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Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Downtown Drive-By

Some fools shot at us downtown tonight -- with a paintball gun!

Tonight was the last day of the year when the Gateway Arch was on summer hours and thus open until 10:00 p.m. We joined a friend for trip to the top at night, since none of us had been for years and were excited to see the city from above in its nighttime glory. (It's a great view that can inspire even the most demoralized urbanist to love the city, and splendid at night before the horrid floodlights that illuminate the Arch come on -- I recommend taking a trip.) Afterwards, we trekked down to the river for awhile and then walked back to our friend's vehicle.

After crossing 4th Street on Chestnut, in front of the Old Courthouse, a car careened by and one of its occupants fired two shots at us. Quickly we realized that we were hit with some sort of oily pellets that left bruises on our bodies -- no one got hit in the face or head -- and stains on our clothes. The reports of the gun were so powerful that it could have been a .22 for all we knew. In the confusion, we did not get a good look at the car but did note that it was a silver car with Illinois plates. I shouted loudly but did not chase the car, fearing getting fired upon.

Of the three people standing in front of the Adam's Mark Hotel, only one man began walking toward us. No car deivers slowed down or stopped. Two tourists barely looked at us, and then boarded a casion bus that came for them. The man who approached us turned out to be a homless man whom we see frequently around downtown. He asked what happened.

While he was walking, at 10:22 p.m., I called 911 and dealt with a dispatcher who seemed annoyed that I wanted to report the incident. Since we were at the corner of 4th and Chestnut in the heart of downtown's tourist ghetto, we had nowhere to see shelter. On one corner stands the Adam's Mark Hotel, which lacks many windows on the ground floor; one another, an empty park; on another, where we stood, the Old Courthouse; and on the fourt corner stands the banal one-story portion of the Bank of America Tower, which has windows but no storefront uses, openings or meaningful connection with the sidewalk. There is not a single store or indoor public space at this corner, making it an ugly and potentially unsafe spot to be at night. Had there been a 24-hour convenience mart or donut shop, or even a bar, someone would have seen the incident better and we could have had a witness. Alas, this corner joins many others downtown as one that remains dark and silent at night and bright and silent in the daytime.

By the way: there is no metered parking on this block, as all parking is completely reserved for taxicabs 24 hours a day, even though few cabs park there after 9:00 p.m. most nights. Note to the dumbass who approved this cab-only zone: A row of cars would have protected us.

The slow response time of police helped, though: the car returned, its now-describable occupants laughing at us and its license plate revealed. They did not fire again. At 10:36 p.m., I called 911 again -- no officer had arrived. Two toursits walked by on the opposite side of the street and stared but said nothing. A homeless woman approached us, asked what had ahppened, and then flagged down a passing police officer on a bike -- who was indeed coming to answer the call. We began speaking to the officer at about 10:40 p.m., 18 minutes after making the report.

Fortunately, the officer who responded treated us with respect and pledged to file a report of assault. We appreciated her demeanor and felt better about our night. The bicycle-based officers are much more accessible in case of emergency -- they can hear your shouts and see your face.

After filing the report, we walked two more blocks west on Chestnut. Kiener Plaza appeared dark and unappealing, a perfect place to get jumped at night. This area of downtown east of Broadway -- or maybe east of Sixth Street -- is a horrible place for people to walk. There are few stores, many buildings overscaled and too many street closures (Locust Street between 4th and Broadway being the most recent). Some parts of downtown work better, such as Tenth Street (thanks, Craig Heller!), Washington west of Tucker and some of Olive Street. There are businesses in these areas, with windows at sidewalk level and, most important of all, people to watch the streets who actually care (unlike the guests of the Adam's Mark, apparently). There's even a hugely successful monthly nighttime art gallery walk in part of downtown to encourage street life. It might be hard to pull a drive-by shooting in those areas without finding a witness other than the victims. Something to think about before you design your next empty block of park space or monument to vanity.

After all, some people downtown don't have the relative safety that we had tonight: a nearby vehicle. Transit riders, pedestrians and homeless people adrift in parts of downtown literally have no refuge. Creating nighttime vitality downtown will make it a safer and more fun place to walk.

Pass the ice pack.

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