Jack Grone is editor of McPherson, an independent journalism start-up based in St. Louis. He is a former reporter and editor for Dow Jones Newswires whose writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s.
Thanks to an '80s mania for traffic calming, the St. Louis grid is broken by hundreds of bollards and cul-de-sacs. Critics say it’s time to get rid of them.
When Henning Lohse-Busch and his wife, Emily, relocated a few years ago from Chicago to her hometown of St. Louis, he was soon struck by one of the city’s many peculiarities: The street grid is intentionally interrupted by dozens of closed roads. Some are blocked by gates or concrete barriers; others have been converted to cul-de-sacs. “Not being from St. Louis, the whole closed-off street thing is weird,” says Lohse-Busch, who grew up in France and moved to the U.S. as a university student.
But when Lohse-Busch went shopping for a house, he and his family ended up choosing one on a city block (right next door to this reporter) that had been converted in the 1980s to a cul-de-sac. There, he discovered one of the virtues of the arrangement: On warm summer evenings, parents and other adults often gather out front to socialize, sip beer, and watch the kids play together in the street, in what amount to impromptu block parties. “It’s safer because it’s not a through street, and it’s good not having to worry about crazy traffic.” Lohse-Busch says.
So goes a common story in St. Louis, where public officials have authorized the closure of public streets to vehicle traffic to a degree unmatched in any other American city. There are 283 such places where traffic is blocked completely or significantly restricted, according to the most recent count by researchers at St. Louis University. Most barriers were installed between the late 1970s and the late 1990s.
These aren’t the celebrated bicycle-spangled car-free thoroughfares that now grace progressive European cities like Amsterdam or Barcelona. There, the closing of roadways to vehicles has been accompanied by broad investments in public transit, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure. St. Louis’s broken grid, however, was the product of 1970s anxieties about crime and white flight. These barricades have endured, despite resistance from neighborhood residents and criticism that they’ve only exacerbated the city’s racial segregation woes.
The signature barriers on public streets in St. Louis are sections of large concrete pipe—known locally as “Schoemehl pots,” for former St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, who was a fan of street closures. More than 100 streets were closed during his three terms (1981–93), when the city was fighting population loss and a steadily rising crime rate, according to a 2010 term paper by Steve Waldron, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied the city’s street closures.
“This [the street closures project] was one little thing, to try and give people a sense of safety on their own streets—a sense of control,” said Schoemehl, who retired in 2015 as president and CEO of Grand Center Inc., which promotes development in St. Louis’s midtown arts district. “It’s been blown into ‘people trying to create islands of seclusion.’ But it was never that ambitious. It was never designed as a crime prevention device as much as it was designed as a traffic control device.”
Most street closures leave sidewalks untouched and are easily bypassed on a bike or scooter. But critics still raise several concerns. The closed streets can leave drivers confounded, and they force vehicles, including fire trucks and police cars, to take circuitous routes. Some researchers say they result in fewer “eyes on the street” and do nothing to reduce crime. Bike and pedestrian advocates, meanwhile, complain that they haven’t paid off in traffic safety benefits.
In some places, the barriers are visible rebukes to efforts to promote racial equity in St. Louis. Nowhere is this clearer than along the “Delmar Divide,” named for the street that separates the city’s mostly African-American North Side from the racially mixed—and more prosperous—neighborhoods immediately to the south. Along a two-mile stretch of Delmar, running east from the city limits to Kingshighway (a key arterial), major thoroughfares are open to southbound car traffic. But six of the seven side streets on the south side are closed; the seventh is one-way northbound onto Delmar. On two side streets, metal gates also block sidewalks.
Removing these barricades and re-opening side streets would send the message to residents and non-residents alike that “you’re meant to be here and you’re welcome here,” says Cindy Mense, deputy executive director of Trailnet, an advocacy organization that promotes safer pedestrian and biking links across St. Louis.
But once installed, Schoemehl pots has proven difficult to uproot. Residents who often consider the public street fronting their house an extension of their property have no trouble impeding traffic on their blocks. This blurring of the lines between private property and public spaces, and the attendant questions over who is allowed to be in them, are sensitive subjects in a city still struggling to rebuild its population and tax base amid racial tensions and stubbornly high crime rates. St. Louis may need to find new ways to reconcile these remnants of 20th-century urban planning with its efforts to cultivate an image as a rising 21st century city.
“In America we’re very casual with the idea of private space infringing on public space,” says Michael Allen, a senior lecturer in architecture and urban design at Washington University who has written about the history of St. Louis’s street closures. “Despite whatever lessons we may want to learn, once these things are in place, they tend to stay.”
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Looking back over the past half century, it’s clear why St. Louis became a laboratory for experiments involving closed streets. The closures trace their roots to Oscar Newman, a professor at Washington University who built on earlier work by author and activist Jane Jacobs. Newman’s “defensible space” theory, published in 1972, rested in part on the notion of “controlled enclaves,” which he believed would help residents develop a shared sense of ownership over their streets. This is turn “focuses their attention on removing criminal activity from their communities,” Newman wrote.
St. Louisans had their own reasons for embracing Newman’s thinking. The same year he published his ideas, demolition began on the city’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project. The complex of almost 3,000 apartments, spread across 33 buildings, had been promoted as a model of postwar public housing when it was built in the 1950s. But plagued by crime and vacancy, as documented by Newman and others, the complex quickly became a local (and national) embarrassment.
For St. Louis city officials, Newman’s theory marked a partial shift from playing offense (building big public housing projects) to playing defense (protecting legacy neighborhoods).
Barriers on public residential streets began appearing in 1977, according to Waldron, the former Wash U grad student (now an architect in San Diego) who undertook a census of closed streets.
In the mid-1980s, Schoemehl’s administration was the first to attempt a project of street closures targeted at specific neighborhoods. The project was one of five components in “Operation Safestreet,” designed to get city residents involved in community crime prevention efforts, according to a study by University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Allen Wagner published in 1997 in the Journal of Criminal Justice. In the end, opposition from local residents meant that “only two target areas in the city had permanent street closures or diverters throughout the neighborhood,” the study says.
Comparing an anonymous “West” neighborhood containing targeted street closures to an adjacent “East” neighborhood where streets remained open, Wagner found that five years of data showed a correlation: Crime increased in the West neighborhood more slowly, and residents he surveyed there expressed a lower fear of crime compared to residents in the East neighborhood. This was at a time (1985–89) when total rates of crime across the city were on a steady annual upward march.
But a new working paper from researchers at St. Louis University, first reported on by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is casting doubt on Newman’s theories. Using an updated list of street closures, along with crime data from 2016 and mapping tools, the researchers concluded that “street closures are at best ineffective and at worst associated with higher rates of crime in neighborhoods.”
Schoemehl, who still lives on a traffic-restricted block, recalls heated neighborhood meetings where he and other city officials discussed street closures. Operation Safestreet proceeded in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood fashion, with some blocks opting for barriers and others remaining open—one reason why the system lacks comprehensive overall connectivity. But the former mayor cautions against arguments that would reduce Newman’s “defensible space” theory to discussions focusing exclusively on crime: The idea behind the barriers was more about fostering a sense of community.
“The neighborhoods that adopted these [barriers] did very well over time,” Schoemehl says, highlighting in particular the Shaw neighborhood on the South Side, where extensive rehabbing (and gentrification) has occurred since the 1980s. “This was never designed to be an all-inclusive solution. It was designed to give people control over their living environment, and then through that control, get engaged in their neighborhoods. At the time, this was a major statement to them that their opinions mattered.”
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Since their 1980s heyday, the pace of new street closures has slowed dramatically. The city’s traffic division recorded just two in 2017, one in 2018 and none so far in 2019.
A review of St. Louis street-blockage taxonomy reveals many forms. There are bollards and concrete spheres and Jersey walls. Many streets have been converted over the years into fully landscaped cul-de-sacs. Schoemehl pots are the cheapest and quickest barriers to install. The sections of concrete sewer pipe, about four feet across, are laid on their ends and sometimes filled with soil or mulch. Flowers and shrubs planted by local residents sprout from some. More often, the pots are barren or overgrown with weeds.
The most elaborate street closures boast black metal gates flanked by stone or brick pillars, mimicking the barriers that seal off the city’s dozen or so private streets. (These private enclaves—another only-in-St.-Louis curiosity—are dominated by imposing houses built around the time of the 1904 World’s Fair; inside them, residents are responsible for maintaining their own streets and signs warn outsiders against soliciting.)
Even when viewed purely as traffic control and safety measures, the barriers have proved less than successful, critics insist. By restricting traffic flow, closed side streets shunt more traffic onto major arterials, creating high-stress connection points where pedestrians and cyclists must switch back and forth between quiet side streets and frenetic thoroughfares. “We don’t have congestion in the city; we move traffic quickly. Along with that speed, and that carelessness, we’re killing pedestrians,” says Trailnet’s Mense. She points to data from the Missouri Department of Transportation that shows that St. Louis has three times the national average of pedestrian fatalities.
Neighborhoods might enjoy short stretches of car-free roadway, but they don’t connect to broader city or link together in any coherent way, because there hasn’t been a comprehensive strategy for implementing them. “A cul-de-sac is only going to keep kids safe for so long. It doesn’t serve the teenager,” Mense says. “Teenagers want to navigate the neighborhood. They know how to get around, and they’re able to explore the city on their own.”
Streets in predominantly African American areas appear to have accounted for a growing share of the closures since the 1990s, Waldron’s research indicates. Barriers are still popular in some neighborhoods for the same reasons they were three decades ago—a perception that they help reduce speeding and crime.
Brandon Bosley, alderman for the 3rd Ward on the North Side, recently sponsored legislation to reroute traffic on side streets near a church in his ward. Bosley says he gets constant complaints from his constituents about speeding motorists. He also believes that street closures may work to reduce crimes like robbery and muggings, especially on blocks with solid housing stock and a critical mass of residents.
“It depends who lives on the block, how invested they are in the block, and who’s keeping an eye on things,” says Bosley, in a 21st-century echo of Oscar Newman.
In at least one area on the city’s more affluent South Side, residents have successfully fought to keep streets open. In 2015, the Missouri Department of Transportation shelved plans to restrict side-street traffic near a major arterial after local opposition and a traffic study that showed the streets should remain two-way thoroughfares. The area’s alderwoman, Cara Spencer—who says it’s “dangerous just to exist” as a pedestrian or cyclist in the city—is one of several officials now working on a plan to calm traffic on a one-mile stretch of Louisiana Avenue using alternative methods, including speed humps, curb extensions, and traffic circles.
Given the revived excitement in urbanist circles around efforts to create more car-free spaces in American cities, from Times Square to Seattle, is there a case for a more enlightened 21st-century take on street closures, one that actually delivers on the safety and quality-of-life promises of its predecessors?
Washington University’s Allen says that the city’s traffic-blocking techniques are improving. “There are areas of the city where the application of closures in the past has created extremely confusing traffic patterns,” he says. “Now, the city is more apt to look at closures in the larger context of the street grid.”
In the quickly gentrifying Grove neighborhood, a newly closed sliver of Chouteau Avenue marks an attempt to blend public and private space in a way that hasn’t been attempted before in St. Louis. On a recent sunny morning, artist Ellie Balk was painting a ground mural on the street in front of Chroma, a new luxury apartment building.
Balk, who splits her time between St. Louis and New York, specializes in math and data-driven public art. The mural itself reflects a mix of geography and statistics; it lays out a “map” of what Balk describes as “river cities experiencing a boom in tech”—think San Jose and Austin, but also St. Louis and Pittsburgh—with colorful concentric circles for each city, whose sizes are dictated by population changes dating back to 1900.
Nearby, street barriers that could be Cubist riffs on Schoemehl pots stud the middle of what used to be a two-way street. Painted in moody shades of blue and grayish green, they look more like outdoor sculptures than concrete bollards. Saplings sprout from mounds covered with Astroturf. On a terrace overlooking Balk’s mural, a row of storefronts will open later this year, including “a cocktail lounge and record label” modeled on vinyl stores in Tokyo, according to the press release.
The space where Balk is working speaks to the possibility that even as street closures continue to divide St. Louis, the city’s residents can find ways to use them as connections.
“By putting artwork in there, and using this design in particular, it evokes interaction and play,” Balk says. “I’d like to see parties happen in this space, and kids playing in it, and a public space for people to enjoy. I like the idea of public and private spaces, and the juxtaposition between them.”