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In late winter 2021, trail users on Portland’s Springwater Corridor were suddenly greeted with Northwest, Coastal Salish, and Alaskan Native imagery on utility towers and graffiti-covered surfaces of the Ross Island Bridge.
The artist, Stephen Cutler, appears to be a Portland-based creator who has been using Native imagery for years in his work. I do not know if he has Native ancestry or if he has worked with Native artists. I also do not know if groups whose iconography he uses have weighed in on these creations.
Appropriation of Coastal Salish, Tlingit, Haida, and other tribal cultural traditions has been going on for decades, sparking controversy about the rights of non-Native persons to use traditions that are not theirs. These important discussions about cultural appropriation have not ended—and the voices of those whose traditions are being used by others needs to be centered in all discussions and displays of such work.
At the same time, I also know that art is never meant to remain static. It never has been as long as humans have created art since they first painted wild animals in caves many millennia ago. Creation involves taking ideas and inspiration from others and reinventing those creations to make something new. In addition, anyone from the public who encounters art, I believe, can both like something that is beautiful and question the larger story around it.
As for these new murals, I like them, aesthetically. They are vital. They adhere to beautiful traditions I have seen first-hand in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, including in living studios of Native and First Nations artists in those places. These pieces also bring life to an area that is shared by the public. It is a space used all residents for biking, hiking, walking, and other sports, and it is a de facto home to Portland’s large houseless population, who live in the elements a stone’s throw from where you see these pieces. So far, no graffiti artists who tag the concrete and steel spaces in this area have covered these pieces. It appears there is respect by that community too.
If you find yourself in Portland, take a stroll. They pieces can be found just underneath the Ross Island Bridge, on the east bank of the Willamette River.
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I became a passionate cross-country skier mostly because I had the good fortune of living in Anchorage from 2004 through 2010. There I was blessed with a fabulous and publicly-owned set of multi-use trails and trail systems in parks. I could ski sometimes nearly six months a year, depending on when the first snows came and when the last snows melted.
I mostly remember skiing being very accessible to nearly everyone because the trails were close to home and because gear was not too expensive for the basic set up of boots, poles, bindings, and skis. You could even get used equipment.
The local group promoting the sport and maintaining the trails, the non-profit Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, was committed to youth inclusion for all residents. That meant all young people, regardless of race.
When I lived there, Anchorage was more diverse than many outside of Alaska think, with about 65 percent of the residents who identified as white and 35 percent being non-whites, with the largest group being Alaska Natives. Some of that diversity could be seen in the faces of the young skiers competing for the high school teams and on the trails. But even then, in this very democratic and outdoor-oriented place, the faces I saw skiing were like me—white.
However, cross-country skiing in Anchorage is not like cross-country skiing in the rest of the United States. Today the almost entire lack of diversity of this sport nationally remains cross-country skiing’s great Achilles’ heel. That reality is not addressed with the type of debate that is needed.
In my view, everyone who does this sport, either Nordic or single-track style, knows this racial breakdown whenever they ski. If they do not, they are willfully fooling themselves from the facts before their eyes every time they clip into their skis and head out on trails in recreation areas that remain almost exclusively the domain of white Americans.
Race and country-skiing are mostly taboo topics in the multimedia world dedicated to the sport and those who do it. However I found one recent article on the racial divide in this sport I still love on the FasterSkier website. Refreshingly, it confronted the basic facts about the folks who do the sport and the factors contributing to its glaring and overwhelming whiteness.
Skier and writer Ben Theyerl wrote in an article published in August 2020: “The demographics of where the places that harbor Nordic ski communities are on a map allows this statistic to go unchecked. The trail networks linked to small rural towns and resorts that are historically, and presently, white, shelter us from having to confront and come to terms with our sport’s lack of racial diversity. So do the images of our heritage as a Nordic community, and of what it looks like to be an elite Nordic athlete. … We can choose as a community to stay on this sheltered path, or we can take the road less travelled for the Nordic community to finally discuss the overwhelming whiteness of our sport and the places that we do it in.”
Cross-Country skiing in Washington and the Methow Valley
As a former resident of Washington state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then again through 2004, and finally 2010 to 2014, I have cross country skied there during the winters of my now former state. My adventures over these years took me at different times to the scenic Methow Valley, in Okanogan County, just south of the Canadian border and west of the Cascade Mountains.
Once an area that had homesteads and ranches on former Native American lands, it is now dotted with second and third homes of the upper middle class, the wealthy, and also the extremely wealthy—many from the Seattle area.
Since my first visit in late 1987 to this past weekend, I have seen it transform into a year-round recreation area that promotes winter sports and cross-country skiing. The residents who live and have lived there famously developed a wonderful trail community during these decades. That is seen in the group called the Methow Valley Trail Association (MTVA), which is a non-profit organization that maintains the incredible network of classic and single-track trails, snowshoe trails, and now fat-tire bike trails.
According to the MTVA’s website, the volunteer-led group maintains “over 200 kilometers (that’s 120 miles) of cross-country ski trails in the winter months,” and that network “is recognized as one of the finest trail systems in North America for Nordic skiing, mountain biking, trail running and hiking.”
I would argue that the Methow Valley is, without question, one of the finest cross-country ski areas in North America thanks to its geography, plentiful and mostly predictable snowfall, and the good work of these volunteers and donors who support this form of recreation. The area, like so much of the United States, also has racial divisions that can be seen in where most of the county’s non-white residents call home.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, Okanogan County had a population of 42,104 as of 2020. The sparsely populated and beautiful mountainous county includes the towns in the Methow Valley like Winthrop and Twisp and neighboring cities like Omak. The Census Bureau reported that the county is 64 percent white (non-Hispanic or non-Latino), followed next by Hispanic or Latino at 21 percent, and American Indian or Native Americans at 13 percent. The diversity from the two next largest groups can be found in communities closer to the Colville Reservation like Omak and towns like Pateros and Brewster, where agricultural work is plentiful and Latinos have long-settled because of farmwork-related employment opportunities like other communities in central Washington.
However, that diversity is not visible in the Methow Valley. During my recent three-day visit, I saw some visitors who I would identify as having Asian ancestry, but no one on any trail who was African American. Most of the skiers I saw on the gloriously groomed trails were white like me. It is a fact that one cannot ignore when enjoying the beauty of this great sport. This fact has not changed in the last 12 years since I began skiing there after returning to the Lower 48 from Alaska (as Alaskans refer to the lower states).
The Future in Washington’s wealthy, winter Shangri-La
As the ski community grew in the Methow Valley in the last two decades, so did the country’s income inequality gap. That gap has accelerated the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller number of richer Americans since the Great Recession, and more recently the pandemic.
That wealth concentration can be seen in patterns of land use in the Methow that are visible to any visitor who travels there. Those who can afford to purchase retirement homes and summer and winter second and third homes—mostly white and wealthy affluent out of towners—have chosen to settle in this area, with its spectacular vistas and abundant forms of recreation that cater almost entirely to white Americans.
Winthrop resident Solveig Torvik described this in her column from Aug. 4, 2021. “The Methow many of us so smugly assume is a model of a caring community with widespread civic engagement … reads instead much like a cautionary tale of a failed society,” she wrote. Torvik pointed to a study of the valley by a Washington State University sociology professor, Jennifer Sherman, who described the obvious divisions: “The Methow Valley is a deeply divided community where wealthy urbanites ‘blind’ to their privilege ‘hoard’ their social capital while impoverished, excluded, resentful rural old-timers struggle to survive.”
According to an Oct. 7, 2020 story in the local newspaper called The Methow Valley News, a virtual “COVID land rush” is underway, fueled also by the pandemic: “One thing it means is a dramatic increase in median home prices in the Methow Valley. The median home price in September this year was $440,000, compared to $329,000 in September last year and $312,000 in 2018, based on statistics [broker Anne] Eckmann compiled from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. In mid-September, there were 34 homes available for sale in the Methow Valley — 10 of them priced under $350,000 and eight priced over $1 million, Eckmann said.”
This is not that different than other winter resort areas in the country in Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. What’s different now is how visibly those new, rich residents have settled in the last 15 years in the Methow Valley, particularly around the town of Winthrop. I have seen that change since I first Nordic skied here in 2010 when I moved back to Seattle, and then visited a friend who lives near Winthrop. It had been eight years since I was last there in February 2014.
Battles over future comprehensive planning in the county and water rights remain active, with many newcomers seeking access to the limited water resources and groups seeking to manage and plan for future growth. Growing threats from climate change and wildfire also have further exacerbated debates over growth tied to the desires of the wealthy to live in the fire-prone wildland urban interface, in places like the Methow Valley. The battles will likely continue there, similar to conflicts in communities in the West that have confronted the old maxim that “water flowing uphill to money.”
I do not know when I will travel to the Methow Valley again. It is a 400-mile journey by car from my home in Portland.
I took this trip to take a needed break from my work on Oregon’s pandemic response. I needed a recharge, and Nordic skiing is one way I can do that. It worked, too.
I enjoyed my stay with a longtime friend who moved there years earlier, who shared with me the struggles she is seeing as a resident over development there. In the end, I am left with almost magical memories of groomed trails, snow-covered mountain peaks, and the ongoing awareness that this sport that I once did daily on a community trail in urban Anchorage is still not widely shared by many.
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Oregon, geographically and geologically, is an assemblage of parts that don’t truly make for a whole. Like its northern neighbor, Washington state, it is divided by ecosystems that also provide a rough border of the political divisions that have never seemed deeper, particularly following the dangerous four years of twice impeached former President Donald Trump.
West of the Cascade Mountain ranges are the state’s most densely populated areas, and they are more to the left in the northwest corner of the state. The lands east of the Cascades are sparsely filled. They include the northern farming counties of Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Union, and Umatilla.
On this trip I passed through Gilliam County, which features stunningly scenic rolling hills and an endless supply of wind that led to the siting of extensive wind farms. Outside of the federally recognized tribal holdings and communities, the areas is overwhelmingly white, but is now seeing an influx of some Latino residents, who do much of the agricultural work in this part of the state. Politically, this is as red as red gets anywhere in the United States.
I drove south from the Columbia River Gorge on Highway 206 through Condon, then took a right going south on Highway 19 through the abandoned intersection community of Mayfield to Fossil. Here is where landscape turned from rolling hills to deep canyons, revealing millions of years of geological history. Farms that draw from the John Day River line the roads that wind through a “scenic byway.” Some of these stunning geological formations are partially protected in a federal land management area called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area has some of the richest collections of fossils spanning a 40 million year period, showing the evolution of species, plants, and ecosystems that existed long before homo erectus walked out of the plains of Africa to populate the planet.
After a brief stop at the monument’s fabulous visitor’s center, I took a right and headed west on Highway 26 that took me through more stunning canyons, multimillion dollar ranch holdings of land barons, and to the turnoff for the Painted Hills Overlook, which are some of the most photographed hills in the annals of photography. I first came here in 2003 and had forgotten how stunning the scenery was.
After taking a great walk and taking my obligatory tourist photos, I jumped back on Highway 26 (the Ochoco Highway), which climbed through the scenic Ochoco National Forest, where sites of recent forest fires were visible. Along the way I observed how severe the drought conditions were, with the Ochoco Reservoir down at least 20 feet. I passed through Prineville, which once identified itself as a town tied its ranching and agricultural past, celebrated in its public art. In reality, it has become a bedroom community for nearby and fast-growing Bend, about 25 miles to the southwest. The community is now home to larger data servers that tap into cut-rate cheap federal power provided by the nearby Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River.
Facebook recently announced it was building two more buildings here on top of nine existing structures, with operations the size of 80 football fields. The new investments will cost $2 billion. Apple also operates large data farms here as well. These investments make the bucking bronco and cowboy sculpture feel as old an a Roman antiquity sculpture.
Rudy Owens at Paulina Lake, smiling because it snowed the night before in early June 2021.
I ended my drive in Newberry Crater, another national monument about 45 minutes southeast of Bend. This is one of my favorite places in Oregon. It similar geologically to the much more famous Crater Lake National Park, but more developed for campers and fishermen. The day I arrived it was nearly 32 F, and it snowed during the night. I had almost an entire campground to myself. I woke up with white stuff on my tent, and it was still the second week of June. I loved that, actually! From my campground, I did a long overdue nearly 8 mile run around Paulina Lake, which is one of the finest running loops I have done anywhere. That was worth the trip alone.
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During my last visit to St. Louis, I indulged myself. I decided to stay in a historic mansion that is now a a bed and breakfast called the Lehmann House, just off of Lafayette Park, in the historic Lafayette Square neighborhood of St. Louis. This beautiful section of urban space is unrivaled in any U.S. city. It was one of the earliest planned communities in the once mighty industrial city, and it catered to the very wealthy when it was developed in the 1800s. It was built around the oldest municipal park west of the Mississippi River, Lafayette Park.
I have shared photo essays on my blog before about the area’s exquisitely built brick homes and architectural styles. I did not have much time to enjoy the area as I had hoped, but I squeezed in two morning walks that were about as perfect as I can remember, ever. The light had that brilliant Midwest-morning Kodacolor glow, and the air smelled fresh from a recent rain. I wandered around the “hood” and snapped these shots, allowing my senses to guide me. If you visit St. Louis, you have to put this place on your list. You will then wonder what we have done so wrong in urban design since we built communities with craftsmanship and care not that long ago.
Today, April 6, 2019, marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. During the 100 days that followed its start, the ruling ethnic Hutu government organized the mass murder of more than 800,000 mostly ethnic minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the tiny central Africa nation. The world stood by and largely did nothing.
The war and genocide ended only when a rebel Tutsi army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (aka Rwandan Patriotic Army) defeated the government in a fight to the death that ended the mass murdering. Millions of Rwandan refugees then fled the country, leading to destabilization and civil war in neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the collapse of its dictatorship. Years of bloody war in eastern DRC and beyond followed and continue to this day.
I went to Rwanda three years after the genocide and then left after about three weeks. I succumbed to malaria and realized I could not accomplish my larger goal to report on the ongoing genocide trials. Violent reprisal attacks by Hutu extremists were taking place and the body count was rising. I decided to leave.
After I left, I did two more projects documenting genocide: in Europe, focusing on Nazi crimes, and in Turkey, focusing on Ottoman Empire crimes. After I completed my documentary project on the Armenian genocide, I was interviewed by a descendant of Armenians who fled the Ottoman Empire and survived the Armenian genocide in modern-day Lebanon. My Lebanese-Armenian friend, who did a story about my travels in Turkey to former Armenian communities, asked me why I did my project. This was my reply. I reflected on what I had learned between the time I was in Kigali, Rwanda, and the time I visited former Armenian communities that no longer exist in the fall of 2001:
My primary objective has been to use my camera as a tool to infiltrate the realm of evil. What ways do people express evil, this thing that seems to define the human condition? How do people express it? Why do they do it, and why do other people allow evil to triumph? What do they accomplish, ultimately, through evil?
That’s the nut I’m trying to crack by examining the genocides of the 20th century. If nothing else, this knowledge helps me live my life better. It’s now much easier for me to understand human history and human behavior because the very worst form of human activity, genocide, strips reality to its essentials. In other words, all that is not essential is not really relevant. Some concentration and death camp survivors see the world in these terms. For example, Robert Jay Lifton wrote about the Nazi doctors, and he interviewed an Auschwitz survivor, a dentist forced to pull gold from the teeth of dead prisoners. Lifton described his meeting with the dentist this way: “He looked about the comfortable room in his house with its beautiful view of Haifa, sighed deeply, and said, ‘This world is not this world.’ What I think he meant was that, after Auschwitz, the ordinary rhythms and appearances of life, however innocuous and pleasant, were from the truth of human existence. Underneath those rhythms and appearances lay darkness and menace.”
I left the memories of my genocide documentary projects behind me, though I still have essays on display on my website. I normally don’t think about these photos, but on anniversaries like today’s, I must reflect and, I hope, remember.
Norwegian musher and two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sørlie speaks with fellow mushers.
Norwegian musher and two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sørlie at the ceremonial start
Native musher Mike Williams, Sr., gets ready. He celebrated sobriety with his passion for the sport, later told in a memoir published about his life experiences.
Knapps Crossing had one of the best Iditarod parties I knew of during my years in Anchorage.
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There is nothing more true to the spirit of Alaska than the “last great race on Earth.” That race is none other than the Iditarod.
This world-famous and celebrated dogsled race, from the interior Alaskan community of Willow to the coastal community of Nome, covers more than 900 miles of Alaska’s backcountry in the freezing winter. Mushers, leading teams from 12 to 16 dogs, compete for mostly glory and cash prizes for the lucky top finishers. That glory is often international media coverage. Japanese and German media frequently make the visit, to name a few.
The race is followed live by dog lovers the world over. Those with deep pockets and plenty of free time fly to Alaska in winter to catch a glimpse of the annual ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage the first Saturday of March, followed by the official start on a frozen lake in Willow. A few of the rich visitors will pay a handsome fee to ride in a dogsled on the ceremonial 11-mile run that starts the race in Anchorage.
Race Origins and this Year’s Contest
The race’s origins are tied to the famous public health emergency in 1925. A diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, required that emergency medical supplies be delivered, and dogsledders made the journey. A statue in downtown Anchorage commemorates that famous event, honoring the lead sled dog, Balto.
Today’s modern Iditarod roughly celebrates that legacy and mostly follows the same difficult route, over mountain ranges, frozen berms, and through Native villages. Joe Redington Sr., an Alaskan musher whose family legacy remains well-known in the Great Land, worked with Dorothy Page to launch the modern race in 1967.
That first race had 57 mushers. This year there will only be 53, down from more than 80 when I saw the race start in person in between 2005 and 2010. The race has come on hard times in recent years due to dog deaths, drug tests, and feuds. Sponsorships likely have dried up to support a profession/passion that is like none other in the world. No musher can afford this sport without sponsors and/or corporate backers. Each musher is an entrepreneur, as well a master of a team of world-class athlete dogs.
The 47th annual running of the race begins at the ceremonial start on March 2, several blocks from where I used to work for six years. I could walk here from my house.
How I Enjoyed the Ceremonial Start Day
While living in Anchorage, I would always catch the race at two places. I would arrive early at downtown, before the dawn broke, to watch the racers and their support crew unload their sleds and dogs early in usually freezing cold conditions in downtown Anchorage. The night before crews of municipal workers would work til the early morning hours hauling in snow from streets normally plowed clear. At this staging area, dogs were kings and queens and mushers were royalty. Everyone, like me, was taking pictures.
I then would head to midtown Anchorage, where a family I knew hosted an annual Knapp’s Crossing Iditarod Party, just outside of the University of Anchorage. The dog teams would run by, the Knapps serenaded them with trumpet songs, and everyone cheered.
The pictures here date from 2007, the year cancer survivor and famous musher Lance Mackey won the race after competing and winning in the earlier Yukon Quest dog race between Fairbanks and Dawson City.
[Ed. note: I updated this post on March 3, 2019, to correct the number of mushers who competed between 1005 and 2010. The correct and revised number, “more than 80,” is listed above.]
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The totem artworks of the first peoples of Southeast Alaska, coastal British Columbia, and western Washington are among the most powerful art forms in the world.
These beautiful creations can be found in the historic communities of the first peoples of these regions, including modern-day Ketchikan, Alaska. The Tlingit and Haida Tribes call this area home, and their cultural, economic, social, and totem art traditions are alive and well, amazing visitors from around the world.
I visited Ketchikan several times during my six-year stay in Alaska from 2004 through 2010, when I worked for the Consulate of Canada, Anchorage.
I had forgotten I had these images until I accidentally found them in an old digital archive. I wanted to bring them out of the shadows and into the light.
These images date from 2007, so the totems since that time have been weathered by the relentless rain and moisture of that beautiful, soggy corner of North America.
If you visit, Ketchikan, by ferry or on the Alaska Marine Highway, you can find the totems at the Clans Totem Circle, at the Totem Heritage Center for historic poles safeguarded in climate-controlled protection, and at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.
To understand the meaning of this intricate artwork, the myths, and the natural world that inspired these magnificent creations, you should first understand the stories of those who created them. Try exploring the stories about Alaska’s Tlingit and Haida peoples.
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I took these images of the statue of Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott, and the Old Courthouse in St. Louis in April 2018. Slaves were auctioned from the courthouse steps in estate settlements prior to the U.S. Civil War. Today the courthouse is a National Park site because of its historic significance.
The courthouse also was the location of one of the nation’s most important legal cases. The Scotts brought their suit for freedom in this building in 1847, testing whether they would remain property of slaveholders or be freed. The Scotts’ quest for freedom ultimately helped to speed the divided country into Civil War, starting in 1861.
These images are fitting now because of another recent dangerous test of the United States’ democratic principles, this time by President Donald Trump. During an interview on Oct. 30, 2018, with the news site Axios, Trump claimed he could do away with birthright citizenship by executive order—in other words by dictatorial fiat. Such a move with sweep away the protections of the 14th Amendment of the United States and deny citizenship to children born of immigrants in the United States.
The 14th Amendment, ratified by Congress in 1868, granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” This included former slaves recently freed. It addressed the injustices highlighted in the famous Dred Scott case a decade earlier. It also barred states from denying citizen “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Not only was Trump saying he could ignore the constitutional separation of powers, his gesture sought to erase a constitutional measure passed after the nation’s bloodiest war in response to the denial of citizenship and core human rights to African-Americans. Trump’s latest statement was another in a series of dangerous moves to unravel basic democratic institutions in the United States.
The Old Courthouse in St. Louis is now a popular tourist destination in downtown St. Louis, where visitors can learn about the underlying national divisions and the institution of slavery that led to the nation’s bloodiest war from 1861 to 1865.
Who Were the Scotts?
Born a slave, Scott was brought to Illinois and Minnesota, where slavery were illegal, and later to Missouri by a slaveholding surgeon. The Scotts’ first owner died and the couple were then, like property, deeded to his heirs. In 1846, Scott and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom.
In a trial held in the Old Courthouse in 1847, Scott and Harriet Scott lost their case on a technicality. During a second trial in the same building, they won their freedom in 1850, but it was also appealed by their purported owners and heirs.
In 1852, The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the 1850 decision and defended slavery itself, saying that it places “that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations.”
The Scotts sued again in 1854 in federal court. The court upheld their right to sue, but the jury found that the Scott family members still were slaves. The Scotts’ lawyer next appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In 1857, the nation’s highest court ruled that Dred Scott’s suit for freedom should be dismissed because African-Americans were not considered citizens. What’s more, Congress could not intervene to pass laws limiting slavery because the Constitution ensured the right of property.
The case was one of many triggering factors that erupted in the ensuing four years, culminating in the start of the Civil War after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the Untied States.
It is not without irony that Trump’s latest pronouncement revisited the very measure that sought to end the root injustices and moral failures of the most divisive chapter in U.S. history. My own view is that Trump intentionally seeks to sow deeper divisions and establish precedents for authoritarian power under his presidency. Disturbingly, he is doing this in the light of day and not in the shadow of war, as past presidents have done in the name of national security.
Pat Connolly Tavern in Dogtown, south of Forest Park
World-famous Ted Drewes frozen custard
Cinderella building on Cherokee Street, in South St. Louis
Cherokee Street in South St. Louis, a ghost town in the middle of a work day
Bill’s Custom Cycles, South St. Louis
South St. Louis, Northhampton Neighborhood
Rail corridor, South St. Louis
The former “St. Louis Insane Asylum,” as it was once called, now called the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center
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During my last trip to St. Louis this month, I did not find time to do as many photo trips in the city as I had planned. Because my activities took me between south St. Louis County and University City, I limited my picture-taking to neighborhoods of South St. Louis.
St. Louis, as long as I have been alive, has been one of the most divided cities by race I have ever seen. There is a long history of redlining, federally supported programs like the Interstate Highway System, and private lending practices that have contributed to entrenched racism in how residents of this great city have been segregated.
Historically, the north side of St. Louis, north of Delmar, has been the home of the majority of African-American residents. South of Delmar and south of Forest Park, one finds a larger concentration of white residents. Neighborhoods like the traditionally Irish neighborhood of Dogtown or the Italian-American neighborhood of The Hill are two of the more famous areas in South St. Louis.
University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon’s masterful book on the racial and economic history of St. Louis, Mapping Decline, provides an in-depth look at this history and its legacy that is now visible throughout this fallen American metropolis that I still love. (You can see his maps of these racial divisions here.)
These photos have no central theme other than highlighting noticeable landmarks, including the former St. Louis County Insane Asylum, also called the Missouri State Hospital, which housed the institutionalized mentally ill. I also found an array of small businesses, my favorite frozen custard shop in the universe called Ted Drewes, some landmark bars, and the brilliant Turtle Playground (known also as Turtle Park), which sits across Highway 40 from the St. Louis Zoo.
While taking these photos, I met a property manager and groundskeeper by the major mental health facility that sits on the highest point of land in the city. She asked me what I was doing. We had a great conversation how she constantly sees photographers coming to properties she cares for, taking pictures of decay. She said she didn’t understand why they kept coming. I laughed. I told her that I loved St. Louis and felt attached to its fate. I told her I took pictures because every building and every business had a story, about people and a community that are worth remembering. I think she appreciated learning my passion. We are now connected. That is the power of telling a story.
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 LGBTQ 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 Swanstrom, 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. Swanstrom 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.”
Swanstrom 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.”
[Article has been updated on Sept. 26, 2018 to correct the spelling of Professor Todd Swanstrom’s name.]