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.

And then there's race.
"Color lurks behind a lot of this -- sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, because we have equated neighborhood change with neighborhood disintegration, unfairly to a great extent, but we've still done it. Once a neighborhood starts to change racially, the default assumption is that you are now in more danger of being hit on the head, that you're going to lose all the money you put in your house over the years and on and on, not recognizing that part of what makes these effects happen is you leaving."

That's one message Suarez wants the urban refugees who fled to the suburbs to understand.

"What we want to do, as a people, is cause effects through our behavior and then say we didn't have anything to do with it. Hundreds of thousands of people left urban areas and then say they had nothing to do with the fact the schools got bad and the stores moved out, when it was all part of the process. It's the opposite of the It's a Wonderful Life phenomenon. Instead of Clarence the angel taking you out to show you how terrible the world was because you weren't in it, this time Clarence the angel takes white middle-class people out to these degraded areas and says, 'Oh, you didn't have anything to do with any of this.' You took yourself out of the churches, you took your kids out of the schools, you took your tax money out of the jurisdiction, you took your spending money out of the shops, you started driving instead of walking, you started driving instead of taking streetcars -- you did all these things, but in fact it had no effect on any of this; it was all going to happen anyway. So don't be upset."

The good news, Suarez feels, is there can't be too much more bad news: "In general terms, the worst is over. Some places have passed a point where it's going to be very easy for them to really significantly improve their circumstances. I would put St. Louis in that category. St. Louis is in very, very tough shape. I would put Cleveland in that category as well. There are other places who have caught themselves before going over the edge of the cliff and sort of reinvented themselves."

And the message he hopes people get from his book and speechifying?
"There is a decent life to be salvaged in these neighborhoods and a decent life to be built, but you have to resist the winner-take-all mentality of neighborhood development, where places either become gentrified and lined with antique shops and coffee bars or they become slums and there's very little room for negotiation in between."

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: Too often decisions are made by those with insufficient knowledge. Take KSDK's call to broadcast the NBA game between the painfully dull pick-and-roll Utah Jazz and the badly fading Seattle Supersonics. Channel 5 could have aired the Philadelphia 76ers, with flamboyant Allen Iverson and St. Louis' own Larry Hughes, against the surprising Orlando Magic. "We messed up," says Kitty Toombs, of KSDK's programming department. Some people even called to complain. The station could have, and should have, selected the 76ers game, but the person making the decision had no idea about Hughes, and the sports department had no input. (Say what? Where was Mike Bush -- getting his hair moussed? Where was Frank Cusumano? At a DeSmet reunion?).... How long before the Redbirds cash in on their newest phenom by sectioning off a portion of seats and calling it Fernando's Hideaway? And how long before young waifs here in Funkytown start streaking their hair like Mr. Tatis? And how about Denny's offering a two-fer price on a Grand Slam and calling it a "Fernando"? Get on the marketing bandwagon before it's crowded.... Is national radio talk-show host Ken "the Black Avenger" Hamblin an idiot or a fool? You make the call: Tuesday evening, before any of the lunacy in Littleton was sorted out, there was Hamblin on the Fox News Channel, saying that the real problem at the school was that there "was no dress code, no discipline." He credited his wife with what he called "the best question asked so far." Mrs. Black Avenger had asked: "Why did they let those kids go to school in black trench coats?" Yeah, if only they had to wear khaki pants and white shirts, those 15 people would be alive today. That uniform concept works so well with prisoners. Whoever heard of any violence in a prison?

Contributor: D.J. Wilson

E-mail your tips and comments to "Short Cuts": shortcuts@rftstl.com

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