Short Cuts

EVEN THE INMATES HEAD TO THE BURBS: Gee, who knew this? The City Jail is old, really old, and in bad shape. Amid all the hand-wringing about how the 85-year-old jail is falling apart -- as if the court order 24 years ago to limit the jail population didn't tell the city that -- a proposal was announced to move 250-or-so prisoners from the World War I-era building to new digs in downtown Clayton, at the county's sparkling new "justice center." The city would have to pay the county for taking care of the city's wayward souls (about $2.5 million per annum), but that means the old structure could be demolished for additional parking for the troubled Kiel Center. That had been the plan from the outset, but with lengthy delays on construction of the new city jail, apparently now City Hall is in a hurry for more parking. If the county signs off on this and it's approved by the city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the city won't have to wait for its new jail to open before parking revenues will start coming in from the old jail site.

The question that remains to be answered is: Will the city lose money by rushing to tear down the jail before the new jail is complete just so more parking revenue can be generated to retire the parking bonds? City Hall claims that, at worst, the move will be revenue-neutral. But then there's the security risk posed by hard-core criminals being transported daily from Clayton to downtown courthouses. Don't forget Andre Morrow, the murder suspect who in 1996 bolted from City Jail as he was being returned from a doctor's visit. Morrow ran into Kiel during a Blues hockey game and was caught in Section 121. At least with the empty seats during the current Blues playoffs, the beleaguered Kiel Center Partners would have a place for escapees to sit.

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Anyone writing a book subtitled What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration should be no stranger to St. Louis, a city where more people have left than have stayed. So it makes sense that Ray Suarez, he of the dulcet tones on NPR's Talk of the Nation (broadcast locally on KWMU, 90.7 FM) every afternoon, Monday-Thursday, was in our decimated city last week to speak at a neighborhood-activist seminar. He plans two return trips in May.

Suarez is back for a 7 p.m. Monday, May 10, book-signing at Left Bank Books in support of his effort The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999. He will also broadcast his talk show live from the Sheldon Concert Hall on May 27 as part of a fundraising gimmick for KWMU. Suarez's book has a 15-page chapter titled "Side Trip -- St. Louis," in which he covers a neighborhood meeting in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood just north of Delmar and west of Union and compares it with what he heard from folks he talked to in St. Peters. As might be expected, there's a bit of a difference.

"Part of what I was trying to illustrate was how distance and growing apart has created communities that have no links with each other," Suarez says during a phone interview. "In the old days, the suburb was very firmly anchored to the historic urban center. Now we have a phenomenon that we can live very happily in the suburb and have no contact with the city at all."

To start, Suarez knows St. Louis is screwed by its 1876 city limits.
"What annexation allows you to do is more accurately state the boundaries of an economic region," he says. "In effect, a city that helps an area by being an incubator for economic growth captures a share of that growth. When you have a city that's bound in, like St. Louis, all the growth it helps spin off by being there, by being the historic core, the administrative and legal center and all that, it can't capture any of that growth."

And people move out for all the usual reasons, real and imagined. Blaming schools is a "very potent excuse," according to Suarez. "It's very culturally approved of to say, 'I would do anything for my children.' So even if the schools weren't so bad in your neighborhood, you could use the schools as an excuse when people say, 'Hey, why are you leaving?' You could say, 'Well, the school.' A lot of the people who gave the schools as the reason had never been in the schools, had never darkened the door."

One Chicago woman he interviewed for the book blamed the schools for her move and, confronted with evidence that her neighborhood school was fine, claimed she had "heard it was getting bad."

"No one will stop that woman and say, 'That's bullshit,' because it's so strongly culturally ratified to move and use your children as an excuse. You never have to explain it; it's sort of a ''nuff said,'" says Suarez, who lives in northwest Washington, D.C., and has two children in the public schools.

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