Hit Parade

Crow, sporting a new short haircut and one of the toothiest smiles in show business, proved that she's not an ornament by alternating between electric and acoustic guitars and bass.

-- 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."

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