Architecture

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.

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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.

What city is this that rises like the River Nile

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I just visited Seattle for the first time in about a year, and I came away disoriented by the massive developments underway on the south end of Lake Union.

If you are not familiar with this location, Amazon.com has its world headquarters located here, without any identifiable corporate identifier telling you that you are in the center of its global and growing empire. Multi-billionaire, real-estate mogul, and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen was the big bucks developer who brought his personal vision of a techie, corporate Seattle to this once under-developed area of warehouses and retail.

My alma mater, the University of Washington, itself a corporate institution that is focused on real-estate acquisition and business partnerships, has developed the UW at South Lake Union complex here to promote biotechnology and medical research, with a vision of developing profitable revenue streams. One of its new buildings is well under construction too, as seen in the photo essay.

Good, Bad, or Unknown?

I left Seattle in 2014. Since that time, construction has taken off even more intensely in this area. The success of Amazon has also fueled the city’s runaway and skyrocketing housing costs. These also have driven many lower-income and now middle-income residents outside of the city, which some say is a larger reflection of growing income inequality. That is one reason I left.

The Stranger, the city’s alternative weekly, noted in April 2017 that the tech bubble is not the only driver—out-of-state and out-of-country investors, including hedge fund dollars and Chinese-source foreign capital, are helping to fuel real-estate speculation. “We do know that 38 [percent] of purchases in Seattle real estate are done with cash, which is a red flag suggesting something is out of whack,” reports The Stranger.

However, Amazon is having an outsized role in the rapid changes underway. In its Aug. 23, 2017 piece, “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s biggest company town,” the Seattle Times described Amazon’s role in Seattle this way: “Amazon so dominates Seattle that it has as much office space as the city’s next 40 biggest employers combined. And the growth continues: Amazon’s Seattle footprint of 8.1 million square feet is expected to soar to more than 12 million square feet within five years.”

Fisher Auto Body Plant

The once state of the art Fisher Auto Body Plant in Detroit is now a crumbling ruin.

Historic Parallels? 

Seeing the multiple building cranes and stacks of bland, new office towers in the South Lake Union area reminded me of the golden age of Detroit, my home city. Motown is now the poster child for urban failure in the minds of many planners in the United States and even internationally. From a peak population of nearly 1.8 million in 1950 and once the epicenter of the nation’s manufacturing sector, it entered into a long downward spiral in the 1960s and never recovered. It is now a shell of its former greatness, struggling to reinvent itself in a post-industrial, post-NAFTA world.

So, Seattle, plan well and know the party cannot last forever. All great things reach an apogee. Some great beacons of power and commerce collapse quickly, and others slowly. Rome or Beijing or Istanbul may be eternal cities, but their mighty and powerful empires came and went.

(Note from Author: Yes, the title of this article is a play on words from the Bible, from Jeremiah; I could not resist, and I am not a member of any religious denomination.)

Remembering my travels in Turkey, in and around Adana.

 

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Today I read another wonderful post about the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s travels in south central Turkey, near Tarsus, by Carole Raddato, a German-based ancient historian, classicist, and travel writer.

Her Following Hadrian website is one my favorites because it combines travel with history, archaeology, excellent photography, and creative scholarship. Like Raddato, I am a student of historic civilizations, including the Roman Empire.

Raddato’s descriptions of Hadrian’s journey near Tarsus, a historic city from the Hellenic period onward and the birthplace of the Apostle Paul, brought back memories of my own journeys to Tarsus, Adana, and historic Armenian communities in 2001.

Here are a couple of photos from my stopover in Adana.

One shows the Sanbanci Merkez Camii (mosque) at sunset. When this picture was taken in 2001, this mosque in Adana was Asia’s second largest. The other photos shows the ruins of  the fortress of Sis in the old Kingdom of Cilicia, a stronghold of the Armenian people in Anatolia that was conquered by the Egyptian Mamelukes in 1375. That conquest, like many others, was not kind to those killed and captured. The fortress is located in modern-day Kozan, about a two-hour local bus ride from Adana.

(Note: This post was updated on Oct. 14, 2017, after I learned Carole Raddato’s surname.)

The Murals of Cottage Grove

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In 1994 and 1995, I worked as a reporter in the small Willamette Valley community of Cottage Grove (pop. 10,000 as of 2017). The city is 20 miles south of Eugene, along the Interstate 5 corridor. When I was working there, the old economy based on timber production and milling was shutting down, and one in five residents was living near the poverty level. In terms of that grim statistic, not much has changed. Today, more than one in five live in poverty, according to the last Census count.

I reported on just about everything in Cottage Grove as a local reporter: crimes, sports, civic life, local government, police, fires, successes, tragedies, inspiring people, pets, redevelopment, land use battles, racism, anti-racism, and more. I loved how I was exposed to all of humanity by simply writing stories about people’s lives.

I paid a visit to Cottage Grove on my way through in early August 2017. I stopped at my old employer, the Cottage Grove Sentinel, and walked through the historic downtown. It is still a beautiful place, with old brick buildings and merchants working to keep civic life and that social place alive.

Some big murals caught my eye. One of the iconic Coca-Cola brand liights up an otherwise dull brick wall. The other celebrates the many covered bridges near Cottage Grove and the celebrated writer and local resident Opal Whitely, painted in 2001 by artists Connie Huston and Howard Tharpe. There are just some of the city’s mural art.

Whitely was born in 1897 and died in 1992. She was a child prodigy, and also schizophrenic. According to a Cottage Grove historian and writer, Stephen Williamson, at the age of 21, she traveled to Boston with her book, The Fairyland Around Us, considered one of the most remarkable blends of science and faith ever written. He writes, “The Atlantic Monthly turned that book down, but did publish her childhood diary. It quickly became a worldwide best seller. Presidents and kings read it. Mothers named their babies after her. Opal was an international star–at least outside Oregon. Opal’s diary describes the life of a lonely child from logging camps in the Cascade Mountains.”

Whitely eventually moved to Europe, where she spoke of abuse growing up and not being related to her family. Eventually her mental illness worsened and she was “committed” to England’s psychiatric system, where she was poorly treated. Says Williamson, “The gifted child genius from Oregon’s wilderness spent nearly fifty years buried in a tiny cell on a crowded asylum ward. In the 1950’s she was given a lobotomy.” She died in the place that imprisoned her for decades.

Today, however, Whitely lives on as one of the main tourist attractions for the community. If you are travelling down I-5, pull off. Travel to the city center. Take a walk. Shop. Eat at a local restaurant and see all of the murals. You can then pause and reflect upon one of Oregon’s most famous daughters who died in a virtual prison, whose only crime was being hyper-creative and afflicted with a mental illness.

 

Finding hidden treasures in St. Louis

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I love exploring St. Louis and its neighborhoods. Many are hurting, and my blog posts about the city’s struggles never hide that fact.

What I like the most about my journeys of discovery in St. Louis is taking side streets.

Without fail, I find new art work (check out the gargoyle on the factory corner), businesses, factories, and sadly buildings and homes in decay and various stages of abandonment. The old Columbia Iron Works facility, which I photographed, is a symbol of the changing economy from manufacturing to information and health care, which do not produce any goods or good blue-collar jobs. A health care foundation was reportedly moving into the abandoned factory site.

Outside of distressed areas, one can find breathtaking works of architecture and homes that would fetch a fortune in “hot” real-estate market cities like Washington, DC, or San Francisco.

On an upbeat note, St. Louis remains a beautiful, historic place. Here are some of the homes, local businesses, artwork, and surprises I found driving through Forest Park East, Botanical Heights, Shaw, Tower Grove East, and Dutchtown neighborhoods.

St. Louis is a city worth discovering, even if you have lived there for decades.

Sunbeam at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

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St. Peter’s Basilica is the heart of global Catholicism and the main house of worship for the Catholic Church in the Vatican City, the tiny but influential nation-state located in beautiful Rome.

I took this shot in 2006. I had a basic point and shoot camera. The lighting as magical inside the massive building, which was designed by Italian architect Donato Bramante, in the early 1500s.

I first remember seeing a painting of the interior of the cavernous and enormous basilica at the St. Louis Art Museum as a kid. That painting, Interior of St. Peter’s, Rome, by Paul Panini Romae from 1731, was on my mind as I wandered in the sanctuary, with thousands of other visitors on a hot October day.

One of the lessons I took away from visiting St. Peter’s and the Vatican City was a simple one. Never underestimate the power of the Catholic Church.