Those People on the Bus

Lafayette Square has a plan to keep the riffraff from mucking up the neighborhood

Lafayette Square folks mean well, and, judging from the neighborhood's demographics and the looks of their renovated Victorian homes, they do pretty well, too. But they just don't get it. They live in the city, and short of hanging "Do not disturb" signs on the Square's entrances, they need to become accustomed to some unavoidable urban realities. Two examples are idling school buses early in the morning and diesel-fume-emitting, ground-shaking, noisy Bi-State buses late into the night.

Three years ago, the issue was basketball in Lafayette Park, the 30-acre greenspace at the center of the 'hood. The just-west-of-downtown neighborhood, bordered by Jefferson and Chouteau avenues, Interstate 44 and Grattan Street, had become increasingly upscale. No longer could urban prospectors do as they did 20 years ago -- snap up a shell of a house for a few thousand dollars, put many times that amount in rehab work and sweat equity into it and then expect to either live in a discount mansion or sell it for a killing. With the neighborhood so nice, the basketball goals in the public park became a sore point for some because they attracted -- how shall we say this? -- people from outside the neighborhood who drank beer and malt liquor in public, used loud profanities and just didn't behave properly.

After much public debate and a definite split in neighborhood opinion, Mayor Clarence Harmon committed one of his early mistakes by ordering a first-thing-in-the-morning removal of the goals, sawing them off at ground level on the day after Memorial Day back in '97. There followed much weeping and gnashing of teeth, including a since-abandoned protest Web site, Some residents talked of constructing goals elsewhere in the park, away from the playground, but eventually that plan faded. The goals, and the players they attracted, are still gone.

Lafayette Square hosts two Bi-State routes and a school-bus transfer point.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lafayette Square hosts two Bi-State routes and a school-bus transfer point.
Congressman-elect Lacy Clay
Congressman-elect Lacy Clay

In the first few weeks of this November, Lafayette Square residents voted on and approved what is called an "urban design plan." It's all very civic-minded, innocuous and vague. The plan includes statements such as "encourage high-tech companies to relocate to the neighborhood" and "lighting should enhance security and aesthetic qualities of the streetscape." When it comes to landscape, "use of native and hardy species is encouraged." Two goals, under the "vehicular access" category, are a bit odd. The two sentences are "coordinate with Bi-State agency to reconsider the bus routes through the neighborhood to best serve the residents" and "coordinate with the St. Louis school administration to relocate the school bus transfer point."

For some Lafayette Square residents, these two ambitions have a familiar aroma to them, and that's what they told Short Cuts, though, fearing the wrath of neighbors, they spoke on the condition of anonymity. They believe it's another attempt by some neighborhood "leaders" to prevent outlanders from entering the neighborhood. Only two Bi-State buses go through the area, the Southampton and the Lafayette, but the Southampton is one of Bi-State's busiest routes, averaging 1,583 riders each weekday. If, somehow, these two bus routes were rerouted outside Lafayette Square and the school-bus transfer point is moved, it would accomplish the same end the removal of the basketball goals did -- eliminate entry by outsiders.

Twice a day, about 10 school buses gather alongside Lafayette Park, at the corner of Mississippi Street and Park Avenue, to transport city students to suburban Kirkwood elementary and middle schools as part of the school-desegregation program. As a bus arrives, the children get off one and board another. This occurs at 8 a.m. and again in the afternoon, from 3:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Scott Allen, of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., which oversees the desegregation program, calls the corner an "excellent space for us" and says he has heard of no complaints about its use. "It's convenient; it's safe," says Allen. "For us to move it, one of those things would have to be unreasonable -- there would have to be a safety issue or an issue of convenience. Certainly if the subdivision banded together, we would look at it, but there would have to be some compelling arguments."

Subdivision? Well, that's the suburban way Lafayette Square is behaving; the trouble is, it's in the middle of the city. According to 1990 U.S. Census data, Lafayette Square had a median household income of $44,979. The neighborhood adjacent to the south, McKinley Heights, had a median household income of $16,207.

Tim Becker, president of the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee (LSRC), says moving the buses out of the neighborhood "wasn't really the focus" of the urban-design plan. "It covers a wide variety of things," Becker says. "One of the things we were trying to do was look at traffic through the neighborhood: How do we want our traffic in the neighborhood to go? Are there things we can do to calm traffic or not? The main focus was "How do we deal with our borders?'"

Melanie Smythe, a former LSRC president, says the school buses are a safety concern because they "probably are some of the worst speeding violators in the neighborhood." Others complain about the litter from the school buses. Smythe also maintains that Bi-State buses on cobblestone streets in the neighborhood have resulted in structural damage to houses along Mississippi. Despite other residents' suspicions about the bus concerns, Smythe contends the urban design plan is a "positive" thing. "Lafayette Square is a vibrant place," says Smythe. "There aren't too many neighborhoods that would, of their own volition, come up with an urban-design plan with goals for one year, five years and 10 years and start to immediately work on them and be able to see results."

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