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Monday, April 5, 2010

Transit Tales: All Aboard the Architecture Express!

First of all, I have to say to my St. Louis County readers: please vote YES tomorrow, April 6, 2010, on Proposition A, a one half of one percent sales tax increase that will be dedicated to the funding of St. Louis's mass transit system. Your "yea" vote on A will ensure Metro transit does not endure another crippling round of cuts, causing hundreds to lose their jobs instantly and rendering many riders unable to reach their workplaces as well. Beyond that, a failed Prop A means a third class transit system in a city struggling to compete with its peer cities across the Midwest. As almost all progressive cities are in the process of expanding transit systems, St. Louis would be foolhardy to allow the drastic cutting of its own.

If you live in St. Louis County, and need to find your polling place or read the text of the ballot, etc., please click here.

If you would like some convincing on why Proposition A is important and what Metro has done to turn itself around, please click here.

And now, a transit-related story.

Several years ago, I was riding the #10 Gravois (now the Gravois-Lindell) downtown from the Bevo neighborhood to meet my father for a late lunch near City Hall. When I boarded the bus at Gravois and Itaska, a woman in her 50s nearly came sailing into my arms; she had not braced for the bus to quickly rear back onto the travel lanes of Gravois. I offered her my arm to keep her from falling. She had a particularly heavy camera and I'd have winced to witness that one break. She thanked me as she regained her footing, but to my surprise, did not take a seat. Well, not exactly anyway. She knelt on one of the seats closest to the bus driver, facing the window that was perched above. Her camera's lens tapped the window several times as the bus bounced through that unique tangle of city blocks that diagonal Gravois creates.

"Whoa!" she kept exclaiming. "Oh my word, are you looking at this, Frank?" I now noticed that the much more sedate man sitting (the correct way) beside her was her husband, or at least an acquaintance. "Look at all of this! Just look at it!" Dutifully, he did, eventually joining her in what looked to me an impossibly uncomfortable posture--his arms holding the back to her seat, twisting his torso to meet her demands for his visual attention.

More than interested, I wondered where the two were from but decided not to guess.

"Oh we're from Arizona," she responded in an excitable tone. "We have just never seen anything like all of this! That windmill [I guess the Bevo Mill hadn't escaped her view]...all of this brick architecture. It's just fabulous!" She wouldn't commit to facing the inside of the bus very long. Speaking to me, planted on the opposite side of the bus, seemed only to help her realize there was a whole other side of the Gravois streetscape that she was neglecting. Gasps ensued, then clicking--especially as she spied St. Francis De Sales--the Cathedral of South St. Louis. But Benton Park West's red brick streetscapes didn't fail to mystify her either and employed her camera with equal vigor.

I inquired a bit more into the circumstances of the affable Arizonans' visit, but I don't really remember what they said. What did stick with me is how the woman would not shy from a--GASP!--mid-sentence, like that, when another piece of our architectural heritage astounded her to the degree necessary to encapsulate it in a photograph.

I also remember thinking how my ordinary bus ride down a street I could navigate eyes closed suddenly seemed so memorable. The Arizonans made me even more proud of my city, even more assured of its beauty. It's a moment I'd never be able to relate to you right now if I were in that moment shrouded in the privacy of my own vehicle.

Public transit allows so many of these human moments. Driving my own car, I feel like an integral cog in an impersonal but practical machine--"integral" in the sense that if I make the wrong mistake at the wrong time, the machine has the potential to be destroyed! It's all so mechanical and inhuman, evidenced by the fact that people that would smile at me on a sidewalk instead race around my vehicle in a fit if I've lingered at a stop light too long.

Riding a bus or a train brings me to a totally different mental state. I rejoin the human race. I put faith in a driver I don't know. I sit next to and around strangers. I absorb conversations, sights, and smells I'd otherwise never take in. Not all of this new sensory information is necessarily pleasant, but it's all a part of participating in the human experience. On the whole, it's life affirming, though: watching people trudge through wintry sleet and huddle all together to make it to work on time, for example.

Even the simple things get the elderly woman who thinks she's pulled the string for her stop with the right degree of pressure. She hasn't. No "Ding!". No light lit up saying "Stop Requested". The woman behind her notices, though, and, herself not getting off for several more stops, pulls the chord anyway. The old woman departs never knowing someone saved her aging joints a couple extra blocks of walking.

The city looks and feels different from the elevated position of a bus, too. As the drivers yell out each major intersection--"GRAND!" "COMPTON!" "ARSENAL!"--a sort of hyper-local patriotism reigns over me. These are our streets. We all share this network. The city before me is not a selfish figment of my imagination. I am proud to share it, too.

I just hope the next time the Arizonans visit St. Louis that they're still able to hop aboard another "architecture express" in a restored and expanded transit system--not an ailing and shrunken one.


Alex Ihnen said...

Nice! I've never once met anyone while driving to work in my car. Funny how that happens. I don't love everyone I encounter on MetroLink, but it's interesting, and often rewarding!

Mark Groth said...

Great piece! Can't wait to see the poll results...

Kara said...

Great post! Public transit has many practical benefits - both financial and environmental, but people often forget that it's just plain fun to ride trains and buses!

Anonymous said...

Your postings are awesome! You seem to be quite a guy. I would love a tour of our city from you sometime. I'm sure it would be my pleasure. Thanks for your site. It's so refreshing and animated at times. You make me proud to live in St. Louis!

Louis said...

Great post! You got to pull the cord if it doesn't go ding.

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