St. Louis Cabbies: Frontlines of the American Dream

Over the last few days as the discussion over Uber and Lyft in St. Louis has raged on there has been one aspect of the conversation that has troubled me more than any other. What is that you may ask? Is it the Ayn Rand economics? The elitism? The anti working-class bias? The illegality? Sure, all of those things bother me; but more than anything I am bothered by the outright attacks on the character and nature of cab drivers. Instead of me writing a piece examining the veiled racism  and outright classism prevalent in these attacks allow me to tell you who St. Louis cabbies are.

First off allow me to paint a picture of St. Louis cabbies by dividing them into three categories; downtown drivers, airport drivers and fleet drivers.

The downtown drivers you will see in the day parked outside of hotels, America’s Center, the Gateway Station, the Lumiere Casino and other places are what is referred to as “dummy cab drivers”. Dummy doesn’t refer to the intelligence of the driver it refers to the fact the cabs are not computer or radio dispatched. At night you will see these drivers pickup up flaggers outside of nightlife hot-spots like Washington Ave, Laclede’s Landing, Ballpark Village, Soulard, The Grove and the Central West End to a lesser extent.

Most dummy cab drivers are immigrant drivers. Of course that’s not a bad thing. Unless you’re a Native American all of our ancestors came from somewhere else. America is a nation of immigrants and in many respects cab driving is a profession dominated by immigrants.

The dummy drivers downtown mostly come from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq and to a lesser extent South Asia.

In 1990 Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre was deposed from power by a coalition of clan-based militias.  What ensued was chaos and violence that led to a man-made famine. Around 1992 and 1993 refugees began arriving to St. Louis from Somalia. Initially most were settled in apartments  on Hickory Street between South Jefferson and Ohio. In recent years we have seen a waive of refugees from Somalia from the oppressed Bantu ethnic group.

In both cases Somalis in St. Louis have gravitated towards becoming cabbies. The earnings from driving cabs has allowed drivers to move from Hickory Street, buy homes and provide lives for their families they couldn’t have dreamed of in Somalia.

Ethiopians and Eritreans began immigrating to St. Louis in the 1980’s around the time of another man-made famine and brutal war between the two nations.  Like the Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans have spread out from their initial enclave in near south city and have become homeowners, their children are going to college, they have opened churches, pray in local mosques and can now be found all over the St. Louis metropolitan region.

Iraqi refugees, Shia from the South and Kurds from the north, began arriving to St. Louis after the first Gulf War and settled in south city.  Kurds faced genocide in Iraq and the Shia faced brutal repression under President Saddam Hussein. Later, after the Second Gulf War and American-led invasion St. Louis received more refugees fleeing the chaos and carnage resulting in the invasion and subsequent civil-war.  Many of these drivers started in cabs and ended up owning businesses. Some still drive.

The airport drivers also contain a lot of East Africans. However, there are also a number of Russians and drivers from the former Soviet Union at the airport. These drivers fled the poverty and chaos that ensued after the end of the Soviet Union. In St. Louis they’ve made good lives for their families driving cabs. Many have settled in the University City-Olivette area.

Not only do all of these immigrant drivers contribute to the fabric of St. Louis life and add flavor to a city that can sometimes be bland; but their earnings also feed many hungry mouths back home during times of hardship.

The third category of drivers are fleet drivers like me. We drive for the large cab companies that are computer-dispatched and cover the entire metropolitan area. Laclede Cab, County-Yellow Cab, Checker-ABC Cab and the Car Service based in West County. While there are many Nigerians and other immigrants driving for fleets the majority of drivers are not immigrants.

The non-immigrant St. Louis drivers are good for the fleet-services because unlike downtown drivers and airport drivers you have to be willing to work the entire metro area and know the area very well. It takes a greater level of knowledge and this knowledge may take some time to acquire.

There is a large percentage of African-Americans among fleet-drivers and there is also a significant number of white American drivers. Its a diverse profession. A profession which attracts unique individuals from a variety of backgrounds. In other words as cabbies we serve all of the St. Louis area and we look like the St. Louis area. We don’t just live and work in a handful of trendy neighborhoods. You can find us working and living in all parts of the St. Louis area.

Driving a cab in St. Louis is a tradition. My grandfather drove a cab in the 1950’s while living in north St. Louis. Unfortunately, it is also a profession which many have given their lives for over the years. This includes a driver I knew being robbed and murdered the same day my daughter was born five years ago.

Are there bad apples in every barrel? Of course there is and that’s why we have the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission and supervisors and management at companies. Serious men and women for a serious job. Why would you choose non-regulated unlicensed drivers working for a Walmartization service over these dedicated men and women?