St. Louis

Forest Park in dawn’s early light

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Forest Park in St. Louis remains the crown jewel of the greater St. Louis area. A visitor will find an incredible array of amenities that are not found in most U.S. cities, or even in great cities of the world.

The park features a world-class art museum, an excellent history museum run the Missouri Historical Society, a popular public golf course, miles of trails for bikes and pedestrians, the world-class St. Louis Zoo, nature areas, festivals, lagoons, and occasionally visiting wildlife. I saw a snowy egret on one of my morning runs last weekend.

A nonprofit organization called Forest Park Forever now provides strong organizational and fiscal support to steer the park’s development and strategic planning needs. Given the fiscal challenges facing St. Louis, this approach likely will pay strong dividends for the entire metro region, which collectively benefits from having a free and accessible public park of this stature.

As a former University City resident (raised there) and longtime visitor to the St. Louis area over the decades, I cannot separate my love of the park from my concern for the metro region. The park’s current success in fulfilling its mission remains at odds with the prolonged pain of the City of St. Louis’s decline and de-urbanization. One needs to keep in mind the larger challenges facing the city, and its many residents who are struggling and whom the park serves, if you come and enjoy it any day of the year.

I took all of these pictures on a three-mile stroll along Lindell Boulevard to the Missouri HistoryMuseum, to the St. Louis Art Museum, through the wildflower savannah off Skinker Boulevard, and back to my starting point. You cannot beat a St. Louis morning walk like this in Forest Park!

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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.”

 

 

 

 

Japanese Garden Cherry Blossoms at the Missouri Botanical Garden

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The Japanese Garden (Seiwa-en) at the celebrated Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis is a world-class treasure that can rival any garden anywhere else. I come here whenever I visit my family in the St. Louis area. My mother and I have strolled here dozens of time, during all seasons on the year.

However, until this April, I had never seen the Japanese Garden at its most expressive moment, when the cherry trees are blooming their delicate pink flowers and the feeling of the place carries you straight to Japan. I loved it.

I have published many photos on this blog before of other cherry blossoms, and of this garden too, but never just like this. This made my trip in mid-April even more memorable, if not unforgettable. If you haven’t been to St. Louis or the garden, add it to your list. It is a must-see for anyone who has ever felt a passion for gardening or who appreciates the many different ways cultures around the world have expressed themselves through this medium.

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.

Two of my favorite parks in the world: Forest Park

 

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By pure coincidence, I have lived in two great cities with two great parks named Forest Park. Both are national treasures. Both make both their home cities livable. Both parks improve residents’ quality of life by incalculable measures. They also are loved dearly by their communities. And both are incredible places to go for a long run.

I grew up in University City, next to St. Louis and its storied Forest Park. The 1,300-acre park is home to the free and world-class St. Louis Zoo and the free and the world-class St. Louis Art Museum. It has a public golf course, lagoons, and a fabulous running and biking trail that navigates its edge for about six and half miles. Nearly everyone who lives in the St. Louis area visits the park because it has something for everyone. The City of St. Louis reports the park gets 12 million (that’s right, 12 million) visitors a year! During every trip I take back to University City to see my family, I come here to run, walk, and enjoy its cultural treasures.

I now live in Portland. That city’s premier park also is called Forest Park. Unlike its cousin in St. Louis, Forest Park in Portland is a wooded natural area comprising 5,100 wooded acres. According to the City of Portland, the park boasts 112 bird and 62 mammal species. It features the 30-mile Wildwood Trail and a 12-mile long closed and dirt service road called Leif Erikson Drive. Together, they make for one of the best places for trail running and hiking near any major U.S. city. I have literally done hundreds of miles of trail running here since I moved back to Portland in 2014.

As a runner who has run in parks and on trails throughout the world, these two parks rank as some of my favorite places. If I could have access to no national park or wild place the rest of my life and only had one of these parks to enjoy, I think I could die a happy person.

If you are in either city, visit either park. Both have conservancies that now provide a lot of the back-end financing and volunteer work to keep the parks accessible year-round. Remember, it costs money to run a park and they deserve your support.

Scenes from my St. Louis catalog

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I was in St. Louis a week ago for a family visit. I did not get a chance to explore the city like I normally do.

Still, I was inspired to dig up some of my pictures that I took between 2105 and late mid-2017. They show the city as it is.

The areas include the neighborhood surrounding the SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, the Fox Park Neighborhood, and South Broadway, near the Annheuser-Busch factory. It remains one of the most interesting cities I know to explore block by block.

South St. Louis County on a clear fall day

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Normally when I visit St. Louis, I spend part of my time exploring hidden neighborhoods that I know little about or where the city’s history, glory, and struggles are on full display. During the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I found myself travelling to communities I barely knew, located southwest of the city.

I drove along the corridor that parallels the River Des Peres, which long ago was turned into a partially buried and open air wastewater and sewage system that frequently floods. My route passed through the communities of Maplewood and then Shrewsbury, which border southwest St. Louis. It is a landscape dominated by this so-called “river” system, a major rail corridor, and industry. The presence of retail outlets like Dollar Tree, Shop ‘n Save, and Wal-Mart reveal the income levels of those who live nearby. You will not find a Whole Foods or Starbucks or trendy coffee shop in this area. In fact, those who are affluent can live their whole lives in St. Louis and never come through here.

While taking some photographs at the end of a sunny day, I noticed a massive church tower in the distance and drove to it to investigate, because in St. Louis and the surrounding area, you will find some of the most amazing religious buildings anywhere in the United States. To my surprise, I discovered the Kenrick Glennon Seminary of the St. Louis Archdiocese, located in Shrewsbury. It is an enormous educational and religious facility, with a single-facility complex larger than any other university in the St. Louis area (a place that boasts many universities).

The seminary, with its brick and institutional design, resembled architecture I associate with public hospitals and mental institutions built in the 1920s and 1930s across the United States. Construction began during the Depression, in 1931. It also has an air of grandeur and confidence, built when the archdiocese could afford to invest the capital to train its future clergy. The seminary recently made news for a fundraising effort, signalling possible financial troubles keeping the massive facility afloat. According to press reports, only 133 seminarians train here, also signalling the church’s facility likely will need to find future uses.

 

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.