The Wrong Side of the Tracks

20 02 2014


by Bill Newmann

America's Central Port

America’s Central Port

Somewhere deep within the port complex and its giant, steaming, industrial machinery, stood United States Vice President Joe Biden.

On Wednesday, February 19th, Biden came to America’s Central Port in Granite City, Illinois to deliver a speech praising the five-year-old American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, according to an Illinois government press release.

What Biden may or may not know, is that while he was gushing over the benefits of the more than $14 million in federal stimulus money given to the port, he was standing on a mound of contradiction.

If the vice president had merely looked across Route 3 and the adjacent railroad tracks, he would have clearly seen who the stimulus money is not helping. Directly across from the port entrance lies a bleak ramshackle neighborhood known as Newport. A few new cookie-cutter apartments and a new church stand in contrast with the old broken down, burned out homes, many of which must be abandoned. Garbage collects in the gutter and in many yards. Vacant lots and those abandoned homes are common here. Most of the small shops are empty or boarded up.

Fourteen St. Louis County Police vehicles along Route 3 outside the port

Fourteen St. Louis County Police vehicles along Route 3 outside the port

During the noon hour, lifelong resident Alene Hall stood near the railroad tracks, on the side of the road that Biden did not visit Wednesday. The short, spry woman, who sported a red, white, and blue smock for the occasion, has been keeping watch on that corner for more than eighty years.

This becomes evident as passersby who see the fourteen St. Louis County Police vehicles lining Route 3 pull over to ask Alene what’s going on. She should know. She used to help make bullets where the port is now located during World War II, when the site was known as the The Granite City Army Depot. She lived here when Dow Chemical dumped barrels of radioactive byproduct on the property in the 1960s. And now she watches as roads, rails, and rivers converge and goods of every nature move through the port to and from destinations around the world.

When asked what she would tell Biden if she had the chance, Alene points out a sinkhole in her front yard. It is above a collapsing sewer which snakes under much of her property and links to a drainage ditch in her backyard. “Listen, under here is all water. I can hear the water singing,” she says. “I told ’em this water is no good.” The sewers always back up causing roads and yards to flood and Alene says she’s been telling local officials about it for years to no avail. 

The mysterious convoy of unmarked cars

The mysterious convoy of unmarked cars

This did not seem to concern Biden on Wednesday, however. His comments were directed instead at fellow politicians and the mainstream media. In attendance were Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, according to the press release.

Alternative media and the public were prevented from entering the event by vigilant police officers from several jurisdictions in the bi-state area.

Later in the afternoon, after Alene had returned home, a motorcade including three identical Chevy Impalas with tinted windows and Illinois plates, was seen speeding out of the area and into Missouri. The stealthy convoy appeared out of place as it zoomed past the strip clubs of impoverished Brooklyn, Illinois. The men inside the vehicles wore dark suits and wraparound sunglasses, and their fleeting presence gave a brief sense that the Eastside is part of an undeclared war zone.

None of them had time to listen to an old woman who hears singing waters under her old house in Newport.

The driver and passenger of an unmarked ImpalaThe driver and passenger of an unmarked Impala

C. D. Stelzer contributed information for this article.


Indian Territory

19 03 2013

An Osage Nation official dodges questions regarding the tribe’s ancestral claim to Sugarloaf Mound.

by Bill Newmann

Andrea Hunter at Sugarloaf Mound

Andrea Hunter at Sugarloaf Mound

Anthropologist Andrea Hunter stood at the foot of Sugarloaf Mound yesterday and declared it Indian territory.

She led a convoy of Osage Indians, including tribal elders, to the South St. Louis landmark on a tour bus to teach them about their historical connection to the ancient earthwork.

The history they were shown may be in the process of being rewritten. Or rather – written for the first time.

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Lore or Lie?

6 03 2013

The Osage Nation is staking a claim to a St. Louis prehistoric landmark. But a renegade has reservations about his tribe’s right to the land.

by Bill Newmann

Mayor Slay and Jim Gray in 2004

Mayor Slay and Jim Gray in 2004

Clinging to the Mississippi River bluffs, the bungalow atop Sugarloaf Mound has lain vacant for three years, its boarded windows staring out across Ohio Avenue at a hill littered with debris from Interstate 55. Truck drivers roll down the street and commuters accelerate up the entrance ramp.

None of them seem to notice the ancient wonder.

Unknown to most St. Louisans, Sugarloaf Mound is a portal to the prehistoric past, when dozens of earthen mounds stood within the current city limits. Native civilizations that vanished centuries ago built these landmarks, earning the Gateway City its previous title – Mound City. Nevertheless, by the time of the 1904 World’s Fair, the mounds had been destroyed by urban expansion. Sugarloaf, the last mound standing, survived mainly due to its relative isolation.

When the Osage Nation – a sovereign Native American tribe based in Oklahoma – bought a piece of Sugarloaf for nearly a quarter million dollars in 2009, the St. Louis media praised the purchase as a preservation victory. But the tribe itself remains divided over the issue, including skeptics who continue to question the deal and the well-connected players who worked behind the scenes to put it together.  

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The Market

16 09 2012

A story of  love and rotting fruit 

The Market is based on real events in Europe in the early 1980s when idealism ran riot. Squatting was commonplace in England, Germany and the Netherlands, but the laws in each country interpreted the act of opening and occupying a condemned building differently.

In England it became a war, usually between idealistic young anarchists and uniforms and workers representing the authorities. London was a battleground. At the time thousands of people were homeless despite the existence of thousands of abandoned and condemned houses.

One such area contained a square of five-storey houses in south-central London, near the Thames river. The 18th century square had been bought by the Inner London Education Authority but they never had the funds to develop it. Between the 1950s and the 1980s it was managed by the local housing authority who decided to move tenants out, a decision that allowed squatters to move in.

Author Robert Allen was one of the squatters, specialising in opening houses and establishing with several others a cafe in a corner house. At the time New Covent Garden Market at Nine Elms, a short walk from the square, allowed people to take away damaged fruit and vegetables. The cafe specialised in hearty soup and artisan bread.


by Robert Allen

Kevin O’Hara suppressed a yawn, threw back the duvet and rolled off the worn mattress. He had gone to bed with most of his clothes on – thermal long pants and vest, and thin jumper – and had only to pull on a pair of clean jeans. From beside the mattress, under a pile of dirty clothes, he fumbled for his running shoes. They were scuffed, dirty. The soles had been worn smooth by habitual use. He stretched his limbs and felt a few bones crack, stepping lightly over the bare floorboards. The aging wood creaked, all the way down the bare stairs. A sudden gust whistled through the gap between the heavy wooden door and the loose door frame, rattling it loudly. He sighed.


He walked into the kitchen. On the washboard beside a dilapidated fridge he picked up an old kettle, placed the spout under the cold tap, and turned the tap on full. Fast hard water sprayed him, but enough gushed into the kettle to quarter fill it. When he placed the kettle on the stove, he thought he heard a thud. In a moment of indecision he swayed towards the door to his right, a box of matches to his left. He lit the gas under the kettle. A burst of angry thuds shook the front door.

“Hold your crazy horses,” he shouted.

He opened the door and the gale disappeared. Outside it was still dark. A street lamp cast its glare. Large damp spots decorated the cracked pavements. “Thunder, thunder, thunder,” he chanted.

“Kevin?” a young woman on the doorstep said, uncertainty rising in her soft voice.

Thunder in the air,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re early. What’s the rush, hey?”

“Are you ready?” It was Linda Smallwood’s way of intimidating her friends. She was wrapped in a thick army overcoat several sizes too big for her.

“Yeah, after some coffee,” Kevin said, ignoring her impetuosity . “C’mon in.”

He turned into the hallway.

Kevin picked up the box of matches, pulled a matchstick out, struck it and held it like an Olympic torch. Its flame dimmed. Then he saw that the ring was lit.

“Suckee, fuckee?”

She suggested it so casually he thought he hadn’t heard her properly. She opened the overcoat and shrugged it off her brittle shoulders to reveal a garish display of burnt-red mini skirt, crumpled forest-green half-jacket over a jet-black body suit that clung to her diminutive but shapely frame. She wore child’s size heavy boots laced tightly on elfin feet. Her auburn hair was tied closely to her head in an untidy bun. Tiny gold dragons hung from her ear lobes. A golden ring pierced her lower lip.

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The Invisible Deal

13 09 2012

The St. Louis Forestry Division’s contract with a private company appears to have vanished, taking the credibility of City Hall with it.

by Bill Newmann

A sign at the gates of the city’s Hall Street composting facility

St. Louis Composting Inc., the private company that accepts wood waste from the city, has been operating without a valid contract since the beginning of September, the Journal of Decomposition has learned.

Despite numerous requests made this week, City Hall could not produce a copy of the current contract between the Forestry Division and St. Louis Composting.

Forestry signed a deal with the company three years ago when the city agency decided to privatize its composting operation. St. Louis Composting submitted the successful bid. On September 1, 2009, the firm entered into a three-year contract worth up to an estimated $750,000, according to city documents. The agreement expired on August 31 of this year.

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Got Sewage?

30 08 2012

St. Louis Composting’s Patrick Geraty hooks up with a national syndicate that peddles sewage. 

by Bill Newmann

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” – Arthur Conan Doyle 

I have learned in the past that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you can be on the menu,” says Patrick Geraty, owner of St. Louis Composting Inc., the region’s largest commercial composter.

Geraty made the revealing comment to the board of directors of the U.S. Composting Council (USCC) late last year.  As part of his pitch to gain a board seat, Geraty also proposed adopting an advertising blitz similar to the now-famous mantra: “Got Milk?

The St. Louis businessman’s proposition is part of a recurring public relations barrage aimed at cleaning up an industry image sullied by its involvement in the toxic waste trade.

Geraty now dines at both the tables of the USCC and its governmental counterpart, the Missouri Solid Waste Advisory Board. The private and public agencies regulate wood waste – St. Louis Composting’s main raw material. But they also regulate another waste that’s being incorporated into compost with increasing frequency: sewage sludge.

Sewage sludge is raw sewage minus water. Raw sewage is everything that gets flushed down toilets and drains, including household, industrial, and medical wastes. Water-treatment plants collect raw sewage, and their main goal is to recover as much clean water as possible for reuse. The leftovers form a concentrated, toxic stew.

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You’ve Got Trash!

20 08 2012

A millionaire landlord from Ladue ditches the city’s refuse service in favor of Allied Waste. There’s only one problem: the private company isn’t picking up the trash. 

“They need to get them cans out of the alley,” said the city worker, who sat behind the wheel of the big orange trash truck. The “cans” to which he referred are the blue dumpsters that now compete not only for space but also business with the St. Louis Refuse Division.

Allied Waste’s neglected dumpsters behind 6325 Sutherland Ave.

Two years ago, the city began charging property owners for trash pick up. The fee is $11 a month per unit. That amounts to $462 a year in additional expenses for the owners of four-family apartments. Under the ordinance, property owners can cancel the service if they show proof that they are having a private company haul the trash instead of using the city service.

After permitting private trash pick up, the law stipulates that the city will “inspect the property thereafter to confirm that the waste in fact is being collected.” But that’s not what’s happening in the 6300 block of Sutherland Avenue in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood, where trash has been accumulating for months. Plastic bags of rotting garbage have been festering all summer. The trash is now overflowing and spilling into the alley.

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Blight Me!

7 08 2012
Taking care of business: A politically-connected rehabber scores a 10-year property tax break by expanding his law offices.   
Joseph V. Neill’s law office on Hampton Avenue in June 2011. In May, 16th-Ward Ald. Donna Baringer called for the property to be blighted, making it eligible for a 10-year tax abatement.

by Will Delaney

Attorney Joseph V. Neill, a member of the St. Louis police pension board appointed by Mayor Francis Slay, will receive up to a 10-year tax abatement for rehabbing his law office on Hampton Avenue, according to a bill filed in the Board of Aldermen.


On May 22, an ordinance introduced  by 16th-Ward Ald. Donna Baringer blighted Neill’s property, thereby creating a redevelopment area.  Under the law, blighting the property for redevelopment is in the  “interest of the public health, safety, morals and general welfare of the people of the city.”

In this case, blighting is also in the interest of the property owner,  JVN & Company, a limited liability corporation set up by Neill in 2009, which also includes four other attorneys that practice law at 5201 Hampton.

Baringer defends her legislation by saying that it is for the common good.

“The 16th Ward’s business district is 50 years old and in need of assistance for the deteriorating buildings,” Baringer told the Journal of Decomposition. “Joe Neill  has been active in our neighborhood for many years and is liked and respected. I took this piece of legislation before the St. Louis [Hills] Neighborhood Association before introducing it, and they had voted in favor of it.”

Records on file with the St. Louis Assessor’s Office  show JVN & Company  paid $7,440.33 in annual property taxes in November 2011. Under the terms of the proposed abatement, the commercial property will be frozen at its pre-improved assessed value  of  $84,100 for the next decade.  

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Party Boy

29 07 2012
Mardi Gras reveller Stacy Hastie and his pals opened their wallets to Mayor Slay and then cleaned up with a windfall in state brownfields tax credits.

by Will Delaney                                                                             

CPA  and environmental clean-up expert Stacy Hastie toasting the good life.

The Facebook photo shows St. Louis businessman Stacy Hastie quaffing a beer at a party. Two bottles of Jagermeister can be seen sitting on the counter in the background along with other liquor and wine. It may not be the most flattering image, but it appears to capture a certain panache of a man who enjoys the full pleasures of life. Other online snapshots show the chairman and chief executive officer of St. Louis-based Environmental Operations Inc. reigning over the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball at City Hall in February. He donned a crown and regal robe for that occasion.

Obviously, Hastie knows how to party. He’s been at it a long time. And partying – with the right people – is a way of establishing and maintaining connections in the hazy world where business and politics merge.

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See No Evil

18 07 2012

St. Louis Forestry Division Commissioner Greg Hayes turns a blind eye to his agency’s clandestine landfill in Carondelet Park.

By Bill Newmann

“A man should look for what is and not for what he thinks should be.”Albert Einstein

Forestry boss Greg Hayes says this dump doesn’t exist.

By all appearances there is a landfill craftily tucked within the trees at the St. Louis compost facility in Carondelet Park. But according to the city official in charge of the site, the dump  doesn’t exist.

On Monday, St. Louis Forestry Division Commissioner Greg Hayes denied the dump site’s existence, which was first reported by the The Journal of Decomposition last week [What a Dump!, July 10].

Hayes’ denial comes on the heels of a response from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that draws into question the legality of Forestry’s  Carondelet Park landfill. In a response to a request under the Missouri Sunshine Law, DNR verified that none of the required state permits have been issued for the unacknowledged dump.  DNR is the state agency that regulates solid waste disposal.

Renee Bungart, DNR’s public information officer, was unavailable for comment earlier this week regarding the department’s policy on investigating illegal landfills.

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