ST. LOUIS — A new resident of One Cardinal Way, a luxury apartment complex near Busch Stadium, recently recorded a scene playing out in the streets below that appeared straight off a Hollywood movie set. Squealing cars performed a series of doughnuts before a barrage of gunfire was unleashed — nearly 30 shots during a 34-second recording — as other cars raced along South Broadway late at night.
Two days later, a teenage girl from De Soto was in a pickup cruising with friends along Washington Avenue well after midnight. She died when a speeding car ran a red light and collided with the pickup near Washington and 10th Street. Hours later, Mayor Lyda Krewson, mentioning the girl’s death, vowed to change traffic patterns to curtail speeders whose actions “torment” residents.
In recent days barricades were moved onto downtown streets to slow or redirect traffic, with mixed results. On Friday, the city blocked Eads Bridge, a major connector of Illinois to downtown, in an effort to halt street racing.
The speeding cars and reckless behavior were part of an especially bad week for the city’s downtown — all part of a difficult summer for the area that saw crime surge to an alarming degree. Episodes of violent crime spiked in June and July, reaching record or near-record levels. In June alone, police logged 114 assaults downtown, higher than the last eight Junes combined for the neighborhood. And there were more robberies in June and July downtown than any year in the 16 years that St. Louis crime has been categorized by neighborhood. All of this comes as homicides citywide climb over the number this time last year.
Downtown, three people were shot and wounded this summer while visiting Citygarden, a sculpture park on Market Street. A woman along Olive Street was carjacked at gunpoint by two boys, ages 12 and 13. Those crimes were among the robberies and aggravated assaults that multiplied in the neighborhood as the city struggled with the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest following the death of a Black man in Minneapolis police custody.
The video shot from One Cardinal Way underscored what some residents and property owners have long complained about but perceive as getting worse. “The Wild West,” they call it. The video was shared with political leaders and posted on social media by real estate broker and developer Brad Waldrop.
“I wanted the world to know downtown is in trouble,” Waldrop said.
Residents who spoke with the Post-Dispatch described how downtown transforms on weekend nights, between about 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Cruisers come with roaring engines and deafening music. There are people drinking in cars, on top of cars, partying on open parking lots, and displaying or firing guns. Some property owners claim police are hard to find or do little to intervene. The sound of gunfire is becoming more common, they say.
Dan Pistor, who has lived in a downtown loft for 13 years, said downtown is a pleasure during the day. “If the weather is nice, it’s beautiful out. But toward the evening, starting on Thursday, that’s when this lawlessness occurs,” Pistor said.
Michaela Hogue watches the action from her balcony along Washington Avenue, a block west of Tucker Boulevard, in what’s technically the Downtown West neighborhood. Loud cruising has been an issue before, but police typically would help block the cruisers or control the area better than what has been happening lately, Hogue said.
“The bike unit, I want to give a nice shoutout to them,” she said. “They’re just wonderful to contain the chaos, but unfortunately because of the protests they’re being taken elsewhere.”
‘Worst I’ve ever seen’
For four years, St. Louis police Capt. Renee Kriesmann has been commander of the 4th District, which includes the Downtown neighborhood. “It has been a tough six weeks,” she told a residents’ group in July. She said the police department is working as quickly as it can “to get things back to normal or some sense of normalcy.” She had ordered the bike patrol officers to focus on the protests and civil unrest this summer, instead of their normal detail.
Hogue said that since a night of rioting in early June, things have changed. “I have a balcony that has a Washington Avenue view, and I’ve seen quite a few shootings since the riots. It’s definitely the worst I’ve ever seen.”
One particularly frightening incident involved an SUV parked on Washington and a man sitting on the sunroof who pointed an AK-47 in her direction, Hogue said.
She’s seeing the same sports cars drag-racing along the street each weekend. The smell of marijuana wafts up from the street and drug trafficking is easy to spot from her window, she said. People in cars sometimes wave guns and fire shots into the air, she said. “I’m surprised no one has been killed by these shots. We definitely enjoy the balcony, but the second we hear gunshots, inside we go,” Hogue said.
She said she’s staying put downtown but she has neighbors who plan to move. “Some of my neighbors,” she said, “are terrified.”
Downtown is the hub of St. Louis, offering arts and entertainment, dining and attractions. It runs from Cole Street on the north to Chouteau Avenue on the south. It stretches from the riverfront on the east to Tucker Boulevard on the west and includes Busch Stadium, the Gateway Arch, restaurants and bars on Washington Avenue and America’s Center Convention Complex.
Mayor Krewson said downtown St. Louis “does not actually have high incidents of sustained and widespread violence. The vast majority of people who live, work or visit downtown have no issue. But when an act of violence or crime does occur, it’s always widely reported.”
“COVID-19 has obviously changed a lot downtown,” Krewson told the Post-Dispatch in an email. “More people are working from home. Big events are canceled. There are not ball games, hockey matches, festivals, parades, etc. ... This leaves a void that unfortunately has been filled by people, often not from the city, who engage in dangerous behavior.”
From January to July, crimes against people (the category of violent crime that involves homicide, rape, robbery and assault) were up 90% downtown, compared with the same period last year. Meanwhile, violent crime in all neighborhoods citywide through July was up 4%. Property crimes downtown and citywide were down slightly through the end of July, compared with the same period a year ago.
Two crime categories, in particular, stand out for sharp increases this summer downtown: robberies and aggravated assaults. Robberies numbered 22 in June and 18 in July. Both numbers were higher than any other June or July on record. Police said crime statistics listed by neighborhood go back only to 2005.
The 114 assaults that police logged for downtown in June was the highest number of assaults for any June. The second-highest number for that month was in 2015, with 39. The 114 in June were nearly three times higher than the number of assaults from January through May. July was better, with 26 assaults reported downtown last month, but it was still the third-highest number for any July.
The transient nature of downtown — with many people staying for a short while before departing — can make policing that much harder. The gunman in the Citygarden triple shooting this summer escaped in an SUV that had been stolen from Brentwood and was recovered in East St. Louis. Three juveniles were in the car when police found it, Kriesmann said.
Officer Michelle Woodling, a police spokeswoman, pointed out that robberies were running low in the months before June, and robberies were on a downward trend in recent years. Increases in crime, specifically violent crime, are not unique to downtown or the city of St. Louis, Woodling said. There has been a trend nationally with most major American cities seeing increases, she said.
Early in the pandemic, crime of all kinds decreased when businesses closed and people were ordered to quarantine and maintain social distancing. But that drop turned around in June when protests broke out across the country.
Some property owners are pushing to replace the current taxing district for downtown, and say the recent surge in crime only solidified their concerns. Les Sterman, who lives in a downtown loft and wants to create a new Community Improvement District, said “diminished police presence, lax regulatory administration by the city, and little government or civic interest in dealing with the problems downtown have all contributed to the conditions that we see now.” He said those hired as security by the current taxing district “are completely ineffective and generally not even on duty during the hours when the disruption is worst.”
‘We’re going to fix it’
Downtown STL Inc. manages the current Community Improvement District and its chief executive, Missy Kelley, said a city’s downtown is where the greatest density exists and crime that happens there becomes magnified because it’s occurring in the heart of a region.
“It’s important for people to understand ... this is not happening 24 hours a day, this is late-night activity,” she said. “We are still seeing people come downtown enjoying the assets that we have. We are seeing them enjoy the Wheel, the aquarium, dining at restaurants, going outside.”
She added, “The truth is, we have a problem late at night and we’re going to fix it.”
Kriesmann told the Post-Dispatch that the pandemic and civil unrest contributed to the troubles downtown this summer. When protests were regularly held, Kriesmann directed downtown officers, including those who patrol on bicycles, to leave their normal routes and focus on the demonstrations. Two mounted surveillance cameras, called mobile sky cops, that monitor downtown streets were damaged in protests so police ended up removing those for weeks.
During protests June 1 and 2, four officers standing near a police line were shot and wounded on the edge of downtown and other officers also were injured. Kriesmann said that was a difficult time for police — “The toughest we’ve seen in my 30-year career here.”
“From there, crime began to spike,” Kriesmann said. “We’ve seen a surge and are working very hard to get it back down.”
Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri at St. Louis has studied the impact the pandemic has had on crime in major U.S. cities.
“St. Louis is not alone in this crime increase that we’re witnessing across the country,” he said. “The increase certainly coincides in time with the pandemic and social unrest.”
Part of the explanation, Rosenfeld said, could be that people with historically tense relationships with police might be drawing back even more from police and are more likely to take matters into their own hands when disputes arise. It also could be that police have been redeployed from their normal beats to address the protests, and the pandemic has many officers out on quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19, Rosenfeld explained.
To slow the spread of the virus, the police force went to “no self-initiated activity for six weeks,” Kriesmann said. Officers were told not to make the pedestrian stops or traffic stops they normally do unless a serious criminal act was being committed. A summary of officer activity in the 4th District shows zero traffic violations for four weeks in July, compared with 265 in July 2019. Foot patrols were down dramatically, as were police vehicle checks and other patrol work.
Kriesmann said recently that, “We’re back to self-initiated activity.” Will August numbers look better? “I hope so,” she said.
Feeling ‘less safe’
James Page, executive director of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, is a retired U.S. Postal Service manager who moved to a loft downtown in 2002. He said he enjoys downtown living. “It’s the ultimate walkable community,” he said, explaining that he has “the greatest amount of optimism for the potential of downtown St. Louis.” But he acknowledges that “things feel less safe” now than in his earlier years downtown.
He used to walk to the Arch and riverfront at night, an exercise ritual that included dipping his finger in the Mississippi River and jogging back up the cobblestones, then around the north end of the Arch and walking back home. He stopped doing that in 2018 “because of safety concerns,” he said.
Page discussed the Citygarden shooting with Kriesmann at a neighborhood association meeting last month. “It’s incidents like these,” he said, “that are causing downtown residents to consider fleeing leases, walking away from mortgages.”
The association, a nonprofit corporation for residents and businesses, has a safety committee and a building captains committee to get input from residents and share information to improve safety and quality of life downtown.
The video Waldrop posted is the latest reason Page has a sense things are less safe now.
“In prior years, there were occasional shots fired, not just in downtown but all over St. Louis,” Page said. “But in recent times, especially this summer, it appears random in nature, but I’m sure it is not. This is multiple people firing multiple weapons especially out of cars, then taking off, scattering. The lawlessness has increased dramatically in 2020 over 2019 and before.”
Businesses and residences have been hit by bullets, including a window at Lucas Lofts from an apparent shootout on a lot at 1101 Washington Avenue last weekend.
Pistor, the longtime downtown resident who also is chairman of the Downtown Neighborhood Association’s safety committee, said, “Crime is obviously real bad right now. A lot of it is caused by the pandemic and the unrest.”
He said the cruising and public drinking and traffic violations would bubble up from time to time and weren’t consistently addressed by the city. But when the pandemic hit, it “kind of magnified” the problems.
Things were going well early in the year, until the first week of April with the pandemic, with businesses shutting down and stay-at-home orders in place, Pistor said. “People started noticing that nobody was around, and the streets were wide open and people think they can do what they want,” he said. “We started seeing individuals would come out and use downtown as their party.”
Kriesmann said the bike officers who patrol downtown are back on their normal rounds now. The federal government’s decision to send 50 agents to help police investigate violent crime is beneficial for downtown, she said, because they can help with follow-up investigations. Kriesmann said crime that peaked during June and July appears to be moving toward a plateau.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep working on these issues that we’re having,” Kriesmann said.
The De Soto teen who died in the downtown collision, 17-year-old Sierra Rubymae Ward-Micke, told her parents she was meeting with friends for a sleepover in St. Charles. That’s where she was when she last spoke with her parents around 10 p.m., said her stepfather Donald Arnett. By 2 a.m., though, she and friends were cruising in downtown St. Louis, without her parents’ knowledge.
About 2:30 a.m. Monday, Sierra was riding in the bed of a pickup with friends when a speeding car collided with the pickup at Washington Avenue and 10th Street. Sierra was killed when she and other passengers were thrown from the pickup.
Hours after Sierra’s death, Krewson said speeding and racing and people running traffic lights was “unacceptable.” Traffic barricades starting going up Thursday along Washington Avenue. Kelley said Downtown STL, which supplements city services, has been asking the city for more resources, more officers and barricades for awhile. “We have presented this case over and over,” Kelley said. “And, we are very glad it is happening now.”
Waldrop, the downtown developer, argues that he and others have generally been ignored by elected officials and the group property owners pay to manage the CID. “It’s a shame that it took a tragedy like a fatality on Washington Avenue to call attention to the issues of downtown, but the attention is long past due,” he said.
The mayor said people should expect to see some street closures, lane reductions and restrictions on surface parking lots to prevent congregating and reckless driving. “This is something that we have to get under control,” Krewson said.
Police wouldn’t divulge policing strategies, so it’s not clear if this is a long-term solution for Downtown.
Downtown Friday night may have seemed a bit tamer with fewer unruly crowds, but there were still reports of shots being fired, aggressive drivers and engines revving. Pistor said some motorists already were seen driving around the concrete barricades.
James Dickerson, who lives in a loft at 1308 Washington, said barricades turned two blocks in front of his home into a pedestrian mall and he worried that would make it harder for food-delivery drivers and ride-sharing services. “Trying to solve a problem has created another one,” Dickerson said.
Meanwhile, mourners gathered Friday at a funeral home in De Soto for a service to memorialize Sierra. She would have been a senior at De Soto High School this fall, and had talked about joining the National Guard after graduation, her stepfather said.
Sierra had been to downtown St. Louis before for concerts, Arnett said. Her parents had warned her to be careful in the big city.
“Stick together,” they would tell her. “Always be with your friends when you’re up there.”
Family members were crushed by Sierra’s death and have since seen videos on social media that reveal the reckless driving that takes place downtown, Arnett said.
“It’s not a racetrack up there,” he said. “It’s just a sad state of affairs.”