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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Amazing St. Louis Mid-Century Modern website

This is just to pass along this wonderful find:

I Love Bernoudy


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More Mill Creek

From the St. Louis Globe Democrat collection, a shot taken from Union Station, at 18th and Market, looking northeast, around 1955.

This would have been the far eastern section of Mill Creek Valley.

No singular building in this picture looks like it could have been just that architectural gem to inspire people to fight for its salvation. Yet taken together, it's an important piece of the urban panorama. We need to make sure that whatever is to replace these "plain ol'" urban buildings is as built-t0-last as they were--and as plainly attractive and human scale.

Too often, they're lost because they fail to inspire. Their context of importance is lost over time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What a breach of trust and decency: New York Times travel writer deals St. Louis an unfair hand

I was going to do a post on the new Borders store in New Orleans. It just opened this Friday. I was going to talk about it (surprise!) in a positive light since the store took over an old funeral home, saved the facade, and now can boast of a pretty cool store: a great adaptive reuse.

But I stumbled upon a book during my visit that just pissed me off.

It's "Don't Go There: The Travel Detective's Essential Guide to the Must-Miss Places of the World" by Peter Greenberg. If that sensationalist, asshole-y title didn't tip you off, it might come as a surprise that Greenberg selected the ten most dangerous U.S. cities (via those ever reliable FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics, which warn viewers NOT to rank cities!) and systematically trashes every one of them.

Here is my recap (not a direct quote, but almost) of his St. Louis smear.

"Let me give you a tip for visiting St. Louis: exit at the airport, go south [sic] on Interstate 70, do not pass go, do not collect $200 until someone dumps you off downtown. Do the same for Interstates 64 and 55--do not stop until you see the river."

His point? The rest of the city is so devoid of anything interesting and is just so dangerous that you MUST not stop anywhere but downtown.

Cleveland voiced its protest over being labeled a "Must-Miss" destination. But the "Cleveland Plain Dealer" had to deal its discontent in a civil fashion. I don't.

Greenberg is an irresponsible idiot. A hack. What kind of travel writer can't discern any positive attributes about an entire city (a group of cities, actually)? Isn't that supposed to be his specialty?

I just cannot vent enough towards this moron.

I urge you to check the passage out for yourself at your local bookstore. After making your own assessment, please contact Mr. Greenberg to let him know what you think of his journalistic integrity.

I'll tell you my assessment: an insufferably stupid asshole that clearly is not qualified for his high-profile job.

Here's his Facebook page.

Email him your thoughts at !

Friday, November 21, 2008

Far-fetched Arch/I-70 Idea

Why not fill in the depressed section of I-70, which is aptly named, with water. Have a canal run down the middle of a newly streetscaped boulevard.

Build quaintly historicist two and three story mixed use buildings with modern touches on the east side (current Arch Grounds).

Make the street an urban street and give people a better way to take in the Arch and the Old Courthouse--by water!

Combine this with Steve Patterson's opening up of the Mansion House complex! St. Louis is set.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In the old Mill Creek Valley "Slum"

2723 Pine Street -- September 1936.

Today, a part of the A.G. Edwards (I mean...Wachovia) campus.


3127 Laclede (circa 1960?).

Today, part of the SLU campus.

Thank you, Midtown Institutions, for your stewardship.

While we're on the topic, check out the sliver of a historic building just west of the still present Cupples House on West Pine in the heart of the SLU campus (photo circa 1988). They sure do have a thing for demolishing historic mansions.

Thanks, HABS, for depressing me as usual.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Demolitions in Shaw, Academy, and St. Louis Place on this month's Preservation Board agenda

See for yourself here.

What's really interesting is the Shaw property, on the 3900 block of Shenandoah. Sure, the building's roof is collapsed and it's in terrible shape. But the facade is prime for saving. Does the Board ever recommend this? Has something else happened to this formerly robust multifamily since Google Streetview rolled through in 2007?

View Larger Map

The proposed demolition in Academy, at 5115 Cates, is potentially damaging to a North Side neighborhood notable for its intactness. Despite this fact, certain blocks in Academy have witnessed one too many demolitions. The 5100 block of Cates has lost somewhere between five and eight structures from its blockfaces over the years. I'm not sure what the present state of this handsome building (below) is, but I would hope that demolition would be the last of last resorts.

View Larger Map

There's another proposed demo on the 1800 block of Warren in the Columbia House/Brewery National Register District. Unfortunately, I can't get a good image of this building, save for a Bird's Eye view through Maps.Live.Com. Again, it looks like one of the many gratuitous ("It's empty. Why not?) St. Louis demos.

It's small, incremental loss that compromises neighborhoods. Shaw may be safe in the long run--but this loss will certainly damage the integrity of the block. Ditto for Academy on Cates.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lafayette Park, Detroit

I have a ridiculously difficult time embedding videos in my blog, so here is the link.

Lafayette Park Detroit is much different than Lafayette Park St. Louis. It's not a case of urban regeneration, but of urban renewal. Mies van der Rohe designed the complex, completing it in the early 1960s. I don't know what the neighborhood it replaced looked like, or anything else about it, but the International style housing cooperatives that replaced it are fascinating to say the least.

Check the video out and be happy, at least, that this is not another historic streetcar suburb of Detroit that is crumbling into ruins.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ladies and Gentleman...

I present to you: a long needed, long ignored...

Office of Urban Policy!

Not to mention, here is President-elect Obama speaking about the prospects of more urban renewal (read: mass demolitions) for America's cities:

The response of some to these statistics is to call for still more demolition, abandonment and neglect of older and historic neighborhoods. In the last three decades we lost from our national inventory of older and historic homes 6.3 million year-round housing units. Over 80 percent of those units were single-family residences. The vast majority of them were simply demolished were thrown away as being worthless. These demolitions occurred at the very same time that the number of units of affordable to low-income households has fallen. In essence, America has been worrying about how to dismantle the barriers to affordable housing and the same time it has been dismantling the very homes that are, or could be, affordable.
Thanks to Squandered Heritage for the heads up!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Urban Renewal, 21st Century

Many of us urban planners like to think that the days where planning comes from a group of well dressed middle aged white men and is passed down to communities of all colors, ages, and incomes is over.

Really, though, it's not. Urban renewal is alive and well across the country. New Orleans is deadset on tearing down a 16 square block neighborhood known as Tulane/Gravier (or Lower Mid City) for a new Louisiana State University and V.A. combined hospital complex. Likewise, Baltimore has already torn down a swath of "Middle East Baltimore" for an expansion of Johns Hopkins.

I know, in New Orleans' case, sensible alternatives abound for the siting of these two important hospitals. There's, in fact, a moribund medical district already just to the east of their desired footprint that contains more parking garages and surface lots than buildings. It's ripe for redevelopment. But the city wants to build the hospital atop Tulane/Gravier--a poor neighborhood that was heavily flooded during Katrina. An unlikely renaissance seemed possible just post-storm, when a Tulane medical student organized the neighborhood with a new group called "Phoenix of New Orleans". But the LSU/VA Medical Complex talks led the city to declare the Tulane/Gravier neighborhood a no-permit zone. That's right. Since December 2007, the city will not issue building or demolition or rehabilitation permits for the entire area.

A row of houses--in varying conditions--in the Medical District footprint. Whole blocks of these distinctively New Orleans homes, some dating to the Civil War, will be torn down soon if current plans are approved. Photograph by Becky Houtman.

Ultimately, Tulane/Gravier will likely be felled (even as a National Register historic district). Why, in a city with an affordable housing shortage, in a city that has recently demolished nearly every public housing unit (attractive and sturdy as they were), in a city where there are many vacant and underutilized parcels in the current medical district, are they tackling Tulane/Gravier? It's a poor neighborhood with rundown housing. The development team wants that site "development ready". It's often that simple. That's all the justification that's needed.

“It was obvious the community was falling apart,” said Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean of the medical faculty and chief executive of the hospital since 1997. “I could see drug deals from my office.”

An East Baltimore row. Is this torn down now? I don't know. I'm trying to find pictures of the redevelopment area. But this should give a proper context. Photograph courtesy of bing7220's flickr page.

It's funny: it's as if poverty is synonymous with blight to the average person. It's an impediment to investment rather than an economic state of a neighborhood populated by people who have lower earnings, yes, but also hopes, goals, lives, jobs, dogs, front porches and back yards...

To my knowledge, though, St. Louis may be one of the biggest proponents of a "New Urban Renewal". Late 20th and early 21st Century neighborhoods that were "redeveloped" include McRee Town, Gaslight Square, and Bohemian Hill.

Perhaps these developments, especially the former two, seem beneficial to the city in the end. Slums were cleared away; poverty scattered; aging and unkempt buildings rendered nuisances no longer. McRee Town and Gaslight Square seem to have caught on to that elusive middle class population that the city has been seeking for so long.

But these developments have set an alarming precedent: that after enough decline, neighborhoods are unsalvageable and must be torn down. Imagine if this scenario had played out in Soulard, which it almost did, and Soulard were redeveloped into the neighborhood of Garden Apartments that St. Louis's hotshot planner Harland Bartholomew actually wanted.

Better yet, imagine the impoverished residents of McRee Town suing the Garden District Commission before they planted the current crop of passably urban but uninspired homes that replaced the neighborhood's history. Pretend that they won; that the redevelopment could have demolished only those buildings that could not have been saved. Imagine that a thoughtful cohesion of old and new breathed new life into McRee Town, rather than a coalition of wealthier neighborhoods and a self-interested major institution razing it and renaming it "Botanical Heights" in shameless self-promotion.

Might we be having so many problems with Blairmont? If McRee had somehow informed our elected leadership and citizenry that it's possible to forge a new neighborhood identity without all new buildings; that poor people can be mobilized to better their community if they see some investment and new jobs come with it--what would be happening on the Near North Side this day? Blairmont is simply a clever form of urban renewal, Smart Shrink, take your planning poison pick. It's secretive. It's top down. Though, after five years, we still know of no specific plans. Given this economy, whatever plans there were may even be scaled back at this point. But it doesn't matter. Irreplaceable architecture, St. Louis's best economic development asset, is being lost and there's no leadership to stop it, to stem it, to plan it. Citizens don't have the keys to that proverbial backroom where these dealings take place. So many have grown indifferent or inured to our city's stagnation.

The New Urban Renewal is much like the old in its mentality. Impoverished neighborhoods have, by virtue of their struggle, proven themselves not viable. The N.U.R. states that, once someone with greater access to capital comes along and sees a way to squeeze tax revenue out of an area, it should be torn down. There is too rarely the question: can we improve the neighborhood without replacing it?

But the newness of this round of Urban Renewal is that it's only those neighborhoods that have demonstrated a prolonged resistance to the recent better times for cities that are being bulldozed. Aren't these neighborhoods the ones that need the benefits of bottom-up planning and community sensitivity the most?

It is important not to forget, post-Barack Obama, that top-down planning still occurs. And it's still quite often wrong and misguided.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Sorry, St. Louis. You're not great this year.

Last year, St. Louis, and in particular, the Delmar Loop, was honored with the American Planning Association's first annual "Great Streets" designation. It was one of a dozen or so streets across the country selected for being special urban places--with exceptional architecture, public spaces, walkability, transit-friendliness, local retail and restaurants, and general character.

There were two other "Greats" that St. Louis did not appear on--Great Neighborhoods and Great Public Spaces.

Well, the latest Great Streets/Neighborhoods/Public Spaces lists honor cities like Baltimore and Boise, but no St. Louis.

Don't hang your head just yet.

You, yes you, can nominate a neighborhood or street or public space as one of America's great places. Read the FAQ for more details.

One thing, though, is that the APA doesn't seem all that friendly to "most improved" districts. They want areas with "strong identities" and unique local flavor. Do they know the A-bomb that hit St. Louis called deindustrialization/flight of wealth?

I would really like to nominate Cherokee Street to see how they would react. It doesn't fit what appears to be the APA mold--an established street that has enjoyed unequivocal success and has all the elements to remain successful. But what street is more fascinating than Cherokee Street?

Cinco De Mayo 2008 on Cherokee Street. Photograph from

It was once one of the ubiquitous and bustling urban business districts that used to be much more common before commerce moved off of small urban streets and onto highway exits and strip centers. It remained notable in St. Louis even after the auto age only for its length and its onetime success as district. Now it's a schizophrenic, gritty delight of a street, changing with each passing day. It's an arts district in the west, a Hispanic business district in the middle, an antique district on the east.

It's got:
> an anarchist collective bakery;
> one of St. Louis's only local record stores;
> one of its only Art Supply stores;
> an "Arts Compound";
> a magnificent but defunct Brewery awaiting redevelopment;
> the Casa Loma Ballroom;
> restaurants of various Hispanic ethnicities found in very few other spots in the St. Louis metro;
> a saxophone museum;
> a vegan diner (the city's only);
> one of the most haunted places in America;
> one of the last of the old St. Louis Greek Revival mansions (a New Orleans escapee?)

...and so much more.

I think, in addition to Cherokee, that Old North St. Louis could be a great nominee for Great Neighborhoods. Their resolve and determination to improve the neighborhood stands up to any neighborhood in the nation's definition of success.

Anyone want to help me nominate? Let me know. 2009 is not that far away!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Macklind Business District: tackling the challenges of running a local, independent business together

The Macklind Business District is not especially attractive. It can't claim the grandeur of South Grand, nor the gritty urbanity of Cherokee, nor the opulence of Euclid. Most of the businesses along the stretch are housed by urban, but understated one-story commercial buildings.

But make no mistake. There's something very special about Macklind after all.

Four of its businesses have decided to cooperatively take on a poor retail environment in St. Louis City. First, which four am I talking? Nope, not the delightful neighborhood hang out at Murdoch Perk, a much needed coffee shop in the heart of the middle class Southampton neighborhood. And no, not Macklind Avenue Deli, which is both a wonderful deli and something of an upscale liquor store.

The first is Manzo's Kitchen at 5346 Devonshire (at Macklind). It's a business that's been around for over 50 years selling Italian meats and groceries. Though it's housed in a small storefront, it's a nice neighborhood grocer/lunch spot/deli counter that's eminently walkable.

The second is Nature's Aglow II, next door to Manzo's at 5350 Devonshire. The first thing you'll notice about this place is the unbelievably friendly staff (ask for Darla!). The storefront, again, is small, but the place packs a surprising amount of gift store wallop. The centerpiece of the shop's offerings is organic candles. Sound too frou-frou for your much more dressed down significant other? Well, take one of their fact sheets about traditional candles and see if you ever buy one again! Apparently, burning a traditional candle in your house is like parking a semi in your house, while running, for a whole day! Even if you don't buy that, give these candles a chance. Next to the hundreds of candle scents are various sundries that make excellent birthday or anniversary surprises. Where else in the city of St. Louis can you do one-stop shopping without a car quite so easily?

The Big River Running Company storefront at Macklind and Nottingham. Photograph from their website, linked below.

The third is Big River Running Company at 5352 Devonshire. They're an athletic store that specializes in running/jogging gear. They'll even make you strut your stuff, observe your gait, and recommend the proper shoe. Right now, and until November 22, they're having "Store Wars", pitting their West County location against this, their walkable (or runnable?) South City store. Bring in five or more canned goods and earn a chance at a $100 Big River Running gift certificate. And please, help the South Side win this competition!

The fourth and final store is HomeEco, at 4611 Macklind. They call themselves "your Green General Store". That's pretty accurate. If you're one of the ecologically sensitive sort, the store carries everything from those now omnipresent energy efficient lightbulbs to recycle bins to "green" furniture to hemp-made pants. No kidding.

Why do I choose these four?

Cleverly, they have decided to promote one another's business. Purchase something at any one of the four stores. Secure a receipt. Take said receipt to one of the other stores. Receive 10 percent off your purchase.

I was delighted when I heard this. All four businesses are within a stone's throw of one another. All offer very different products and services. Instead of going it alone, they offer this simple cross promotion that I can tell you, from personal experience, goes a long way! Though Macklind is extremely walkable and pedestrian friendly (not a wide street, not hugely trafficked), it's easy for most St. Louisans to pull up in a car, get what they want, and leave. This promotion reminds people--hey, this is a business district! Stay around and shop for a while.

It's very difficult for small, local, independent businesses in St. Louis. Especially now, with a sunken economy, people are willing to take fewer spending "risks". A lot of times, a name brand wins out just because shoppers know what to expect, or can more easily secure a parking spot, or both. It's this simple kind of cooperation, this cross promotion, that will help to cushion these four very special businesses from the fate that has befallen so many of their less innovative predecessors--shuttering.

Please, support the Macklind Business District and take advantage of this small but important promotion. Local and unique retail needs you! Remember, more of your dollar will stay in the St. Louis economy.

Love the place you live? Invest in the place you live!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Vote today!

So St. Louis watched the debates in greater numbers than any other city.

Well, let's make sure the voter turnout is just as exemplary.

Without offering an explicit endorsement, I ask you to vote, in part, according to this all too important question:

Who will best address the problems of our cities? Who is most connected to those problems? Who do you think offers the best solutions?

If you need help finding your polling place or having any other Election Day questions, please click here for the City, or here for the County.

I'll be watching the results of St. Louis County's Proposition M vote--the tax increase to fund Metro's operations and expansion--very closely.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a threat to our cities and I won't stand for it anymore!

I know, I know.


Who could resist the show? What kind of scowling, bitter scumbag of a human being would protest a show that, in tearjerking fashion, delivers domiciles to the deserving?

"Move that bus!"

You know the show I'm talking about.

S0-and-so is a nurse who is also a single mother. She works 16 hours days and her 13 year old daughter watches the three younger brothers and two younger sisters when not at school herself. Or some other iteration.

Then, Extreme Makeover's "Ty" drops in, sends them on their way to a vacation, while the show's crews pull down their old, outmoded home and replaces it with a much more glamorous (and much larger!) new one.

Actually, I speak in facetious-snide tone, but there is something truly insidious to this show. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has been tearing down historic homes all over the country. Rarely are the houses they demolish even in considerably poor shape. Sometimes, they're simple local vernacular style homes. Other times we're talking beautiful farmhouses over century old.

And yes, they tend to build something that, if not matching the scale of the neighborhood, at least passably references its surrounding context. And yes, it appears high quality (who can tell, though?).

But it's simply unconsciable what they do with some of these historic homes. I'll get to why in a bit, but first, take a look at some of the before and afters.

Wilmington, DE



First gut reaction: it fits in very nicely with the neighborhood overall. Sure, they ignored the gentle curvature of the neighboring building's windows in favor of the noticeably blocky kind. And they certainly didn't find room to add the bay windows so characteristic of the old house. But, nice job, right? Well, in this particular show, the mother had to take care of a special needs child who was unable to walk. Therefore, she had to carry him up the stairs. In her new home, there's an elevator. I understand that the old home was not really working for her. But is it impossible to build a new house on a vacant lot nearby, or rehab the structure to include the elevator (on the show, they said no, it was not possible)?

Here's another, this time from Geneva, New York (already blogged):



Again, it's all right. But why not "makeover" the historic home--in the above case, a 150 year old house!

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has come and gone in St. Louis. The show actually selected two properties locally, one home and one business. Luckily, both were outside City Limits (the home in Shrewsbury, the business on Manchester out in West County). Why luckily? Again, a small, quaint, older home was sacrificed for a neotraditional new house.

Extreme Makeover is threatening because it sells, quite successfully, that time-tested concept that old = bad and new = good that has threatened cities and historic preservation for decades. Worse, it does so in such a way that makes it hard to challenge. When it's a husband whose wife has recently succumbed to cancer on the receiving end, how can a preservation-minded citizen stand in the way of a bungalow bash-'n'-build? Worse still is the way in which the buildings are torn down. The show's host, Ty Pennigton, is known for his zaniness (usually to awkward excess). And so, he never fails to find some "creative" and bombastic way to demolish the home. In one show, the homeowner loved cars. So he enlisted several old cars to literally lasso the house and pull it down. In another show, a group of rough-and-tumble bikers took the house down by a couple dozen sledgehammers.

The demolition becomes a spectacle when it should be a lesson. In our now more ecologically aware culture, why tear down a perfectly good building? It's wasteful, saying nothing of the value of the history lost in some of these buildings.

It speaks to that damaging "bigger is better" mentality that keeps a lot of buyers away from smaller lots in central cities. But it goes beyond that, since the show doesn't always tackle urban lots anyway. It's about how old houses are characterized and how the show's need to entertain the A.D.D.-afflicted viewership needlessly erases salvageable and often attractive houses from the landscape. The show depicts old house dwellers as needful of the charity of a brand spanking new house when they might simply need an addition in the rear of the structure and a coat of new paint on the exterior.

Rehabs are slow and boring. The end result isn't as dramatic as a new Craftsman-influenced mansion in place of a blase but sound little bungalow. But rehabilitations are better for the environment and allow future generations a connection the past that is lost with each "teardown" that this show encourages.

I will not stand for it anymore.

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