RSS icon Email icon Bullet (black)
  • South St. Louis Breakdown

    Posted on August 8th, 2013 Toby Weiss 11 comments
    Pass It Around

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Since February 1993, I have lived in South St. Louis. In May 1999, I bought a house between the Bevo and Holly Hills neighborhood, where I remain. It’s a Mayberry kind of neighborhood with many residents who’ve lived here more than 40 years; a short, out-of-the-way, one way street, so it’s rather quiet.

    south side breakdown 02

    Until I switched to paying for lawn mowing, I was the moron on the block with embarrassingly tall grass. I balanced that by being the alley sheriff, picking up never-ending trash that eschewed dumpsters, calling the non-emergency number when things I couldn’t fix went awry. A salvaging neighbor has caused me 2 flat tires from the screws he leaves in the alley between our garages. But it was easy to shake off because the joy far outweighed the annoying.

    south side breakdown 03

    In Spring 2011, our block experienced a series of home break-ins and a front porch mugging at gun point. I could move or fight back. I bought a home alarm system and joined the Bevo Neighborhood Stabilization team that sprung up in the wake of similar problems all around us. It worked impressively well for pushing back the crime in our immediate area.

    But the last two summers have been wearisome. July 4th fireworks go from mid-June to the end of July. The morning of July 5th is war torn, with bomb shards smeared on the streets and smoke hanging in the air. The rest of the time, it’s gun shots in the distance, or sometimes so close you feel a slight vibration. A bullet hole in my roof caused a drastic water leak. Some of those bullets recently killed the clerk at the 7-11 right down the street.

    My end of the alley has become a pain in the ass. There’s constant dumpster issues, and people forget to mow/whack the patch of grass between their back fence and the paved alley. It looks like the cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur. I’m tired of alley sheriff duties; if they don’t care, why the hell should I?

    south side breakdown 04

    This year, some family moved to South St. Louis County, so I’ve been slowly exploring the nooks and closed crannies of the place where Catholic South Siders fled to in the 1950s and 60s. It’s an odd place – they keep quiet, they keep clean and they spend all their time indoors. You seldom see anyone out on their perfect lawns or walking their peaceful streets. It looks like a movie set before the morning crew arrives.

    south side breakdown 05

    It was heaven to spend a good portion of this 4th of July holiday swimming in a backyard pool in SoCo. The lack of rat-a-tat-tat firecrackers was soothing, the lack of trash a treat. But even before this Zen sabbatical, I had been feeling the stirrings of packing up and moving out of the South Side. Even though it felt like a betrayal, I couldn’t stop feeling it. Why is all this wearing me down now? We had been through much worse in previous years, but now I want to retreat?

    June 2013, The Blind Eyes released an EP, which instantly became my summer soundtrack. They are consistently tight, joyous and impressive to my ears. “Armour” is the lead-off track, and after having rocked with it for several spins, I finally listened to the words. And it made me cry. The Blind Eyes had precisely diagnosed my broken South Side spirit. They’d felt it, too.

    Here’s the song “Armor” – give it a listen. And here are the transcribed lyrics, some of which I know are wrong, but it hopefully won’t diminish the gist:

    Not a second thought when you hear the sound
    Of shots ringing out when the sun goes down
    Took a little while but we finally learned
    A way to fiddle on while the city burned

    Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
    Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright

    Used to shake it up nearly every day
    With those who’ve figured out how to keep the beasts away
    Building up a wall but it tumbled down
    Never telling when it’s gonna come around

    Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
    Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright

    It’s hard to let it go
    But let it go

    south side breakdown 06

    The song conjures images of the arson in Benton Park and dead bodies across the entire city. And I cried some more. The Blind Eyes’ music gives the song a bittersweet optimism. Previously, they celebrated my fellow City Dwellers with 2011’s “Hold Down the Fort,” which felt like a rallying cry as we battled demolitions and burglars.

    But the personal reveal from “Armour” is that my armor is rusting thin. Instead of bolstering my spirits, this song is like a tearful hug to try and keep me from bolting.

    And then on August 3, 2013, the King of South St. Louis – Bob Reuter – died. He literally dropped off the planet, leaving a huge hole in the soul of the South Side. Reuter was a photographic mentor, schooling me about black & white printing and his life during late hours in the Forest Park Community College darkroom. He captured South Side people, I captured its buildings, so there was a common ground, a common passion for a specific place.

    I keep picturing his camera, inadvertently abandoned and still, and can’t bring myself to even look at my camera bag, much less go out and continue documenting why this place has such a strong hold on so many of us. Reuter never let anything keep him from his quest to tell stories, to live free. He had the armor to protect his creative spirit. His passing is still too raw to inspire me past this current weakness of spirit.

    It’s not like I have the financial means to move, or even a solid plan. It’s just a restlessness and uncertainty, like a wife wondering if there’s a more meaningful life to be had away from her husband, and she’s two steps away from an emotional affair with a co-worker. In this case, my “emotional affair” would be South St. Louis County.

    south side breakdown 07

    Having these thoughts constantly looping through my heads fills me with guilt and regret, because I can’t help loving the South Side even when it’s callous toward me and brutal to those in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    So tonight, I will once again turn on the bedroom fan for white noise to drown out the yelling, the souped-up cars roaring down the street, and the gun shots…

    Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
    Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Pass It Around
     

    11 Responses to “South St. Louis Breakdown”

    1. Thinking of you and your loves.

    2. I know the feeling…

    3. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

    4. Well said. I live on the east side of Christy Park & my alley matches your description perfectly.

    5. Perhaps consider moving to a different city neighborhood rather than the county?

    6. About a year ago I was in a very similar situation. I ended up leaving Benton Park for the burbs. I miss a lot of things about south city but I don’t regret my decision to go. Good luck and I’m sure you will be happy with whatever you decide.

    7. Adam is right, there is tons of middle ground between still-gentrifying, “edgy” neighborhoods and the full-out County. Try Northampton, Southampton, Lindenwood Park, or if you win the lottery, St. Louis Hills and Holly Hills. I think Holly Hills is more affordable in some parts than right on the park, and I know a teacher who owns a house in Northampton; if a teacher can afford it, it must be affordable. ;) City pride!

    8. Toby – I just left another neighborhood – though it was certainly a lot different than yours, I lament many things about leaving. I put some of those thoughts down here on my blog. I hope whatever you decide, it works out well for you. You’re one of the parts that makes St. Louis great – whether you live in the city or the suburbs.

      http://marketingurbanism.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-greener-grass-of-suburbs.html

    9. Whatever you do, keep blogging. I love your pictures and your articles on the city. When I drive around the city and near burbs, I often look for houses that I think you would like to chronicle. This city is a harsh mistress, but she’s still got a lot to offer. It would be a little more harsh without you.

    10. Very well said. I’ve lately felt much the same: guilt over leaving the beautiful Tower Grove area for a quieter, western-more neighborhood, and a growing desire for the larger lots of even more westerly Affton and Crestwood. Have you driven down S. Rock Hill Rd between Watson and Gravois? Oh the spaces! But for my budget, Tilles Park and Northampton are hard to beat. Love your blog. Sorry I’m so late discovering it.

    11. I know you generally focus on St. Louis but the Uninversity of Missouri- Columbia has so many Mid-Century Modern buildings it’s unreal. Might be worth the trip!

    Leave a Reply