It was a sunny afternoon in 1954 and I was only 10 years old, but I remember
the day as though it were yesterday. My mother told me to put on my suit
and best shoes so she could take me shopping downtown. She took me by my hand and
led me down the sidewalk through our back yard, down the stairs by the ash
pit, across the alley and out to Delmar - a major boulevard which ran through
University City (a suburb of St. Louis, MO, and where we lived), through the inner-city of St. Louis to the
banks of the Mississippi River.
We crossed one lane of traffic with little doubt that the passing cars would stop
for us - even without a pedestrian crossing sign. As we waited in the
painted safety zone in the middle of the street, we had no fear of being
struck by a car or yelled at. Then along would came the electric streetcar and
we were whisked to our next adventure.
The streetcar's bell clanged and soon I could hear the hum of
steel wheels on metal track and, over a distance of about six miles, we
passed our neighborhood grocery store, the music store where mom and dad
bought our first piano, and the pet shop that supplied all the supplies we
needed for our pet dog, Queenie.
Further along, as we rode through the west end of the city, we passed the
ice-skating rink where my friends and I gathered each Saturday for a day of
merriment on the rink.
Then, as we closed in on the store my mother had chosen for the day's
buildings got bigger and bigger and, in their midst, we emerged into a world where the sun reflected brightly off the windows of
dozens of buildings. The streets were filled with people, all rushing to get from one place to another.
Everyone seemed to have a place to go, something to
do, and there was excitement in the air.
That was then, and this is now, and things have certainly changed. Now
it's August, 1998, and it's six o'clock on a hot and humid August evening. I'm driving my car down
Delmar from University City to the
downtown headquarters of the St. Louis Police Department for my first night
with the gang unit.
The stores along the way that I once knew so well have been boarded up - closed due to a lack
of business, vandalism, and an increasingly high crime rate. The old
music store now is a flea market, the grocery store now a liquor store - its parking
lot filled with broken bottles and people selling drugs. The
streetcar tracks were buried under asphalt years ago, a relic of times
past. The vitality is gone and in its place are crime, gangs,
derelict cars and trash. Lots of trash.
(The introduction above was written in 2002. Since that time, thankfully,
there has been a gentrification of the area described [by 2005, the time of
this writing]. While gangs are still present in the area, the street front
along Delmar has greatly approved in appearance.)