Economy

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.

 

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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.)

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.

Just another roadside attraction in Oregon

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I have seen my share of roadside attractions and airports in my life. But every time I drive Oregon State Highway 18 to the coast, to surf, I marvel at the audacity of the  Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, created by Evergreen Aviation Airlines, an air cargo operation out of McMinnville Oregon. It has two 747s, including one mounted on the top of an air hangar (see it in the distance to the left of the photo).

The company was ubiquitous in Alaska during the six years I lived there, 2004 to 2010, so I feel a connection to Evergreen in my own personal way. Anchorage is one of the busiest air cargo hubs in the world, and I would see Evergreen air cargo planes parked with all of the other air cargo aircraft at Ted Stevens International Airport.

The museum is literally next to the highway, just before you turn off for McMinnville. I have never had time to visit, and I do not plan to stop. I usually come by here in off hours. Also, I have seen my share of aviation museums, including one of the best, the Museum of Flight in Seattle, next to Boeing’s south Seattle facilities.

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.

Rediscovering the Columbia River Gorge

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The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area is one of the most beautiful river canyons in the United States, if not the world. It runs along the mighty Columbia River, with steep, forested basalt rock walls, forests, and peaks on either side in Washington and Oregon.

I never tire of visiting the place. I first came here in 1983, when I started college in Portland. I fell in love with the historic Vista House. It was built in 1916 on a rocky perch for that new breed of traveler called a road tourist. It commands has a magnificent, sweeping view up the river.

Nearby you can find multiple waterfalls that spill down canyons, including one of the most photographed waterfalls in the country, Multnomah Falls. Those two falls plunge 620 feet by the historic lodge that was completed in 1925.

Further upriver, you can spot the Bonneville Dam, created during the Great Depression as a works project to control flooding and generate cheap hydro power that supplies the Northwest region. Unfortunately, the dams on the Columbia like Bonneville Dam also decimated the salmon runs. Still the Bonneville Dam, at mile post 42 on the Gorge, is well worth a stop.

When I visited today with an out-of-town cousin, we saw one of the massive turbines on display in front of the visitors center. We also spotted some of the many now-resident sea lions swimming in the water just outside the spillway.

I came away refreshed and feeling blessed I have such an amazing piece of geology and natural beauty in my backyard. Be sure to give yourself half a day if you visit.

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.

Travels through Trump country in 2015

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In September 2015, I travelled through the heart of the country that swung the Electoral College vote to Republican Donald Trump, giving him the presidency without a 50 percent majority and even behind Democrat Hillary Clinton. My trip had nothing to do with politics. It was about my past and my history, not the future of the country. But the trip was illuminating. I drove through some cities that once formed the bedrock of our industrial economy: Detroit, Toledo, the Ohio River petrochemical corridor, Canton, Akron, Cleveland, and Sandusky.

Even thought I didn’t spend time to explore all of those communities, it was easy to spot the remnants of the industrial past that has dramatically downsized in the last 30 years from globalization, mechanization, and trade policies. These have lead 4.5 million manufacturing jobs to leave the United States since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994. Detroit, of course, stood out, as the nation’s great symbol of industrial dislocation, which began long before NAFTA was signed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. I could not believe how far this area had fallen, and all without any meaningful attention from our two major parties and the nation. The new economy means these were the losers, and nobody in power likes losers.

So when the Trump tornado rolled onto the national stage in 2015, and promised to make them winners, I knew that he would find fertile ground in Ohio and Michigan. I knew that instinctively, simply because I had done a drive by. Why was I, as an outsider, able to see this and those in power and leading a national campaign not aware of what would happen on election day. (See my essay on that topic.)

Where I live in Portland, the Multnomah County Library twice rejected my proposal to host a presentation I offered on these issues through the prism of Detroit. I think the Library failed to do its job as the place for civic discourse because my show would make Detroit look bad (news flash, it is in crisis and has been for decades) and because economic dislocation in the Midwest means little to the nation and especially to those on the West Coast. There is a progressive bubble out on the West Coast that is completely disconnected from the gritty, nasty world that exists in the rest of the country, and even in rural counties in the Northwest.

One of the most chilling takeaways from me was the poverty I saw everywhere in Appalachia in southern Ohio, from Chilicothe, to Waverly, to New Boston –areas that are both economically distressed and hard hit by opioid addiction.  On the Ohio side of the river, I saw more than a handful of Confederate flags hanging in windows of homes and on the back of vehicles. This was an area ready and ripe for a messenger, who claimed he would make America great again and bring back jobs. On election day, when I saw the results come in, I already knew how Ohio and Michigan would fall in the Trump column for electoral votes. I had seen the vote outcome with my own eyes a year earlier.

Revisiting an abandoned Detroit public school

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A year ago, in September 2015, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I saw things I could not imagine were possible in the supposedly most powerful country in the world. I toured the city and observed impoverished neighborhoods, shuttered factories, empty homes in every corner of the community, and the omnipresent ruins from arson that have made the Motor City the arson capital of the United States. Detroit had a surreal feel. I called it City of the Future and published several photo essays and a photo gallery on my web site. The most memorable and heart-wrenching place I visited was the now shuttered Crockett Technical High School, at the corner of St. Cyril and Georgia Street.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

In my last photo essay on this gutted and neglected facility of learning, I recounted that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) recently had implemented a painful round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. In sum, 16 school buildings were closed permanently. In the previous decade, enrollment in the system had fallen 100,000 students, and by 2012-13, enrollment was about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

What I learned during my visit to Crockett from two friendly neighbors who were across the street would have been intolerable in nearly any other major U.S. city. I wrote in my September 2015 photo essay, “They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.” The tragedy was compounded, according to one of the neighbors, because the school had been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

When I jumped into the old school, I saw newly built science labs completely trashed, eerily similar to how ISIS extremists would destroy monuments of culture and civilization in Iraq and Syria. But in Detroit’s case, the vandals were not crazed religious radicals, they were local residents, scavenging for scrap and destroying either for pleasure, anger, or both.

You can watch this June 2015 Detroit area news report on the scrapping at Crockett–all caught on live footage, with impunity. As one resident trying to protect abandoned public schools said, “How we can we hold off scrappers when we don’t have a license to arrest.”

Today, the DPS is rated the worst in the nation for test scores. In May 2016 The Atlantic reported, “… the country has probably never witnessed an education crisis quite like Detroit’s.” And, then to no one’s surprise and certainly not to anyone in Detroit, no one really gave a crap. What happens in Detroit no longer seems to matter, no matter how awful and absurd.

After my trip to Detroit, I spent about four months trying to get respected Portland universities to host a lecture and photo show (click on the link to see how I presented the concept) on the decline of Detroit and how it looked in 2015. I was turned down by Portland State University, my alma mater Reed College, the University of Portland, and the Multnomah County Library. I made repeated requests to multiple faculty and these organizations.

The topic may just be too depressing or impossible to comprehend. Even worse, the story about mostly black Detroit and its current woes, like the simple destruction of one fine public schools by the community itself, did not fit a narrative of race that is preferred many people at this time. A dominant narrative will always defeat an alternative story, particularly one that is rooted in ugly reality. I suspect this yawning disinterest was a combination of all of these factors.

To accept the reality of what Detroit is requires confronting painful issues about the United States that have not been addressed by our national political system. What we see instead are two candidates vying for the presidency who have used Detroit as a prop and photo-op to tell an economic story that does not resonate with the lives of people struggling in the city. Those two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, know little to nothing about the ordinary people in Detroit and have never stepped into any neighborhood where schools are abandoned, houses are burned, and blocks have gone feral. If one day one of them or any presidential candidate actually visit a place like Crockett, then I will retract this judgement

But let’s be honest. No one running for the nation’s highest office will ever see or want to see the real Detroit.

Note, I published the same essay on my I Wonder and Wander policy blog on Sept. 30, 2016.

Amid reported Turkish coup and chaos, a fond memory of ordinary people

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The last 24 hours has seen some of the wildest news I can recall in a while, at least for modern nation states in Europe and its Asian-European neighbor, Turkey. I came home from work on July 14, 2016, only to be bombarded by images of a murderous rampage by a sole terrorist driver in Nice that took at last count 84 lives. Than not a day later, I returned from a walk and discovered a coup in Turkey. TurkeyCoup Report

Turkey is a modern state. It is a democracy, with rough edges. It is also a key European and U.S. ally, with a major military base (Incirlik) that serves vital Western and U.S. interests in a violent, civil-war torn region. And now there are reportedly tanks in Istanbul, helicopter gunfire ships strafing government sites in the capital, and people being shot during protests as part of a reported military coup to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is hard to know the full truth. There are many real and also fake Tweets, so I will just see how this plays out.

This all makes me think of the time I went to Nice in 1985, while studying in France. I walked the Promenade Anglais, where the horrific attack took place during a celebration of Bastille Day. I cannot imagine what happened in my mind’s eye. And I was in Turkey in 2000, in places now cropping up by the second on the latest Tweets from the front lines of a reported coup. So today I just decided to publish a picture that brings me a sense of calm. It is a picture I took just before I left Turkey, taking a boat to Samos, Greece. This was a family I met at a local restaurant. We enjoyed each other’s company. They were not that different from me. They were struggling to run a small business and live a good life. I am wondering about them and the many other people I met in Nice and in Turkey right now.

Steady leadership is now needed from the people entrusted to lead. I have faith in my leader now to do that. But these times are straining democracies and reason, I am concerned cooler heads will be challenged to prevail.