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St. Louis Emerges to Changes After Lockdown 

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Mostly empty streets have been a benefit for road work crews. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Mostly empty streets have been a benefit for road work crews.

On May 1, less than three weeks before the City of St. Louis would begin easing the restrictions of its stay-at-home order, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced a sizable repaving project. It started at the edge of the stadium site, but will eventually cover 30 separate sections of roads in the downtown area.

"One benefit to more people staying home these days is that there are fewer people on the roads," Krewson said at the time in a news release. "So, we're able to take advantage of that and the warmer weather to get started on this much-needed work."

"Fewer people on the roads" is an accurate way to describe the situation for much of St. Louis' stay-at-home order. It's been all but forgotten in the cyclone churn of news cycles, but conspiracy theorists made headlines as recently as April, warning of the surreptitious creep of authoritarianism across the land as a sure preparation of full-on martial law. Just the sound of "shelter in place" or the gentler "stay at home" edicts in early March raised fears of being locked down in our homes, subject to arrest by roving police if we were caught on the streets without proof of an essential mission.

In reality, it has never been a full shutdown. There were enough carve-outs in the orders to allow just about anything a person was willing to risk. That was particularly true in outstate Missouri, where Gov. Mike Parson's order was more of a suggestion. But even under stricter rules imposed by St. Louis and St. Louis County, the private citizen has been able to buy cocktails to go, shop for groceries, spend long afternoons in parks that have never been busier.

So there is still some traffic. But it has been quieter. Those of us fortunate enough to still have jobs are more likely to be working from home. We're not commuting like we did — if we're doing it at all. Government buildings have been largely closed. As a result, downtown has felt eerily empty. So much so that St. Louis police say they've had problems with street racers taking advantage of unobstructed roadways. The department has made a point of publicizing a crackdown, repeatedly tweeting pictures of their seized vehicles and ATVs secured on the beds of tow trucks. During the days, the city and Ameren have teamed up on the repaving project, dedicating about $2 million in labor and resources to repairing the battered roads.

In recent years, utility work has chopped up the surface all through these areas.

"The streets were pretty beat up in the interim," says Scott Ogilvie, a transportation policy planner for the city.

As people start moving around downtown again, the repaving project isn't going to be "night and day" noticeable, he adds. But it's a significant amount of clean, black asphalt, mostly centered on a rectangular grid, bordered on the west by Tucker Boulevard and on the east by North Fourth Street, sandwiched between Washington Avenue and Market Street. It's about five weeks worth of work, the city estimates.

On a recent weekday afternoon, north-south streets edging Citygarden look pristine. Bright white paint makes crosswalks pop. Normally, all the parking would be gone, and the shirt-and-tie crowd from the nearby office buildings and courthouses would be lined up at food trucks. But the only people are families wandering through the park and the occasional security guard still on the job.

People seem to have found a rhythm to all this. The chaotic early days have been replaced by, yes, a baseline level of stress that was higher than before, but you also see people finding escape valves in front-porch musicians, first-time garden projects and long, leisurely walks.

St. Louis artist Jason Spencer saw a lot of his commercial work dry up in the first weeks of the pandemic.

"I think everyone was so unsure of what the lockdown meant, and I do a lot of work for musicians and restaurants and bars and alcohol companies," he says. "So a lot of people who had work didn't have work anymore, so they didn't have money to spend on art."

Over the past decade, Spencer has become an in-demand choice for murals and album artwork. The clients for his outlandish creations range from local businesses such as Pizza Head to national acts, including Panic! At the Disco.

Suddenly idled with a disaster swirling, Spencer found it difficult to think about creating anything new. But after a few weeks, he began to push himself forward.

"I personally tried to make more lifestyle changes where I would get my physical body off the chair every now and then, and that will make me mentally ready to make cool stuff again."

Jobs began to pick up a little. Cooped-up bands were making music they wanted to release and needed album artwork. And a long-running project to create a wraparound mural on the back patio of The Gramophone was rebooted. He spent a couple weeks on that one, creating an outer-space world of rocketing City Wide beer cans and extraterrestrial sandwiches.

"I was real happy with that," he says. "It's cool to see wraparound murals. I just don't get the opportunity a lot of times. It's cool to walk into and feel like you're in a different place."

Jason Spencer's new wraparound mural at The Gramophone is ready for the post-coronavirus world. - JASON SPENCER
  • JASON SPENCER
  • Jason Spencer's new wraparound mural at The Gramophone is ready for the post-coronavirus world.

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