History

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

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

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

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

Gentrification or De-Urbanization?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Back to where it all began, in Detroit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandoned in St. Louis, from the archive

 

 

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My ongoing photo-documentary project on St. Louis has explored the painful legacy of the city’s historic redlining and racism, de-industrialization, downfall through suburbanization, and slow demise because of a new economy that has seen industry collapse in America’s former industrial centers.

My past essays have told the story, focussing on different neighborhoods, or even streets and bigger thoroughfares like Grand Boulevard.

Inevitably, many pictures never made it into my stories. But I still feel a fondness for these haunting images on the proverbial cutting room floor.

In no particular order, I present random shots of St. Louis’ abandoned homes and apartments. They were taken between 2015 and 2017, in north, central, and south St. Louis. Poverty and decay are concentrated primarily in north St. Louis, the area that has been segregated by housing policies and redlining, harming the mostly African-American residents for decades.

I share these photos because of the bitter irony they represent. Our country is in the midst of a massive affordable housing crisis, particularly in coastal cities. Other cities, like Detroit and St. Louis, are grappling with population loss and abandonment. Every time I visit St. Louis, I think about the amoral reality of supply and demand and how the economy and national economic policies have left older cities behind. Properties like these in St. Louis would fetch a small fortune in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

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 wolves of Rome

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This week, various media agencies reported that the most iconic of all predators, the wolf, had returned to areas surrounding the ancient and still great city of Rome.

Two wolf pups were photographed frolicking in a reserve area for birds. For centuries, the predators were hunted to near extinction in Italy. The iconic predator also is celebrated in Italy’s history in the myth of Rome’s founding.

Capitoline Wolf statue, Sienna, Italy

The Romans credited the creation of their city to the kindness of a mother she-wolf, who nursed the infants Romulus and Remus, who had been left to die in the wild. According to the legend, the pair would go on to establish Rome. The wolf also is celebrated in many other cultures, through art, myth, and folklore.

Rome’s founding story is celebrated in statues called the Capitoline Wolf, first erected in Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries. I saw several such statues, in Sienna and Florence.

At the most basic level, Rome’s creation myth is literally connected to sucking the breast of a feared carnivore. The almost primal connection to something feared and revered is woven into Roman identity. For anyone familiar with that history, Rome went on to conquer and absorb all other cultures and civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, stretching from the highlands of England to the hot sands of modern-day Iraq to the Nile valley, as far south as southern Egypt.

I photographed these statues in 2006 during my travels in Italy, mainly because I feel a strong personal connection with wolves. I had some of the most memorable encounters with wolves in the wild in Alaska, when I lived there between 2004 and 2010.

During one spring mountain run, I met a wolf mom and her pups. They approached me, curious as pups are. Their mom whimpered, trying to signal them back to safety. She was a loving mother. Humans fear them because they have, I think, more dignity than us in many ways in how they care for each other.

 

 

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!

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.