What high school did you go to?

Crestwood Plaza is a mall in the southwestern suburbs of St. Louis. It was originally built in 1957, and was one of the largest, if not the largest, malls in the area. I remember the radio commercials from the 1980s where the pitch line was “The ultra mall has it all.”

Today it’s at least 30% vacant and struggling. It’s been for sale for a while. They finally found a buyer.It merited mention in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A group led by two brothers is buying the mall to redevelop it.

The article doesn’t say what the two brothers plan to do with the mall, except that it will be a “mixed-use” redevelopment. That tells me about as much as saying there will be concrete and steel involved.

But the article goes out of its way to mention what high school the two brothers attended.

Yet another example of the St. Louis attitude. Nothing’s as important as what high school you went to.

I’m surprised the headline didn’t read “Two Ladue H.S. Alumni Buy Crestwood Plaza.”

I guess there just wasn’t enough room.

How to fight the City of St. Louis’ red-light scam

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I’ve never had a traffic ticket. I spoke too soon. Thanks to the City of St. Louis’ new red-light camera scam, I have one.

It’s too late for me to fight it. But since I want others to fight it, here’s what I wish I’d known the day I got the ticket.First, when you receive your ticket in the mail, get a lawyer. Immediately. The scam works like this: They get the picture of you allegedly making a traffic violation (in my case, not making a complete stop when turning right at a red light, which is perfectly legal in St. Louis County). Then they dillydally around as long as possible. A few weeks or a month after your alleged violation, you get the ticket in the mail.

And there’s the problem. A lawyer needs at least three weeks to fight one of these things, and you’ll probably get your ticket right about three weeks before the court date. If you wait a day or five to mull over your options, you’re not going to be able to fight.

And here’s why I say "alleged"–do YOU remember what YOU were doing at 8:27 AM on Saturday, August 25? Without a photograph of you at the wheel (which St. Louis doesn’t have), they can’t prove it was you. And by waiting a few weeks after the alleged infraction, you may very well not remember if you were driving in that area on that day, or if you loaned your car to someone, or whatever.

In my case, the infraction happened in an area I rarely go. I can’t prove it wasn’t me behind the wheel, but I also can’t prove it wasn’t Francis Slay either.

That’s the reason St. Louis treats it as a non-moving violation. If it were a moving violation with points assessed, every attorney would fight it by saying the city can’t prove who was driving. And the attorney would win every single time.

In the meantime, if you don’t want to get nailed by cities changing right-turn laws on a whim (or by the car behind you if you stop at a yellow light instead of blowing through it for fear of a ticket), there’s a company that sells a $30 high-gloss clearcoat that supposedly causes the flash on the camera to overexpose, rendering your license plate illegible. I have no idea if the product works, and frankly, $30 seems a high price to pay for the fraction of an ounce of clearcoat it would take to cover four license plates. (Although it seems reasonable next to a $100 fine for not coming to a complete stop on a right turn with no other cars present.)

If you want to try to defeat red-light cameras and you don’t mind trying something that might not work, try taking off your license plates and giving them a couple of coats of either Future Floor Polish (which is really an acrylic clearcoat, not a wax) or Krylon clear gloss. I’d probably go with Krylon Triple-Thick Crystal Clear Glaze, since it’s glossier than the standard spray. A can of Krylon will cost about $5 and give you enough to spray your license plates and all of your friends’ plates also. And if it doesn’t work, you’re only out five bucks instead of thirty.

I hope it does work though. The City of St. Louis needs to find another way to raise revenue, other than making a stupid law, enforcing it by proxy, charging an excessive fine, and then stringing it along to make it as difficult for citizens to defend their records as possible.

I’ll see you at the hardware store.

And if you just got one of these unjust tickets in the mail, contact a lawyer immediately. A lawyer will cost more than the ticket, but the city is counting on honest citizens just paying the ticket because it’s cheaper and less hassle than fighting it.

And if you’re wondering where the red-light cameras are, they’re at the intersections of Hampton and Wilson (the entrance to The Hill) and Hampton and Chippewa.

St. George story seems all too believable

I’m sure almost everyone has heard the story about a 20-year-old getting harrassed by a police officer in a commuter lot and being told he could be arrested and he could just make up any old story as an excuse. The story’s been all over Digg and even hit some national news sites, such as USA Today.

It happened in St. George, Missouri. It’s the next town over from me, an obstacle on my way to my favorite hobby shop, pizza place, and batting cage.In high school, teachers actually warned us about that town, since the shortest route to the nearest Interstate takes you right through there. When I was 17, I did some computer work for someone who lived in St. George, and she provided me with a map indicating the precise location of each stop sign and gave me a stern warning to stop for a full five seconds at each sign. She told me a cop would be watching me with a stopwatch.

I did what she said and didn’t have problems.

Usually when someone has a flat tire or other car trouble, if a police officer is nearby and sees it, the officer will pull up behind them, angle the car and flip the lights on to keep passing drivers away from the scene. And it’s not uncommon to see the officer actually help the driver change the tire.

Not in St. George. In St. George the cop just keeps zapping motorists with the radar gun. I’ve seen it more than once.

I’ve been pulled over four times in my life. The first was a combination of factors: I made a U-turn, it was late at night, and my skin was the wrong color to be turning into that particular neighborhood. I was driving a coworker home. The officer let me go with a verbal warning.

The second time I was pulled over, it was by a cop who was notorious for harrassing kids. I know he was lying about the speed I was going because I knew the area and I didn’t like driving it much faster than 35 miles per hour (the posted limit). He said I’d been doing 47, which would have been suicide on that stretch of road. That stretch of road doesn’t even exist anymore, and for good reason. After he ran my record and found absolutely nothing, he let me go, but he said he’d go tell my mother what I’d been doing. I might have been a bit worried, if I’d been doing something wrong.

The third time I was pulled over was near the Lake of the Ozarks. The speed limit is 55 most of the way, but a lot of towns drop it down to ridiculous lows. I didn’t slow down enough, and I got pulled over. I didn’t get a ticket but I got a written warning.

The fourth and last time I’ve been pulled over was in St. George. It was late on a Friday, I was coming home from a Bible study (yes, really), and I was watching my speed carefully because I knew exactly where I was. When I saw the flashing lights behind me, I had no idea why. I pulled over, half expecting him to zoom past me, but he pulled over too. He told me right away why: The light over my license plate was burned out.

Up until then it had never occurred to me that there was a light over your license plate, let alone that it was illegal to drive without one. I’d been rear-ended a couple of weeks before, and that probably was the reason the light was out. He took my license, went back to the car and ran my record (as far as I know, still two words long: “No record”), strolled back to my car, and gave me a second lecture about the light over my plate. I told him I didn’t know the light was out.

“Well you do now,” he bellowed, and threw my license back at me.

So I drove my menace-to-society car out of St. George and back home, wondering all the way how many people have managed to get pulled over there and not get a ticket. Probably not many.

In this local account, the St. George police chief denies being a speed trap. “It’s not true. My officers are told to enforce the law. I want quality, not quantity. I want the drugs, the impaired drivers. Those’re the things that make a difference.”

I’ll believe it when I see it. If there’s any drug trafficking going on, it’s along I-55, just outside the city limits. There’s a small bar a mile or two away at the corner of Mackenzie and Gravois, but it’s not very big. I don’t think it produces many drunk drivers since there’s only room for about five cars in its parking lot.

I think they’re more worried about burned-out headlights, people stopping for less than three seconds at stop signs, and people who look like they might be under 18 violating curfew. I think the latter is the reason Brett Darrow was pulled over and harrassed.

If St. George is indeed cleaning up its act, it’s going to take a long time for the reputation to change. Twenty years ago it had a reputation for being a place where they’d pull you over if you didn’t shave that morning, and reputations like that don’t develop overnight.

Maybe a little national attention will give the cleanup a little more sincerity.

The Three Dog Bakery

So yesterday I was in the Clayton/Ladue area. I had someplace I needed to be at 8, and then again at 8:45. So I went looking for someplace to get a cup of coffee and something to eat.There’s no shortage of coffee shops in Clayton, but most of them looked expensive–and not only that, you also have to pay to park, and the cost of parking in Clayton is pretty close to what I was looking to pay for the cup of coffee.

Finally, on the outskirts of Clayton, I found a plaza. I saw a sign that said "Three Dog Bakery." That sounded promising. I pulled in. I quickly noticed a sign that said "Please, no food or drinks." No food or drinks in a bakery? That’s like a "No firearms allowed" sign on a gun shop.

I looked at the storefront again, and I realized this wasn’t the kind of bakery I was looking for. This particular establishment sold gourmet dog biscuits.

I had strayed pretty far out of my element.

A little further down, I found a grocery store. I got an 89-cent cup of coffee there.

I wish I’d tried out Cafe Manhattan much sooner

My wife and I tried someplace different for dinner tonight. Cafe Manhattan has been near the intersection of Lindbergh and Tesson Ferry since 1989–longer than I’ve been driving. And since it’s just a couple of miles away from where I went to high school, where I live, and where I worked for seven years, I’ve driven past it a lot.

Big mistake. But it’s going to be in heavy rotation from now on.In 2006, Cafe Manhattan got the RFT award for best milkshake in St. Louis. So I had to try it. It’s done up the old fashioned way, and you get the metal cup, and I’ll admit it’s awfully good. I’ll put it ahead of local favorite Oberweis, but it’s not quite up to par with Crown Candy Kitchen. Of course for me it’s also a much shorter drive.

The other reviews suggested to me that Cafe Manhattan is a greasy spoon, but that’s not really a fair label. Not everything is deep-fried or grill-fried, and there’s a very surprisingly large number of vegetarian dishes on the menu. I wouldn’t call it a health food place, but if you want a place to eat and there are vegetarians in your party, this place is a winner.

The menu claims the hamburger is the best in St. Louis, so of course I had to take up that challenge. It was very good, but I think the burgers at Concord Grill, a couple of blocks away, are better. Let it be known, however, that regardless of Citysearch’s claim that Hardee’s makes the best burger in St. Louis, that Cafe Manhattan’s burger is much better.

My wife had something called a Liberty Melt, which was a bunch of veggies on whole wheat bread with some type of Wisconsin cheese on it. Not my thing, but she loved it. She’s a vegetarian now, which can make going out a little difficult sometimes, but she changed her mind about four times about what to get before settling on this one. She wasn’t disappointed.

The service was excellent. The place was packed, and yet everything arrived quickly. The meal probably arrived 10 minutes after we placed our order–faster than some fast-food restaurants. The staff was attentive and courteous and kept our glasses full.

And I almost forgot the atmosphere. The building it’s in used to be a Naugel’s–one of many local Mexican fast-food chains that have come and gone–but they’ve done a lot with it. The interior has classic diner floor tile and tables, and there’s a jukebox in the corner. But along the ceiling there’s a shelf that runs the perimeter of the dining room stuffed full of Americana–old soda bottles, signs, toys, and other neat things. Lots of casual dining chains try for that look, but Cafe Manhattan does it better.

As far as having the best milkshake, best burger, best pizza, or anything else, if you’re willing to look, you’ll find one or two places that are a little bit better at each of those things. But I doubt you’ll find anyplace that does all of it better.

And while the place was busy, this was a Saturday night. Had we gone to O’Charley’s or Friday’s or Applebee’s at that time, we would have had to wait. We didn’t have to wait and we got better food.

Now I know what I was missing when I drove past those hundreds–if not thousands–of times. We’ll be back soon.

My latest excursion to the east side

Yesterday, after a long day and a long week, Gatermann called me up and asked if I wanted to go to the east side.

So we met up before lunch and paid a visit to one of the east side’s finer establishments, and I brought my camera. Sometimes the things you see over there are pretty dirty, but this time we saw real beauty, and I brought back a picture… from the Kansas City Southern railyard.

This is KCSM 4679, a General Electric ES44AC diesel-electric “GEVO” (General Electric Evolution) locomotive painted up in the Kansas City Southern’s new old paint scheme. Some 50 years ago, KCS used a colorful paint scheme, called the Southern Belle, much like this one. Retro paint schemes are in these days–the Union Pacific started the trend by painting up some locomotives in schemes honoring the railroads they’ve taken over through the years, and judging from the current appearance of UP 1982, the unit painted for the Missouri Pacific, they don’t ever wash those locomotives either (I told you some of the stuff on the east side is dirty)–and the KCS dug out its best paint scheme from the past, updated it a little, and I think the results are striking.

KCSM 4679 is supposed to be painted up for the KCS’ Mexican subsidiary (hence the “de Mexico” on the side) but the front of the locomotive and the herald on the front side says plain old KCS.

There’s some talk that this one’s headed back to the paint shop to replace the herald. The locomotive has been sitting in the yard for the last four days, so this could be the reason.

This is probably stating the obvious, but I’m going to say it. Never actually set foot in a railyard unless you have permission from the railroad. It’s trespassing, and can be dangerous. Stay on public property (the road, shoulder of the road, or sidewalk if there is one) and photograph from there.

I would have liked to have gotten a picture of the UP’s Mopac heritage unit, UP 1982, but when it was sitting in the UP’s Dupo yard there was another train parked in front of it. We were in a decent position to catch the train after it left on its way to Chicago, but it was stuck behind a ballast train doing track maintenance. Unfortunately the last two cars on the ballast train derailed, so UP 1982 stayed parked where we could see it with the naked eye but couldn’t get any good shots of it.

If you’d like to see some shots from the day from the camera of a real, professional photographer, visit Gatermann’s place.

The suburb where Hornbeck and Ownby were found

St. Louis is in the national news again because of the bizarre case of missing children Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, who were found in the Kirkwood apartment of Michael J. Devlin.

Kirkwood.

Kirkwood?Kirkwood is a largely upper-middle class suburb west of St. Louis, roughly bounded by Interstates 44 and 270. The main north-south drag through St. Louis County, Lindbergh Boulevard, runs pretty much straight through Kirkwood, although its official name there is Kirkwood Road.

While Kirkwood isn’t as ritzy of a place to live as some of the suburbs to the north and west, such as Chesterfield, Ladue, or Town and Country, if you’re a professional there’s still plenty of prestige to living in Kirkwood. It says that you’re successful and have an appreciation of history.

I never lived in Kirkwood, but my first job was at a roast beef joint, long since closed, in Kirkwood, exactly 1.7 miles from the apartment where they were found. I went to 8th grade at a private school in Kirkwood, less than half a mile from the pizza joint where Devlin worked as a manager. The church where I was confirmed and took Holy Communion for the first time is also the same distance away. I bought the last Christmas gift I got for my dad before he died at a hobby shop just a block or two north of that pizza place.

Although there are exceptions, Kirkwood isn’t exactly a cheap place to live. Founded in 1853 and named for James P. Kirkwod, the first chief engineer of what became the Missouri Pacific Railroad, Kirkwood is a very old suburb, and it shows. Northern Kirkwood is known for its large, majestic Victorian-style houses. Although the edges of the town have taken on the look of post-1950s suburbia, Kirkwood has a very old-fashioned downtown, with storefronts that bring the first half of the 20th century to mind. There are lots of specialty shops there, and numerous restaurants that are either local chains or one-of-a-kinds. It’s a pretty good place to take your significant other for a night out. For that matter, if you wanted to take your kids out for pizza and ice cream, downtown Kirkwood offers several good choices for both.

The pizza parlor where Devlin managed is one of those choices.

To the south, there’s a large, modern commercial shopping district bounded on the north by Big Bend and on the south by Interstate 44, that has lots of big-box stores like Target, Lowe’s, Hobby Lobby, Wal-Mart, Office Depot, and the like. Virtually everyone who lives in the populous suburbs of south and west St. Louis County has probably had occasion in the past year to shop at least once in this district. Devlin lived in a $495-a-month apartment less than two miles away from this busy shopping district.

Also less than two miles from where Devlin lived, and less than half a mile from where he worked, is The Magic House, a very popular, nationally known children’s museum.

All of this probably has a lot to do with why this story ended up on the front cover of Newsweek magazine this week. It’s unusual to find not one, but two missing children, including one who had been missing more than four years, in the same place. But it happened in a populous suburb where so many people gladly take their children to spend an enjoyable weekend afternoon or Friday night.

Some people have questioned how Devlin could have escaped detection for as long as he did. But speaking as someone who knows Kirkwood well, Kirkwood is the last place I would have thought to look.

Kirkwood’s motto isn’t "Where America takes its families," but if Kirkwood wanted that title, it would have as much right to it as anyplace.

We never thought that included kidnappers.

Speed traps in south St. Louis

I believe it is my duty to warn people about two speed traps in south St. Louis County. They’re fairly widely known, but not as widely known as I thought.

Both are tiny little suburbs along Interstate 55.The first, and perhaps more notorious of the two is St. George, which is west of I-55 at the Reavis Barracks exit. St. George extends roughly along Reavis Barracks from I-55 to an L-shaped bend in the road where Reavis Barracks becomes Mackenzie.

Rules of the road: The speed limit is 35. I generally keep my speed at 30-32. Funny thing is, when I drive through this stretch at 30, very few people ever pass me. Needless to say, at the stoplight at Huntington and Reavis Barracks, it’s best not to run a yellow light.

Reavis Barracks forms the southern border of the town. If you venture into town at all, make sure you stop for three seconds at any stop sign. Years ago when I did some computer work for someone who lived there, she told me the police will sit there with a stop watch and watch you. St. George is no place for the rolling stops St. Louis is known for.

Also don’t drive in St. George if you have expired plates or anything else that most departments overlook. I was pulled over once for the light above my license plate being burned out. I escaped a ticket, but probably because of my clean driving record. It was only the third time I’d ever been pulled over in my life. I was 27 or 28 at the time.

As far as hiding places go, they like to sit in a parking lot at the intersection of Huntington and Reavis Barracks, or along Reavis Barracks itself.

I have a few relatives who are police officers, and I’m told that St. George got a new police chief a while back and he tells other officers that he’s backed off on the speed-trap tendencies. I still don’t take any chances through there and neither should you.

To avoid St. George, use the Weber/Bayless exit, just a couple of miles north. It takes you a couple of miles out of your way, but it may be worth your while. Weber hits Gravois very near the intersection of Gravois and Mackenzie.

And speaking of Bayless, the other speed trap is Bella Villa, another small town just east of I-55 along Bayless between I-55 and Lemay Ferry Road. I imagine the correct pronounciation of the town would be something like bay-ya viy-ya, since it looks Spanish, but I’ve never heard a St. Louisan pronounce it. I imagine the local pronounciation is closer to bell-a vill-a.

The speed limit along Bayless through Bella Villa is also 35. Go 30-32. I see a police car virtually every time I drive through Bella Villa, and almost as often as not he has someone pulled over. Very frequently when I don’t see a police car in Bella Villa, I see him along I-55 with someone pulled over.

I have no firsthand experience with the Bella Villa police department, but someone I know who got a speeding ticket there didn’t get her license returned when the officer was done with it. It came back in the mail after she paid her speeding ticket.

If you need to avoid Bella Villa, chances are you’re on I-55 and trying to get to Lemay Ferry or vice-versa. There’s the Carondelet/Germania duo to the north, and either Union or Reavis Barracks to the south. You can only exit on Union if you’re southbound. Go east on Reavis Barracks and you’ll hit Lemay Ferry. Both Carondelet and Germania, which run on opposite sides of the mighty River Des Peres, run east-west between I-55 and Lemay Ferry. Lemay Ferry becomes Alabama at the Germania intersection, and Carondelet is called Weber where it hits Lemay Ferry.

Score one for property rights in St. Louis

Former mayor Vincent “Mel Carnahan’s just a redneck from Rolla” Schoemel’s eminent domain crusade against an auto mechanic’s garage is over.

58-year-old Jim Day gets to keep his business.Grand Avenue is a north-south drag in St. Louis that has seen better days, especially on the north side. But in all fairness it’s seen worse days too. Some 20 years ago an abandoned movie palace reopened as the Fox Theater, a venue for live music, comedy, and other shows that are too small to fill an arena but too large for a nightclub. I was going to say “too classy” for either, but while that would apply to Tori Amos, I don’t think that applies to Larry the Cable Guy.

Nearby, another former movie palace is now Powell Symphony Hall. The St. Louis Symphony plays there.

Grand makes sense as an area for redevelopment. It already has lots of attractions. The Saint Louis University campus is there. And there are a large number of vacant buildings there.

And while I suppose Jim Day’s garage, which looks like it once was an Amoco station, may not fit into everyone’s vision of a ritzy high-society stretch of town, the fact is that the people Schoemel wants to attract to Grand aren’t going to live right there. Drive onto the side streets of Grand, and you’ll find working-class neighborhoods–the kinds of people who need a decent mechanic. Most of them rent, rather than own. They’re the kinds of people who don’t really have lots of disposable income to be spending at an art gallery. A lot of them are immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants who are still trying to establish themselves and have dreams of buying homes elsewhere. An auto mechanic is a good thing for them to have nearby. An art gallery is little more than a distraction to their American dream.

So I’m glad the garage gets to stay. And if Schoemel really wants to rejuvinate the neighborhood and make the rejuvination stick (rather than just be concerned about appearances), it seems to me the area really could use a good-sized grocery store. The further someone has to drive to get groceries, the less likely he or she is to want to live there.

But what do I know? I’m just a working-class citizen. Schoemel probably thinks I’m a redneck too.

In honor of tax day… Basements.

The St. Louis Post-Disgrace ran a nice article on basements, ironically, on April 15.

I doubt anyone’s tax refund will build anything quite like these.

The article described themed St. Louis-area basements: a medieval ballroom, a malt shop, and a Lionel train layout.All very cool. Of course, I most want to copycat Jack Stein. He doesn’t live far from me at all, nor is he far from the train shop that I frequent. But I don’t believe he and I have ever met.

His 18×16-foot layout would be considered small by most toy train magazines. Something tells me my fiancee wouldn’t consider that small. I’m currently working on designing a more modest 16×5-foot layout for my basement.

Of course, there’s a lot more to life than trains. There’s ice cream. Wouldn’t a malt shop-themed room look nice next to a train room? Yeah, I’m thinking. In 30 years. But you can’t start planning too soon, right?

If you like retro stuff, it’s a worthwhile read. It makes putting a wet bar in the basement seem unoriginal.