St. Louis

Renewal and Decay in The Grove

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

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

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

The Grove itself is located in the official Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood of St. Louis. Created in 2009, the Grove Community Improvement District has worked to restore the area. Its website boasts that urban decay has been licked along the main business district on Manchester: “Known for its diverse community, The Grove is home to several LGBT friendly businesses, several of which lead the initial wave of investment in the area, starting with Attitudes Night Club opening in the 1980s. In recent years, community members devoted to filling one vacant storefront at a time, have revitalized the district.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Shuttered in St. Louis

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

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

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

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

Early Spring at the Missouri Botanical Garden

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

I always visit the Missouri Botanical Garden, in south St. Louis, when I see my family in the St. Louis area. It remains one of the constants in life that weathers the turbulence of the larger world and my personal world. It is where my mother and I have spent some of best times as we have gotten older, together.

Things have changed for us, but less so for the Garden. I like that. Perhaps I need that. It remains a beautiful place with phenomenal displays of flowers, plants, and mini ecosystems from the world over. My favorite section of the Garden is the serene and exquisitely maintained Japanese Garden.

During our visit, my mom and I also saw the lovely orchid show. The daffodils and crocuses were blooming–daffodils being the beautiful harbinger of spring. I had never seen that many before at the Garden, probably because I do not visit just before the vernal equinox. It was really nice to see the Garden right as the season was changing.

If you visit St. Louis, this should be on your top three list of things to see besides the Gateway Arch and Forest Park/Zoo/Art Museum (all in Forest Park).

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

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

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.

Sidney Street, in St. Louis

During my last trip to St. Louis in October, I visited the Benton Park neighborhood of south St. Louis. To the east, the area is severed by Highway 55 , which runs south and north, cutting off neighborhoods from the industrial waterfront, where factories, power plants, and shipping firms dominate the landscape. Not too far to the west, you cross Gravois Avenue and hit the great Tower Grove Park, one of the nation’s best public parks. If you wander the streets, you might find a beautiful old church, classic row homes, and other architectural gems that make St. Louis a hidden treasure, still unknown to most of the country. Here are a few of the pictures I took on the 2000 block of Sidney Street, not far from the Anheuser-Busch factory and Highway 55.

Churches made St. Louis great

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

St. Louis is one of the greatest cities in the United States for exploring the magnificent architecture of American churches from all Christian denominations. The city’s strong Catholic roots, still powerfully expressed through the Archdiocese of St. Louis, are expressed in the great St. Louis Basilica, but also in other churches, cathedrals, basilicas, and worship halls around the city. Most are still functioning, but some have closed because of the city’s precipitous population loss from nearly 900,000 in 1950 to nearly 300,000 in the 2010 census.

Churches from the Catholic and Protestant strains of Christianity provide testimonials to the city’s confidence in itself, its industry, its people, its future, and its identity that the city may have been favored by their lord and protector. I challenge anyone to give me a greater constellation of churches in an urban area than St. Louis. I’m sure Detroit, Chicago, and maybe New York might offer a good fight.

Here is a sample of four churches I took during my last visit. One, St. Agnes Church, owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, closed in 1993. It fell victim to the city’s slow and painful decay.

The former ‘King of Beers’

My photographic safaris in my former home town of St. Louis inevitably lead to beer. You cannot tell the story or show the story of St. Louis without focusing on the suds that made the city a world-famous beer epicenter.

As I have published on this blog before, St. Louis became the leading center of American brewing. German-American families became the barons of the new American industry that brought beer to the masses. The Anheuser-Busch dynasty conquered the local market and then the country, producing brands like Budweiser and Busch that were both bland and iconic at the same time.

The Anheuser-Busch complex occupies several city blocks, in the southeast corner of the city, overlooking the mighty Mississippi River. Globalization finally brought the King of Beers to its knees.

Anheuser-Busch became a lowly American subsidiary in 2008 to the Belgium brewing conglomerate InBev, which turned to massive debt financing to acquire the American industrial icon for $52 billion. The sale generated allegations from locals of “traitor” toward billionaire investor Warren Buffet.

The plot thickened in September 2016, when shareholders approved the $104 billion merger of Anheuser-Busch Inbev and SABMiller, another global beer conglomerate, based in London. The announcement was followed by reports of job cuts. The earlier merger had led to nearly 2,000 job cuts in the St. Louis facility between 2011 and 2016, according to local news reports.

Looking at this beautiful industrial facility, sculpted in classic St. Louis brick by great craftsmen, I see a great American business that helped create this city. Now I feel both nostalgia and sadness knowing that this uniquely American corporation has turned into a satellite facility of a company that knows nothing about the city or people who made the brand famous.

Yup, there is a tear in my beer, and I’m crying for you dear.

‘The Hill’ neighborhood of St. Louis

The Hill is one of St. Louis’ most sturdy working-class neighborhoods. It has maintained its Italian roots over many decades, even when ties to the mother country are now fading with time. The Hill‘s two most famous sons are baseball legends Joe Garagiola and the inimitable Yogi Berra. The two grew up on the same street and are celebrated as heroes, like so many other great St. Louis natives who went away.

Bisected by Interstate 44, which barreled through and destroyed many of St. Louis’ historic neighborhoods, the plucky Hill persevered, thanks primarily to its famous eateries. It is located just south of Forest Park and west of the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Compared to other historic St. Louis neighborhoods, it is a much lower-income area, without the elegant brick architecture and stately homes and churches that define classic late 1800s and early 1900s St. Louis. Instead it offers shotgun housing and walkable blocks that are carefully branded with the The Hill moniker and Italy’s national colors. It truly is a model in effective branding and identity building. The Hill also is typical of the racial divide in the city–this neighborhood is white in a city that has long promoted segregated neighborhoods.

I remember first coming here in the early 1970s for Italian celebrations with my family as a kid. I recall a lot of drunk St. Louisans eating food on a typically hot St. Louis summer day. It did not feel that special to me. In high school, my mother bought me a hero sandwich from one of the delis as a special birthday treat. It was delicious. I would occasionally visit the local stores with my mom over the years to buy Italian spices. I have even celebrated a wedding dinner at one of the classic family eateries. I am glad it keeps up its plucky ways.

In a city with so many historic and amazing sights, I probably would not put it in my top five places to visit, mainly because the competition is fierce in that city. But I would swing through if I had a weekend. The Hill is conveniently located, and you might enjoy a nice meal here as well. Buon appetito, amico.

A City of Catholic Saints and Churches

Scene above: The world-famous King St. Louis IX statue on Art Hill in Forest Park, Sts. Peter and Paul Church, St. Anthony of Padua Church. Click on each picture to see a larger photo on a separate picture page.

St. Louis’ namesake comes from French King Louis IX, one of France’s few pious rulers who ruled in the 13th century and died in 1270. The city’s European origins can be traced to French traders on the Mississippi River. One, Pierre LaClede, gave the trading post its name after the revered ruler 252 years ago. That name stuck, and the city of St. Louis was born (on ground inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans).

The city’s name also helped to attract many Catholic European immigrants, from Italians to Germans to Irish. Many of the city’s strongest and most powerful education and social institutions, from hospitals to orphanages to private schools to St. Louis University, were also founded by Catholics. The Archdiocese of St. Louis virtually runs the city’s homelessness programs and non-profit social service sector.

For a visitor to St. Louis, one of first things one sees are brilliant and beautiful church spires rising tall above old neighborhoods. These institutions still play a vital role in many depressed areas of the fading, formerly great industrial city. Every time I visit my family in neighboring University City, I always take a tour and rediscover this amazing legacy. I still am dazzled by the skill and confidence with which St. Louis’ earlier residents built their community purposefully, to live up to the city’s name.