Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Today I stopped by SLU Pius library to quickly return a few books, as I had only put 15 cents in the parking meter on Olive in a shady spot behind what I still call the Midtown State Office Building (now the SLU School for Professional Studies). Not that many years ago (1999 I guess), part of my job as a new intern with the City was working with DFS people in that building on a public-access computer project. Getting an analog line for hooking up a modem to provide public internet access turned out to be impossible given their PBX system. Ah, those were the days.

But as I drove across Grand on Olive, I reminisced further back, to the days when F.W. Woolworth Co. was still in business throughout St. Louis and her leafy suburbs.

I suppose in some ways the place of Woolworth's in American society was not that different from the Wal-Mart of today. In fact, in 1997 as Woolworth's declined, it was replaced by Wal-Mart on the Dow Jones.

Woolworth's stores, as well as S.S. Kresge stores (the precursor to K-Mart), however, were located in city neighborhoods and suburban strip malls. They were much more of a human-scaled store. Think about where Woolworths stores were located:

Grand and Olive
6th and Locust
South Grand near Hartford
Cherokee and California
Concord Village Shopping Center on S. Lindbergh (that is the one I remember best, from my days as a little 'un in South County).
and I'm sure there were dozens of others that either closed well before I came along, or were just outside my sphere of activity. I vaguely recall an S.S. Kresge store in Hampton Village about where the Great Clips is now.

The big store at Cherokee and California is today a Mexican grocery store, but if you look closely, you can still see the "no soliciting" decals in the windows next to the front doors, not to mention the holes in the stucco where the lettered signage was once mounted. Similarly, you can tell there used to be a Woolworth's in the former "Comp and Soft" space on S. Grand because of the distinctive red metal signage.

When I was an exchange student in South Africa, I discovered their Woolworths chain, which was and is a very high-end operation owned by the similarly high-end British retailer Marks & Spencer -- and apparently not even affiliated with the Woolworths in the UK, which was part of F.W. Woolworth until 1982.

I guess I was disappointed at the time to see just how high-end, and heavily grocery-oriented, the African version was. Seemed rather counter-intuitive, with so much poverty just a few miles away. I was more likely myself to buy groceries at a Shoprite store, or at one of the little ramshackle trailers and ISO containers housing independently-owned walk-up stores located amidst the dormitories or near the Metrorail stop on the UWC campus.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Now Officially ABD

OK, so I think I can now call myself a "PhD candidate" as on Friday I completed the defense of my secondary field paper, which nobody will ever read again (I hope), entitled "Politicizing Ethnicity: How Ethnic Identity Aligns with Patronage and Partisanship."

Perhaps it helped that the 10:15 am aftershock from Friday's 4:30 am earthquake occurred during the middle of my defense.

Now that that badboy is out of the way, the dissertation will be my main focus for... well, whatever free time I can conjure up!

Meanwhile, I am hopeful that despite the downturn (read liquification) in the real estate market, some of the plans for downtown will continue to proceed. It would be just too depressing to see the Jefferson Arms sit vacant and boarded up for another couple years. For that matter, I still haven't seen much progress on the new construction side of the Park Pacific development just across the street from my work.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Lexington KY

I spent most of last week in Lexington, Kentucky at a professional conference held at the Radisson hotel in the downtown. (My entire profession has only about 300 members nationwide, so we're not talking about a huge event.)

Unlike many cities, no interstate highways penetrate the downtown area of Lexington. However, I-64 and I-75 are just a few miles north.

Lexington-Fayette County is a consolidated city-county government, as is the much larger Louisville-Jefferson County (where we got stuck in terrible Sunday afternoon traffic on I-64 for nearly an hour!).

Yes, we drove all the way. But we did carpool; indeed, myself and a colleague from Columbia MO both drove over to the Swansea IL MetroLink station long-term parking area, leaving our vehicles there while a third colleague drove the rest of the way.

That's really the only efficient way to get there, as according to my research, no Amtrak train services Lexington, and the Greyhound service available requires changing buses first in Indianapolis and then again in Cincinnati. Lexington does have a small airport, but there are no direct flights from St. Louis; you have to change planes in Chicago, or Cincinnati, or Memphis, or even Atlanta.

Besides which, flying these days is an experience I'd like to avoid if possible. Two conference participants from Louisiana were stranded at the Houston airport for two days because of the problems with American Airlines. But driving I-64 takes you directly to the northern edge of town.

Indeed, Lexington has its own little outer-belt (perhaps more of an inner-belt as sprawl continues outside it, especially to the south), but it's not an interstate. It is called New Circle Road; that, in fact, is where the Greyhound station is located. But local transit in Lexington is limited to city buses, a system called LexTran.

Downtown Lexington has some interesting historic buildings, and an impressive public library with a huge pendulum clock that must be seen to be believed... although the local schoolkids don't even seem to notice it.

But it also is beset with many of the failed 1970s and '80s remedies that St. Louis has in our downtown:
One-way streets clogged with traffic at rush hour, but empty most other times.
A downtown indoor shopping mall attached to an arena and convention center, and connected by funky-smelling skywalks to adjacent hotels and office towers.

Technically, there are two downtown malls, both attached to each other by a skywalk above Main Street: The Shops at Lexington Center, where the ground floor food court is the real draw, the shops above seemingly an afterthought largely peddling UK blue sports memorabilia. I was not the only person who remarked it was actually faster to just walk across the street to the mall from the hotel, rather than navigating the skywalk maze! The 2nd mall I did not explore inside, but walked around the perimeter (both closed at 6 PM), although it looked a bit more interesting: Victorian Square, an adaptive reuse of several historic buildings combined into a shopping mall, attached by skywalk both to Lexington Center and to a parking garage.

I will say, though, Triangle Park and its fountains were impressive.

I explored quite a bit around the downtown area, and discovered several nice historic districts immediately north of downtown, and in their midst, a very nice, old college campus called Transylvania University (or just "Transy" for the locals). And of course you can't miss the University of Kentucky campus which sprawls forever and ever southward from downtown. Between downtown and the UK campus are many taverns, restaurants, and off-campus housing complexes. I get the sense the professors and their families mostly live in the historic districts just north of downtown, where homes range from modest to magnificent, are generally well-kept, and populated with many "End this War" lawn signs and bumper stickers, something I didn't really expect to see in Kentucky. Of course, that may just be where the liberal profs from the East coast live. ;-)

I walked a bit outside the downtown area, through Thoroughbred Park (also impressive but smaller than I'd expected), and kinda stumbled onto the 'wrong' side of town along US 60, through an industrial area where the massive Jif peanut butter factory is located, and ultimately to the rather sad-looking Eastland Shopping Center, which reminded me a lot of Northland before it was knocked down a few years ago (and not just because of the similar name!).

Eastland had a bus stop right in front of the Big Lots though, so I was able to hop on and ride back into downtown, through some even rougher blocks of Northeast Lexington than where I had walked, to the c. 1990 combination transit center/parking garage. It is rather ugly, as you might expect, and takes up a full two city blocks along Vine Street. But it is functional.

Clearly, though, the UK campus is a major center of activity. There's even reversible lanes -- marked only by yellow paint on the road and giant red glowing "X" signs above the lanes heading south from town/campus, all the way to the new shiny shopping malls along New Circle, along Nicholasville Road (US 27). It's hard to picture how the reversible lanes actually improve rush-hour traffic flow, but it probably works similarly to how Gravois used to be before I-44 was completed. Fascinating to see a place that still has reversible lanes on a surface road with no dividers at all; but also a bit scary!

Anyway, Lexington clearly has its challenges, but was fun and interesting place to visit and explore nonetheless. Hey, the mayor even stopped by to kick-off our conference; somehow, last year in Detroit I don't think we rated high enough for such a visit.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

We Own the Post Office!

We Own the Post Office!

OK, I must confess, this story on NPR's Marketplace last night had me totally snowed until the very end. Hilarious.

The two best quotes:

From Beverly Jaworsky, "Debt-To-Purchase Ratio Assessor" for the IRS:

Well, we own the Post Office and they'll do as we say.

From Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Dr. Robert Reich:

[I]f the government ships a toaster oven to my neighbor and ships Viagra to me -- and by the way, I don't use Viagra -- that's not going to be terribly efficient