It’s 4:15 on a brisk Wednesday afternoon in February. Alderman Cara Spencer is digging into the hard ground at Chippewa Street and Marine Avenue in her South Side 20th Ward.
“There’s concrete or something under there,” she says.
Spencer hops in her car and drives a couple of blocks to her home. She comes back with a sledgehammer and starts pounding away.
By 4:45 she has a hole several inches deep in the black dirt sitting between the curb and sidewalk.
“It took awhile to get to the soft dirt.”
Spencer waves as a police officer drives by.
What she is doing is probably not exactly legal. But her frustration with the bureaucracy of the city of St. Louis has reached its boiling point.
It started in September.
Spencer emailed the city’s traffic commissioner, Deanna Venker, and asked about posting a stop sign at the intersection. Chippewa heading east dead-ends there at Marine Avenue. There’s a stop sign on Marine, but not Chippewa.
East of the intersection is the St. Louis Language Immersion School. When parents drive down Chippewa to drop off their children, they don’t have to stop while turning left onto Marine to head north. It leaves residents of the neighborhood trapped during school drop-off and pickup times.
Venker wrote back and said she would look into it.
In November, after hearing nothing more from Venker, Spencer sent another email. She got no response, according to the email traffic Spencer provided me. On Dec. 1, she wrote Venker again, this time including Jamie Wilson, a city traffic engineer.
Wilson said there was little accident history at the intersection but he would check it out.
On Dec. 27, after a motorist heading east on Chippewa drove through the intersection and wrecked the fence protecting the school’s playground, Spencer wrote again.
“I would like to expedite your recommendation for a stop sign at this location. My first request for a stop sign at this location came in September, I know you guys are woefully understaffed but I really hope that we can come to a conclusion by school start in January,” she wrote.
In late January, Wilson told Spencer the intersection didn’t qualify for a stop sign. He said it would take an ordinance passed through the Board of Aldermen to get one installed.
In the most recent aldermanic session, about 10 board bills were passed to add stop signs in various wards. Because of the concept of aldermanic courtesy, such bills generally pass with little or no opposition. But in a functioning city, that’s not how things should be done, Spencer says.
“The Board of Aldermen should not be sitting around legislating stop signs,” she told me.
When she first brought this story to my attention, it was in the context of a conversation we were having about the mayor’s race. The next mayor, Spencer believes, needs to focus on making the city work better.
“The mechanism by which we provide city services is broken,” Spencer says.
It’s a complaint repeated often by aldermen all over the city, and by plenty of people in the business community.
Not far from the intersection where Spencer wants a stop sign is Sump Coffee. Owner Scott Carey recalls the process of getting his building permits so he could open his business. It was inefficient and difficult, he says.
Carey points to the bike rack the city recently installed outside his shop. That took more than nine months of wrangling, he said, leaving his customers to chain bikes to street poles and, well, stop signs.
As of Wednesday evening, a brand new stop sign exists at Chippewa and Marine.
Spencer installed it.
Frustrated by the city’s inaction, she took matters into her own hands.
“I went to Craigslist and found a guy who sells stop signs,” she said. She bought a sign and pole, waited for the ground to thaw a bit — a February warm snap helped — and got to digging.
“It’s a no-brainer to me,” she said. “It’s crazy not to have a stop sign at a dead end.”
Spencer is not sure how long the sign will stand, but she hopes it stays, not just to improve traffic flow in a neighborhood that feels ignored by the city, but as a monument to a city that doesn’t work.