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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Random Thoughts on the Cult of Destruction in St. Louis

In anticipation of a temporary move to Baltimore (more on that later), I was using Google Streetview to surf the city—extensively so.

After an hour or so of clicking and zooming and dropping the yellow Streetview man all over the city, several emotions came over me: shock, admiration, depression, and hope. 

Shock, primarily, because I cannot believe how intact the city of Baltimore is. I found a fairly large area on the northern periphery of downtown that seemed to have been cleared and replaced with a series of modern housing developments. Yet, for the most part, Baltimore’s signature (and unrelenting) row houses are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. The density and population capacity the city must have had at its height are simply astounding! Even knowing something of Baltimore’s history and architectural vernacular, I was still caught off guard. This was where the admiration came in; at the power of cities working at their best to produce a better quality of life simply by being cities. By being walkable. By having services located nearby. By offering opportunities for a tight-knit community to form. While Baltimore’s rows seem more monotonous than, say, St. Louis’s more architecturally diverse vintage 1880s streetscapes, even they offer a level of democratic individuality.

(I know I’m romanticizing a lot, but keep in mind I’m speaking of cities at their utmost ideal; the fulfillment of their potential).

The depression took me upon seeing whole blocks of these rows boarded, vacant. No cars, no trees, no pedestrians lining the streets. Just walls of row houses sitting vacant. I could “hear” the eerie silence even behind the computer screen, hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I got to thinking: how has Baltimore not torn out more of these rows and created park space or built new housing or just left them fallow, waiting for a time when investment would bring something new? Do whole abandoned blocks not cause issues with surrounding occupied blocks? Do they not pull the image of the city down? This, mind you, was my gut reaction, even as an avowed preservationist. Of course, I was happy to see them remain—thus the hope that later kicked in—but even I was wondering how they could have been spared the wrecking ball.

Then I remembered that I’m a St. Louisan; an automatic member of the cult of destruction. 

My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse. Often the replacement is meant to serve the purpose of moving or storing automobiles. This is the city’s greatest power because it is the simplest task at its disposal. Vacant buildings and lots provide convenient opportunities for combining narrow urban lots to form parking lots and garages. A 1920s-era bond issue already widened most roads to an extent likely even then excessive; certainly this was so by the time the region’s vast interstate network was introduced. So a declined city that wants to better move automobiles through itself need only maintain its roads and ensure every new development has ample parking.

The more and more I experience cities, the less and less I am willing to accept St. Louis's exceptional status as a destroyer of its most unique asset, its built environment.

Check out this recent thread on Skyscraper Page, but especially this 1950s-era photo of a recently-constructed Pruitt-Igoe complex at Jefferson and Cass:



You might see where this is going: I’m going to rail on the brand of urban renewal represented by Pruitt-Igoe. It’s out of scale, tore down a dozen blocks in the making, and apparently was not very well-built to serve the population it intended to serve. Sure.
 
But look around! Pruitt-Igoe’s decline certainly had a strong influence on its surroundings, but no one at the St. Louis Housing Authority held a gun to the city’s head and demanded they do this to the surrounding neighborhoods!  Of the hundreds and hundreds of structures shown in the photo, nearly all have been demolished, including the 33 11-story Pruitt-Igoe towers themselves.

Look to the south of the site (bottom and bottom-left in the photo). We see, in order, Cole, Carr, then Easton, today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Row after row of cast iron storefronts—gone, no matter how irreplaceable they might have been! Look to the west (far left in the photo), today’s Jeff Vanderlou with apparently beautiful rows of mid- to late-19th Century houses, shops, and churches.

North (top and top right of the photo) shows the portion of St. Louis Place that’s now an “urban prairie”. This site was already tattered when plans circulated in the early 1990s to place a golf course and gated community on the site. Of course, since there was a plan, even an unfunded and ill-conceived one, the buildings came down. Now, naturally, Paul McKee, Jr., of the North Side development, is picking and choosing which of these structures represent “salvageable” “legacy properties”. In other words, we can reasonably expect yet more clearance of a good number of properties in this photo that have clung to life over decades of turbulent change.


New Orleans has endured decades of decline, like St. Louis, and, recently, one of the nation's worst natural disasters ever recorded, unlike St. Louis. It is said that 33 percent of New Orleans' structures are officially "blighted" circa 2009. Certainly blight in either city is formidable and a problem that needs to be addressed sensitively. The answer, however, is not to simply tear out buildings right as they become vacant. No New Orleans neighborhood--not even the most-storm damaged--is as empty as St. Louis Place. New Orleans did replace old neighborhoods with a series of low-rise public housing complexes, but their surroundings did not become the urban blank slates witnessed in St. Louis.


We must look to our peer cities and realize that our history and heritage, but moreover our urban built environment are our greatest assets. We need a comprehensive plan, backed by the force of law, to protect our remaining assets and to encourage the growth of new ones bound for their own protection oneday. We need to make sure we no longer take lightly the piecemeal (or wholesale) destruction of our built environment for something less or worse than what was there.


We need to recognize that our autocentric infrastructure not only destroyed neighborhoods upon its introduction. Our interstates and oversize roads continue to provide barriers to pedestrians and still lower adjacent property values and, of course, are still ugly and disrespectful of their urban context.


We need to be bold and comprehensive with regard to stabilizing and strengthening our built environment. Planners and designers of Pruitt-Igoe had the wrong idea--the superblock, the identical hulking towers, the clearance projects--but they had the optimism, the sense of direction, and the boldness and comprehensiveness nailed. Today's stock of leaders in our city are diffident, conservative, fearful or unwilling to change anything for the better.


We need new zoning and urban design guidelines to ensure that neighborhoods such as those pictured surrounding the Pruitt-Igoe complex can repopulate and spawn a new, bold identity. While Paul McKee has apparently stepped up to the plate to do so, this blog has communicated before its lack of faith in the city to assure something bold and truly beneficial to the area, aesthetically or socially speaking.


So when I use this blog to harp on a business needlessly taking down two buildings for outdoor dining, or a gas station in Hyde Park demolishing a vacant but beautiful historic commercial row for expansion, or yet another church ruthlessly ripping out mixed use buildings for a parking lot...I'm thinking of the photograph above. If only we had pro-urban rather than anti-urban planning! None of this would happen. There would not need to be so many individual battles; prospective parking lot pavers would encounter difficulties, roadblocks in making our city less walkable, less enjoyable, more ugly, less human. The photograph shows we have suffered too much, too long, too deeply.


We can solidify St. Louis as an urban environment. We must!


26 comments:

Andrew J. Faulkner said...

You have hit the nail on the head. At this point well over 800 blocks of the city have been erased through freeway construction, urban renewal, and failed redevelopment. That is already like Dresden after WWII, and that doesn't consider the thousand more currently in danger.

St. Louis is both North and South, epitomizes the libertarianism of the Frontier Thesis with the dependance of a rust-belt city, remains illogically smug while nursing an incredible inferiority complex, celebrates parochiality while striving for Chicago's urban might, mourns its extinct industrial heritage while actively suppressing that which is left, and fears change while being ignorant to its past potential. All told these unnerving dichotomies have resulted in confusion, weak leadership, and the wanton disregard and destruction of a city immensely more valuable than we appreciate.

Daron said...

I like what Andrew said.

Matt, have you seen all of The Wire?

Matt M. said...

Well put, Andrew.

I say these types of things not to be negative but to hope that people who are dragging their feet feel compelled to do something. When I blame "our leaders", there's a complementary expectation that the public needs to be watching and acting.

I've not seen any of the Wire, Daron.

I will say, to anyone from Baltimore who happens upon this post, I realize that Johns Hopkins has been tearing out blocks and that it's not quite fully intact, but it is much more so than St. Louis as a whole based on my first impression.

Daron said...

Well then, I highly highly highly recommend sitting down and watching all five seasons. It'll intimately connect you to Baltimore and change the way you view urban crime, education, media, etc.

There is no American city that I want to explore more than 'B'More' and the Wire is why.

Andrew, I'm gonna quote you at the urbanophile,
http://www.urbanophile.com/2009/12/15/st-louis-gateway-arch-grounds-design-competition/

Brian said...

Agreed - Watch The Wire. Not only will you learn a lot about Baltimore, you'll be enjoying possibly the greatest series in TV history.

There's a great scene in which one of the characters is running for mayor and a woman comes up to him to express her support. He asks her if she lives in the city, she says no, she lives in the county. As she walks away, he curses the county. Pretty funny.

Chris said...

See my extensive photographs of Baltimore here:

http://stlouispatina.blogspot.com/search/label/Baltimore

Neighborhoods you should check out: Canton, Bolton Hill, Federal Hill, Fells Point, Downtown, Hampden, Charles Village, Mount Vernon Square, and Fort Washington.

I lived there for a year and visited regularly before and after. Great food, but same suburb/urban divide.

STLgasm said...

A resounding "hell yes" to your post, Matt. What frustrates me the most is that historic preservation is not rocket science- it's common sense. Our historic urban fabric is the only thing that sets St. Louis apart from places like Houston, Phoenix, and our own suburbs. As long as we try to "compete" with the suburbs, we will lose. We need to offer a contrast, and celebrate that contrast. Our leadership has failed to recognize that our biggest competitive advantage over Sunbelt cities like Houston, Atlanta and exurbs such as O'Fallon and Wildwood is that St. Louis offers something unique and interesting around every corner.

Cavan said...

Baltimore had its chance to be paved over by highways and they revolted and stopped it. You'll notice that I-70 stops at a park-and-ride at the city line. The original plan was for it to go all the way to downtown. I-83 goes along the Jones Falls but then abruptly ends downtown. The original plan was for it keep going and the demolish the historic (as in going back to colonial times) Little Italy, Fells Point, and Canton sections to end at I-95. There were other highway plans that were cancelled. That is one of the biggest differences between the East Coast cities and the plains cities. They had enough old neighborhoods that banded together and got active to stop the highwaymen from carrying through with their misguided plans. I feel sorry for most of the plains cities because the ones with all the highways everywhere have little chance of every recovering. They are examples of Death by Highway. The East Coast cities are now a decade into recovery mode because they didn't let themselves get sliced and diced and largely have intact human-scale streetgrids. Baltimore and Philadelphia are a little more patchwork than New York and Washington because of the lack of comprehesive metros. If funding suddenly appeared to build complete metros in those cities, we'd see a lot of old forgotten corners reactivated.

As for the townhouses, most of them were built before the war and are structurally sound. It makes no sense to waste money bulldozing them. They are sad to see but that's what happens when your streetcar system gets ripped out (in 1960) and there is no intra-city rail transportation to replace it. The same thing happened here in DC but the Metro reversed the trend. If Baltimore ever gets a comprehensive metro, you'll see those townhouses be renovated or rebuilt. Your point about the value of historic housing stock waiting to be reactivated is very true.

Most of Baltimore is functioning. The blocks that are abandoned are places that were often once served by streetcars but are now not convenient to anything without appropriate fixed rail transportation. You'll find a ton of really nice, old, warm neighborhoods there. It's a good city to live in and very affordable by East Coast standards. It also has lots of great, cheap food and drink. You'll like it. It's very friendly and a nice place to live.

Michael R. Allen said...

I agree with everyone on most points, but I also take issue with repeating the mantra of St. Louis' failure. The fact that all of you young people are here agreeing that the attitudes of the past are bad shows that those attitudes are obsolete.

Instead of complaining or comparing St. Louis to other cities (as Andrew points out, that sort of comparison is part of our problem), we should be working to topple the last vestiges of those ideas and bring forth a new vision of St. Louis.

In other words, why don't we act like we own the place? We do as much as those who cling to the myopic views that have damaged our great city.

Matt M. said...

Therein lies the problem, Michael.

The frustration comes when you realize how glacial the pace of change is without access to government and decision-making.

I have tremendous hope for St. Louis, but we'd all agree we need to learn from our mistakes.

We need an urban master plan and zoning code so we don't have to exhaust all of our young and young-at-heart activists on repetitive and often fruitless efforts.

Rick Bonasch and I have talked about the limitations of comparing cities as I've done. To me, comparisons are relevant when I think of people moving from other places to settle in St. Louis. People with the ideas and will to make things better probably will pass on a place they find unexceptional. Or too difficult to get involved. We need to be opening the door to people and talking about the astounding case of revitalization St. Louis truly represents. And we certainly need assurance that our leaders don't set us back even farther.

We need a Master Plan and sound urban design guidelines with long term goals of shrinking streets and removing and replacing interstates. We need it to, as I said, solidify our built environment so we can focus on issues such as crime, school quality, and other quality of life issues.

Nec said...

I agree that this was a great loss. And there is plenty of blame to go around. But the blame cannot be placed solely on policymakers. We must not forget that there were owners of all those buildings that chose not to maintain and/or retain the structures that were there. For a person to tear down, or allow to decay, ... their own possession ... is an anomaly in human behavior. Why many people acted in this anomalous way is a complex sociological question which includes a cornucopia of "third rail" topics.

john w. said...

"I say these types of things not to be negative but to hope that people who are dragging their feet feel compelled to do something. When I blame "our leaders", there's a complementary expectation that the public needs to be watching and acting."

St. Louis is a great distance from Baltimore. How do you hope to contribute, and to electrify the latency of the feet-draggers?

Matt M. said...

^ Good question.

I see this and other blogs as a way to build a coalition based on a forward-thinking, action-oriented dialogue. A lot of my posts might seem t suggest the opposite, but the first impulse to act usually comes when people feel unsettled and unsure, not when they've drifted into their comfort zones.

Ultimately, though, while St. Louis has an astounding online community, we need to be more a presence on the streets, in storefronts, in architectural firms, and yes, in public office.

I see myself returned to St. Louis in July 2009.

The path to change is by refusal to accept horrible ideas and never taking your involvement in any issue, large or small, for granted.

I really liked the idea of a slate of pro-urban, progressive candidates for the BoA...

john w. said...

You'll need a time machine to return to St. Louis on your envisioned schedule, but I like the attitude, and look FORWARD to your return to St. Louis. You'll only add to the already strong mix of progressives who think like you, and will hopefully stop dragging their feet.

Matt M. said...

^ Haha. Argh...these new years sneak up on ya. Make that July 2010. :D

viviennembehnke said...

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Rick Bonasch said...

Here's something that architecture/built environment enthusiasts need to consider: most people are not informed about/do not share the passion/have other priorities than built environment/historic preservation/architecture.

The built environment activist community is tiny. It feels big because there's lots of online chatter.

But in the neighborhoods, most people are concerned with crime, schools, their own job, their kids welfare, etc.

Whether or not someone uses a vinyl versus historic replacement window, or tears down a building to put up something new means very little to them.

Frankly, a LOT of people think the buildings urbanists defend from demolition shold just be torn down. Period.

There are huge differences among reasonable people when it comes to setting neighborhood priorities.

Matt M. said...

"But in the neighborhoods, most people are concerned with crime, schools, their own job, their kids welfare, etc.

Whether or not someone uses a vinyl versus historic replacement window, or tears down a building to put up something new means very little to them.

Frankly, a LOT of people think the buildings urbanists defend from demolition shold just be torn down. Period."

This is exactly, to a tee, what I was talking about in the post.

It's no surprise to me that most people aren't as obsessed with the built environment as I am or others in the online community are.

Why do other cities, like Baltimore, which suffer from vacancy, blight, and decay not wipe out their buildings with the celerity St. Louis does?

Demolition of a sound urban built environment should be sensitive to many more factors than it is at present. For example, corner buildings are often important anchors and should receive extra scrutiny. Buildings of architectural or cultural importance should receive special consideration. And so on.

When you say the buildings should just be torn down "period", you're denying neighborhoods the opportunity to become that next Old North or that next Dick Gregory Place.

Other than Detroit, St. Louis is the only other major city I know to have such a rapidly shrinking built environment. Unfortunately, the lower household incomes of North Side neighborhoods and more rapid deterioration have only made the old contrast between north and south St. Louis more apparent. We can't afford to deepen that divide.

The demolition budget should be reserved for true structural emergencies. The rest of the budget should go to stabilization work, especially on city-owned vacant properties. Period. An emptying city will continue to become prey to opportunistic development that St. Louis residents will have to fight heartily to ensure that the subject area actually benefits from.

Another point I would like to make is that I wasn't even addressing relatively minor historic preservation issues (window replacement) or even infill (since sometimes a new structure could be better than the old). I'm referring to demolition for the sake of getting rid of an "eyesore".

The photo shows that St. Louis really shot itself in the foot, as it continued to destroy its built environment well past the period other cities turned away from this model. Pruitt-Igoe was one thing, but the fact that only 20% of Jeff Vanderlou remains is another. We need to end this nonsense. We're a city.

rob said...

In terms of demolition, I think there are really two separate things going on -- land clearance for re-development (like Pruitt-Igoe or a highway) and that which follows deterioration. They're not mutually exclusive, but in comparing St. Louis to Baltimore it makes sense to look at the differences.

Baltimore's interstates definitely did less damage, but they did do some demolition for their own housing projects as well as Johns Hopkins. But although relatively intact, their West side carries the same connotations as our own North side. Governments in cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee demolished vacant buildings as they became "problems." That is, they did clearance that was not for redevelopment (immediate anyway). St. Louis and Baltimore, both separated from their counties, had no money to do anything like this, so buildings sat vacant. That St. Louis let vacant buildings stand is mind-blowing to some people from Philadelphia and Louisville I've met.

But in Baltimore whole blocks sit vacant for decades while buildings deteriorate and fall in St. Louis. The difference, I think, was the private sector, which is responsible for a lot of the demolition in St. Louis, where deterioration clearly has happened much quicker. One explanation I've heard was arson and insurance fraud in the 60s and 70s. I've also heard that for a time wealthy people would buy houses expecting them to decline in value so they could write off the losses -- a disincentive for basic maintenance. But I don't see why that kind of thing would be more prevalent here. Is there more incentive to rustle brick here? Did St. Louis have slightly more money than Baltimore - enough to demolish buildings here and there but not on the wide-scale of places like Philadelphia?

Oh, and there's the whole Team Four thing.

I spent the better parts of 2007 and 2008 Wire-obsessed. If that show can be taken as any indication (and I think I'll agree with William Julius Wilson that it can be), police and public officials in Baltimore wish those rows and rows of vacants were not there. But people in St. Louis probably said the same thing about Old North in the 80s and 90s.

I think that its OK to compare St. Louis to other cities -- the most important things that shaped cities in the 20th century came from the same federal government. But I'll agree that just saying that decision makers were and are stupid gets us nowhere.

Michael R. Allen said...

Matt,

There are parts of South Chicago that put Detroit and St. Louis to shame. Chicago's destruction for freeways, urban renewal, vacant lots and now bland contemporary condo blocks may outpace that of any major American city.

Rick,

I think citizens are far more aware about built environment issues than you state. I just think that most people don't read blogs, join Landmarks Association or read public meeting agendas because they either are unaware of the network or they direct their interest to community organizations.

Really, 99.9% of all built environment discussion in St. Louis takes place at neighborhood meetings. The .1% that you see online helps lure people to become more invested in local decision-making.

Go to any random neighborhood meeting and you'll be hard-pressed to not hear discussion about new development, nuisance property, demolition, code violations or any number of topics that urbanists are discussing online. Some aldermen even sound like urbanists bloggers when they answer questions from residents -- they are often opposing demolition, supporting new historic districts, etc.

When I am out working on architectural surveys and meet residents, people love talking about buildings. Most people love their historic neighborhoods, even downtrodden ones, and are glad when they meet people out trying to create new historic districts. Some people want vacant buildings torn down right away, others will say "they don't build them like that any more."

If I could spend all day surveying neighborhoods and talking with people, I would do it. The online bully pulpit can be fun, but the conversations in real life are much more stimulating and productive.

Michael R. Allen said...

Oh, and to answer the statement:

"We need an urban master plan and zoning code so we don't have to exhaust all of our young and young-at-heart activists on repetitive and often fruitless efforts."

I disagree with characterization of efforts as "fruitless." Our efforts are paying off every day, and this has been a great year. Look at recent National Register listings, look at how much money the city is spending on historic district creation, look at the volume of historic tax credit projects in Missouri, look at the fact that the Mullanphy Emigrant Home and Nord St. Louis Turnverein still exist, look at the Clemens House becoming the first NorthSide project, look at...well, our success!

No one forces urbanists or preservationists to dwell on building-by-building issues. We need to step back and work more on education and policy, but that's up to us. You and I know how difficult it will be to get a new master plan in place, and we both know that protesting individual demolition permits won't get us there.

Matt M. said...

Thanks for all the great comments, Michael.

I really fell in love with the North Side while working a canvassing gig, going door to door in Hyde Park, College Hill, and Jeff Vanderlou. I met, without a doubt, the sweetest and most fascinating people I had ever met in my life up to that point.

I was also surprised to hear your "ordinary" citizen commenting on urban design. As we passed a new-ish infill house in the western portion of Hyde Park, my fellow canvasser, a woman in her 50s or so and a lifelong North Sider, laughed at the building's proportions. With one central window on the second floor, she said the house was ugly and didn't belong.

Anyhow, I don't mean to call efforts fruitless that end up resulting in something great for the city. I only mean when the goal--to save the building and protect St. Louis's built environment--is lost.

I was reading the Central Carondelet nomination the other day. That was a TON of work to do, Michael. And that's just one of several neighborhoods that have been listed on the Register in the past few years.

rob said...

I guess the point of my rambling was that in most of these types of demolitions, a lot of damage has already been done to the buildings. It has to be much easier to get a demolition permit after a building has been sitting vacant after a fire or had a wall knocked out by brick thieves. I agree that something like a master plan would be more efficient than a separate protest for every proposed demolition. Might it make sense to find ways to stop the deterioration that leads to demolition requests than to try to ban all demolitions?

Subjecting the whole city to building inspections and actually conducting those that are required might be a good first step . . .

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