Morning in St. Louis! When we first began to conceive the Blueprint America Screening Tour with Beyond the Motor City, St. Louis was one of the first cities we wanted to visit with the film. For years, it was the number two auto-making city in the country, and Ford, GM and Chrysler all once had assembly and manufacturing facilities here. But no more.
Like Detroit, St. Louis once had an extensive streetcar system that covered the city, and like Detroit, it lost a significant amount of its population in recent decades. I’m staying in the Delmar Loop district of the city, so named because until the 1960s, a streetcar line plotted a loop route along Delmar and down to the inner city.
But unlike Detroit, St. Louis has been able to revive some measure of its rail transit heritage and has built a modern light rail that runs along an old freight right-of-way from the airport west of the city across the river to East St. Louis in Illinois. And just this April, citizens of St. Louis County passed a resolution for a half-cent transit sales tax increase to promote an extension of this system, and the restoration of bus and other transit services.
A TRANSIT TOUR
My transit tour of St. Louis begins with lunch with Tom Shrout, Executive Director of the local light rail advocacy group, Citizens for Modern Transit. Right off the bat, Tom asks if I took the train from the airport the night before. I sheepishly admit that I didn’t, muttering something about the rain and my luggage. He nods without expression.
Tom is incredibly informed about the world’s rapid transit systems and hopeful about the future of St. Louis’s successful light rail, dubbed MetroLink. We are lunching at Blueberry Hill, a Delmar Loop institution festooned with rock and roll memorabilia. St. Louis native Chuck Berry still regularly comes here and performs his legendary duck walk and pop-twang optimism in catchy hits like Maybellene and Johnny B. Goode.
But the Berry number that rings in my head today is the one that begins, “Riding along in my automobile…” and concludes “with no particular place to go.” It’s hard to not conflate that great sense of freedom on the American open road with a churning V-8 engine and Chuck Berry on the AM dial. And in mid-century St. Louis, just like practically every place in America, the freeways were plowing through vital urban communities and cloverleaf interchanges were blossoming on the periphery. Such routes took Americans out of the central city and to the ‘burbs. And when a full tank in a Chrysler Imperial ran under 8 bucks, who’s complaining?
Tom and I finish excellent burgers, then leave Blueberry Hill to ride the rails. Our first stop is the Central West End, where we arrive in a crowded, bustling station. When we climb the street, we are surrounded by construction: massive expansions on the university medical campus and a new residential high-rise. Tom can’t say that all the recent development here is due to the busy transit stop and increasing use of a system that now takes 45,000 cars off the road in St. Louis. But he’s proud to point out that this is MetroLink’s most popular stop, and that for the first time in decades, St. Louis’s city population loss has stabilized.
Next stop: downtown. The new ball park is gorgeous, but even on game day the streets are lacking pedestrians. We admire statues of the Cardinals greats decorating the entrance to the stadium: Brock, Musial, Gibson. Then the conversation turns back to St. Louis’s transportation history. Tom recounts how the construction of urban highways in the middle part of the last century left a wake of divided communities in St. Louis, as in the neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit. One of the worst-hit neighborhoods in St. Louis was “The Hill”, the Italian-American community where Yogi Berra was born.
We are screening the film at the Tivoli Theatre back in the Delmar Loop. Renovated with elegant moldings, great red curtains, and of course, a classic marquee, it’s reminiscent of a time when St. Louis’s sidewalks teemed with pedestrian traffic. It’s an entirely different experience than the mall-plex cinemas I grew up with.
The screening is attended by 200 community members, and the discussion covers a great mix of national and local issues. Missouri Congressman Russ Carnahan guides a conversation about federal policy work that aims to strengthen urban communities through innovative transportation solutions and historic preservation. Tom Shrout outlines parallels between St. Louis and Detroit, and METRO blogger Courtney Sloger talked about next steps for MetroLink. The conversation is artfully moderated by local PBS affiliate KETC’s Patrick Murphy. It’s a truly lively exchange that continues out onto the street when we leave the theater.
LEAVING ST. LOUIS
I wake to a gorgeous Midwestern morning and ride MetroLink from the Delmar Loop to the airport. The station is a short walk from the hotel. It’s clean, crowded with morning commuters, and I’m there no longer than five minutes before the train comes under the bridge and opens its doors. Within 15 minutes we are one stop away from the airport.
But just when I think, okay, this is really working, an announcement comes over the PA: all passengers off. There is track work ahead, and there is only single tracking for the last stretch. At first this feels like a typical public transit disappointment, but then I hear a pleasant surprise. I’m told that the single tracking ahead has to do with the new expansion of the system–and that there will be a bus shuttle to replace the train. Before I know it, the shuttle arrives…and I’m at the airport in five minutes. Certainly beats a $38 cab ride.