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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

40 Broadway

In my absence from posting, my St. Louis excursions to blog about kept piling up to the point where the heap became incredibly intimidating. While they continue to accumulate, I thought I'd take a night off and post about one of the more recent ones--my trip to Badenfest, in North City, via the #40 Broadway bus.

St. Louis has plenty of amazing bus lines--ones that casually weave through our city's storied urban fabric and allow a passenger a finer look into our city than if he is driving himself. Take the #73 Carondelet, for instance, which offers glimpses into Lafayette Square, Benton Park, Dutchtown, and, of course, Carondelet.

Besides a short a jaunt over to the Anheuser Busch tourist center, the #40 is not a bus I'd recommend a visitor to our city hop aboard for some sight-seeing. It mostly sticks to Broadway itself, which, north of downtown, can be less than visually stellar. Even so, this is St. Louis, and even the most forlorn and neglected parts of town have an amazing backstory. While Rob Powers can show you each and every surviving house left in this now-mostly industrial district, I can only offer you what's visible from the bus.

Here are a few captures from my bus ride from downtown to the Baden neighborhood in North City.




Now arriving in Baden:


The Baden business district, seen above, is one of the city's most intact and attractive commercial corridors. The wide street made crowds seem a bit sparse at Badenfest this past Saturday, but the mood was lively and the smells wafting from barbecue pits were irresistible.

If you're ever hankering for an adventure on a Saturday or Sunday morning, there's really no better way to do it than to hop on a bus that you don't know very well (or at all!) and see where it takes you. See something interesting? Pull the chord and stop there!

Just as an FYI to all current and potential transit users: Metro is restoring yet more service on August 30. So before I send you to bus schedules, be forewarned that they're nearly all about to change. For more information on Restoration 2010, Round Two, click here. Soon, you'll have less of an excuse not to hop a more frequent bus to exotic parts of our city and region.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The NorthSider

If you visit the city's official website and click the link to its 79 official neighborhoods, you'll witness the digital divide right before your eyes.

Well-to-do and well-known neighborhoods like St. Louis Hills and Soulard have attractive, contemporary websites. Neighborhoods less on the radar are not likely to have much of a web presence. Many of these historic neighborhoods are faced with a city-designed website that dates to the mid-1990s--and hasn't been updated since.

But it's not just a matter of flashiness and neighborhood pride--neighborhood websites can be a great place to disseminate information out to residents. Other than Old North St. Louis, not a single other North Side neighborhood had much in the way of an online presence. Now, several of them have something even better--a neighborhood/ward newspaper that has both a physical and online copy, the NorthSider.

The NorthSider is a project of 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French. The neighborhood newspaper lists its constituent neighborhoods underneath its title: Penrose, O'Fallon, the Greater Ville, Mark Twain, and Kingsway East.

In its first edition are stories regarding the North Side Recreation Center to be constructed in O'Fallon Park:


and new housing on North Newstead:



The NorthSider fills a tremendous gap in coverage of the goings-on and development news across a wide swath of the North Side. South Siders and Central Corridor-ians better take note of the NorthSider's covered neighborhoods--they're true architectural stars of which we should all be proud.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Bright (Green) Future for McRee Town?

Unlike Dotage, the 17th Ward has a fairly regularly updated blog keeping St. Louisans abreast of developments in that section of the city (Central West End, Forest Park Southeast, McRee Town, et cetera).

One of the most exciting bits of news covered by Blog 17 is a newly announced redevelopment plan for the old section of McRee Town not razed for the Botanical Heights development.

On the 4200 block of McRee, Urban Improvement Construction (UIC) has proposed a green redevelopment of nearly the entire block -- 16 historic renovations along with 12 new LEED-certified homes.


Blue buildings are existing, to be rehabilitated; yellow are proposed new construction. Image is courtesy of Blog 17.

Brent Crittenden of UIC and the Central Design Office (CDO) also spoke of UIC/CDO's plans for the corner building at McRee and Tower Grove, located diagonally from their main offices.


While this building has been allowed to degrade over the past years, under the plaster finish that now covers the façade is a glazed brick former Standard Oil station, with white glazed brick and a bright red cornice. We intend to restore this vintage filling station and outfit it as a small corner café. Our hope is that this café will provide some vibrancy to the neighborhood and become a long term icon and meeting place.

To me, this is a great step in the right direction towards revitalizing McRee Town. While I'm quite sure Botanical Heights has stabilized its surrounding neighborhoods, I do wonder if a more sensitive infill-based project like that proposed for the 4200 block of McRee would have been even better. I even like the design philosophy suggested by UIC/CDO:

Maintaining and restoring as much of the historic character of the neighborhood is important to us for many reasons, both culturally and architecturally. Our firm has developed an expertise in the restoration of difficult rehabs and we hope to showcase that ability in this project. On the new units, we plan to build homes that match the proportions and materials of the existing homes, but in a more contemporary design that appeals to a design conscious buyer.

We need more infill housing across the city that walks the fine line between homage and challenge to our architectural heritage.

Below is one of the homes slated for renovation, including facade improvements:

Image courtesy of the City of St. Louis

I have always thought McRee Town to be a sadly and unnecessarily overlooked part of St. Louis; having I-44 and heavy industry as a neighbor on nearly all sides doesn't help too much. That said, this is actually part of the neighborhood's history, having sprung up around the looming Liggett and Myers Tobacco Factory on Park Avenue. Thankfully, the remaining portion of McRee Town is now a historic district under the Liggett & Myers name. I am glad to see it may not be too late to appreciate what's left of this small, but classic south St. Louis neighborhood.

Please check out Blog 17's item on the redevelopment here, which includes the full interview with Brent Crittenden,

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I'm a Cherokee Person

Just last week, I attended the Pecha Kucha night that took place at the Contemporary Art Museum. I saw Mike Glodeck there - proprietor of one of the city's best coffee joints, Foam. We had a brief discussion on what was the next step for Cherokee Street.

Mike mentioned that the street needs more people living on, not just around, it -- more stakeholders, in other words. He's right. Misguided zoning of the modern era sought to make commercial districts businesses alone; corner storefronts only residential; etc. The intermixing of uses and users on the same urban block is the essence of city life. No one street or space belongs to any particular group. It is quintessentially public and shared, whether you're a lifelong resident who lives above the bakery or you're the person stopping in for some fresh-baked bread.

I'm excited to say that, as of today, I'm living on Cherokee Street (Foam is now my neighbor!). What that means for you, dear reader, who has been scratching his or her head wondering what has happened to this blog, is that I will once again have my own space. This blog should return to its normal life shortly. No excuses.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Triangle, Benton Park West

When my parents' neighbors in Bevo announced they were moving and put up a "For Sale" sign, I couldn't help but think perhaps urban life had gotten the best of them. Perhaps I was stereotyping just a bit--she's pregnant, and so I assumed that she was preempting the tough decision ahead when her child reached school age by moving to a better school district now.

To my surprise, she told me she was moving to the "Triangle". I was intrigued that she assumed I would know where this mysterious neighborhood was. At first, I was thinking of the Ivory Triangle in Carondelet/the Patch. Then I figured it out: that wedge of Benton Park West bounded by Arsenal on the south, Jefferson on the east, and Gravois to the northwest, forming a pretty neat triangle. She confirmed this nebulous Near South Side neighborhood to be the same Triangle in which she and her husband were undertaking a four-family rehab!

The Triangle has no shortage of Essential Red Brick St. Louis, but this Second Empire-styled commercial building and its neighbors form one of my favorite street scenes in the area, at Texas and Lynch:




Whether you call it Benton Park West, the Triangle, or something else entirely, this is a neighborhood that St. Louis should be showing off! May many more intrepid pregnant women decide to rehab forlorn homes here!

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Lafayette Square Transformation

St. Louis's Lafayette Square--and specifically the portion fronting the park itself--is one of the city's most immaculate, attractive, and quaint strolls. In 1896, a cyclone destroyed the neighborhood and its namesake park. This photograph shows the damage to the Lafayette Park Presbyterian Church on Missouri (west side of Lafayette Park).


The level of devastation makes it very surprising indeed that so much of the neighborhood was ultimately salvaged and/or rebuilt. Over 100 years later, Park, Mississippi, Lafayette, and Missouri Avenues are collectively one of the city's finest showcases. What gaps remain are now lushly landscaped side yards or future development sites, as much infill activity has occurred on the Square already.

There was one odd sight on the Square, though: a heavily altered church that had a bit of a sore thumb appearance in its particular spot of Park Avenue just east of Benton Place. 2035 Park Avenue, shown below, was originally a two-story historic home hacked away at over time. Perhaps the 1896 Cyclone played a part?


Walking past the site yesterday, there was little indication it had any relation to the building shown above. From the city's Geo St. Louis website, the "after" shot:


While some might argue that this neighborhood's strict historic code has stifled creative urban design, I find historic recreations like that above appropriate for such a self-consciously historic neighborhood. After all, the neighborhood had a choice to rebuild itself in a different fashion after 1896, but it chose to emulate the old then, too. Why should we let a little mid-20th century urban decline have its way with the Square's protected identity? I think 2035 Park looks great!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Is St. Louis Truly Getting Better?

Over at Urban St. Louis forums, there is an excellent discussion afoot regarding whether or not St. Louis has truly turned a corner from its dark days of decline and despair in the latter half of the 20th Century.

The provocateur is a Fortune article from 1985, touting the city’s against-the-odds comeback. St. Louis Centre was “glittering” and Union Station’s shopping was an “extravaganza”. Tax breaks were luring in out-of-town investment and the stars were just finally aligning for the ailing city, according to the article.

Of course, most of the present stock of urban thinkers in St. Louis believes that the 1980s were a bleak time for the city—and that we’re now, even despite a deep recession, on a much better path. Homicide rates were ballooning then, businesses and people leaving, and landmarks were being felled by the day. Yet, the above article is a good demonstration that any city has reason to hope and will do so to survive. Certainly, St. Louis Centre seemed novel at the time, as the largest urban enclosed mall in the nation. With numbers not going the city’s way, I’m sure that a gigantic mall downtown seemed an epinephrine-like injection of confidence in a bleeding downtown.

This might all sound very scarily familiar. No, but things are really different this time! We're really emerging from a half-century slump this time, for sure, right? But what if, in 20 years, Culinaria is closed and the parking garage above sits mostly empty? What if Citygarden of today is the Kiener Plaza of tomorrow? I guess we should all hang our heads low and resign our efforts to improve our city: this incredible spike in reawakening neighborhoods and business districts, daring rehabbers, transit users and supporters, and generally creative civic energy is all a horribly mean and unfair taste of the sky at the top of the Ferris wheel. That sinking feeling is bound to return, and the ground is the only way off the ride.

In other words, our civic energy and collaboration right now is part of a cycle. There have been counterparts to each of us in the past—exact replicas in their passion and dedication to their city. Today, these same people are our harshest and most cynical critics, their own efforts having been shot down long ago under eerily similar circumstances. Or so they say.

I simply have to believe that it's not true. While some St. Louis boosterism is the work of naïve idealists, I say more power to them (to us, I should say!). Naïve idealists approach situations with an air of possibility; their critics tout a bitter “reality”. Truly, though, their very faith in such a reality helps to preserve it.

We need a special kind of idealism in the city.

We don’t need someone who’s so confident that a “glistening” mall downtown will save it that we don’t have a meaningful discussion of what a mall might do to an urban retail environment. We need an open civic dialogue to direct a constant stream of ideas to their proper source for refinement, as well as for enactment. We need great efforts at organizing motivated St. Louisans, such as UrbanSTL or City to River. We need to be aware of what challenges exists in our extant political and cultural structure, but also play selective amnesiacs when we hear “I told you so”. It’s a damning statement designed to punish people for taking a risk—and that’s the opposite of what we should be doing in St. Louis. 

The brand of idealism we need is the kind that generates ideas, endeavors to situate them in their proper context, and the kind that rejects the word “failure” outright. To stumble is to learn how to walk gracefully.

What is going on in St. Louis right now is nothing short of spectacular, and, I believe, largely irreversible if we continue on the same track. Note that conditional statement; it’s going to take sustained work to address all of our systemic issues. But, as with any person who entered long years of physical and social decline, the city of St. Louis needs first to learn to love itself again. It needs that shot in the arm. And I’m here, with hundreds of others of you reading now, to administer that shot. That's the stage we're in right now.

This is a place of tremendous character—one that develops only out of a unique struggle, a wear and tear, a patina. To deflect any criticism that we’re just the next generation of urban dwellers destined for disappointment, we must help fashion a place from which one can’t help but derive excitement, passion, and purpose in life. We can start by--we have started by--trumpeting this very special place to everyone we meet; by opening shops and restaurants and supporting the unique local ones that already exist; by doing our best to not just be tolerant of but inviting to people who are different; by better marketing our assets and developing honest and open solutions to our oft-mentioned problems.

I know this is the touchy-feel realm I'm in right now. And it's also vague. But I think many readers will know how to interpret these broad statements. I just have a terrible feeling that the moment we start to believe that we even have the option to let all of this great momentum slip away, it will. Let's stay positive, focused, and do what's right for our city no matter who's declaring the odds of success.

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