Dubbed the "Gateway to the West" at the turn of the century, the Lou was once destined to be a great world metropolis, ranking as the country's fourth-biggest city at roughly one million strong. But as gallery owner Robert Powell puts it, the gateway slogan was a double-edged sword, as it essentially gave passers-through every reason to stop, stay awhile, and bail, moving forward to coastal hinterlands like, well, Seattle.
Unable to ever get its sea legs and boasting a hodgepodge culture steeped in old Dixie and Jim Crow-era racial tension, St. Louis suffered perhaps its worst case of middle-class flight in the '60s and '70s and has never really recovered, shrinking to its current population of some 350,000.
Here in St. Louis, there's a police shooting, oh, maybe once a week. Even Dustin Washington couldn't march that often. Furthermore, the sheriff's office is corrupt as all hell, the bus stops have no schedules, mayors get booted out after one term as a general rule, and entire neighborhoods look like bombed-out Afghan targets in the War on Terror.
The upshot of all this urban chicanery is that St. Louis serves as a fertile breeding ground for the unattached urban ingénue, who can basically huddle up with buddies and buy an entire city block on the cheap for whatever purpose.
Pioneer potential notwithstanding, St. Louis is still a pretty fucked-up place. So fucked up that I, a Seattle native, pause daily to chuckle at my new town's charmingly stubborn back-asswards method of madness. But I love it nonetheless.
And I'll be damned if the Lou doesn't have a pimp-ass rapid transit system.
Originally a single-line, 17-mile system, St. Louis' MetroLink recently doubled in size, stretching from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport across the Mississippi River to the sticks of Belleville, Illinois (St. Louis lies on the Missouri-Illinois border). Built mainly on preexisting right of way, MetroLink cars weave under, on, and above ground through the metropolitan region's (2.6 million population to Seattle's 3.5) central corridor, with the highlight being a trip over the Big Muddy on the historic Eads Bridge.
St. Louis is an old, beat-up bitch. But its transit situation is relevant to the Emerald City's because its metropolitan area is closer in size to Seatown than comparably iconic cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., all of whose transit systems have been praised in these pages. Hence, MetroLink is like the lovechild of monorail and Sound Transit, if those two entities would ever consider doing something more than dry humping at town hall meetings. With its single line cutting through the middle of the city, MetroLink, much like monorail's initial line, hardly aspires to serve all inner-city residents. I live in St. Louis' historic Soulard nightclub district--referred to in the '70s as "a terrifyingly dangerous hellhole"--near the Budweiser brewery, and have to walk 20 minutes each way if I want to catch the train. Does this bother me? A little. Does this mean I think MetroLink's tracks should be torn up, though? Fuck no.
And then there's the kicker: MetroLink goes all the way to the airport. Eat shit, Sound Transit. This means St. Louisans don't have to ask for rides to the airport, freed instead to save their favor chits for more critical pickles--like getting bailed out of jail on public drunk charges (that's what they call "public intoxication" in Mississippi--don't ask me why I know that).
Take a moment to let this all sink in, folks. St. Louis, a city that often doesn't know its ass from a hole in the dark, managed to build a viable light-rail system. That makes Seattle--and especially the folks behind Sound Transit--look pretty fucking stupid. This civic conundrum is tantamount to a has-been like John Stamos (i.e., St. Louis) scoring Rebecca Romijn while Hugh Grant (i.e., Seattle) is left to hold his dick, pining for the glory days of Divine Brown and Liz Hurley's unconditional forgiveness.
While local leaders might claim otherwise, MetroLink certainly wasn't built for the primary purpose of easing congestion. This is because St. Louis doesn't really have any congestion, at least not near its urban core. This isn't to say the Lou doesn't have a rush hour. It does. But it's as advertised: rush hour. Not "rush four hours," like in Seattle.
Forced onto I-5 for the downtown commute, central-corridor Seattle drivers have their hands tied behind their backs. Meanwhile, the average St. Louis Emo Fittipaldi wannabe is like a gay octopus at the boner buffet--reaping the benefits of a plethora of interstate options to accommodate a population at least twice the city's actual size. Alas, in typical St. Louis manner, the city built MetroLink for the wrongest of wrong reasons: to revitalize its moribund downtown core. Hasn't worked--at least not just yet.
So, in essence, it could be argued that St. Louis built its MetroLink for no tangible reason. But y'know what? People still dig the shit out of the MetroLink. They like it because it's a rad little choo-choo that, at minimum, comes in mighty handy after happy hour, a daily event that the Lou's Bud-swilling, burger-inhaling populace takes full advantage of.
Where Seattle has it all wrong--and has had it all wrong for a great long while--is that great cities, or even mediocre ones, don't ask, "Why?" They ask, "Why not?" To wit, you don't always build things because they're the best solution. Sometimes you just make it happen because it's a totally fucking cool idea that will, if nothing else, solve part of a ridiculous problem (in this instance, gridlock). In other words, surgery is great, but Band-Aids certainly help.
The arguments that monorail will sap tax funds from the viaduct and votes from R-51 are foolhardy at best, morbidly retarded at worst. It's as if monorail opposition is trying to punish Rise Above It All & Co. for actually having their shit together, a cohesiveness that has proven elusive as the Emerald City grows into adulthood.
Rapid transit shouldn't be a choice. It should be a given in any city that's worth half a shit. Vote for the monorail. Again.
Mike Seely is a staff writer at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. He lived in Seattle for 28 years.