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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wrong! Tower Grove East takes a punch; the Ville ducks one.

Earlier this year, I posted about the unique St. Louis architectural style: the free-standing flounder house. Specifically, the one located at 2915 Minnesota (see below) that Kacie Starr Triplett (6th Ward) wanted demolished.

I made the a prediction in the post that the Flounder house would be saved. Testimony regarding the rarity of these structures in the city, the house's potential to be affordable housing (due to its diminutive size) in a continuously improving neighborhood, etc. would certainly render it safe I thought.

Not so. The Preservation Board approved the demolition 4-2.

Terry Kennedy (18th Ward) was one of those in favor of demolition.

Again, I emailed him. Here is what he had to say:

The overwhelming testimony from the citizens on that block and surrounding community was for demolition. The board heard story after story of the horrors and safety issues living around and near the building. Several of these citizens asked how much longer, after seven years waiting, will they have to wait until this building is demo. The testimony also said this building was extensively marketed as a part of the rehab arama in the area and no buyer and/or developer had come forward. Still further, the proforma presented to the board indicated that it was not cost effective for renovation. There was no real, factual information presented to the contrary. There were two proforma both of which indicating that it was not cost effective. From my recollection, the board was also told that no developer had come forward or would come forward to do the rehab with out large amounts of public funds which was not reasonable.

Quite ironically, my earlier post used the Ville as an example of a neighborhood for which preservation interests were simply not strong enough. But in the latest Preservation Board meeting, it was the Ville's history that was spared and not Tower Grove East's, as I had predicted.

That's right. The demolition of 4568 St. Ferdinand (see earlier post on that as well) was denied.

Are we so shortsighted as to demolish our derelict buildings (rather than secure them; institute a block or neighborhood watch; aggressively market them) when those buildings are rare contributors to our historic built environment?

I can't help but think despite Alderman Kennedy's words that there's a better solution.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

State of the City 2008

Mayor Slay delivered his State of the City address on April 25, 2008.

Conspicuously absent topics?

Blairmont. What's coming?

Transit. What's next?

Pyramid. What now?

That the Mayor has made only one official reference to Paul McKee Jr. and Blairmont is simply inexcusable. This is an issue that deserves attention.

We all know, however, that when Mr. McKee announces Winghaven East on top of St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou, it will contain townhouse units urban enough to win the mayor's support. He'll be nothing but shocked when the development is announced, of course, because he knows nothing of McKee's plans for over 600 parcels in north St. Louis (which qualify for the new Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit).

We all know that when the city sells the former Pruitt-Igoe site to McKee for a NorthPark East, city officials including the Mayor himself will be tickled at all of the new jobs brought to the city in this traditional industrial park layout.

Why not take this opportunity, Mr. Slay, to ease our minds and let us know what is ultimately planned to subsume over a century's worthy of architectural heritage?

Or when/if we'll see a new Metrolink expansion? Or what will happen with that damned Skybridge at St. Louis Centre!?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Blairmont in St. Louis Place

I continued with my mapping endeavor last night. Here is a series of blocks in St. Louis Place, along St. Louis Place Park.


Red = Blairmont Properties

Blue = LRA/LCRA Properties

Gray = Private Properties

White = Not done yet

See my other attempt here. Again, this was chosen at random.

When you consider how much LRA-vacant land is owned in combination with Blairmont's holdings, the possibilities are frightening.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Another attempted Ville demolition. Alderman Moore should go.

Jesus Christ Temple of Deliverance, in the city's Ville neighborhood, wishes to demolish the historic building below.

For what reason, you ask? To provide the neighborhood with more green space.

The Cultural Resources Office Report recommends denial of the application to demolish the building at 4568 St. Ferdinand. Kate Shea says that the denial of the request comes in light of a National Register survey being conducted in the neighborhood that is expected to see a 2010 completion. Read the full report here.

The Ville has seen such rampant demolition as of late that it is a wonder anything is left. I'll bet that the National Register of Historic Places is considering booting the Ville Historic District due to too much sacrifice of contributing resources.

Let's see.

Those are merely the demolitions that Ecology of Absence has covered; there may be several more.

I wonder if Sam Moore understands that the Ville, the city's onetime premiere African American mecca, will never recover if the neighborhood sees much more of this so called "green space". The last time I checked, very few people seem to relate to a vacant lot on a city block as green space. Sam Moore should block this demolition outright. What are the chances of that, given the history above?

Let's check out the green space the Ville already has to offer.

I didn't even include official green space, such as Tandy Park in the above all-too-easy photo showcase.

Moore's toll on the neighborhood has been devestating. Certainly, vacant structures can be a horrific nuisance. But the Alderman should be working with his constituents to develop a preservation strategy for the neighborhood, highlighting how a historic structure is an investment opportunity, housing a potential income-earning and tax-paying neighbor. But in St. Louis, voters reward the role of the watchdog alderman who does less to develop the neighborhood than to add another layer of policing and ordinance enforcement. See the South Side's Craig Schmid as another example.

Consider, though, the Ville's rich history as the locus of African American upward mobility, culture, and talent, along with its architectural acumen. The Ville is a special case and needs special leadership. It deserves better than this "green space". Unfortunately, it has an alderman more concerned with "Smart Shrink" Youngstown, Ohio-style than making the Ville a sustainable investment once again.

Part of such a strategy involves historic rehabilitation, creative financing, and forging a relationship with constituents that inspires hope for change and growth, not fear of vacant buildings and retrenchment.

And it's not just Moore. If St. Louis's structure of government did not allot so much power to alderpersons, we might see a more citywide vision for redeveloping distressed parts of north St. Louis. Instead, parochialism continues with free reign, further damaging neighborhoods already starved for resources.

The Ville's odds of recovery were already low. With Moore, it will be impossible. Alderman Moore should be recalled.

My cry for attention to the National Trust re: Blairmont

I wrote the following to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's online blog, where anyone can submit an (approved) article for publication on the site. I posted a long entry regarding the Blairmont situation in north St. Louis.

I think it is important to attract more attention to Blairmont's activities than we've currently seen. One St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Riverfront Times article each just isn't enough. There needs to be constant coverage--the kind you'll find in painful overbundance in Built St. Louis's ongoing "Daily Dose of Blairmont" posts.

Here is a snippet of the article I posted. I correct a typo or two along the way (Oops! Must have been a bit too fired up! Hopefully they'll contact me to publish it and will let me do a couple edits).

The St. Louis Place, JeffVanderLou, Hyde Park, and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods lose historic structures by the day at this point. These neighborhoods' recovery is contingent upon retaining such inimitable architecture. Old North St. Louis, for one, is something of a preservation showcase. Severely abandoned and dilapidated, the neighborhood suffered the worst of suburbanization and deindustrialization. The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, however, has fueled a remarkable turnaround. Now, circa 1870s German vernacular rowhouses are being renovated. On one block, a commercial row is being converted back to a through street after an ill-conceived 1970s-era scheme that turned the street into a pedestrian mall.

Blairmont has bought into this tight-knit neighborhood with disastrous results. Mysteriously accelerated decay, removed boards, damaged rear corners, windows left open to the elements or removed altogether are the identifying features of a Blairmont property. Surely, McKee's demolition by neglect (and by BobCat) are threatening the future of a neighborhood with an admirable grassroots effort to revive itself.

The other neighborhoods involved are much worse off. St. Louis Place is home to a large swath of land that has already witnessed wholesale clearance. Likewise, JeffVanderLou contains many vacant buildings and those who remain in the occupied units are often extremely impoverished.

Nevertheless, it is vital that these neighborhoods' built environments be rescued from the clutches of a secretive and destructive developer. McKee's wealth and development experience should be working to benefit the neighborhoods involved, bringing in much needed investment, new residents, and jobs. Instead, historic buildings are being lost and, along with them, the heritage of once dense and vibrant urban neighborhoods. Whether a limestone faced three-story row house or a modest turn-of-the-century red brick shotgun, north St. Louis has a more than worthy architectural heritage. It should be spared such an ignoble demise, especially considering that the decline of the Rustbelt has taken its toll on these neighborhoods for nearly a half-century already.

I urge you to show your support for St. Louis's North Side and contact anyone you believe could care enough to make a difference.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Blairmont Footprint Map

I wanted to take a stab at mapping the acquisitions of Blairmont. I just did two blocks at random to demonstrate how the project might look.

Location: 22xx Block of St. Louis, 22xx Block of Montgomery, 23xx Block of St. Louis, 23xx Block of Montgomery.

The faint gray is private property.

The blue is LRA/LCRA property.

The red is Blairmont (LLCs include Blairmont, MLK 3000, Dodier Investors, etc.).

(And, by the way, the white is stuff I didn't get to yet!)

And here is a bolder colored image.

As you can see, they have yet to unleash their full onslaught on the intact and large homes of St. Louis Avenue (though they've started), but the vulnerable and significantly vacant inner portions of St. Louis Place are disintegrating at an ever more rapid pace with Blairmont as their steward. Blairmont is already expanding St. Louis's most notorious "urban prairie" centered around North 22nd and Market.

This was my first attempt. There will be more to follow.

Stay posted.

Take Action:

By the way, please call McKee to express your concern.

McEagle Realty
1001 Boardwalk Springs Place
O'Fallon, Missouri 63368

Built St. Louis has an excellent list of contacts that you might want to look at as well.

Visit Stellina Pasta.

For the first of my small business spotlights, I wanted to tell you about Stellina Pasta. First, the facts.

Business: Stellina Pasta
Category: Restaurant
Sub-category: Pasta/Italian
Neighborhood: Lindenwood
Location: 3342 Watson Road., St. Louis, MO 63139
Contact: 314-256-1600
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11am - 9pm
Amenable to: casual dates, a small office lunch outing, organic food freaks, meatlovers and vegetarians alike, basically anything other than a large group of people
Prices: $10-15 per head, post-tip

Stellina Pasta ("little star") is one of the coziest dining spots in St. Louis. I have to admit, its location is not all that exciting to me. Sure the growing presence of "yuppy" types in the Lindenwood/St. Louis Hills area seem to drift in and out, snagging seats with unsuspecting neighbors and generating casual chat like the best of urbanites--but something about its location on Watson (which I usually associate with St. Louis County's much longer stretch of the road of the same name) almost kept me from trying this place out. When I think of new and exciting places to go in the city, Lindenwood (Park) doesn't typically win out.

I'm glad I was extremely hungry one day while traveling down the pedestrian unfriendly Watson highway that is now, in my opinion, home to two destination restaurants: the ever popular Biggie's and Stellina itself.

Stellina, make no mistake, is tiny.

But as you can see, the storefront is adorable. The large window with the counter facing it is great for a person flying solo and wanting to people/car watch. In nice weather, the patio outside adds a lot more seating.

The interior gives off a bit of that pristine and squeaky clean coffeehouse vibe--again, not my favorite, but the intimate scale of the place, which makes it appear all the more busy, is rare in St. Louis and is appreciated in this context.

With the tin ceiling, my imagination has invented the scenario of this building as a former neighborhood grocery store. Maybe I'll do a bit of research.

What about the food and pricing though?

The food, all organic and handmade, is excellent. I have had several iterations of the pasta, all successful to me. The Hog Wild is my favorite sandwich:

Shaved ham, bacon, granny smith apple, white cheddar, sweet hot mustard on peasant bread, served grilled.

But rotating specials and a host of no-meat items make this place amenable to all foodseekers.

Check out the menu here. Prices are definitely reasonable, with each sandwich falling between the 7 and 9 dollar marks. Pasta, as can be expected, is a bit pricier. Portion sizes are not huge, but are completely appropriate and filling. My only complaint, as a Coke/Pepsi addict, is the lack of a fountain--meaning you must pay for each soda can and glass of ice. Oh well. It's probably for the better.

Next time you think pasta, at least for once, don't think the Hill! Come to Lindenwood and try out Stellina. You will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

That's the Spirit! An impromptu and unofficial "City Walk" occurs in Tower Grove South.

In response to the recent and totally random shooting of postal worker Terry Dean Marcrum in Tower Grove South, neighbors and friends marched to the site of the shooting to announce a presence of a neighborhood that cares. Read the Suburban Journals article here.

Last week, I learned of a program called "City Walks" started here in New Orleans to fight violent crime via sponsored walks through neighborhoods troubled with crime. It seemed an excellent way to unite neighbors behind the cause of securing and feeling pride in their neighborhoods. I asserted that this program would be extremely beneficial to St. Louis.

I am happy to see that one neighborhood did not need any non-profit group to introduce the concept! Congratulations go to Tower Grove South. The article is very uplifting and the fact that these residents took their concern for the neighborhood as a call to action and involvement rather than "voting with their feet" and leaving the neighborhood is commendable.

Again, good job, TGS! Efforts like these seem small, but go a long way toward making St. Louis even more safe, livable, and appreciated by others. The image is from the Suburban Journals story, linked above. And does this make me feel a bit guilty about what I said about the Post-Dispatch in the previous post? I don't know--do the Suburban Journals count as the P-D?

New Mississippi River Bridge Spares Old North; Adds More Lanes Over the Mississippi

Why is it that our local newspaper never attends to urban affairs in the majority of its stories--including ones that could directly relate to such issues?

My mind is on the New Mississippi Bridge right now. A designer for the bridge has been selected, per the P-D story of today. HNTB Corp. of Kansas City, which designed the "Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge" in Cape Girardeau over the same river in 2003, will do the honors. Here is a picture of their work in Cape.

It will be a four lane bridge and should start construction in 2010.

"I think the important thing is for the residents of Illinois that we are moving forward with a plan that will help reduce travel delays faced by the commuters who cross the Mississippi River on a daily basis," said Brooks Brestal of IDOT, a deputy project manager for the new bridge.

Okay. Concern #1: I cannot help but buy into the whole alarmist notion that automobiles will be extinct sooner than we think. With gas prices rising to nearly $3.50 a gallon (at least here in Louisiana), I do wonder if commuters will be looking for cheaper alternatives in the near future. Might an effort to increase mass transit ridership be time better spent? Do we really need this new bridge? Have we not progressed in planning past the point where throwing new lanes to ravenous drivers is seen as a (temporary) panacea to traffic headaches? That's a lot of questions, but I think they're all valid.

Concern #2: What will happen to Old North St. Louis! The lack of reporting on this seems telling of the Post's style of reporting: bland and disinterested in urban issues. Why do I have to go to the new bridge's website (NOT referenced in the online article) to get these details? Luckily, it appears that a chunk of Old North St. Louis won't be sacrificed for the off-ramp, and instead, a ramp onto Cass Avenue was selected instead. Check it out for yourself.

Finally, Concern #3: Any provisions for pedestrians/cyclists on this new bridge, or, since this will be I-70 officially speaking, will we see no such amenities as usual?

Regarding the Post-Dispatch, maybe I'm just being too critical. Ah well. It's finals week, folks! Expect some extra crankiness!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Preservation Week 2008

I am really, really, really upset that I will arrive in St. Louis a week after Preservation Week: May 9, 2008 - May 18, 2008.

I do hope that someone in the St. Louis preservation community will attend some of the fine events that the week will have to offer and that they'll let me know how it all went.

Who doesn't want to attend the Old North St. Louis House and Community Tour?

Or a walk through St. Louis Place guided by none other than Michael Allen?

Or the ribbon-cutting/open house of the Ludwig Lofts downtown?

Count me in, hopefully, for the Saturday, May 17th events: the Central West End House Tour and the Cherokee Street History Fair.

The list of the week's events and other details can be found here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Market Street between 6th and 7th: 1940

I can't kick my HABS habit! Look at Market Street with actual urban-scaled buildings! And adorable lighting. Who'd have thought? Sadly, the Gateway Mall claimed this row; the Gateway One Building is a neighbor to this block now.

Friday, April 18, 2008

My Call to Paul (McKee, Jr.)

[Dials McEagle Properties at 636-561-9300]

Upbeat Woman: McEagle Properties! How may I help you?

Me: I'd like to speak with someone familiar with the Blairmont holdings in north St. Louis City.

Upbeat Woman: I'll put you through to [name spoken too fast]. He's the representative you'll need to speak to.

Me: Okay.

Man: [Says his name, which, again, I miss]

Me: Hi. Do you represent Paul McKee, Jr.?

Man: On some matters, yes.

Me: Well, I am calling in reference to the Blairmont holding companies on the north side of St. Louis. I am an avid reader of Robert Powers' Built St. Louis blog. He has documented some of Mr. McKee's properties every day for nearly the past 50 days now. The pictures show homes that have been brick rustled, demolished by neglect, you name it.

Man: All right. Who is this, if I may ask?

Me: My name is Matt. I'm just a concerned citizen.

Man: That's actually a blog we're not going to comment on at this time.

Me: Is there anyone I could speak to that will offer a comment?

Man: Well, I believe that blog encouraged readers to call the police if they see brick rustlers, which is totally legitimate. We share your concerns.

Me: But is there any way any specific concerns could be addressed?

Man: That is all I can offer you. I thank you for your comments and I will definitely make a note of them.

Me: All right. Thanks for your time.

Note: This was not tape recorded. This is how the conversation went as I recalled. Nothing is an exact quote, though the statement in italics is pretty close, if not exact.

The Gateway Arch vs. St. Louis's long gone Warehouse District

Sure, Laclede's Landing survives as a portion of the 40-some blocks of commercial and manufacturing buildings that used to cling to the riverfront. It'd be great if this remnant were as cherished as it deserved to be; sadly, Laclede's Landing's magnificent stock of buildings has continued to decay despite its "entertainment district" status, and roughly half of the lots in the district are surface parking now.

Take a look at the picture below. This is South Main St., now covered by the depressed section of I-70, as well as Memorial Drive. Walnut is the cross street, as is evident by the street sign in the picture. That means that the Old Cathedral is on the east side of the block that is barely visible. [Edit: Actually, the Old Cathedral is located on what was Third and Walnut, not Main, but this is close nevertheless.]

Sure makes you rethink whether or not the Gateway Arch was a successful urban renewal program. (Yes, I am aware these blocks pictured were torn down in the 1930s, prior to any official "urban renewal" policy. And yes, I am aware they sat as a parking lot until the Arch's construction. So don't quite blame the Arch entirely! Blame the circa 1930s administration who thought these "outmoded" warehouses would never again have a useful function!)

This photo is courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a Depression-era program that put civil engineers and architects to work documenting America's historic buildings, starting in the early 1930s.

Here's a bonus, of North First Street, demolished in 1940.

And N. 1st and Market:

And another view of the same block:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Urban Review's Steve Patterson deems San Luis Apartments "not a good urban building"--and undermines preservation in the process.

Urban Review St. Louis has released its verdict on the San Luis Apartments: not worth saving, but better than a parking lot.

The photo is courtesy of VanishingSTL.

Here is my list of grievances surrounding Patterson's post:

  1. As a respected (and, by local leaders, feared) urbanist, Patterson's commentary is of particular importance in keeping a prominent corner of the Central West End away from the direction of surface parking. On principle, Patterson has opposed modern buildings that are not "urban" and has declared San Luis unworthy of preservation. He has likely solidified an already extant bias against mid-century modern structures (due to their association with urban renewal). In the fight against surface parking for Taylor and Lindell, Patterson has severely diminished morale.
  2. The San Luis Apartments is a unique building. Its massing and materials are appropriate for Lindell's midrise streetscape. Its street level, while obviously not a top-notch urban space, does not compromise the ability of one more temperate with regard to the reality of automobiles in cities to recognize the building is, in fact, urban. On the Urban Review topic's comments section, a reader rightfully pointed out that the turn-of-the-century decadence displayed on Westmoreland and Portland places is not quite "urban", but nevertheless adds to the character of the Central West End.
  3. Even if the Archdiocese sold the land to the city, which issued an RFP, which netted a proposal, how confident would anyone be that the resultant design would be superior to San Luis? It may address the street level issues, but would the bold architectural heritage of the San Luis be respected? I doubt it. If we cannot build "better" (energy efficient, exercise of skilled craftsmanship, etc.) and build to last longer than what we replace, there should be no consideration of demolition.
  4. Patterson demands of those who insist architecture be saved merely for its accurate representation of a popular style during a specific period: please shoot me. He references the dreary track record of 1980s strip malls as an example. This sort of logical fallacy is damaging to preservation. It is not merely representativeness that deems a building worthy of saving; it is also superior design, contribution to streetscape, and how the building attempts to blend into the existing fabric. I would argue that San Luis accomplishes these with success, even if not a stellar example.
  5. This same "it's not urban" argument can be twisted and manipulated. Why not have torn down St. Aloysius on the Hill if significant residential density--urban formatted homes--would replace it? Why the hell not demolish the Doering Mansion for the much more dense arrangement of Mississippi Bluffs Condos? Steve's argument here was not exactly one of density, as I've made it, but it's but another one of the tenets of Jane Jacobs' bible of urbanism that is never to be defied. Why be willing to sacrifice density but be unwavering in opposition to a building whose pedestrian friendliness is under scrutiny?
  6. San Luis can be reformatted as easily as it could be torn down and replaced. Its street level issues could be addressed.
Urban Review--contributing to the rationale for this demolition is contrary to your mission.

Read the New Orleans Chapter of the American Institute of Architects' statement on the San Luis here.

Also, a typically awesome and well-spoken statement by Michael Allen on the former Hotel DeVille, now San Luis.

St. Louis needs to become a "walking city" again if it hopes to reduce crime.

A brilliant presentation in my "Citizen Participation" class inspired me to write this post.

My friend and the presenter in question, Rosie, used a timeless quote from Jane Jacobs' seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal casual enforcement of it has broken down.

What Jacobs means is that, without "eyes on the street" and people that care for (rather than fear) their community, neighborhoods will inevitably decline regardless of police presence. Law enforcement officials cannot replace a social fabric that was designed to offer mutual protection by neighborhood stewardship and vigilance.

One New Orleans group named SilenceisViolence has risen up against that city's crime wave to, to use the apt cliche, "take back the streets". "City Walks" is a program they sponsor in which a group of residents take...:

...weekly evening strolls from one New Orleans neighborhood to another. These walks are intended to nurture connections among neighborhoods, to establish a positive, anti-violence presence on our streets, and to bring new faces to businesses around the city. The City Walks will be held each Sunday evening, with a 7pm departure. We will walk 1-2 miles each week and will have a small reception at our destination establishment. Transportation will be provided back to the departure establishment.

What a simple and completely doable idea this could be for St. Louis. It is positive on so many fronts.

  1. It encourages walking through St. Louis neighborhoods--the very best form of transportation by which to appreciate this beautiful city is the tried-and-tested foot.
  2. It takes people through stigmatized and crime ridden neighborhoods so that residents can both take in the "bad" and appeal to the "good" that the neighborhood has to offer.
  3. It adds activity to neighborhoods that don't often see a wave of meandering pedestrians.
  4. It potentially builds cooperation and trust between neighbors who perhaps were too afraid to leave their homes to speak to one another before.
  5. It links adjacent neighborhoods and teaches residents to recognize that we shouldn't be so damn parochial!

In a city that reported 138 homicides last year such as St. Louis, the City Walks program could only serve to benefit the more forlorn of the city's streets.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

We're not all brick: the Goodfellow-Julian Concrete Block Historic District

These are Missouri's first concrete block houses, all constructed between 1905 and 1906. All of them are on the 1200 block of Goodfellow or the 5700 block of Julian in the City's West End neighborhood.

I would recommend reading the National Register nomination (from whence these pictures came) for some invaluable history about concrete block construction in Missouri and St. Louis.

The pictures are from the late 1980s; at least one of the homes has suffered damage from a fire since. The second photo of the set (of 1200 Goodfellow looking northeast) has lost one of its buildings to demolition, confirmed via Maps.Live.Com's bird's eye view.

Luckily, the row of Concrete homes on Julian looks mostly intact.

Another great historic resource the city should be guarding with all its political might and yet, look at its condition. Then consider that this is a well maintained district in comparison to demolition-happy Ville, Murphy Blair, and Hyde Park. Of course, it's one block, and it's later construction than the majority of the contributing resources to those districts.

The West End has not been totally isolated from the remarkable turnaround of the East Loop just to the south: near whole blocks of new homes have been erected just north of Delmar in the past couple years. While it's nice that a middle class demographic seems interested in the homes, it'd be even nicer if somehow the spirit of the Concrete Block District (its bold new take on homebuilding at the turn of the century) could have graced the new construction of this century. Instead, vaguely "Colonial Revival" styles dot the cityscape.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Why is everything brick?"

That is a quote from a new St. Louisan, as found on this topic on the Urban St. Louis forums.

And it's a valid point. More so than almost any other city, St. Louis's cache of historic homes has a decidedly pronounced bias towards brick.

Fortuitously, the St. Louis Public Library can tell us just why:

Several factors led to St. Louis's brick atmosphere. First was ready availability: St. Louis was underlain by dozens of high-quality clay deposits. Dogtown and the Hill were both neighborhoods shaped by immigrant groups who moved there to work the clay mines.
To put some numbers behind the words:

By 1839, [St. Louis's] brickyards were turning out better than 20 million bricks a year.

Certainly, though, 19th century builders would have wanted to cut costs and avoid masonry construction in a working class area. In many cities, wood frame buildings were common. In St. Louis, though:

In 1849, the steamboat White Cloud caught fire and drifted onto the riverfront wharves; a third of the city was destroyed in the subsequent blaze. A hurriedly-passed local ordinance forbade the construction of wooden buildings, and St. Louis became even more predominantly brick.

I think we're blessed as a city for this ordinance. Sure, some blocks border on monotony at first glance, with almost too bulky rows of ruddiness dominating sometimes intimidating streetscapes. Perhaps a New Orleans inspired splash of color (through frame or stucco/paint) might spice up a couple of these more robust-looking streets.

Really, though, it's those red bricks that scream St. Louis.

I can't tell you how many times I drive through the streets of New Orleans and am simply in awe of the liveliness of the blocks, both in color and human activity, and in architectural diversity as well.

But as my mother, who came to New Orleans for her very first visit back in January, noted of New Orleans: it's pretty, it's eye-popping but it doesn't look as impressive as St. Louis.

I took her words to mean that it seems like St. Louis's brick-laden blocks took more craftsmanship and appear more sturdy and serious than the whimsy of the Crescent City. And so, while New Orleans has one of the most enviable housing stocks in the country, there is something to be said of the presence of St. Louis's brick Victorians and bungalows; their ability to command respect even when they've been allowed to precipitously deteriorate.

Enough on that. I was quite surprised to see that "St. Louis bricks" were not featured on the site of the largest historic brick supplier in the country, Gavin Historical Bricks in Iowa City, Iowa. This company offers several types of salvaged (rustled?) bricks from "towns all over the Midwest."

Sure says a lot about the economy of the Midwest, doesn't it?

Chicago is featured pretty prominently.
These are "Antique Chicago Blended Cobblestones"--

These are "Old Chicago Brick Floor Tile"--

Are these more accurately "Urban Renewal" bricks? Probably.
Lastly, one interested, rather than averse to St. Louis bricks, must check out St. Louis Bricks blog--a catalog of all the interesting masonry acrobatics this fine red (and tan and brown and yellow, etc.) brick city has to offer.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

R.I.P., La Belle Histoire

Another topic I constantly harp on: support our local businesses!

Could someone please supply me with a list of retail establishments in the Soulard neighborhood--often and rightfully considered one of St. Louis's most vibrant and active communities? I'll start.

Let's see. There's Vincent's Market for groceries. There's Pets in the City for the four-legged friends. The Soulard Framery has your framing needs covered. The Porch is a sort of electic gift shop filled with crafts, sundries, and, yes, wine.

And, of course, there's the crown jewel of local commerce of the city--the Soulard Market.

Why do I ask for such a list?

Well, just a month or two ago, it was announced by STL Alamode that Soulard's gypsy store on the corner of South 12th and Victor was closing its doors for good. La Belle Histoire is going out of business, or perhaps already has for all I know sitting here in the University of New Orleans' Earl K. Long Library.

Part of me feels I must merely accept the volatility of local business; how the owners must compete with mall stores that can afford to stay open from 10am until 9pm; how local owners are often in it for the passion and not for the money anyway; how having a small storefront means a smaller inventory and higher prices and how those facts in today's Wal-Mart dependent retail climate tend to doom all but the most dedicated and successful of local entrepreneurs.

But the other part is simply angry. The owner of La Belle--I never got her name despite the dozens of times I shopped for gifts in her one-of-a-kind store--would always lament to me, a face she began to recognize, about how St. Louisans simply prefer their cars and their shopping centers to out-of-the-way, unique local storefronts where the uncertainty of the non-brand name squarely scares most off.

But she's located in Soulard, I always thought. Certainly she was just being a bit hard on her home neighborhood (she lived above the storefront; I wonder if she'll remain after closing up shop), I imagined. Sure she could be making more money in a city that promoted small businesses over, or at least in parity to, the megachains, megadevelopments, and their megaTIFs. But even more surely, she was in a walkable neighborhood in a beautiful building with unique products and bellydancing classes and Mardi Gras wares and handcrafted mirrors and delicate glass ornaments for all seasons and two rooms full of the most unpredictable but surprisingly useful items for a store marketed as the gypsy store.

Most will tell me to pipe down, to realize that her products were not all that diverse and that she couldn't survive trying to fill such a nuanced niche.

And I would reply: then St. Louis's urbanity is non-existent. If we don't have enough people (pedestrians or otherwise) to keep her store afloat, then Soulard, or greater St. Louis, has simply failed as a neighborhood, as a city. It's failed in its utter backward turn towards and embrace of clustered autocentric shopping centers. It's treasonous in its subsidizing them.

La Belle was open for a good run in this city: six years. Does retail not work in St. Louis City? Why does it not? Is it because our leadership and the citizenry that continues to vote them in think that the issue of keeping these venerable storefront operations in business is a matter of the "free" market and that their failures are simply the vicissitudes of that market? Probably.

But as La Belle Histoire's awning collects dust, I hope its whimsical font is still visible to passers-by. I hope it serves to remind us all that someone poured her heart and soul and money and passion into making a corner of St. Louis, once the den of all interactions in this city, once again a place where our unique local character could be drunk by the barrel.

R.I.P. La Belle Histoire (2002-2008).

Friday, April 11, 2008

Brainstorming Session for the San Luis Apartments Parking Dilemma begins now!

If it would please you, post in the comments section your ideas for satisfying the demands of Rosati-Kain and the St. Louis Archdiocese for parking in place of the San Luis Apartments, pictured below (thanks, as usual, go to Ecology of Absence for the photo). You may think demolition is appropriate, or you may offer some innovative strategy to avoid adding a surface parking lot, however "green" it may be, to a prominent Central West End corner.

28th Ward Alderperson Lyda Krewson wants some suggestions (another email job--see similar post below).

I will update the post with your suggestions and will credit you, the ingenious solutions-guy or gal that you may be. (Translation: for once, I will shut up and let you do the talking!)

Your input will help fill my response email to Lyda Krewson. You could quite possibly be the messiah to Taylor and Lindell (Christian pun not consciously intended)!

No reprieve for North Kingshighway and Page?

My impassioned email to 18th Ward Alderman Terry Kennedy failed yet again, this time in the case of the commercial building at 4972 Page (I received a similar response to my email re: Kennedy's allowance of demolition of scattered mansions along the Midtown/Central West End reaches of Washington). Judging by the email, it seems the Roberts Brothers are intent on demolition, and Mr. Kennedy is opting for gentle dissuasion rather than outright demo denial.

Thank you for your email. I have spoken to representatives from the Roberts Companies about this buidling [sic] urging saving the building and bracing the corner. My plan is to continue this dialog with them. In our last converstaion [sic] they were still planning on demolition.

And in logic-less reverse order, here is the email that prompted such a response:

Dear Mr. Kennedy:

I know you are a busy man, but I hope you will take the time to review the matter of the demolition of the commercial building at 4972 Page at North Kingshighway.

North St. Louis is losing too many of its residential buildings. That much is confirmed by driving around many neighborhoods that are now significantly depopulated of both their buildings and their residents. Aerial views, available through Google Maps, are perhaps more instructive, as the totality of the loss and its massive scale are immediately evident.

Many recognize that the loss of homes is a loss of stability for neighborhoods. The new ones quite often aren't built as sturdily and are not as attractive where they do get built. Far too many remain vacant and fallow lots, collecting crime and trash.

Few people speak out for the commercial buildings, however. Strip centers rise in the place of old commercial structures (like 4972 Page) across this city and are shuttered a decade later, a blight upon the neighborhood. Few residents of north St. Louis could ever hope to start up a business in a service-starved neighborhood such as Fountain Park when the only available commercial plots are big (and small) boxes whose rents are prohibitive to moderate income small entrepreneurs.

In short, I ask you to review the necessity of this demolition. If stabilized, this structure could be an income- and diversity- and activity-producing structure for the neighborhood. Given neighboring Academy's recent upswing, and the continued push of the Central West End northward, this corner could be vital in stabilizing a long suffering neighborhood such as Fountain Park. It could also provide a space for a needed service--office space, a neighborhood meeting place, a grocer, a furniture store (again)--the list goes on. If too much of the neighborhood sees demolition, the emptying neighborhood will only grow more dangerous to the residents that are left and will grow ever less hopeful for any sort of reinvestment that could help to improve the quality of life.

As the Roberts Brothers are the owners, surely the offending corner of the building could be braced as it awaits some better use than a vacant lot.

Thank you so much for your time.

There was once great culture in the City of St. Louis.

At least a part of it remains. The Mississipian Culture, active from 800 to 1500 A.D., built several mounds throughout the St. Louis area.

The hub, of course, was the present site of Cahokia Mounds.

The City of St. Louis's rapid 19th century development claimed all but one mound.

This one (called the "Sugar Loaf Mound")stands on Ohio Avenue just adjacent to the South Broadway I-55 exit.

It's a shame the city did not recognize these mounds as the immensely important cultural markers that they were. We could have developed a minor tourism industry if only we still had a good reason to be nicknamed "Mound City". Old North St. Louis used to have several; and Cote Brilliante is French for "bright hill"--a descriptor of a onetime earthen mound near the intersection of M.L.K. and Kingshighway.

St. Louis just doesn't have the culture it used to.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lest crimes be reported as merely those of "St. Louis"...

...the honorable former mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl, Jr. suggested a neighborhood name designation program that is mostly unaltered today.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article written in 1989 focuses primarily on how crime reporting will change post-neighborhood definitions. No longer will all of "north St. Louis" be pegged with the wrongdoings of "Mark Twain", it says. And it says again. And again. And again. ... And again:

The Police Department is cooperating with Schoemehl's plan by designating specific neighborhoods of occurrence in police reports. ''We hope it will instill some pride in the neighborhoods,'' Police Chief Robert E. Scheetz said. So, police reports will reflect that: If a drug dealer is shot in the 3300 block of Clara Avenue, he's shot in the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood, in addition to the specific address. If a man is arrested for cultivating marijuana on Garner Avenue in southwest St. Louis, he's arrested in Franz Park. If a woman is robbed in the 1700 block of South Grand Boulevard, she's been robbed in Tiffany. If a woman is raped in the 1900 block of Benton Street, she's raped in St. Louis Place. If another woman is raped in the 3900 block of Cote Brilliante Avenue, she's raped in the Greater Ville. If a man is arrested for selling cocaine in the 5200 block of Lillian Avenue, he's also arrested in the Mark Twain neighborhood.

Why is our major daily speaking of hypothetical rapes?

Okay, so I'm picking on this article that is rather interesting. I had always wondered when today's neighborhood nomenclature had arisen.

As if to taunt, however, LexisNexis refuses to let me see the graphic in the original article, which is said to contain a map of Schoemehl's 74 neighborhoods, not today's 79.

Luckily, the bottom of the article leaves us to guess with its text only description of the graphic, featuring all of the following neighborhoods that, I suppose, did not make the cut or are slightly different from those that did.

  • Kingshighway South (Northhampton, I assume, since Southampton is there.)
  • The "Southwest" and "Garden" neighborhoods are not yet merged.
  • North Tower Grove (Shaw's there, but Tower Grove South isn't. That wouldn't make sense though. (?))
  • Dutchtown's just Dutchtown (no South) and McKinley is just McKinley (no Heights).
  • East Compton (Tower Grove East?)
  • Terry Park(Gate District - western portion)
  • Lafayette Towne (Also the Gate District)
  • Central Business District (As opposed to Downtown and Downtown West)
  • Forest Park South (No "Southeast")
  • University High Area (King's Oak, I suppose, but "High Area"? Are you kidding me?)
  • Cabanne (This one appeared on Norbury Wayman's 1970s-era neighborhood list--this is today's "West End")
  • Ivory (In Carondelet? The Ivory Triangle? But it's grouped with all of the north neighborhoods...)
  • Perry (Anyone?)

It's funny how un-organically and in top-down fashion these neighborhoods were created. Yes, they used current neighborhood organization boundaries, but some seem rather ignored today (Hamilton Heights, Kings Oak) and other obvious ones aren't even represented (Dogtown instead of Clayton-Tamm, etc.; Laclede's Landing; Kingshighway Hills in Northampton).

Maybe reexamining neighborhood boundaries/names would reawaken civic pride (or at least activity). A citywide charette in several different neighborhoods where residents have to show up to defend and define their 'hoods might be just the sort of civic revival that is needed for St. Louisans to take pride enough in their neighborhoods to avoid another Southtown Centre or St. Louis Marketplace.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Fools in St. Charles...

..took the "blight" designation literally. Can you believe it?

A portion of historic downtown St. Charles known as Frenchtown was declared "blighted" a while back in order to encourage redevelopment of one of the last portions of the core to feature some vacant lots and underutilized buildings.

Well, it is blighted no longer thanks to the actions of the St. Charles City Council.

Councilman Richard Veit, Ward 1, sponsored the bill to repeal the designation because he said it unfairly punished the businesses in the area. And in two years, no developer has come forward with a redevelopment plan, he said.Most of the council members agreed with him, voting 9-1 in favor of repealing the blighting ordinance. Councilman Dave Beckering, Ward 7, voted against the move, suggesting that Veit wait longer to discuss the issue with more people.

But why remove a developmental tool just because no one took the bait in two years?

Velt "said he had heard from a real estate agent who was concerned that she might have to disclose that a home she was selling was near a blighted area. [Emphasis mine]"

Will someone please tell this real estate agent that West County is blighted too and that homes around the West County Mall seem to sell just fine amidst the decay at Manchester and 270?

TIFs are abused in this state worse than methamphetamines--and Missouri's just about the capital of that, too. Ideally, the "blight" label would be applied only when truly applicable--that is, when the market in an area has failed and infrastructure needs public/private reinvestment. After all, TIFs are designed with bringing improvements to infrastructure in mind.

A greater point is that a private developer using the blight label for eminent domain should be held more accountable to the public that is indirectly subsidizing the development. An $11 million TIF (someone correct me if I'm wrong) for Loughborough Commons is simply ludicrous--and certainly the blight label could be contested there, in middle class Carondelet and Boulevard Heights as well. And, of course, in Loughborough Commons' case, a whole row of decidedly unblighted homes was demolished for a shopping center that didn't even bother to supply a walkway to the west side of the development of which they, ironically, helped lower the property values.

Someone thank Michael Allen for documenting this hit to the built environment.

Here is a row of homes prepped for demo in 2005--most or all, of course, occupied prior to the autocentric shopping center that your tax dollars helped to construct.

Point is, St. Charles, your lack of understanding how blight works may have saved you some ridiculous megaproject, some big box or importation of chain stores on your quaint historic French section and you didn't even know it. Bravo, St. Charles, for not putting one of the last bastions of human-scale urbanism in your county at risk for "redevelopment".

Maybe I'm just too cynical, but can we start calling big boxes "TIF Queens" the way that public assistance recipients and single mothers are dubbed welfare monarchy?


A gem of a commercial building on Page--something north St. Louis cannot afford to lose--will see the wrecking ball. The owner--the wealthy Roberts Brothers, proponents of investment in the north side--could have prevented this terrific loss to the built environment.

When will our leaders, be they civic, political, developers, investors, realize that preservation is St. Louis's most proven economic development? Where would the Washington Avenue Loft District or Old North St. Louis be if they'd cleared all of their buildings due to deferred maintenance?

It is wrong to deprive this corner of this building. It is wrong for the surrounding neighborhoods to continue to lose the infrastructure that could someday (further) stabilize them.

For more, visit Ecology of Absence (where the photo below came from as well). See the earlier EOA post as well.

What can I do other than email and call? I just don't know.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Grand Avenue Bridge

I don't know your thoughts, but I think this photo rather singlehandedly points to all that was wrong with urban renewal.

The Grand Avenue Bridge was a 700 foot long suspension bridge over the railroad tracks of Mill Creek Valley. It was built in 1891.

And another, this time in profile:

This is an oh-so-flattering profile shot of today's bridge, constructed in 1961 for the Mill Creek Valley Urban Renewal that also claimed a neighborhood of some 20,000 people and innumerable and astounding examples of never-to-be-replaced St. Louis architecture.

Imagine what a dramatic entry to Midtown that bridge must have provided! All plans for redeveloping the bridge and environs for the Chouteau Lake project should consider a new, more pedestrian friendly and aesthetically pleasing bridge.

Head on over to Bridge Hunter for some more examples of bridges both present and lost. Unfortunately, in the latter category, this steel bridge on 21st Street over the Mill Creek tracks was demolished as well, this time in 1984, having been built in 1892.

The enshrinement of the automobile in public policy was the culprit for such redesigns as the Grand Avenue Bridge, which resembles a minimalist highway overpass and is also, sadly, one of the busiest stops along the Metrolink system, where pedestrians are forced to use it at their own discomfort and peril.

Who knows why the 21st Street bridge was sacrificed? Deferred maintenance? Redundancy? Whichever way, these beautiful bridges should still be here today.

In the future, it would behoove us to ask ourselves as a city if what we allow to be built in such a highly trafficked space will ever be worthy of a postcard (like the Grand Avenue Bridge). If not, why build it?

I know one major candidate that failed the postcard test miserably: the Poplar, one of the most underwhelming linkages to a major city that you'll ever find.

[Edit (4/8/08): Must have killed Bridge Hunter's bandwidth or something...the pictures aren't working. I replaced the ones I could with some suitable subs.]

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Small Business Spotlights

I've given myself a project: documenting my favorite independent, local St. Louis businesses. To me, one of the greatest issues facing St. Louis in its relative renaissance is the need to forge an identity that lifts it beyond its crippling and longstanding civic inferiority complex. No, we're not Chicago, but we can be subversive, hip, ethnic, brazen, trendy, eclectic, down home, Southern, East Coast, Northern, or Gateway-to-Western all the same. And our local businesses (bars, restaurants, retail, etc.) are the key to piecing together the impossibly complex puzzle that is St. Louis. It is their founders' creativity and talents, in great part, that mold our cultural and social landscape--and that set us apart from other cities.

While this post is little more than a memo to self, I hope to catalog the businesses I've been to in St. Louis that I long for being, as I am, 700 miles removed. Maybe you'll meet your new favorite eatery, watering hole, or shop with this feature. That's my hope anyway!

Tudor Revival Historic District?

I've had my nose in A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester for the past couple days. It's come as a great relief to understand the architectural style of the typical New Orleans shotgun home with East Lake detailing: they're Folk Victorians!

Anyhow, I was reading the section on Tudor Revival and saw St. Louis's offerings prominently featured. I could tell the house was a Northampton (possibly Southampton or Lindenwood Park) beauty--a dominating front gable that dramatically plunged down to the entryway. It also had the requisite "gingerbread" frosting along the foundation and framing the windows, doors, and corners. Most in St. Louis are familiar with this type of house, which occurs quite often in neighborhoods that were built up between 1915 and 1935.

No neighborhood seems to embrace the style quite as ubiquitously as Northampton, though. Luckily, despite my inability to secure my own pictures, Doug Duckworth has me covered! He recently took a photo tour of Northampton in the area around the amazing La Tropicana and the wonderful World Cafe.

I failed to mention how these homes often exaggerate their chimneys, but this picture has served me well in conveying this.

Aha! Another Tudor Revival feature: the false half-timbering. Those decorative timbers are not structural, but were meant to evoke their older English counterparts.

The Gothic arch doorway is a nice detail, though not typical to Tudor Revival.

Notice the tiny window in the lesser gable and, of course, the swooping and front-and-center gable that screams Tudor. As if to spite me, this one has a Gothic-arched door as well, though it's not quite as pronounced.

I won't pillage all of Doug's collection; you must visit the rest here.

But just thinking to how there are entire blocks of these "Hansel and Gretel" houses made me believe it's about time to add this charming neighborhood to the National Register. My suggestion for a name: Southwest St. Louis Tudor Revival Historic District. Or Northampton Tudor Historic District. I suppose the name Northampton only adds to the tribute to our neighbors across the pond.

This style was so popular in the early and middle 20th century that we were lucky enough to see whole neighborhoods of them. While perhaps neighborhoods like Northampton lack the gritty urbanism and architectural diversity of the neighborhoods to the east, it is hard to argue that these rows of frosted gables, tiny casement windows, rustic shutters, half-timbering--and yes, the stained glass!--are somehow unattractive.

Take a stroll down Lindenwood, or Pernod, or Fairview, or any number of Northampton streets and tell me you're not impressed by the playful intimacy of these little cottages.

Friday, April 4, 2008

M.L.K. Jr.: His Dream, Our Dream

From Fountain Park, on the North Side.

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama's words in his March 18, 2008 speech on race forced the nation to confront its racial rhetoric and paradigms as latent holdovers from a discriminatory and hateful past. Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death, on this day in 1968, we must absorb the shame-inducing honesty of the Senator's words:

... As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement - all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us...

The urban underbelly that so many American citizens are able to shield from their consciousness as "beneficiaries" of exclusionary zoning, superior schools, networks of power, private automobiles, social and physical mobility, trust funds, the "right" way to speak English, a biased legal system, the correct ZIP code, or even just an Anglo name--this is the hour to immerse yourself in the tear-stained truth of the matters of race and poverty in the country. May you never again call any neighborhood with worse-for-the-wear buildings and African-American residents a "ghetto"--thinking somehow that you're superior. Or worse, maybe you think you're lucky to have escaped such conditions. Then why is crumbling infrastructure, contaminated soil, and social isolation okay for those stuck in these ghettos? Abandon all pretense.

Attend church in a neighborhood you were told you'd be shot if you entered it. See what happens.

Walk down St. Louis Avenue from Crown Candy to City Limits, or anywhere in between. See how you feel.

Pull your car over when the police lights flash. When they tell you you shouldn't be up here, do NOT head south.

Stop at a Chop Suey place along Kingshighway, or Natural Bridge, or MLK Jr. Blvd. Or dine in at a fast food restaurant on one of the main drags. Would you eat this every day?

Or simply watch. Watch Fairground Park crumble. Watch McKee own more of St. Louis Place. Watch the Mullanphy Emigrant House struggle to stabilize a piece of history. Watch St. Louis's historic African American community, the Ville, slowly erase its shotgun homes from the cultural landscape. Watch children pack into and pour out of some of the worst schools this nation can present to you. Observe our unique brand of poverty and decay, some of the most notable desolation in the U.S.

But until you do, do not be self-righteous. Do not think you're better. Do not think you're lucky. Do not think it's out of your control. Because the soul of this nation carries these unsightly scars. Do not cake your wound, our wounds in foundation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had the dream. You, we, I, in his absence, have to act.

"Visit To A City Out Of Time"

The following is a poem by the transcendent Audre Lorde, a legally blind black lesbian married to a white woman in the 1960s. She is called the "ultimate other," reflecting her intersecting identities and sources of oppression. Her challenging and often bitter poetry survives her; she died of cancer in 1992. She often spoke of the need to voice one's demons, one's anger and not to appeal to nicety. Her caustic words were meant to provoke, to incite change, to inform the status quo that there was a rift on the horizon.

Here is her poem (see title above) about St. Louis, written at some point in the early 1970s. Notice her scathing indictment--how St. Louis is a victim, like Lorde herself, but one who has surrendered and is perhaps carried as if driftwood down a "cutting" and uncaring river. What's your take?

If St. Louis
took its rhythms
from the river
that cuts through it
the pulse of the Mississippi
has torn this city

St. Louis is
somebody's home
and not answering
shoveling snow
because spring would come
one day.

In time
people who live
by rivers
they are immortal.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

No such thing as "aldermanic advocacy"

Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, D-15th Ward, who represents part of the area of the South Grand business district, said people and business owners in the area would have to strongly support the proposal before she would work for it.

What is "it"? The East-West Gateway's Great Streets Initiative, and specifically, the proposed streetscape improvements to Grand South Grand.

Shouldn't our leaders be advocates for better and safer design, for a pleasant streetscape that complements one of St. Louis's most bustling, exciting districts? Or could it be that the alderwoman is afraid that some residents will vote her out for slowing down their too-fast morning commutes on the superhighway that is the current South Grand?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

An embattled neighborhood: Yeatman, Yateman, Jeff-Vander-Lou?

Norbury Wayman's History of St. Louis Neighborhoods calls it Yeatman, though this interesting AP article from December 1979 entitled "City Faces: Bringing Spirit to St. Louis" calls it Yateman. Today, it's Jeff-Vander-Lou.

Yeatman's boundaries were defined as Grand on the west, Delmar on the south, Jefferson on the east, and St. Louis Avenue on the north.

Begins the article:

Twice in his life, Macler Shepard had been bulldozed out of his home in downtown St. Louis -- because city planners and the federal government saw nothing worth saving in his declining neigborhood.

But when the bulldozers threatened him a third time, he decided to fight back.

That was 1966, and the federal policy known as "urban renewal" was demolishing some troubled neighborhoods and replacing them with high rise low-income housing.

To suggest, as Shepard did, that people just might want to preserve and renovate the structurally sound rows of three-story brick housing in St. Louis's Yateman neighborhood -- one of the worst areas in the city -- was plain heresy.

Now, 13 years later, Shepard's efforts have helped rescue Yateman from the wrecking ball and have sparked at least a partial revival of this predominantly black neighborhood near downtown St. Louis.

His neighborhood work was honored in November when he won a Rockefeller Public Service Award. The annual award is sponsored by John D. Rockefeller 3rd and is administered by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Since Shepard began 13 years ago, 639 units of housing have been built or renovated, with another 215 to be completed in 1980. A shoe factory is part of $22 million in recent private investments in the area.

Eighty percent of the residents are black, but about two-thirds make at least $9,000 a year. In 1966, two-thirds of Yateman's residents were under the poverty level.

The article references that Yeatman (or Yateman) had slid in population from 72,000 in 1966 to the then-current figure of 50,000. Today's J-V-L, a larger neighborhood than the original Yeatman, can claim only 6,459!

Shepard is responsible for forming the 1966 neighborhood organization, Jeff-Vander-Lou, Inc., which later gave way to the current nomenclature. I guess I had never realized the name's origin:

"The name stands for the three thoroughfares by which people come from the suburbs to downtown St. Louis, earn their money during the day, and disappear at 4:30. The name was a way of saying that this is part of the problem," [Shepard] said in a telephone interview.

The J-V-L (Jefferson-Vandeventer-St. Louis Ave.) of today is faced with some of St. Louis's most pressing issues. It is one of the neighborhoods that Paul McKee, Jr. has systematically assaulted with demolition by neglect. Its spiritual landmark, the St. Alphonsus "Rock" Church on North Grand, nearly burnt to the ground last year. The former home of the Cardinals, at Sportman's Park, also on North Grand, will no longer be home to the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club of St. Louis once work on Grand Center's Woolworth building is completed. Day by day, due to Blairmont blight and urban decay, the neighborhood continues to lose its irreplaceable building stock along with most residents who can afford to leave.

I wonder what Shepard would think of the track record of preservation in his neighborhood as of late.

There is one potential bright spot of the neighborhood: a sub-neighborhood called Lindell Park, which features beautiful homes. Lindell Park is centered around the area just east of Grand and Dodier. These three were home listings on Coldwell Banker Gundaker's website that are but three examples of the extant architectural gems of the north side, even J-V-L.

2923 Dodier, 63107 (Yours For $74,900)

3219 Hebert, 63107 ($125,500)

3501 University, 63107 ($62,500)

Let's hope that the encroaching Blairmont presence won't compromise the lovely and mostly intact Lindell Park.

P.S. The doors on some of these homes are fodder for another post...

[EDIT (2/3/08): Thanks for the linkage, Random Talk on Urban Affairs! One of your astute commenters noted a major gaffe of mine. Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls is not moving from their facility on North Grand. In fact, I'm told, they're expanding! I had them confused with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, which will be moving into the Woolworth Building. If you're not satisfied with my summation of evidence minus this error, then look to the disappearance of the corner of St. Louis and Glasgow, a once great intersection. But I guess that's McKee related. Ah well. I give up. McKee is bad enough. No need for a long list of ailments when you've got a secretive speculator in your midst!]

St. Louis's Industrial Antiques

With the housing market downturn and the recent collapse of the Ballpark Village deal, I started to think about other projects within the city, and especially those that have already claimed a piece of our built environment in order to start construction.

Specifically, the St. Louis Army and Ammunitions Plant (SLAAP) site at Goodfellow and I-70 came to mind, as did the old Gasometer in Forest Park Southeast. Both were demolished last year for new developments.

On the SLAAP site, “Goodfellow Crossing,” by Koman Properties, complete with a Home Depot store, is slated. With interstate visibility and a mostly missing urban context south of I-70, there is nearly a one hundred percent chance of this development joining the CSD (Conventional Suburban Development) club. Is a big box better than the industrial landmark that used to be on the site? I’m no engineer, nor environmental specialist, and so cannot assess the safety of living on such a contaminated site, even post-remediation. Even so, the awesomeness of the defunct and demolished SLAAP should have warranted unique redevelopment proposals. I hate to play the naysaying game, but this big suburban box will likely need reformatting in a decade or two. Who knows, though? Perhaps increased rehabilitation activity on the north side will warrant a large Home Depot store?

[Edit (4/2/08): Michael Allen of Ecology of Absence just confirmed that Home Depot has has backed out of this development. Refer to the end of this post and reflect even more ruefully.]

In Forest Park Southeast, the turn-of-the-century gasometer was torn down for a proposed residential development from Jerry King. Luckily, Built St. Louis snapped some photos of the doomed relic of the Laclede Gas Company. While there is a rendering of the development proposed for the adjacent vacant lot along Taylor and Chouteau, not much has been said of the Newstead side where the gasometer once loomed. I hope the housing market collapse has not precipitated a needless demolition of a onetime south side “landmark.”

Since I cannot find a copy of a group project I worked on as an undergrad regarding the salvage of this venerable skeletal structure, I will post my door-to-door quickfire interviews of nearby residents below. These were what residents had to say about the gasometer, circa December 2006.

Denise, waiting at the bus stop on Tower Grove and Gibson, on the gasometer.
"It's an eyesore. Tear it down and built apartments. Something. Anything."

43xx Chouteau
Teenage Girl: I think it should stay
Teenage Boy: What is it?
Me: Well, it's a natural gas tank. But they don't use it anymore.
TB: How long has it been there?
Me: Since 1903.
TB: Keep it up as a monument.

43xx Chouteau:
Martez: It doesn't bother me.
Me: Well you know they're tearing it down, right?
Martez: What are they building there then?
Me: Some apartments
Martez: Gotta get with the change!

43xx Chouteau
Jerry: If it doesn't have no purpose, knock it down

43xx Chouteau
Melvin: Why not tear it down?

43xx Chouteau
Mary explained to me that she had a friend whose house was seized by eminent domain right across the street. She says he did not get reimbursed at market value. She mistakenly thinks the gasometer, too, has been acquired using eminent domain, and she wants to see it stay to spite ED.
Mary is a large woman. Her hanging midriff is exposed as she explains she took so long to answer the door because she has arthritis.
Mary: I think it should stay up. People should have more rights.

43xx Chouteau
Mark: It's of no real consequence whether it stays or goes. In fact, I don't know if you know this since you're in the neighborhood and all, but, the neighborhood residents like to add a couple bullet holes in it come Fourth of July. So maybe it'd be better to see it come down."

43xx Chouteau:
Amy, who seems distracted and wanting to shoo me away: I'd like to see it turned into an art project. I have a couple ideas for it myself.

43xx Chouteau
Dorian: I'd like to see it stay. It lets you know you on the South Side! It's like the Arch, you just know you here when you see it. It's a good symbol. I like seeing it when I wake up in the morning and come outside."

43xx Chouteau
Algnieszka (I suspect this is a last name): I'm used to it.
Me: There are plans to demolish it.
A: Ah, yes. I have lived here for several years. I remember when it used to go up and down. What are they going to put there ... another parking garage?
Me: Actually, they're going to put some apartments and rowhouses there.
A: Well, that will be about the time to move.
Me: Oh? Why?
A: Because the neighborhood will not be the same.
(I suspect she thinks this is low income housing that I am speaking of and is suggesting the neighborhood will get worse.)
Me: Well, they're going to be fairly upscale, I believe, though there will be affordable units.
A: Yes, but I like the neighborhood's feel right now. I think this will change it. Yes, there are gun shots. Not as many as before. But I like it now.

44xx Chouteau
Woman who would not give me her name: It doesn't make me no difference.
Her building is in the shadow of the structure, which has kept a sheet of ice intact and safe from the heat of the sun.

44xx Chouteau
Cozette: It doesn't make any difference to me.

44xx Chouteau
Unnamed person: We really could care less
I peer inside. A whole family is sitting at a dinner table, filled with kids kicking their legs impatiently under the table. The door slams. Again, the gasometer's shadow preserves an icy porch.

44xx Chouteau
Truess: What is that thing? I have no idea.
Me: It is a gas tank. It used to supply natural gas to the city. It was built in 1903.
Truess: I say, keep stuff like that. It's a monument. Is that the word I'm looking for? No wait, it's a landmark. That's it.

44xx Chouteau
Doris: Keep the thing as long as it does not blow up. I mean, let inspectors in so they can make sure. But keep it if it not doing any harm.

Brian Phillips, Executive Director of the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation
BP: I wouldn't mind seeing it demolished. It's been sitting vacant for years. Laclede gas company doesn't use that type of technology any more
[Is it entirely due to the gasometer's literal transparency, its bare skeletal structure, that people do not see the history and promise of such a structure?]
I explain to him that a group of gasometers was reused in Vienna, Austria.
BP: That would be highly unusual in the St. Louis market. ... Basically, any quality development on that site would be a boost to the neighborhood. If it brings more residents and businesses to the area, that would be great.

Beverly, 44xx Gibson: It needs to go. Something else could be put there in its place for children...a recreation center or something. People throw their environmental waste in there too. It's just bad.
Me: What?!
Beverly: You know, they beer cars and stuff like that.
Me: Oh.
I speak about memorializing the structure. I ask for her input. She seems skeptical about remembering the tank until I tell her it's from 1903.
Beverly: Well, that could name the new apartments after the gas thing, know...thing.
I am about to walk away.
Beverly: or they could decorate the light poles with the metal!

Unnamed woman 44xx Gibson: it's ugly

Greg, 44xx Gibson: I don't's a's an interesting piece of the neighborhood

Brenda, 44xx Gibson: I really have never thought about it. It's going to look real strange without it. It's been there for what...20 years, 30 years?
Me: It was built in 1903
Brenda: Oh Lord!

Patricia, 44xx Gibson: I haven't seen it yet.
She has just moved in to her new apartment. Boxes dominate the floor space. She's about to leave anyway, so I escort her to the side of her new apartment where she sees the gasometer, she says, for the first time.
Patricia: it has gas!?
I ask her if she'd care if it were demolished for new apartments.
Patricia: You know...all that stuff that they'd be doing will make money, you know.

Celeste, 44xx Gibson: it's not being used, right?
Me: No.
Celeste: I really think they should tear it down.

Tyree, 44xx Gibson: " can go...quickly"

Charles, 44xx Gibson: They should keep it up. That's antique. Know what I'm saying?

For more information on and photos of the SLAAP plant or the gasometer (including the other St. Louis gasometers in north St. Louis and Shrewsbury), follow the links.

What will become of the rest of St. Louis's abandoned industry--the Carter Carburetor plant on North Grand and the Carondelet Coke Plant on the extreme south side of the city, to name just two? And will these developments ever get built--and will they be better than what they replaced?

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