By Asher Kohn
The now-famous picture Whitney Curtis took of county policemen, armed to the ears as if in a video game Fallujah pointing their weapons at a lone man with his hands up, is instantly identifiable as St. Louis. Not for the police violence, which is sadly common in the United States, but for the seven-foot-high black metal fence in the background.
Those black fences are omnipresent in the city and county. They are particularly common north of Delmar Boulevard (which serves as a demarcator of sorts through to I-170), but throughout the area they mark more than just the places that demand protection. There are the banks, grocery stores, and public parks that have their parking lots barricaded with this insurmountable — if rather stately — fencing. But the fence also cuts across streets, doing more than just bifurcating the siege mentality on one side from the sorely-felt siege on the other.
St. Louis is built in brick, decorated in stone, and divided by seven-foot iron fences. These fences should be put in the outfield of Busch, sold in miniature at the Arch, and have children play on them at the City Museum. Their purpose is not to demarcate, but to remind passersby that they are not wholly welcome in the city their taxes pay for.
My introduction to the fence was on the corner of Skinker and Delmar, where it squared off a university-owned plot from people taking an 80-foot shortcut through the grass. A few weeks after its installation, a Nuisance Abatement Vehicle set up nightly watch at the gas station across the street, the snub-nosed mystery machine looking like a spring-loaded hammer waiting to snap down on the fence’s anvil. The intersection marked a boundary between St. Louis city and county, which for the Vehicle’s targets meant crossing between bars that close at 1 AM and those that close at 3 AM. The fences made this crossing into a tightly-constrained and well-monitored little trip. It was a lot of money put into a single intersection, and the streets a few blocks north didn’t even have sidewalks.
The Delmar fence made me more aware of all the others. Its cousin fence broke up my running routes around Forest Park. A large family of fences broke up DeBaliviere, the avenues around St. Louis University, and countless other north/south roads to make driving difficult and bussing nearly impossible. A young puppy of a fence with big feet and a sense of entitlement prohibited gathering on lone non-commercial space on the Delmar Loop, making it impossible to sit down anywhere on “One of the 10 Great Streets in America” without having to buy a beer or an ice cream cone. There is no Great Street without the array of fences blocking off people who may be interested in arriving from their less-great addresses.
St. Louis is both a wonderful city and one deeply uncomfortable with itself, dividing and conquering its own body like a hateful amoeba.The mix of midwestern stalwartness and southern hospitality that define St. Louis make for a warm bath of humanity, and the buildings creeping up and out of the Mississippi show all of the wonderful and fascinating things that can be done with red brick. But at the same time, it is a city bluntly founded on defining separateness, famously the spot where Dred Scott was ruled to be human property and less famously the spot where whites lost their right to keep non-white families out of their neighborhoods. It’s a city of growth and evacuation and regrowth, and St. Louis is really and truly alive both in the Jane Jacobs sense of “eyes on the street” and in the biological cell growth-and-decay sense. The decisions to make St. Louis what it is today were at times political and at times haphazard, and the seven-foot fences put these decisions in the ground in black iron.
Why is that fence in particular behind the gunmen and the man in Curtis’ photograph? To keep people on the sidewalks and off the property, not precisely in case of this current situation but perhaps just in case this sort of situation arose. The problem was that people were in a place that they were not wanted. If this was the problem that the fences were installed to solve, they clearly didn’t.
Whatever problems that camouflage, guns, and flyover bans were intended to solve, they probably won’t either.
Asher Kohn (www.asherjkohn.com) is a freelance writer who was living in St. Louis until recently. He has written for The Classical, Roads and Kingdoms, and Sports Illustrated among others.
Photo, Wikimedia Commons, Magnus Manske.