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Taking it to the streets: 2012 Open Streets concludes with Southwest Garden

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2012 - The latest incarnation of St. Louis' Open Streets initiative is coming to the Southwest Garden neighborhood on Sept. 29 from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.

About a mile of street west of Tower Grove Park will be transformed into a participatory urban spectacle of line dancing, ultimate frisbee, zumba and bicycles, supplemented by booths, local businesses and an architectural walking tour of Reber Place

According to Patrick Brown, special assistant to Mayor Francis Slay, Open Streets is a part of St. Louis' efforts to encourage more walkable, bikable and pedestrian-friendly areas. The event aims for a rethinking of the urban environment, promoting a healthy lifestyle and a liberation from the spaces we confine ourselves to according to the hard lines of habit.

"It allows people to be active and explore their city in a safe way, turning streets over to people and not cars," says Brown. 

In its third year, the program has shifted toward a neighborhood-centric model where the neighborhoods themselves spearhead the programming. The previous Open Streets took place in June within the Holly Hills and South Hampton neighborhoods, which went well, Brown says, though fewer people showed up at the acme of the summer's heat wave.  

The slate of programs in 2011 -- the Grove and Old North St. Louis -- had higher levels of participation. Sean Thomas, executive director of Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, remembers the day as an opportunity for people to see the neighborhood in a different light. 

"It's a scale and pace that allows them to see the community and the people up close as opposed to the usual view through the car window."

Aaron Hipp and Amy Eyler, two professors at Washington University's Brown School of Social Work, worked to quantify the results of Open Streets 2011 with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Through their efforts, Brown says, St. Louis can become a a national model for other Open Streets campaigns. Their survey had a range of findings, including that 68 percent of attendees "became aware of a store or restaurant that was new to them." 

Dana Grey, the head of the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association who planned a large share of Saturday's programming, sees the event as something with the potential to break down racial and economic barriers, positioning everyone on the same level: the street. And for her, Open Streets is about getting outside, mentally and physically.

"Social media doesn't make us very social," she said.

Grey relates a story of how two women from the same block didn't know of each other before both expressed an interest in Saturday's architectural tour. Now they have each other's phone number and a common interest. This occurence is central to the ethos of Open Streets, when a block is anything but the same old block.