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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Surprise! I agree with Ecology of Absence on the McPheeters Warehouse demolitions, but...

I disagree on one major point. Click here to read Michael Allen's poignant analysis and criticism of the demise of a once important portion of the industrial north riverfront.

Michael Allen says this:

I have pushed off writing further on the now-demolished McPheeters warehouses on Lewis Street just because doing so seemed fruitless. After all, there is no way to return the important lost buildings, and little point in aggressively emphasizing the obvious -- that the demolition of the warehouses was probably city government's biggest preservation failure of 2008.

Well, of course I object to this statement. It's a lot of what I do on this blog, why it's called "dotage"--I long for the city in the vintage photographs I post on the site. I long for the buildings condemned to demolition to remain a part of the cityscape--just as they did when this city functioned as a city. I long for a city government, a populace that values its history and heritage and takes action to bolster that history and heritage.

But we don't have that.

Historic preservation is inherently backward-looking. That's not an attack on the field. It's a recognition that the goals of preservation are illuminated by the decisions--good and bad--that have been made in the past.

What is the context of the neighborhood that remains in 2008? What has been lost at this prominent corner? Do the residents of the neighborhood know there used to be a magnificent theater where that unsightly parking lot is today? Do they know that the demolition of Mill Creek Valley and Gaslight Square forever tore the physical link St. Louis had with so much of its culture, so much of its heritage? Do they know that that industrial neighborhood they drive by everyday on the riverfront (Kosciusko) used to be a thriving Creole neighborhood not unlike Soulard?

St. Louis's historic buildings contain the code to rebuilding a dense, prosperous urban area that is walkable and scaled to the human, not the god's eye of the planner or the politician.

Dwelling on their loss, their squandering, is not merely whining, nor useless. It's a necessity. Future generations need to know that St. Louis was born as New Orleans and will die as Youngstown, Ohio if we do not make an effort to plug the bleed.

Protecting threatened resources that are still present is, of course, the priority of preservation. So is securing the future of stable resources, so that they may continue to enjoy that stability. But we need more people to dote on senseless loss, to complain about it, to wonder why our leaders and why our fellow citizens don't care enough to see a city so great act like one.

There is no way to bring back a wonderful and needlessly lost building. But there is, no doubt, a lesson in each felled building that requires dwelling upon. There's a fading context of urbanity in St. Louis, they say. How much longer do we wish to peer at photographs and consume the texts of our failures without changing the picture, turning the page altogether?


Michael R. Allen said...

What I meant was that I didn't want to emphasize the loss until I could write about it in a way that was productive. I could have posted photos and laments, but wanted to wait until my thoughts were fully formed.

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