DeBaliviere Place Community Debates Opening One Of St. Louis’ Oldest Gated Streets
Grace and Peace Fellowship church sits at the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Clara Avenue, towering over a wide, wrought iron gate spanning the street and sidewalk.
Church leaders have long advocated for keeping the Clara gate into the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood permanently open. Yet every night for the past seven years it’s been office manager Stephanie Clear’s job to lock it.
“I just can’t tell you how much it seared my heart every day to go out there and invariably look someone in the eye and lock the gate and tell them you can’t come in,” she said. “Often people would be running up [saying], ‘Oh wait, wait, wait let me through.’”
Clear said they prayed about it as a church, and about a month ago those prayers were answered.
The gate, which closes a public street, is currently open while construction elsewhere blocks one of only two entrances to the neighborhood. That’s spurred debate in the surrounding community over whether to leave it open permanently. Some proponents hope doing so will also lead to more conversations about opening blocked streets across the city.
In St. Louis, there are about 285 street barriers — including gates, concrete pots and cul-de-sacs — that are blocking access into neighborhoods, according to a study conducted between 2016 and 2018 by St. Louis University sociology professors Joel Jennings and Chris Prener. The vast majority of them are on public streets.
Prener said the idea for barricaded public streets started in the very same neighborhood that’s now questioning it. In the 1970s, an urban planner at Washington University, Oscar Newman, took inspiration from the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood, which already had many private gated streets.
“[He] said, ‘Wow look at crime rates are so low there. All the streets are closed off. Maybe there’s something about controlling public space that leads to decreased crime rates,’” Prener said.
This became known as Newman’s theory of “defensible space.” Prener said the city took the idea and ran with it, installing different techniques across the region. One of the most common barriers are big, concrete planters known as Schoemehl pots — named after former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, who spearheaded the public effort to install the barriers.
“You get some areas in the Central West End that end up emulating the gates you see in the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood. And then in Shaw you get cul-de-sacs on what used to be open streets,” he said.
But Prener’s research found no evidence that these barriers are having the intended effect of reducing violent crime.
Opening the Clara gate
Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard, D-26th Ward, has been getting requests to open the gate on Clara since she took office two years ago.
But she finally decided to open it after the fire department, as well as a doctor in the neighborhood, expressed safety and accessibility concerns. Currently, construction is clogging up one end of Pershing Avenue, the only thoroughfare into the neighborhood.
“If it was my decision it would be open, but it’s not my sole decision,” she said.
Clark Hubbard has been hosting virtual town hall meetings to hear from residents, and she’s also working with the city to understand what it takes to keep the gate open.
For her, the gate is symbolic of the racial division in the city. DeBaliviere Place is a wealthier and whiter neighborhood than those to the north.
“Everyone talks about wanting to break the Delmar Divide, but then you want to fight things like this that are easy marks — low-hanging fruit to break the Delmar Divide. So it just baffles me,” she said.
Clark Hubbard said she’s only heard from one person in favor of closing the gate. Others have asked questions about whether opening the gate would lead to a spike in crime or cars speeding through the neighborhood.
“Walling people in or walling people out is a bad idea.”Dr. Nancy Wilkinson, owner of a chiropractic clinic on Clara Avenue
“Policing is not an issue over here at all,” she said, adding that there are five layers of security patrolling the neighborhood.
That includes MetroLink police, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Washington University security, privately paid neighborhood security and an advanced camera monitoring system.
“All of that is over here, and you cross one block and we have the Metropolitan Police Department that is stretched,” she said, pointing north of Delmar.
The gate has been open for about a month now, and Dr. Nancy Wilkinson said she hasn’t noticed any negative impacts near her chiropractic clinic on Clara and Pershing.
“Walling people in or walling people out is a bad idea,” she said. “I think if there are issues that are a reason they feel like there needs to be a gate there, someone needs to be addressing the issues.”
She said she’d like to see the gate stay open because it’s been helpful for her patients.
Board members of the neighborhood’s special business district have also discussed the issue, including safety concerns, but the organization hasn’t provided a public opinion on what to do moving forward. The group did not respond to a request for comment.
Ashley Johnson, director of special taxing districts and planning for Park Central Development, works with the special business district on administrative work. She’s also helped organize the town halls with community members on the issue.
Her nonprofit works with other neighborhood groups along Delmar to advocate for community empowerment and equitable development.
Johnson said she wants the gate to stay open, but she said there’s value in spending time having community conversations that let residents weigh in. She said the debate around opening the gate at Clara could provide a blueprint for other communities with street closures.
Reducing street barriers, Johnson argues, also could help stabilize neighborhoods on the north side of the street that are cut off from economic opportunities.
“With Delmar, with that stigma being that divide that represents, kind of, life and not life. When you open up the streets you’re saying that we begin to erase that,” she said.
Johnson said opening the gate on Clara could be a catalyst for growth. She’s already seeing more economic development along the strip, which she hopes leads to safer neighborhoods, better housing, access to social services and overall connectivity with the city.
“I think symbolically that’s what that opening means — new opportunities, the expansion, the explosion of opportunity,” she said.
Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan