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Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
It’s hard to know when you’ve left what’s supposed to be the nation’s most dangerous city and entered what’s supposed to be its second-safest. Driving west on I-70, the hotels, shops, and fast-food restaurants of St. Peters seamlessly yield to O’Fallon.
Exit north onto O’Fallon’s Main Street, that city’s historic heart, and you find a decidedly middle-class community, with churches interspersed among gas stations, convenience stores, and bars. Poke around in its cul-de-sacs, and you come upon small swaths of new, as-yet-unoccupied homes—boxy abodes with vinyl siding and struggling trees. O’Fallon has a few significant employers, including CitiMortgage, on Technology Drive, and MasterCard’s Operations Center, on MasterCard Boulevard, but the traffic still thickens noticeably heading east on I-70 on weekday mornings and west in the evenings. In large part, this is a burgeoning bedroom community.
Once it was a village, essentially, a small railroad town laid out in 1855 and named for the North Missouri Railroad’s first director. John O’Fallon, who also gave his name to the city of O’Fallon in Illinois and St. Louis’ O’Fallon Park, was a nephew of William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition. O’Fallon fought in the War of 1812, and in time, through supplying the Army and later running railroads, he became the wealthiest man in St. Louis.
His namesake settlement in Missouri was relatively quiet for the next 135 years, rising to about 19,000 residents by 1990. And then the area’s latest wave of westward expansion hit, transforming an exurban outpost into the second-most-populous city in the St. Louis metro area. Today, it even boasts its own minor-league baseball team, the River City Rascals. The team plays at T.R. Hughes Ballpark, located off of an avenue at the north end of O’Fallon named for Tom Ginnever (pronounced jin-ev-er), who owned an O’Fallon appliance store and served as a scoutmaster and on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. He died in 1979.
“Dad always thought there should be a major east-west road on the north end of town,” his son, Tom Ginnever Jr., told the O’Fallon Community News in 2003.
He recalled telling his father that he wished O’Fallon would stay the way it was.
“It can’t,” he said his father replied. “It has to grow. If it doesn’t, it will just be a little spot in the road with a bunch of big towns around it.”
With growth comes attention. In November, CQ Press published its City Crime Rankings 2010–2011, encompassing 400 U.S. cities, based on 2009 data. It ranked St. Louis highest. Less noticed in the area was O’Fallon’s ranking: No. 399.
O’Fallon’s citizens may be safer overall than, say, some folks in downtown St. Louis, but the same is likely true of the residents of Dardenne Prairie, Cottleville, and Maryland Heights—all of which are too small to make CQ’s list. Only cities with populations of at least 75,000 qualified.
O’Fallon now has 78,192 inhabitants, according to the last census estimate—“and I’m guessing that it’s actually 79,000,” says Tom Drabelle, O’Fallon’s director of public relations.
On the one hand, Drabelle is proud of the city’s relatively low crime ranking. “What it does is prove everything we know and believe and our residents work for every day,” he says. On the other hand, he can’t take pleasure in seeing O’Fallon’s ranking come at the expense of the city at the other end of the list, because the two are so closely connected. In that way, the relationship between the two cities’ rankings may be more like a circle or Möbius strip than a straight line.
Drabelle, for example, lives in St. Peters and commutes to O’Fallon, a trip of less than a mile, yet he estimates that he still travels into the city of St. Louis at least 50 days a year for shopping and sporting events, among other things. “All of greater St. Louis is dependent on the welfare of this greater metropolitan area,” he says. “And we consider ourselves to be an integral part of it.”
O’Fallon Chief of Police Roy Joachimstaler is also proud of the city’s low crime ranking—“Yes, oh yes,” he says—but he’s equally insistent that O’Fallon is not a place apart. And he should know.
Joachimstaler, 59, grew up in north St. Louis—“in an urban environment,” he says, “but you had a sense of neighborhood.” He was the youngest of three sons; his older brothers, Don and Kurt, became cops with the Los Angeles Police Department. Naturally, Roy wanted to be a policeman, too.
He graduated from DeAndreas High School in June 1969. That November, he started as a St. Louis Metropolitan Police cadet. For the next 27 years, he helped police the North Side, first as a rookie in a patrol car, then as a detective, a lieutenant, and a watch commander.
In 1996, he assumed command of the South Patrol Division. He became deputy chief in 2003 and chief of detectives four years later. Then he retired from the force, at the beginning of 2008, because, he says, owing to a poor economy, the longer he stayed, the worse his pension was going to be. “We were losing by going to work,” he says, speaking in his O’Fallon office. “I didn’t want to retire from down there, but I couldn’t lose that money that I’d spent all those years building up.”
He retired home to Spanish Lake. “I read,” he says. “It was nice, reading, but I got bored.”
In late 2008, Joachimstaler was picked to preside over O’Fallon’s 107-member force. (There had been about 1,340 officers in the St. Louis police department when he left.)
Asked to compare the two places, in light of the CQ rankings, he says, “It’s really unfair to those guys down there to compare O’Fallon and St. Louis.” He repeats that several times for emphasis. “It’s two different environments—just the population density, the multifamily dwellings there and the single-family dwellings here, the very dense, urban population compared to a suburban area.
“Look, if somebody says that O’Fallon is the worst-looking city in the whole metropolitan area and the city of St. Louis has got the most beautiful buildings, is that fair, to compare O’Fallon and the city of St. Louis in their architecture?” he adds. “No, it isn’t.”
There are other differences.
According to census data, O’Fallon is overwhelmingly white, ranging from 90 to 95 percent in its core area—not unlike much of the St. Louis metropolitan area’s western side. In the city of St. Louis, you find a far more diverse population, with some census tracts that are 73 percent white next to ones that are 2 percent white. The percentage of households earning less than $30,000 a year averages in the low teens in O’Fallon; in parts of St. Louis city, that number approaches 80 percent. Even in the greater St. Louis area, you’re likely to find households earning more than $100,000 a year and less than $25,000—sometimes not that far from one another. In O’Fallon, you’re more likely to find swaths of median household income in the mid-$60,000 range.
As for Joachimstaler, he still lives in Spanish Lake, though he says his wife is looking for a home for them in O’Fallon. In the meantime, he’s commuting across greater St. Louis.
Does O’Fallon remind him of Spanish Lake?
“Yes,” he says, “because it’s mostly single-family dwellings, the same way with north St. Louis County. And when I go to these community meetings here, it seems like a lot of the people who used to live in North County now live here. The sense of community seems similar. However, they also have a sense of community down there in the city of St. Louis, in the various neighborhoods.
“My experience is that there are neighborhoods down there that are just as safe as any neighborhood in the United States, because people don’t allow crime to occur,” he continues. “And that’s what I see out here. Everybody’s concerned about their safety, especially for their kids. Everybody wants to live in a safe community.”
The difference in policing the two areas is partly one of volume, he says. “There are still policing issues out here, like larcenies. Besides the violent crime that we don’t have, we still have a number of things that we have to stay on top of, like thefts and burglaries, car thefts, and thefts from vehicles.”
St. Louis, he adds, “is not the most dangerous city in America. There might be specific neighborhoods there, but if you want to boil it down like that, you could see a lot of larcenies out here occurring along Highway K and say, ‘Boy, it looks like there’s a lot of people that get their things stolen up here.’ Well, you’ve got to look at that. You can’t just base it on numbers. Because there are no residents along Highway K—it’s all businesses. So a lot of those numbers are shoplifting…
“When it comes to violence, the random-type thing, the stranger, whether it’s in O’Fallon or the city of St. Louis, that’s really unusual,” he says. “And here’s another thing, in looking at these crime statistics: We’re not above the same type of problems as St. Louis, especially when it comes to domestic disturbances. A lot of that has to do with the economy and people not getting along. When you’re looking at larcenies here, what you’re looking at is shoplifting and gas drive-offs. I just noticed gas is like $2.99 now. We’re going to have more gas drive-offs.”
There was a time in the 19th century when you would not have needed a good arm to throw a rock from Laclede’s Landing into untamed woods. In the last part of the 20th century, however, St. Louis spread like drops of ink on tissue paper, eventually engulfing towns and villages such as O’Fallon. Yet that outer growth—into suburbs, and then exurbs—wouldn’t be possible without the hub.
“We’re part of the city,” Joachimstaler says.
Drabelle, who’s paid to promote O’Fallon, briefly left the U.S. a few years ago when he went to Mexico on his honeymoon.
And when people asked where he was from?
“I said St. Louis,” he says, chuckling, “or Missouri.”