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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

40 Broadway

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

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

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

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

Now arriving in Baden:

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The NorthSider

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

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

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

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

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

and new housing on North Newstead:

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

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Bright (Green) Future for McRee Town?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of the City of St. Louis

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

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

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I'm a Cherokee Person

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Triangle, Benton Park West

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Lafayette Square Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 25, 2010

Is St. Louis Truly Getting Better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need a special kind of idealism in the city.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Downtown - a Core of Discovery

Have you ever heard the phrase "there's nothing to do downtown"?

The National Park Service's answer to this is the Downtown "Core of Discovery".

With the ongoing City Arch River 2015 design competition, it's great to see the NPS express its dedication towards connecting the Arch to downtown in the meantime.

Each attraction has a nice informational page that will certainly be of use to tourists if this website is well-advertised. I particularly like the Flickr photo pools for each listed attraction. My favorite part, though, is the downtown architecture tour.

It's a 20-stop architectural smorgasbord. The tour covers the greatest hits (the Wainwright Building), the modern marvels (the Zinc building), house museums (the Campbell House), and more.

It might seem like a small step on the part of the NPS, but clearly much thought has gone into the design of this site and the marketing of our downtown. I applaud this effort and am excited that I'll be here in person to witness the more radical interventions that will be proposed this fall as a part of the Archgrounds International Design Competition.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Where to Live?

Now that I've moved back to St. Louis (still getting settled in--please pardon the quietness of this blog), I'm now having to ask myself where I'll live when I get my own place. While I love my parents' house in Bevo and its location, I don't think I'll stay in the neighborhood. I work downtown and would like a simple, hassle-free commute by bus, train, or foot.

Just when I think I have decided on one neighborhood to settle into, another steals my heart. Will it ultimately be Old North's overwhelming community spirit and promise of a bright future that wins out? Will it be Benton Park's glut of beautiful architecture and great coffee shops? The Grove's eclectic style and thumping nightlife? Or the sheer convenience of downtown? I have a tough decision ahead and will keep everyone posted.

Monday, June 14, 2010

June Preservation Board Agenda Online

The temporary agenda is accessible here.

On the agenda are:
-A preliminary review of lighting at Aloe Plaza
-A preliminary review to extend an existing roof deck in Lafayette Square.
-A preliminary review to renovate 6120 Delmar (blogged here) in the East Loop, while demolishing a non-contributing addition.
-Review of proposal to install an illuminated ground sign with reader board at St. Francis DeSales Catholic Church.
-An appeal of staff denial of an application to replace third floor front window in the Central West End.
-An appeal of staff denial to retain 7 vinyl windows installed without a permit in Fox Park.
-An appeal of staff denial to retain exterior wrapping on front windows installed without a permit, also in Fox Park.
-An appeal of staff denial to retain a front door installed without a permit, in Benton Park.
-A new application to install solar panels on front roof slope, also in Benton Park.

Proposed demolitions are below:

-6044 Cates, in the West End neighborhood (photo from Geo St. Louis)

4308 Gano, in the Fairground Neighborhood. (Photo from Bing Maps).

4623 Kennerly, in the Greater Ville neighborhood. (Photo from Bing Maps).

The Preservation Board meeting is held at 1015 Locust, Suite 1200.

The date is June 28th at 4 p.m.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Why Do You Stay in St. Louis?

You could have your choice of any city in the country. Chicago's larger and a short drive away. Heck, Kansas City's economy is doing better. And let's not even talk about cities along either of the coveted coasts!

Why do you stay in St. Louis?

Well, because you realize St. Louis is a soulful, elegant, fun, interesting, eclectic place poised for great things. You like its grit, its neighborhoods' character, its street festivals, its parks, its food, its nightlife, its affordability. Or something along those lines.

In fact, you should probably put it in your own words here, at the new microblog dedicated to this very question: Staying in St. Louis.

The submit button is located in the yellow box in the left tab--it's the mail slot icon.

I'm absolutely thrilled to announce that, next week, I'll be among those who can actually submit "why I stay" there in St. Louis. Because I'm coming home, for good.

More on that soon.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Anarchy in Affton, and Other Reflections on St. Louis's Placeblogosphere

Does anyone know the whereabouts of one J. Patrick O'Brien, the "city" of Affton's onetime mayor? Has there been a coup?

On December 23, 2007, after a somewhat regular posting schedule, the esteemed pseudo-mayor of a pseudo-city (Affton is not incorporated) simply stopped posting. See for yourself here at his now-defunct blog: Mayor of Affton.

The Mayor offered St. Louis placeblog readers something we're all too light on: laughter. O'Brien would refer to his wife as the "First Lady" and his home, more than likely, being in Affton, a Tudor-style gingerbread or a Post-War saltbox, the "Mayoral Mansion".

Whether he reviewed the Affton restaurant scene...:

Last night the First Lady and I tried out the new Trattoria Toscana restaurant on Gravois next to the Ten Mile House. Let me first say that earlier I told a friend that I was going out to Affton's newest Italian eatery and he said "Fazoli's?" Chris, you are a jerk and so are you Fazoli's. I hate Fazoli's food and apparently they hate Affton since they don't have a location here.

...or faux-bombastically trumpeted his mayoral background in real estate development...

The Mayor attended a conference on Sustainable Development this morning hosted by the Urban Land Institute.  Most of the discussion was old hat for the Mayor as I am well aware of the concepts that create such developments.  What was enlightening was to see actual reports and data that proved the return on investment to developers that choose to “go green”.

...the Mayor of Affton was a delight to read.

If this were the end of the story, I'd be kind of depressed. With the passing of the Mayor of Affton blog, there was definitely a visible void, and not just in everyone's favorite South County hamlet. Our region needed more people writing about their neighborhoods, their municipalities, to get us excited and interested. Affton is one of the most stereotyped places in the region--it's all retirees, it's boring, it's not urban, etc.--yet I believe O'Brien opened our eyes to a colorful place. That's St. Louis--an impossibly varied kaleidoscope of villages.

So, it's important to note now, three years after Affton's Mayor disappeared from the blogosphere, that we have plenty of other Mayors running around town (keep in mind--some of these mayors predated the ascendancy of Foursquare!).

One of my favorites is Nicki's Central West End Guide. Neighborhood resident Nicki Dwyer snaps photos of businesses new and old, street life, flora and fauna, and more--all in the Central West End or nearby. By focusing on the life of the neighborhood, as opposed to blogs like mine that settle for our great, if inanimate, built environment, Nicki truly enlivens the neighborhood. I know she doesn't go by "mayor", but I'd vote for her!

We now even have a Near South Side-centric neighborhood newspaper online, called Your Local Messenger, and an online-only (and VERY well done) North County magazine at NoCoSTL.

56 Houses Left dutifully and beautifully cataloged the long destruction of a North County neighborhood near the airport--the Carrollton Subdivision. In happier news, a swanky mid-century modern neighborhood of Crestwood (the Ridgewood subdivision) gets much love on this web site.

Old North St. Louis has a whole band of blogger-rehabbers. Check out 1318 Hebert and the 3 Walls Project (covering the process of a stunning renovation at 3240 N. 19th). Our Little Easy hasn't been updated in a while, but is worth a look.

So, neighborhood mayors out there reading this--urban, suburban, rural, it matters not, of course--please send us your placecentric blogs so that we can all rest assured that the faux-Mayoral blogging doesn't have a term limit.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

East Loop Redevelopment Falls a Bit Short; Make a Call to Improve It!

When Neal Shapiro of Original Cast Lighting announced he was packing up his business and taking it from the East Loop to Westport Plaza, he promised his presence on Delmar would not fade.

Now, the Summer 2010 issue of the Times of Skinker-DeBaliviere has the proof: Shapiro's rendering for the site at 6108 Delmar.

Here is the before, from Google Streetview:

And the rendering, from the Times of S-D.

As you can probably tell, half of the building (a non-contributing addition to a historic building) is slated for demolition while the other half will be surface parking.

Skinker-DeBaliviere Community Council supports the plan with minor alterations, saying that "this additional parking will be a welcome addition to the Delmar streetscape and complement the renovation of the historic OCL building...". While I respect this neighborhood group greatly and feel that their newspaper is among the city's best, I disagree with them entirely on this point.

The East Loop is at a point, urban-design wise, where it could really take off and be seen as a cohesive district on par with the western portion of the district. The African American Cultural Center (shown below) will fill in a large gap in the street wall, but the East Loop still has plenty of blank space.

Image Source: Terrence Says

If you need confirmation of this, step up to the rooftop bar at the new Moonrise Hotel.

This humongous gap between the East and West Loops is bad enough--why create more gulfs between activity?

I understand that the Loop is a regional destination and that most people drive there. That said, the Loop is actually not a huge district. Able-bodied individuals should park at the gigantic surface lot behind Delmar between Leland and Kingsland and walk to the East Loop if that's their destination. If you want to grab-and-go, try street parking, which is usually available if it's not a weekend or a popular Pageant show. Let's not forget to mention that there is a Metrolink stop a block away from this site--and a proposed Loop Trolley that would run right outside the front door. Those who wanted to avoid a parking headache in the Loop could  always take one of the many other forms of transportation (I didn't even mention the bus...) to get there as well, possibly with a park-and-ride situation if they still wish to drive at all.

The Loop has the greatest potential of all business districts in St. Louis to become even more of a showcase of how active, urban, and lively St. Louis can be. Parking lots suck energy away, especially when they're visible. If it's determined that parking is absolutely necessary for the site, why not hide it? Keep the facade of the building to be demolished intact, paint it, and let it at least hold down a proper street wall for the East Loop. This would be a very creative use of the building and a better public face for Delmar than a brick wall screening surface parking.

If you agree with me, please contact the Skinker-DeBaliviere Community Council below:

6008 Kingsbury Avenue 
St. Louis, MO 63112 

Voice: (314) 862-5122 
Fax: (314) 862-5153 


As I said before, I respect the work of this great neighborhood association, but it's their word that will allow, or block, more surface parking on Delmar in the East Loop. Remember--this is St. Louis's premiere urban strip. Why can't we put a better face out to the world than striped parking spaces? I think we can!

Thanks to the Urban St. Louis forum for this story idea.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The North Side: Let's Plug the Loss of Place

I won't take the easy route and claim the entire North Side of St. Louis is suffering unimaginably. Those fearful of anything "North of Delmar" would be well-advised to check out Old North St. Louis, one of St. Louis's most exciting stories of revitalization and community reinvestment. Even though it's the most often cited North City neighborhood for tales of urban regeneration, Old North does not have a monopoly on the moniker "the future is north" by any means.

Hyde Park has seen several measures designed to stop the outward flow of residents and to plug the loss of irreplaceable historic buildings. Blue Shutters Development, Better Living Communities, and Sun Ministries are just some of the groups in Hyde Park attempting to make a difference for both the built and social environments. Sponsored by the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, artist Theaster Gates is attempting to heal the neighborhood through arts and education.

With the same development and financing team as Old North's 14th Street Mall restoration project (known as Crown Square), the resurrection of Dick Gregory Place in the Greater Ville is no less exciting. There are stable North City neighborhoods as well who have not seen the worst of decline. These include Academy, the Lindell Park area of JeffVanderLou, Visitation Park, Baden, etc.

Yet much too large swaths of the North Side continue to slip away, losing a valuable sense of place.

The most recent news is that four houses in College Hill burned. One of the four was occupied, and was a complete gem. See 859 Cowan, pre-fire, below:

In the Post-Dispatch story, their photograph of the fire shows the extent of the damage to this particular home. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Four homes burning within blocks of one another is more than suspicious. Arsonists are likely the culprits here, considering that the three vacant homes had no utility hookups.

Arson, brick rustling, and simple demolition-by neglect are forever denying generations of St. Louisans enjoyment of some of the city's oldest and, at one time, most charming neighborhoods. College Hill is but one struggling North City neighborhood; St. Louis Place, much of JeffVanderLou, the Vandeventer neighborhood, the Ville proper--all are very significant historic neighborhoods that are literal shells of their former selves. JeffVanderLou, in particular, just saw a devastating round of arsons back in March. Then there's an eight year history of NorthSide project visionary Paul McKee, Jr's holding companies' neglect of its properties. So widespread was this neglect that blogger Rob Powers was able to catalog over 200 days of blog posts worth of destruction.

In certain North Side neighborhoods, I wonder if there will be much of a physical infrastructure left to save in the next ten years. St. Louis Place is already infamous for its expansive urban prairie.

This web site and several other St. Louis built environment blogs focus quite often on St. Louis's healthiest neighborhoods or those seen as having the most potential. Benton Park, Benton Park West, the Grove, the Central West End, and yes, Old North St. Louis, are pretty popularly blogged areas of the city these days. In some ways, it's to be expected that a St. Louis blogger will focus on where the most "news" is, or where the best photographs/stories come from. Even those bloggers that like to point out areas of improvement in the city generally look to some gaping holes in otherwise stable streetscapes and neighborhoods.

It's clear that we have an imperative to focus considerable attention on some of the North Side's most distressed neighborhoods. Now, will historic preservation alone lift up neighborhoods that have witnessed disinvestment and flight of people and businesses for decades now? No, quite simply. But, for a hypothetical moment, make the city a mirror image. Soulard is a pockmarked neighborhood ringed with unsuccessful attempts at housing low-income residents. It's now undergoing a remarkable resurgence of the pieces of its built environment that remain. It's our Old North. Today's St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou are nearly 100 percent intact and now thriving; they're our Benton Park and Benton Park West. O'Fallon is our Tower Grove South. Baden is our Carondelet.

In this mirrored image of St. Louis, we must see the value in saving Benton Park. Our chopped up Soulard is still worth saving, and is seeing rehabilitation, so let's not write off neighboring Benton Park off either. So if we flip back, we see the importance and potential of JeffVanderLou, or College Hill, or St. Louis Place. They should be neatly woven into the fabric of the rest of the city, but they're not. Their hopes of a Benton Park-style revival are slim because of their isolation.

We can't wait around for a NorthSide development proposal, which is too big, or a North 14th Street renaissance, which was very specialized and hard to replicate.

First of all, we need more preservation advocacy specifically focused on the North Side's most sensitive areas. With few people in St. Louis speaking to the importance of these areas, it's easy to see why there's no push to save/repopulate these neighborhoods. It would be nice to see Landmarks Association of St. Louis open a satellite office in Hyde Park or College Hill, renovating and occupying a storefront in the process. Such an action would show that these neighborhoods have great architectural and social value and deserve reinvestment.

Second, we need more leadership like Antonio French, of the 21st Ward. French has partnered with the group Rebuilding Together to tackle vacancy and blight in the Penrose neighborhood. His "Block by Block" program is a great model that can spread to other neighborhoods in surrounding wards. French is also attempting to curb gang violence in his ward, is regularly seen cleaning up O'Fallon Park, and introduced Preservation Review in his ward. While staging alley and park cleanups as well as hosting prayer vigils for crime victims might seem like minute steps, French is investing his confidence in his neighborhood and ward. French is very wise to invite the presence of Rebuilding Together into the 21st Ward. The full force of St. Louis's non-profit arm should be applied to ailing North City. If St. Louis is one of the most giving cities in the country as certain studies show, surely we can channel some of this energy toward addressing systemic poverty and blight in North City (and beyond). Non-profits will take notice of sound leadership and will hopefully respond with the same confidence that the area's leadership projects. Our leaders, but also bloggers like me, must shift the dialog about North City from its crime/violence to "ideas" "hope" "opportunity" and "improvement" in earnest. This means working with and for, not in spite of, neighborhood residents.

We need to install cameras on targeted city blocks. These cameras could catch criminals in the process of robberies, assaults, and other crimes. Cameras could definitely help put an end to arson and brick rustling in some of St. Louis's most tattered neighborhoods. All parties caught illegally demolishing properties and selling off their bricks should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. They're literally stealing a building. Antonio French is already at work to bring cameras to the 21st Ward, at least.

We need philanthropic investment in North City. In New Orleans, there was a corporate-sponsored event called "Christmas in July" where employees of large firms downtown would take a couple days off and assist in renovations of historic properties in a then-rundown neighborhood. Why not do this in North City, HOK? Anheuser-Busch InBev? Monsanto? Enterprise? Et cetera. I proposed in a previous post that the Gateway Foundation, the bankrollers of Citygarden downtown, fund a citywide greening program to install mature trees on barren blocks. Imagine a Citygarden-scale investment in targeted areas of North City--$40 million dedicated to renovating LRA properties, installing new lighting, neighborhood banners, etc.

Speaking of the LRA, we need to market vacant properties better. Again, I turn to Antonio French, who created a website to market city-owned properties in his ward. The LRA should also have a bricks-and-mortar storefront, either downtown or in both North and South City, that would inform would-be buyers of what is required of them as well as offer technical assistance in purchasing and renovating properties.

Realistically speaking, most of presently fallow North Side land won't be built upon anytime soon, right? Yet I see Detroit get boatloads of attention for its mostly empty neighborhoods and all of the opportunities they offer in terms of art installations and urban farming. I wonder why St. Louis's most neglected neighborhoods don't generate the same interest, nationally and locally. The St. Louis PR machine rightfully, it would seem, focuses on the city's vibrant and up-and-coming neighborhoods, but our most struggling areas are the ones that need idea factories. It would be great to see St. Louis University and Washington University, among others, bringing art installations to empty North City blocks. Detroit artists literally froze a house to very visibly tell the tale of what foreclosures do to an urban neighborhood. And a New Orleans artist bought up a whole block of the St. Roch neighborhood and transformed each house into something of an outdoor art showcase, renovating one of the shotguns for her own residence. We need more of this type of eye-catching activity in some of our abandoned neighborhoods.

The "Safe House" in New Orleans--an interactive art exhibit advocating for clean soil in polluted areas of the city. It is one house on a whole block dedicated to outdoor/indoor interactive art in a destitute New Orleans neighborhood. Image Source: Art:21 Blog

We could do both at once--that is, create artful built environments and fill in vacant lots. Habitat for Humanity St. Louis is currently constructing several dozen homes in Old North. In that neighborhood, Habitat consulted a strong neighborhood association to get a sense of what type of design for housing that neighborhood residents would see as reflective of their community. The result of that interaction was a thoughtful play on Old North's architectural heritage, with small, but contemporary shotguns as well as two-story flounder houses. Maybe North City residents could be sold on the concept of container houses, which are growing in popularity worldwide.

A simple shipping container house in Atlanta, Georgia. Image Source: G Living

In College Hill, and other North City neighborhoods like it, we need to plug the loss of place and start filling these parts of the city with a constant stream of ideas. We have creative, thoughtful people engaged already in the betterment of our city. How do we use them to create a sense of energy and possibility directed at the least successful of St. Louis's neighborhoods? What are your ideas?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Moderne No More: Industrial Building's Renovation Begs Question about Mid Century Modern Preservation

What do you think of this building, located in the southern reaches of Tower Grove South, at 4110 Beck Avenue?

The picture above, showing the long and deep structure's two public elevations, is from a Cultural Resources Office staff report dating to September 2009. 4110 Beck is something of a classic industrial "Art Moderne" building. Built in 1951, it displays a bold, yet repetitive modern spirit as it emphasizes its horizontal sprawl. A rounded corner entry allows it some visual prominence and breaks up two very long and identical facades. Back in 2009, the party that had recently purchased the building decided to use it as storage. In the process, they proposed a renovation that they felt would make the structure less visually monotonous.

Because 4110 Beck is located within a Preservation Review district, and because the new owners sought to build projecting elements off of the building into the public right of way, the Cultural Resources Office had to first review the proposal. Click here for the staff report. Ultimately, it was decided that the Cultural Resources Office had no purview over the design of alterations in the case of 4110 Beck (the purpose of Preservation Review districts, after all, is to review proposed demolitions, not alterations). This case was a Board of Public Safety referral and, apparently, adding brick pilasters to a building does not create an immediate safety hazard to pedestrians. While Cultural Resources declared the proposed alterations "unfortunate", it is clear now that the owner's plans were not derailed on account of a design that compromised the industrial minimalism of the building.

Walking by the site earlier today, I snapped a cell phone picture of the ongoing work:

The pale tan bricks of the original structure have been painted over with a cool green. The proposed brick pilasters have been added at equal intervals, as have new entrances and lighting. The domineering corner remains, at present, untouched, but that is all.

The alterations to 4110 Beck make us examine our collective attitude about buildings built within the modern era (roughly defined as 1945-1975). Was the Swing-A-Way Manufacturing Company building above a repetitive bore of a building--one whose renovation/makeover as shown above is probably a good sign for the neighborhood? Or was this a considerable loss to our city's mid-century modern architectural heritage?

I suppose, in order to answer this question, we have to generate yet more questions. How visible is this building to the traveling public? Beck (and its intersecting street, Holt) are fairly quiet streets here, but there is a surrounding residential context to the north. Was the building National Register eligible? The Cultural Resources Office believed it to be so. Do the changes make the building look better? In this blogger's opinion, the structure now has an un-charmingly awkward look to it.

As our city continues to age, our modern era buildings will likely continue to see such attempts at making them more "personable". I, for one, hope we can develop an appreciation for the best of our well-designed mid-century housing and commercial stock--and I think 4110 Beck is, or was, a member of that club.

What do you think? Who cares--the building is still there? Like the alterations?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

St. Louis - A Blog City

On Thursday, June 3, City Affair will be discussing citizen activism and blogging in St. Louis. They've entitled the event "Blog City" and have invited me to speak! I can't wait. To my own surprise, I'll be in there in person to take questions. Event details are here and below:

Thursday, June 3rd 2010
7:00-9:00 PM
Urban Eats Café
3301 Meramec Street
St. Louis, Mo. 63118

Not to spoil the fun by tackling this topic early, but there seems to be a dissonant chord among some St. Louis bloggers and observers that I wanted to talk about first. Some people feel that bloggers, and their blogs, are merely creating noise and that feet aren't hitting the pavement. In other words, St. Louis's urban blogs might be inspiring discussion, but there's not enough action resulting from this dialog.

I can go along with this statement easily, but only because we should never be satisfied with the level of citizen involvement we currently have. We can pat ourselves on the back for progress, sure, but we can also always do better.

But there are some commentators on the Blog City notion that suggest something further than the above--that bloggers are talking about the wrong things and may be even harming any efforts to create meaningful change in urban St. Louis. After all, blogging about your favorite streetscape in Dutchtown or the outcome of the Preservation Board hearing doesn't do anything for St. Louis's quality of life issues that hold it back: crime, education, poverty, etc.

Sure it doesn't. What urban blogging does do, however, is get people excited about their city and interested in parts of it they had perhaps never seen or never felt connected to. The next criticism to level against this statement is, well, are we only strengthening the singing voices of the choir, preaching to the converted? Maybe so. But an engaged and informed core of people willing to do anything to advance their city is not a bad thing, no matter if it appears to be a small percentage of the overall city's population or not. We need these people and their passion.

Besides, most blogs and their bloggers never set about blogging with the expectation of creating a paradigm shift in the city of St. Louis. Most people just love their city and want to share it with those who'll listen. Most of us bloggers have been surprised at the positive reception of the general public towards our posts. Dotage St. Louis, for one, was never begun with the intention of launching a political campaign, creating better schools, or ending poverty in the city. If my blog could do these things, I'd never quit clicking the keys. As I've put it in the past, Dotage is my love letter to the city that gave me so much. I owe to St. Louis the person I am today, whom I generally like.

If I've convinced one person to go out and proselytize about Carondelet's limestone cottages to a wider audience, then, in my mind, Dotage has been successful. If we bloggers happen to be helping cobble together a coalition of people seeking urban change along the way, then I am beyond thrilled, and am honored to be a part of it.

A note to would-be bloggers out there: don't start with a lofty goal of solving the problem of crime and violence in the city. Just let your passion flow forth and see if anyone gets caught in the stream.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

South Grand Branding

The Grand South Grand business district is searching for a logo that will capture the visual aesthetic of the area. Three options have been provided on their well-used Facebook page. Which do you prefer, if any?

Number One?

Number Two?

Or Number Three?

While commenters on Facebook have not been kind to number two, I like its reference to Tower Grove Park and the neighborhood and business district's relationship to it. What sort of symbols, colors, etc. would you use to capture the essence of South Grand?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

City to River - Get Involved!

Rarely do I copy a blog post and re-post it in its entirety, but I am doing so on behalf of City to River. CTR is the most exciting case of citizen activism in a city that's becoming known for it. We deserve a city for people, not just for cars, and so any Archgrounds redevelopment should remove the barrier of both the elevated and depressed lanes of I-70. Read more on their website. The blog post is below, and is linked here:

What is City to River doing to make the boulevard idea a reality?  City to River is an all-volunteer advocacy organization working on many fronts to bring the idea of highway removal to all the key decision makers in the Arch design competition.

Time is of the essence and City to River needs your help.  Here’s what we’re up to and what you can do to help:

City to River is:
  • Meeting with finalist design teams to advocate for the inclusion of I-70 removal as part of the Arch grounds design competition.
  • Earning endorsements of our vision from property owners, developers and other stakeholders.
  • Encouraging the public to contact both Mayor Francis Slay and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Superintendent Tom Bradley to express their support for the removal of I-70.
  • Communicating with local elected officials to express support for the removal of I-70.
What YOU Can Do:
  • Contact Mayor Francis Slay, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Superintendent Tom Bradley, and our  downtown Aldermen to express your support for the removal of I-70 (contact info below).
  • If you have contact with downtown developers, businesses, or property owners, tell them about City to River and the boulevard idea.  If they would like to learn more, connect us with them and we will provide them with information about the effort and how they can help.

Mayor Francis Slay
Phone: (314) 622-3201
Twitter: @mayorslay
Address: Mayor’s Office
City Hall, Room 200
1200 Market Street
St. Louis, MO 63103

Superintendent Tom Bradley
Phone: (314) 655-1600
Address: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
11 N. 4th Street
St. Louis, MO 63102

Alderman Phyllis Young
Phone: (314) 622-3287
Address: City Hall, Room 230
1200 Market Street
St. Louis, MO 63103

Alderman April Ford-Griffin
Phone: (314) 622-3287
Address: City Hall, Room 230
1200 Market Street
St. Louis, MO 63103

Alderman Kacie Starr Tripplet
Phone: (314) 622-3287
Twitter: @KacieStarr
Address: City Hall, Room 230
1200 Market Street
St. Louis, MO 63103

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Modest Proposal for Guiding Tourists Around St. Louis

The Baltimore Visitor Center is located on Light Street, just adjacent to the city's bustling Inner Harbor.

All photographs by Michael Powers

This is a simple, but not un-serious structure to show to visitors. Its contents are much better than its exterior, though.

Inside are booths with brochures grouped by activity. A spacious front desk was staffed by four attendants when I visited. There is even a small theater that plays a Baltimore promo that looks as if it dates to 1997. My favorite part, though, was Baltimore's boasting of its ridiculous number and variety of neighborhoods:

Here are some random shots of the facility:

Baltimore does a great job of branding itself as a maritime/seafood destination. Crab paraphernalia is everywhere, as are sailboats, seen above.

This is the basics: have well organized booths where tourists-on-the-go can grab information about local attractions and restaurants.

The Inner Harbor was absolutely packed when I was there; the visitor center therefore had a good amount of pedestrians strolling through as well.

Two people staffed the welcome desk while two others roamed the floor.

St. Louis needs its own propaganda theater.

Guess what else? The Baltimore Visitor Center is located just outside a splash fountain popular with children...

I would like to see a nice St. Louis Visitors Center on Gateway Mall, specifically the block that houses Twain, better known as the Serra Sculpture. The center would feed into what has become a destination for St. Louis--Citygarden--much as Baltimore's does and could help visitors interpret and interact with the Serra Sculpture more than ever before. In addition, obviously, it would serve all the functions of that any visitor center should. The neighborhood map is a must!

I'm aware that St. Louis already has something similar to the example shown above in Baltimore. I volunteered briefly with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission at the Visitor Center on the northwest corner of 7th and Washington. This seems like a great spot, connected to the convention center and closer to the Loft District. The space, though, to me was a bit underwhelming and the programming is not as good as Baltimore's. With St. Louis Centre being retooled into a parking garage, perhaps it would be better to pick up operations and move the center to the Gateway Mall, where it could have an interplay with Citygarden and truly show the city at its best.

Using an extant storefront for this purpose would be fine, too. Basically, this post is just a plea for our visitors center to produce video propaganda promoting this city and to put up a neighborhood map. We can do at least that. We can all move along, now. Nothing else to see.

Monday, May 24, 2010

What Will Become of the Penrose Park House?

Built in 1902 by a private owner, the Craftsman home at 4961 Penrose was later acquired by the City of St. Louis, and the land around it became today's Penrose Park. This property was used as the park keeper's house until the 1980s, when it was abandoned. The Board of Public Service recommended demolition in 1997. Though this never happened, the Penrose Park House did appear on the Preservation Board agenda in May of 2006 with a fresh demolition request.

In the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) staff report, Kate Shea recommended approval of the demolition permit. The CRO's reasoning was that the city did not have the funds to maintain the home and that the park's master plan contained drawings for an public amphitheater on the site. A demolition permit was applied for on April 26, 2006, but no work commenced. The permit was canceled on March 12, 2008.

The city's Geo St. Louis website contains April 2010 photographs of the building still extant, albeit decayed. What are the plans for the Penrose Park House?

This Google Streetview capture, probably dating to mid-2009, shows the battered beauty and its bucolic surroundings.

Lafayette, Forest, Carondelet, and Tower Grove Parks all have historic houses within them. Urban parks with remaining park houses are much better at relating the history of the neighborhood. It's sometimes the case in St. Louis that parks and gardens were created by clearing buildings on site. In our most historic parks, though, historic homes were trapped within or specifically built as park houses. It's nice to have a physical piece of history dating before or during park construction.

Private homes within public parks can work. There's one in Tower Grove, on Magnolia, that to my knowledge is privately owned.

Maybe the Penrose Park house could become an "Aldermanic Mansion" where the elected official of the ward would reside?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Downtown Dutchtown's Vital Signs Improving

Just a few short years ago, when I worked as an intern at Dutchtown South Community Corporation, a humble coffee joint (Java Joe's) and a pair of small antique shops were about all that a once vibrant stretch of Meramec Street could claim. The one true anchor of the business district was Winkelmann's Drug, a pharmacy open since 1913 at the southwest corner of Meramec and Virginia. Java Joe's closed for good soon after I completed my internship. While I'm not 100 percent certain, I believe the antique shops are by appointment only, or have random hours otherwise. The street was clearly not at its best.

Today, the story of Meramec, and the overall outlook of the street, is much different. A dedicated group, the Downtown Dutchtown Business Association, or DT2, is working to attract businesses to the neighborhood commercial district. So too is recently elected 25th Ward alderman Shane Cohn.

The Java Joe's space, and, I believe, another short-lived coffee shop, gave way to Urban Eats, Dutchtown's best little cafe and hangout spot. Urban Eats is cozy and has an innovative concept: couture wraps and pizzas. Their food is made to order and exactly to your liking, from the type of bread on up. They also have a really nice retail shelf of Dutchtown and St. Louis-related items. Urban Eats must be given credit for infusing Downtown Dutchtown with the right energy level and a sense of creativity and community all at once.

Urban Eats
3301 Meramec

Twice Blessed Resale Shop, across the street from Urban Eats, is a not-for-profit store run by the folks behind Our Lady's Inn, which serves homeless women in the St. Louis region. The staff is friendly, its wares somewhere between free and dirt cheap, and its profits help keep the shelter afloat.

Twice Blessed Resale Shop
3302 Meramec

Another newcomer to Downtown Dutchtown is the Virginia House, an art gallery sheltered in a diminutive brick Dutchtown storefront that was vacant for quite a while.

UPDATE [5/21/10]: Reader Maude has informed this blog that the Virginia House is no longer an art gallery, but will soon be home to a boutique produce market, which will accept EBT and WIC! Awesome! Reader Dan tells us not to fret over Virginia House; they're looking to expand because their first two events were too big for their space! All around great news!

Virginia House
4219 Virginia
Facebook Page

Pre-renovation shot, from their Facebook page.

And post-renovation, shot in artsy Polaroid, also courtesy of the Virginia House Facebook page.

Here's a nice photo of the outdoor gallery space as well:

The newest kid on the block, though, is Refabulous, a consignment shop. Definitely worth a visit for its incredible prices and great selection of men and women's clothing, the owners are delightful as well!

3314 Meramec

I have a pretty trustworthy feeling that we'll see more movement on Meramec quite soon.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Building Better Blocks

The folks in Oak Cliff, Texas--a suburb of Dallas--have much to teach urban St. Louis about how to use its streets. (Digest that for a moment!)

The Better Block project in Oak Cliff did just that--made a forgotten little commercial corridor a much better block, if briefly. A team of artists and community activists set about reclaiming a stretch of one-way, car-friendly road that had a bunch of vacant but pedestrian-oriented commercial buildings.

They painted a bicycle lane, created faux-pedestrian lighting, received donations of plants for some on-the-go streetscaping, and even went so far as to install one-day-only "businesses" in each vacant storefront. A flower gallery, cafe, and children's art studio popped up on the stretch overnight. The point was to show what a narrowed, enlivened street that accommodated all modes of traffic (pedestrians, cyclists, and cars) could look like one day of the year so that residents could demand such an environment 365 days a year. The event organizers' wishes soon came true, as city officials soon expressed a desire to make the installation permanent. Several businesses leased the empty spaces immediately afterward as well!

Their fruits of their efforts, under a paltry $1,000 budget, were nothing short of spectacular. Here is a shot of a before (bottom) and after (top) of the bettered block:

You can watch the video of the street's metamorphosis below:

The organizers even left admirers with a "How To" guide for creating a better block in your own city...which is exactly what St. Louis should do. One of the best observations made by the Block Betterers is that the owners of the vacant space essentially get the most up close and personal marketing available. What a great way to generate interest in forgotten commercial districts across the city!

Of course, I got to thinking of where in the city would be most appropriate for such a project. The purpose of the project is to take a stretch of road that is highly visible and highly trafficked and return it to its original pedestrian-oriented function. (Cars are still allowed, albeit on a narrower, safer road).

Initially I thought of Olive Street just west of Taylor in the Central West End. It has many empty storefronts and could truly shine with the Oak Cliff treatment:

However, Olive Street has storefronts that have been vacant and sealed for quite some time. Just the task of getting the owners to remove the boards and make the properties safe for staging might be too much of a hassle. Plus, more importantly, the road is probably far too quiet and off the beaten path to make the same impact as shown above in Dallas. (As a plus, though, the south side of Olive appears to have pedestrian lighting already in place. Yes, I said only the south side. The north side of the street falls within another ward. Sigh. Another plus is that nearby Bowood Farms could donate some trees for streetscaping.)

So after giving it a bit more thought, I think I found the perfect spot.

That's a shot of Gravois Avenue at Victor Street. This stretch has a series of mixed use and commercial buildings not unlike the Dallas road. Gravois is a high-speed road, incredibly visible, and yet, in this strip, is still largely intact.

Imagine the above scene with a two-lane road in place of six. A green bike zone clings to each side of the road; historic street lamps adorn an artificially expanded sidewalk; trees and shrubs soften the industrial grayness of the street. The Dallas team included lots of artists, and Good Citizen Art Gallery, already extant on Gravois, could take the opportunity to make this temporary re-do of its host road something of an outdoor art exhibit. The strip already has a bakery, with Bittersweet Bakery, and a recording studio, Shock City Studios, among other businesses, so the pressure to create fake, one-night-only businesses is lessened. Yet, of course, there are still enough unfilled storefronts to change the dynamic of this part of Gravois from expressway to true urban business district.

So what do you think? Who's willing to put a St. Louis Better Block project together? If you agree with me, and think we should take over a block of St. Louis, let's get started!

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Topics: Historic Preservation, Politics and Government, Development, Architecture, Urban Planning, Urban Design, Local Business, Crime and Safety, Neighborhoods, and Anything Else Relating to Making St. Louis a Better City!