Talk of the Towns

Talk of the Towns: 1.9.19

the metro
What happened to ‘blue-light specials,’ those great deals of yore that shoppers could score at their friendly neighborhood Kmart? Sears, that’s what. Kmart, once nearly synonymous with Walmart, had 18 stores throughout the metro into the early 1990s. Used to be one in Ellisville, even. But today, only one remains, and that store—way down yonder in Crystal City—is set to close in March. Kmart’s corporate parent, Sears (which even had that tall building in Chicago named after it), has been wheezing and coughing for years, and by the end of the first quarter its last outpost in the StL will be in St. Charles County, at Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters. You’d think with all those saints lined up … what’s the patron saint of floundering retail, anyhow? Well, listening to the slow death knell of retail has been kind of like watching a long quick-draw contest, with Walmart, Amazon et al. armed with howitzers while traditional outlets like shopping malls hold a solitary six-shooter that ran out of ammunition ages ago. It’s not pretty for stores that don’t have a robust online presence. You even can get a Big Mac or Happy Meal delivered to your door. So why take the chance of standing in line behind one of the ‘Walmart Weirdos’ you see all over the Internet, when overnight home delivery is just a click or two away? Yes, as we’ve said before, we’re living in a post-retail world where it’s metamorphosis or certain death.

richmond heights
On the last day of the year, after a lot of rain but not even close to the worst December soaking we’ve had recently—flooding closed down the holiday light show at Tilles Park a few years back—a section of shoulder on the Hanley Road entrance ramp to I-64 (Highway ‘Farty’) collapsed. Wet earth slid toward The Heights, Richmond Heights’ rec center. No one was hurt, and MoDOT was on the scene almost immediately to survey the situation in hopes of alleviating the possibility of more damage. It causes alarmists to wonder why this hasn’t happened sooner and when it might elsewhere, in light of the bonus reportedly awarded to contractors for swift completion of the highway renovation project almost a decade ago.

The inaugural Gateway Outdoor Summit is slated for Jan. 11 at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel. The get-together will explore how St. Louis can be more proactive in creating access to outdoor recreation for all citizens and leverage it for the benefit of the regional economy. That, taken from a news release, is quite a mouthful. The first problem we see about this event focused on the outdoors is that it’s being held indoors. OK; no biggie. It is January, after all. At any rate, what with committed organizations like Bike St. Louis and the Great Rivers Greenway District as two strong spokes in the wheel, the Lou is off to a ‘wheely’ great start. The first installment of this event, held as part of an expanded Mississippi Valley Bike + Outdoor Expo weekend, will bring together local and national leaders who are building community outdoors. The keynote speaker will be St. Louis native Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Benitez, who has climbed Mount Everest six times, serves as an advocate for Colorado’s bustling outdoor industry. (Ski much?) We’re curious to see what develops and hope the summit gets bigger over the years. Maybe not as big as all outdoors, because that would be pretty big. This is just the first one. Slated to run from 1:30 to 7:30 p.m., the event is free, but registration is recommended. When you visit the website, click on the green button at top right:
How often do you get to run alongside a penguin, even one that looks suspiciously like a human in a Fredbird getup? Well, do it while you can. Your great-grandchildren might not be able to join the Annual Run with the Penguins in Antarctica if the polar ice caps continue to melt. OK, we’re pretty sure that’s not a thing … yet. Maybe some ruthless promoter like Mark Burnett—the Trump whisperer and chief party responsible for televised reality spectacles that started with Survivor— can get one started, and somebody even can build a casino there that can go bankrupt. Do I digress? Well, of course. But don’t go away! There’s some actual news here: Join the St. Louis Triathlon Club in U. City’s Delmar Loop for the 13th Annual Frozen Buns Run. Members encourage you to come out on Jan. 19 and aim for a new 5K or 10K personal best! Or, you can reboot your New Year’s resolution in February like the rest of us. Since you had a cigarette hangover on New Year’s Day, you can start trying to quit for good again next month. But that’s kind of not the point right now. There’s this opportunity to start running in 2019—a 5K (I know, right?) or 10K (over my dead body). Bring the whole family to run or watch, as the event coincides with the annual Loop Ice Festival that supports local businesses. The race is known for its awesome party at the finish line, complete with goodies, music and an award ceremony at Blueberry Hill.

notable neighbor: south st. louis
Sally Topping started her career as an attorney, a role she played for 23 years. She was hired to argue with people, which we understand is what lawyers do much of the time. Now, she is president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420, and an aptitude for holding strong positions should serve her well. But why’d she give up lawyering? She practiced family law, where outcomes can be discouraging and often heartbreaking. “After a while, I realized I was getting jaded,” she says. So she earned a teaching certificate and started working with first- and second-graders where she believed she would be needed most: in the city. Since January 2009, she has seen first-hand the challenges that kids, families and fellow teachers face. The situation was much less hopeful than the adage ‘Each one, teach one’ would lead you to believe. But Topping felt her skill set would be suited to the bigger picture. She knew that the last raise for teachers had been a long time coming; professionals in the 3,000-member bargaining unit had waited seven years. Now, her sights are set on 2020 and the next contract between the union and the district, a negotiation she says is “gonna be a big fight.”

Topping is looking forward to lacing up the gloves and coaching members as 2019 unfolds. It comes as no surprise that there’s a chasm between city teachers’ earnings and the salaries of their county counterparts. Also, Topping says there is no rhyme or reason to the salary ‘steps’ relating to a teacher’s level of education, years of service and so on. She points out a number of discrepancies in a salary document: For instance, a teacher with a master’s degree is making $10,000 less than one with a bachelor’s. This person is not just an outlier; such wide differences are all over the public document. Salary is one thing, but reasonable, firm goals are another. Teachers must have a reliable sense of what they’ll make at the next career step because it affects retention. “If it keeps going on like this, we’ll end up with a workforce that stays a year and then leaves,” she notes. “The kids deserve better.” She’d been at Herzog Elementary in North City long enough for a former student to come back for a visit. Unfortunately, Topping was the only one of the girl’s teachers who remained. “I don’t think people understand how important it is for teachers to stay,” Topping says. “Our population’s lives are so unstable.” An educator who sticks around can get to know a particular family’s challenges, and in North St. Louis, they’re legion. For one thing, 20 to 30 percent of the kids are homeless. But Topping feels like she’s talking to a brick wall whenever she raises these issues with the district. It’s daunting, she acknowledges, but it’s also an honor to serve. “I love my members,” she says. “I’ve been given an opportunity that so few people have. It’s a privilege to represent these employees.”