Architecture

Forest Park in dawn’s early light

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Forest Park in St. Louis remains the crown jewel of the greater St. Louis area. A visitor will find an incredible array of amenities that are not found in most U.S. cities, or even in great cities of the world.

The park features a world-class art museum, an excellent history museum run the Missouri Historical Society, a popular public golf course, miles of trails for bikes and pedestrians, the world-class St. Louis Zoo, nature areas, festivals, lagoons, and occasionally visiting wildlife. I saw a snowy egret on one of my morning runs last weekend.

A nonprofit organization called Forest Park Forever now provides strong organizational and fiscal support to steer the park’s development and strategic planning needs. Given the fiscal challenges facing St. Louis, this approach likely will pay strong dividends for the entire metro region, which collectively benefits from having a free and accessible public park of this stature.

As a former University City resident (raised there) and longtime visitor to the St. Louis area over the decades, I cannot separate my love of the park from my concern for the metro region. The park’s current success in fulfilling its mission remains at odds with the prolonged pain of the City of St. Louis’s decline and de-urbanization. One needs to keep in mind the larger challenges facing the city, and its many residents who are struggling and whom the park serves, if you come and enjoy it any day of the year.

I took all of these pictures on a three-mile stroll along Lindell Boulevard to the Missouri HistoryMuseum, to the St. Louis Art Museum, through the wildflower savannah off Skinker Boulevard, and back to my starting point. You cannot beat a St. Louis morning walk like this in Forest Park!

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Is The Grove the face of gentrification in St. Louis?

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St. Louis’s efforts to revitalize some declining neighborhoods can be seen in changes in an area called The Grove, along Manchester. Located in south-central St. Louis, The Grove itself is located in the official Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood. As I noted in an earlier post about renewal and decay in The Grove in April 2017, the Grove Community Improvement District was created in 2009, and has been working to restore the area.

The district has boasted how it turned around urban decay along on Manchester, seen in the rise of major anchor business establishments like the Urban Chestnut Brewery (a favorite of mine): “Known for its diverse community, The Grove is home to several LGBT friendly businesses, several of which lead the initial wave of investment in the area, starting with Attitudes Night Club opening in the 1980s. In recent years, community members devoted to filling one vacant storefront at a time, have revitalized the district.”

But is this change truly evidence of gentrification, as that term is understood, in the city?

Gentrification or De-Urbanization?

Todd Swanson, professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, just published a thoughtful essay this month asking, “Is St. Louis Gentrifying?” His analysis looks at available data and concerns from local groups about reported gentrification in the struggling city. Despite fears of gentrification in the mostly African American neighborhoods of North St. Louis, he claims there is no evidence this type of change is occurring in this area: “If you go to Zillow.com, you will find that there are almost no houses for sale … and the few that are often sell for less than $50,000.”

By contrast, he looked at the data and found change resembling gentrification is occurring, in areas that I documented with photos I took in The Grove: “The Central Corridor is booming with growth in medical, biotech, and various tech start-ups. My research on neighborhood change in St. Louis documents that there are, indeed, what I call ‘gentrification-like’ processes going on. Young professionals who work in the Central Corridor are moving in to the Central Corridor and nearby neighborhoods to the south.”

The day I took these photos in April 2018, I met a long-time African-American resident and duplex owner, who lived next the units that were being remodeled and shown here — all of these shots were taken within four blocks south of Manchester. The father and homeowner said he welcomed the change, higher-end apartments, and the remodeling. It increased the value of his property and improved the quality of life in his immediate walking radius. He said he planned to hold on to his property, keeping it in his family.

This sentiment may not be shared by everyone seeing change. Swanson notes, “For the black community, concerns about displacement have a real basis in history. In the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal and highway building forcibly displaced tens of thousands of African Americans. ‘Gentrification’ is a shout out by people who feel they have little control over their lives and their neighborhoods.”

Swanson suggests a different and more nuanced vocabulary is needed to describe change where there are rising neighborhoods, but without the massive displacement seen in red-hot cities like San Francisco and New York.

“Today, however, the big disruptive challenge facing older industrial cities like St. Louis is not gentrification but depopulation and disinvestment — not re-urbanization but de-urbanization,” he writes. “Contagious abandonment and the decline of solid working and middle-class neighborhoods are the most pressing issues facing St. Louis — not gentrification.”

 

 

 

 

Back to where it all began, in Detroit

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Last month, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I was born here and lived in the city less than a year. My family moved to Boston and later to St. Louis. Despite that short period of time, I am forever connected to the Motor City. I was, quite literally, made in Detroit.

I also was relinquished for adoption in Detroit, a topic that I explore in my new memoir on the American adoption experience. More specifically, I was born in Crittenton General Hospital, a facility that was created to serve single mothers in 1929. By the 1940s it had transformed into a maternity hospital that promoted adoption as the most suitable plan for single mothers. Like thousands of other babies born at the hospital, I was surrendered to an adoption agency, placed in foster care, and eventually adopted by my family.

Crittenton General Hospital opened in 1929 to serve the maternal health needs of mostly single women.

My birthplace was torn down in 1975. I examine the legacy of my birth place on the website for my book. The hospital location in central Detroit, a few blocks off of the John Lodge Freeway in central Detroit, is now the location of the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home. There is no memorial or marking indicating the building that stood on the property for decades earlier, serving literally thousands of patients, mostly mothers and infants. If a person did not know the story of the hospital and its role in promoting adoption, they would never know the history of this place.

The surrounding area today shows the economic distress that still is prevalent throughout greater Detroit. Some homes are kept tidy, while many others, as well as apartments, are showing decay.

I wrote about my feelings returning to the place where I came into this world more than five decades ago. I felt a mixture of exuberance and also sadness seeing the place on earth when I came into being.

One cannot undo one’s past. It is the foundation upon which one build’s an identity and place in the world. I am glad I have reconnected with my roots after all of these years.

 

Some of my fondest memories of summer

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This “midsommar,” or midsummer as Americans might call it, marks the 20th year since I first flew to Greenland to explore, pursue some old passions of Viking exploration and colonization of the arctic, and do some serious backcountry travel.

I succeeded on all fronts. I ended up visiting Greenland three summers in a row, in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

I made some amazing treks (Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq, Igaliku to Qaqortoq, Brattalid/Qassiarsuk, to Narsaq) during each trip.

I made friends with local Greenlanders, who invited me into their homes and took me seal hunting and fishing.

I befriended several Danes, including two doctors, who made sure to extend hospitality to me when I visited their country.

I also participated in a celebration of the 1,000th anniversary of Leif Ericson’s arrival in southwest Greenland.

I thought about Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic) this week as we entered that magical time of 24 hours of daylight in the arctic. In 1998, I hiked all night on June 21, 1998, north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun never set and the mosquitos never slept!

Here are a few photos highlighting the magic of that place, its people, its culture, and beauty. I hope they bring you some joy as in the northern hemisphere celebrates the arrival of summer.

So why visit Lansing?

 

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This week I visited Lansing for the first time. Let’s be clear. The capital city of Michigan is not on most travellers’ A-list for tourism. Lansing is where you go if you are interested in deal-making and crafting legislation in Michigan.

I came for one reason only: to speak to state lawmakers and their staff, in order to promote legislative change to reform Michigan’s adoption laws that deny all Michigan-born adoptees equal rights by law. (See my website for my book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, focusing on adoptee rights issues for more information.) I also brought my sturdy Panasonic-Lumix DC-ZS70 camera, hoping to take a few pictures of a new place.

With just 116,000 people, Lansing is not a large city. It caters, like much of Michigan, to the internal combustion engine in design and layout, except downtown. There, everything revolves around the state Capitol Complex, which houses Michigan’s state government services. The epicenter of that is the Michigan State Capitol, which opened in 1879.

All told I spent two days in the city. I commuted to the capital from a run-down hotel in neighboring East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. The MSU campus surprised me with its stately academic buildings and serious efforts to encourage transportation to the campus by bike and bus.

Lansing is an older Midwest city attempting to revitalize its urban core along the Grand River. Upscale loft style condos have been built near the river in downtown and next to the Cooley Law School Stadium. The ballpark is home to the city’s minor league club called the Lugnuts—and what a great name. They were away when I was in town.

Not far from these gentrifying spots are social service centers on Michigan Avenue helping the area’s homeless. Signs in neighborhoods make clear residents are united in fighting crime and that the city is struggling, with 17 percent of its residents living in poverty. One report from four years ago claimed Lansing was among the county’s poorest capital regions.

I greatly enjoyed my walk along the Lansing River Trail. The trail is actually a 20-mile network of converted railroad lines that link Lansing with the MSU campus and the greenways south of downtown. I loved it.

I also enjoyed the Lansing Brewing Company, next to the Cooley Law School Stadium. I tried one of the local stouts and was surprised by its freshness. It was a beautiful late spring night when I came, and everyone was enjoying the nice weather, bluebird skies, and camaraderie that one finds in brewpubs nationwide.

April in Paris? Mais, non, c’est le printemps à St. Louis

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Lafayette Square in St. Louis is one of the most beautiful urban spaces in the United States. It remains mostly hidden from outsiders because of the city’s relatively lowly status as a tourist destination for U.S. and international visitors.

I frequently visit Lafayette Park, the oldest park west of the Mississippi River, and the surrounding Lafayette Square neighborhood. when I see my family on home visits to the St. Louis metro region. I stopped by in Mid-April and soaked up the scenery.

I did not experience the sublime pleasures of “April in Paris,” as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong so eloquently evoke, but I had a fabulous time enjoying April in St. Louis.

St. Louis Downtown: Ghost Town at Locust and 21st Street

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Less than a mile west from the state-of-the-art Busch Stadium and Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis, a visitor will find empty streets and an urban environment almost devoid of people on a weekend. This used to be a bustling area decades ago, before urban planners, our interstate freeway system, development, and white flight in cities like St. Louis drew people from historic urban centers to the suburbs.

St. Louis is not the only city struggling to encourage redevelopment in its urban core, to make its downtown a place where people want to live, play and work. But whenever I travel to the city of my youth to visit family, I am confronted, visually, by the permanency of the change that turned once vital urban spaces into practically human-free zones.

I was struck by this sensation during my mid-April 2018 trip to St. Louis. After visiting the historic Old Courthouse, I drove to the multi-block site of the now demolished Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. It is now a giant and fenced-in field of rubble, weeds and trees, decades after the high-rise housing blocks were demolished in 1972 and the complex was acknowledged as a failure in our national public housing strategy. It is also the story of the death of American cities in the 20th century.

Not far from this fenced-in area I found the Schlafly Tap Room, the cornerstone brewpub of the St. Louis area’s premier microbrewing company, Schlafly Beer. The tap room is located at Locust and 21st Street, a mile due west of the Mississippi River. The beautiful old building used to be home of the Swift Printing Co. Across the street you will find the stately Lambert Building, also known as the T.M. Sayman Products Co. building, dating from 1891. It is an example of what is called Richardsonian Romanesque. The structure’s striking red sandstone facade embodies the confidence of the former St. Louis, when it was a major industrial city that was ascending.

At this intersection, I stopped. I got out of my car and walked to the middle of the four-way intersection. Not only did I not see any people on a chilly Sunday afternoon, I did not see any cars driving by. It was as if the whole area in all directions had been given orders to flee because of some imminent threat. I took my pictures and left, leaving the urban ghost town behind.

For a more detailed description of this area of the city, please see this excellent photo essay on the outstanding Built St. Louis website. The essay on this section of St. Louis ironically notes, “The ground-level arches of the entryway can be seen in the 1981 film Escape from New York, posing as part of a postapocalyptic New York City.”

Scenes from my St. Louis catalog

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I was in St. Louis a week ago for a family visit. I did not get a chance to explore the city like I normally do.

Still, I was inspired to dig up some of my pictures that I took between 2105 and late mid-2017. They show the city as it is.

The areas include the neighborhood surrounding the SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, the Fox Park Neighborhood, and South Broadway, near the Annheuser-Busch factory. It remains one of the most interesting cities I know to explore block by block.

South St. Louis County on a clear fall day

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Normally when I visit St. Louis, I spend part of my time exploring hidden neighborhoods that I know little about or where the city’s history, glory, and struggles are on full display. During the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I found myself travelling to communities I barely knew, located southwest of the city.

I drove along the corridor that parallels the River Des Peres, which long ago was turned into a partially buried and open air wastewater and sewage system that frequently floods. My route passed through the communities of Maplewood and then Shrewsbury, which border southwest St. Louis. It is a landscape dominated by this so-called “river” system, a major rail corridor, and industry. The presence of retail outlets like Dollar Tree, Shop ‘n Save, and Wal-Mart reveal the income levels of those who live nearby. You will not find a Whole Foods or Starbucks or trendy coffee shop in this area. In fact, those who are affluent can live their whole lives in St. Louis and never come through here.

While taking some photographs at the end of a sunny day, I noticed a massive church tower in the distance and drove to it to investigate, because in St. Louis and the surrounding area, you will find some of the most amazing religious buildings anywhere in the United States. To my surprise, I discovered the Kenrick Glennon Seminary of the St. Louis Archdiocese, located in Shrewsbury. It is an enormous educational and religious facility, with a single-facility complex larger than any other university in the St. Louis area (a place that boasts many universities).

The seminary, with its brick and institutional design, resembled architecture I associate with public hospitals and mental institutions built in the 1920s and 1930s across the United States. Construction began during the Depression, in 1931. It also has an air of grandeur and confidence, built when the archdiocese could afford to invest the capital to train its future clergy. The seminary recently made news for a fundraising effort, signalling possible financial troubles keeping the massive facility afloat. According to press reports, only 133 seminarians train here, also signalling the church’s facility likely will need to find future uses.

 

Ostia Antica, Rome’s working port city

 

 

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Despite my misgivings about social media these days, I find it is one of the finest places to learn about ancient history and archaeology. I am now following multiple websites that showcase the civilizations of the Mediterranean from about 2,000 BC onward, particularly Rome. One of my favorites, run by Carole Raddato, covers the world of the Roman Empire in the era of Hadrian. On it, you can explore Roman life, history, and historic ruins, which can be found in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

These websites have inspired me to dig up some of my photos I took in 2006 of the ancient port city of Roman called Ostia Antica. I never published these as a series until now.

The city dates from 620 BC, lying at the mouth of the Tiber River. It was once a vital port, supplying critical goods like wheat to the mighty city of Rome. Today, it is a beloved archaeological treasure, a short trip from modern Rome by subway. It is well documented in travel guides, such as those published by Lonely Planet and Rick Steves. If you want to really work up an appetite for a trip, see this drone footage from the regional tourist agency.

I recommend using the links I just referenced to learn about its past and take a walking tour of the great Roman ruins there, reportedly the finest in Italy outside of Pompeii. You will find remnants of a great bathhouse, apartments, the market of the guilds, public bathrooms, tombs, and more. Mosaics are still intact that capture startling realistic renditions of the natural world and charismatic fauna like tigers, bears, and dolphins.

The city is referenced in the HBO miniseries Rome, which is well worth watching to catch a surprisingly accurate view of life in the once mighty empire at the time of Julius Caesar. If you do go to Rome, by all means put this on your list. Of all of the Roman ruins I have seen on three continents, it is among the best to give one a feeling for the lives of ordinary people in a working city more than 2,000 years ago.