Documentary Photography

Finding hidden treasures in St. Louis

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

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.

Happy 150th Birthday, Canada

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To all of my Canadian neighbors to the north, I wish all of you a very warm happy birthday.

Canada is more than just a neighbor to me and my country. It is my former employer. I worked for more than eight years with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now called Global Affairs Canada). I served “queen and country” (the head of state is the Queen of England, FYI) at the Consulate General of Canada Seattle and the Consulate of Canada Anchorage, which has now closed.

In my work as a political affairs and information officer, I helped to promote Canada’s foreign policy and trade activities in the United States. The two countries, during my employment, were the world’s largest trading partners. They share the longest un-militarized border in the world. Canadian men and women serve side by side with American men and women in joint military activities. In Anchorage, where I worked, Canadian Air Force personnel served on AWACs planes that were deployed in the arctic to monitor for Russian military incursions and other possible threats. The list of our common interests could run pages.

I also had the good fortune of traveling widely in Canada. I visit the Yukon Territory, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. I loved every province and territory and have wonderful memories, even during my winter trips.

I learned to appreciate the “Canadian way” of governing. They have managed to create a single-payer healthcare system, started in 1966 through the Medical Care Act, that makes America’s overpriced and inefficient system look like the failed system that all data show it is. They do not allow the mass sale and widespread distribution of firearms (Canada has a national gun registry), like their American neighbors. Canada has affordable and world-class universities that enable their lower- and middle-class youth to climb ladders to success, compared to their debt-burdened student counterparts south of the border. I could go on how they do it right.

So while not every Canadian may be happy today, including many First Nations residents who see independence as a reminder of lost rights and colonialism, I think most of us can share in the happiness that comes with 150 years of providing the world with a model how to co-exist and lead in an era of conflict. Bon anniversaire, amis!

Sellwood is the place to be, if you can afford it

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I live in the tony neighborhood of Sellwood, in southeast Portland. It is one of the whitest and most upper-middle-class areas I have ever lived in. Overall, I really like it here because of the many amenities I can stroll to by foot.

It is a safe place with an amazing walkability score, if you are into real-estate speculation. I love the local eateries, the nearby public library outlet, the pubs, the winery, the bakery, the New Seasons food store, the Wednesday farmers market, and access to the Springwater bike corridor that connects with north and east Portland.

So why the heck wouldn’t everyone want to live here, if they could afford homes at $750,000 or more? Why wouldn’t developers consider tearing down existing homes and rebuilding massive mega-houses, condos, and new apartments given the logic of real-estate development and the construction industry?

According to the website of the local neighborhood association, the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League, or SMILE, there are more than 30 projects underway in the Sellwood and Moreland neighborhoods.

In the past month it startled me how quickly a house can be torn down, trees cut, and land leveled for some medium and higher density projects. In some cases there are just McMansions that are testaments to the pure gluttony of excessive wealth, and we have those in this area. More are surely coming.

A lot of commercial building activity is taking place, in areas zoned for that. But the demolishing of a home is always jarring. The promotion of higher density development in the inner urban areas of Portland like Sellwood have also spurred a housing and rental crisis that saw Portland’s rent rise at the fastest rate in the country in 2016.

Density not Entirely Welcomed

There is an active, homeowner-driven backlash against higher density, often pitting middle- and upper-middle class homeowners against each other in some areas near me, notably the upscale Eastmoreland neighborhood, while other areas like my neighborhood are seeing the impacts of higher density during the past three years.

I overall support higher density, but I am deeply worried very little affordable rental housing stock is being built, further limiting the ability of lower-income and middle-income renters to enjoy what may soon be off-limits to many.

In the November 2016 election, city voters by a strong margin approved a $258 million bond to build more affordable housing, but it is not clear how those dollars will be spent long-term.

Just this week, Oregonian reported, “Renters, stretched financially and pushed geographically toward Portland’s outskirts and suburbs, loudly demanded solutions—joined in some cases by powerful business interests who saw the issue as a threat to the city’s otherwise growing economy.”

The paper said a typical two-bedroom apartment is now out of reach for most residents. Those are people very similar to me. The paper further noted, “The city’s concentration of struggling renters has only grown. Rents have climbed 30 percent since 2012.”

Meanwhile the bulldozers are clearing a few lots, and I can bet that most of the coming replacement units are not meant for those in my income bracket.

Renewal and Decay in The Grove

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My trip to St. Louis in March took me into new neighborhoods, including the area known as The Grove. It is located along Manchester Avenue, in the south central section of the city. It is an excellent example of both decay and renewal in a city that continues to see its population decline to barely more than 300,000 from more than 800,000 six decades earlier.

I visited the area in October 2016 and drank beer at the popular brewpub called the Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. It is a trendy watering hole known to beer connoisseurs and travelers. Most never venture two blocks away to see homes that are shuttered and abandoned. In fact I saw several abandoned and beautiful old homes on Manchester Avenue less than 150 yards from the Chestnut, near the iconic electric sign announcing “The Grove” as you enter the business strip heading east. This dichotomy captured for me the struggles of trying to save a city that has been on the decline for more than half a century.

The Grove itself is located in the official Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood of St. Louis. Created in 2009, the Grove Community Improvement District has worked to restore the area. Its website boasts that urban decay has been licked along the main business district on Manchester: “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.”

When I drove through the area, I saw many homes from the early part of the 20th century in various signs of decay. I did not feel that safe having my car parked only one block off of Manchester on a calm spring night.

It’s a heavily industrialized area, next to interstates and rail yards, and home to industry along with commercial establishments. Many homes just two to four blocks south of Manchester were shuttered. There were visible signs to rebuild and restore many of these distressed buildings. They had the signs of the development firm Restoration St. Louis spray painted on plywood on entrances. Restoration St. Louis’ website boast of its efforts to preserve historic buildings through what it called “urban husbandry”–an expression I have never heard of before, which to my mind blends animal breeding with urban renewal. The firm also has plans to tear down and build new multi-story dwellings, similar to what one finds in high-density areas of West Coast cities.

I have little insider knowledge of the local politics and efforts to maintain the area and keep it going. One of the best resources I found is published by Mark Groth. He has  extensively profiled all of St. Louis’ 79 neighborhoods. His profile of Forest Park Southeast, on his website www.nextstl.com, offers a rich archive of images and a discussion of efforts to redevelop the area. He notes a few trends toward gentrification, such as an increasing white population and decreasing black population. He calls the area “up and coming.”

Groth’s work is wide-ranging and visually dynamic. It is far more accurate than the occasional parachute journalistic profiles of St. Louis, such as the one CNN recently ran in its story on Feb. 16, 2017, on the supposed rebound in St. Louis and Kansas City (St. Louis and Kansas City Bounce Back). Such reporting does a disservice. It denies the evidence plainly visible to anyone who drives a car through the city. It also downplays the complexities of addressing decades-old problems of racial divisions and redlining, de-industrialization, and policies that promoted suburban development at the expense of older urban communities like St. Louis.

Also See my first photo essay on The Grove, published on April 2, 2017.

 

 

Shuttered in St. Louis

Readers of this blog know that I have been documenting the struggles of St. Louis through photo essays. These topics cover a range of issues, from the decline of industry to the racial segregation and widespread abandonment and decay in North St. Louis. My photo stories are fueled in part by nostalgia for the city of my youth, when factories still hummed and the city had hundreds of thousands of more residents–more than 600,000 residents called it home the year I arrived. My memories of the past now collide with the free fall that has long been underway since the 1950s. By being an outsider who visits yearly, I now get time-lapsed snapshots, each time I visit to see my family.

Today, St. Louis’ population is barely 300,000, and many sections of the city are depopulated, filled with empty buildings and homes. Large factories have long moved away, including the iconic Corvette plant in North St. Louis.

During my last trip in March 2017, I visited some new areas, surprised to see signs of hope and also continued signs of despair.

I will be publishing a more detailed essay soon on The Grove Neighborhood, in south central St. Louis. The area, anchored by the business corridor on Manchester Avenue, stretches between Kingshighway and Vandeventer. Here are just a few of the buildings I found in this self-defined revitalizing area. The streets do not look that different from the more distressed North Side, where the majority of African-American residents call home. The brick structures, despite their neglect, still stand proud. I always try to imagine life decades earlier, when optimism abounded and the craftsman built the structures brick by brick, not knowing their destiny. I wonder what they might think if the could foresee the fate of their handiwork decades later.

Grand Boulevard tells a story of St. Louis’ historic decline

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During my most recent visit to St. Louis in mid-March 2017, I drive more than half of the once-elegant Grand Boulevard, one of the city’s main south-north arteries. The route took me from the heart of St. Louis’ historic Midtown neighborhood, in the center of the city.

I headed north to the city’s historically impoverished and African-American neighborhoods. These lie north of the city’s unspoken dividing line for white and black residents that has an unfixed border running east to west, through the old and glorious industrial city. That line has always meant blacks on the north and whites on the south, though it remains blurred in more recent years.

The landscape along Grand Boulevard reveals severe economic distress that has seen St. Louis shrink from nearly 880,000 residents in 1950 to barely 311,000 in 2016. The numbers keep falling.

I wrote about the decay in North St. Louis in June 2016, documenting through my Leica lens the blight I saw throughout this once magnificent area. (See my photo essay: “North St. Louis, a gentrification-free zone.”)

Grand Boulevard put that pain on display almost too perfectly.

As one drives north from Midtown starting at St. Louis University, one first sees the Fabulous Fox Theatre and then the majestic Powell Hall, home of the once world-renowned St. Louis Symphony. (Use Google Street View to begin the tour and point your browser north from Powell Hall.)

Heading further north, the decay is instantly visible. As one drives past St. Alphonsus Liguori Catholic Church, the signs of poverty and distress can be seen in shuttered businesses, homes, and churches. Entire blocks are cleared, and what remains is a ghost of former grandeur.

Going further north, you can pass by the old Schnucks grocery store, at Kossuth Avenue and Grand, which closed in 2014 due to lack of profits, leaving the entire north side of the city with just one grocery store.

After you cross Florissant Avenue, in the deep core of North St. Louis, you can spot the magnificent Corinthian column known as the North Grand Water Tower, a historic landmark. It is a sad reminder of St. Louis glory days as a city to be reckoned with economically and architecturally.

Next to the column stands one of many abandoned Catholic churches, Most Holy Name of Jesus of St. Louis Cathedral. It was closed by the St. Louis Archdiocese in 1992. It boasts power and pride of the people who made it and their confidence in their community and city.

Of course one cannot avoid talking about race, segregation, deindustrialization, the loss of factory jobs, out-migration, the impact of the federal Interstate Highway System, and more when discussing the distress in the blocks that intersect Grand Boulevard.

These changes are described in detail in Colin Gordon’s 2009 book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. As one reviewer wrote of his study on my former home town: “Once a thriving metropolis on the banks of the Mississippi, St. Louis, Missouri, is now a ghostly landscape of vacant houses, boarded-up storefronts, and abandoned factories. The Gateway City is, by any measure, one of the most depopulated, deindustrialized, and deeply segregated examples of American urban decay.”

Anyone visiting St. Louis should do this drive to see the painful, magnificent, and still evolving history of a Midwest city. It is a story also showing the decline of the United States as a manufacturing nation that once supported family-wage jobs that have disappeared in the last half century.

My own Shawshank Redemption tree

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I love driving out to the Oregon Coast. I have been doing that regularly since I took up surfing late last summer. My normal route, on Highway 26, passes through rural stretches of Washington County, which are not developed because of the state’s urban growth boundary rules. About 20 miles west of Portland, just before you hit the coastal range, stands one special tree that always reminds me of that mighty oak tree, in the film the Shawshank Redemption.

In the scene, the former Shawshank prisoner Ellis “Red” Redding visits a field where he finds a majestic white oak tree. Stashed in a stone wall by the tree, Red’s best friend and escaped prisoner Andy DuFresne has left a stash of money and an invitation to join him in Mexico. The scene, beautifully directed by Frank Darabont and masterfully acted by Morgan Freman, always gives me hope. When I see this tree, I  always think about hope and redemption, and those are good things.

72nd Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Donald Trump

Today, January 27, 2017, is the 72nd anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp/Birkenau Death Camp. (There was a third camp too, the slave factory called Monowitz.) The facilities are a short train ride from the historic and beautiful Medieval city of Krakow, in southwest Poland.

I visited the camp three days in a row during my tour of Europe in 2000, when I toured five countries and documented the legacy of the Nazis crimes against humanity that claimed at least 11 million lives in the camps. The majority of the victims, here at Auschwitz/Birkenau, were Jews, but the camps also practiced genocide on Gypsies and Soviet POWs, throughout the Germans vast camp and prison system. The majority of the nearly 1.1 million murdered at Birkenau, the main killing center, were Jews from Europe.

Today, the United States also marks its first week under the United States’ first openly totalitarian strongman who embraces the tactics, ideology, and the support of fascists. A certified Nazi, in the words of Howard Dean, Steve Bannon, is a senior policy advisor with direct access to the Oval Office and President Donald Trump.

In one week the world has seen Trump take radical actions that mark the clear tilt to fascism, which in Nazi Germany found its gruesome manifestation in death camps like Auschwitz. Trump did the following:

  • Confirm a wall with Mexico will be built,
  • Defend torture–yes torture–to a global audience,
  • Promote Orwellian ideology now called “alternative facts,”
  • Muzzle government agencies,
  • Sign orders to try to begin removing basic and health insurance access for nearly 30 million Americans,
  • Attack the scientific process by demanding all U.S. EPA scientific research receive political approval,
  • Sign orders that promote policies with pipelines and immigration that enrich his personal wealth,
  • Threaten to defund American cities where he faces political opposition on immigration matters,
  • Lash out at all critics who reported his inauguration was vastly less attended than President Barack Obama’s, and
  • Continue to promote proven lies of alleged voter fraud, when in fact he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.

fierce-urgency-of-nowDuring my trip in 2000, I asked myself a question, repeatedly: what would I do if confronted by a man like Hitler, a regime like Nazi Germany. I always assumed I would see it coming and be able to respond in time. I think that time has arrived. I think the response for now is to fight this, here on this blog, and with my feet and mouth at events, and tactically empower our somewhat feeble minority party in Congress to try and slow down the GOP’s and Trump’s plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and our modern welfare state. The “fierce urgency of now,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it, is truly NOW! I admit, I am scared, and it can be a positive emotion because it forces urgent action.

Six historic missions in six days

During my surfing-themed trip to some of southern and central California’s premier surf destinations, I also visited six historic California missions. In its colonial territories in North American, the Spanish colonial government and Catholic Church established 21 outposts throughout coastal and western California, starting first in San Diego and then all the way north to San Francisco.

I visited in order: San Juan Bautista, San Miguel Arcángel, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Carmel, and Santa Cruz missions. Collectively, the missions tell a story of the state’s transition from thousands of years of habitation by Native Americans, to conquest and ultimately cultural destruction at the hands of first Spain, then briefly Mexico, and finally the United States. Franciscan fathers converted thousands of Native Americans and their treatment overall was more humane than by the later American settlers and the U.S. government. Some historians, and even mainstream publications like Newsweek, have described California Natives’ collective historic experience, particularly during the era of U.S. control, as genocide because of the total collapse of Native culture and their demise, including to infectious diseases. Today there are 110 recognized tribes in the Golden State, and tribal rolls there count more than 700,000 people with Native ancestry.

Two of the missions I photographed, San Juan Bautista and San Miguel, both mentioned the graves of thousands of Indians who died in and around the missions during their long life span. Little evidence of their graves and these Native Americans’ role serving these missions is provided to tell their full story at colonial outposts that ultimately sought to assimilate and conquer the native people. Still, I love these places. They are a window on the past that is mostly forgotten. If you are in California, for holiday or if you live there, put them on your itinerary. You will be taken back in time.

California “mission surf”–a success!

Click on each photo  to see a larger picture on a separate picture page. Note, I used a basic point and shoot Canon–these photos were not meant to be fine art or high resolution. They do, however, tell a story.

I just returned from a six-day surf and tour adventure in southern and central California. It exceeded my expectations. I needed to cleanse all of the mounting stress from work, other life issues impacting people around me, and current events from Syria to my increasingly polarized and right-leaning country. The Pacific Ocean, and its cleansing waves and water, are a good way for me to detoxify the mind and soul. Reality has not changed, but my ability to respond creatively to it has vastly improved.

I originally had planned this trip to hit the great surf beaches from Santa Barbara all the way to Arcata. However, an injury delayed my departure by more than a month. When I left, on Dec. 1, winter had arrived, making any visit to surf spots north of San Francisco untenable. My first night camping at El Refugio beach dipped into the 30s. That was the last night I decided to camp. So, I adapted and focussed on three renown surf spots: Santa Barbara, Morro Bay/Cayucos, Santa Cruz. My surf stops included:

  • El Refugio State Beach Park, where I camped and caught mostly small waves on a calm day.
  • Sand Beach, in Santa Barbara (also called Coal Oil Point), by the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I surfed for two days and had some amazing rides and great moments in a beautiful place. Great surfing by the Santa Barbara women here.
  • Cayucos, in Morro Bay, where I caught some waves that tossed me around like a feather; I prematurely timed my visit in the water two hours before things settled down.
  • Pleasure Point, in Santa Cruz, where I first tried to ride waves at 38th Street and then moved closer to where the really great surfers were long boarding at Pleasure Point.

My skill level did not improve that much, so maybe I am a slow learner. It was definitely worth the time to do this. The rides that I did catch brought on that huge Buddha-like grin. Even the bad news about the latest appointments to the new Trump administration did not send me into despair as it might have a week earlier.

The other highlight of my trip were my visits to six historic California missions, where the Spanish colonial government and Catholic Church established outposts throughout coastal and western California, starting first in San Diego and then all the way north to San Francisco. I visited in order: San Juan Bautista, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Carmel, and Santa Cruz missions. They tell a story of the state’s transition from thousands of years of habitation by Native Americans, to conquest and ultimately cultural destruction at the hands of first Spain, then briefly Mexico, and finally the United States. Two of the missions I photographed, San Juan Bautista and San Miguel, both mentioned the graves of thousands of Indians who died in and around the missions during their long life span. Little evidence of their graves and these Native Americans’ role serving these missions is provided to tell their full story at colonial outposts that sought to convert and conquer the native people. Still, I love these places. They are a window on the past that is mostly forgotten. I will do a photo story on them shortly.

In the end, my “mission surf” project brought many rewards. The photographs are just pleasant reminders what filtered into my skin.