew each other, and never shared a meal or a ladder. Living in a place where neighbors know each other and work together is a blessing that isn't measured in dollars but peace of mind.

Block parties are great, and they take a lot of work and volunteers, but it's a one day thing. We need more little stuff going on the rest of the year. A beautiful block requires well maintained houses and yards. Working together as neighbors can make a so-so block better and raise property values. People want to live on blocks with good curb appeal and friendly neighbors.

There's lots of time spent complaining about things we don't like. What would the neighborhood be like if people instead spent that time doing positive things? They would be happier and the neighborhood would improve.

One good thing about the neighborhoods here is that the yards are small enough that it doesn't take all day or half a day to finish the yard work. That leaves more time to lounge on the front stoop, play some catch, play with the dog, or introduce the neighbors.

Given how much good neighbor work there is to do, maybe we should start looking for a place with even a smaller yard. Small yards, close together, with beautiful decorated brick, stone and painted wood trim houses look great all lined up on a traditional block.

Alleys? I could go on all day about alleys. That's a whole 'nother post. When an elderly lady neighbor lectures a bunch of teenagers about keeping the alley clean, that's a good sign you're in a solid neighborhood.

There is a critical mass to a good neighborhood, and it's about a lot more than property value. It's more about the distance between houses and people and how much good neighbor stuff is happening.

The amount of shared food and drink is a better indicator than just about anything else. It's a good thing that the fences between our houses are low enough that it's easy to share a cold beverage across them.