St. Louis

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.

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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.

St. Louis statues: a great tradition of public art

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St. Louis has many great works of public art on display, throughout Forest Park, Tower Grove Park, and other locations in the city. They put to shame the public art of many other cities that are now more prosperous and populated.

During my recent visit, I accidentally stumbled on the statues of great white men, as I call them, in Tower Grove Park in the south central area of the city. Businessman and philanthropist Henry Shaw of St. Louis believed that public art played an important role in the welfare of a city, and left a legacy, including the statues.

The statues I photographed depict William Shakespeare, Alexander von Humboldt, and Christopher Colombus—a man whose controversial legacy is questioned today. The statues, regardless of their merits, evoke a period of wealth and pride, when the city chose to promote art when it was at the apex of its economic and political power. Much of that art celebrates European civilization and few other traditions and races. St. Louis has always been a city that did not recognize the contributions of non-European groups until the late 19th century.

I also discovered a wonderful bronze sculpture in the Dutchtown neighborhood, in South St. Louis, just off Grand Boulevard. Atop a neighborhood gate entrance sat two jolly foxes, swigging from pints and likely smoking pipes. These are located next to the popular Ted Drewes frozen custard stand, where I gulped down a delicious dessert. Now this was a real discovery.

There are no jolly foxes where I live in Portland. I think we need some. We take ourselves far too preciously, and we forget other cities have understood the power of public art better than the new cool capitals of the United States.

‘Keith,’ by artist Chuck Close, at the St. Louis Art Museum

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This hyper-realist acrylic painting by celebrated artist Chuck Close is one of the best contemporary pieces in the great St. Louis Art Museum. I have been coming back year after year to the museum, and I still find new things to see in his representation of a photo of his friend, Keith. I love how he shows the pores of Keith’s face.

Here is how the museum describes this work. It is one of seven in a series, completed in 1970: “Rendered in varying shades of gray, ‘Keith’ is one of seven large-scale paintings that Chuck Close created of his family and friends between 1968 and 1970. The artist worked from a photograph, using a grid, an airbrush, and a small amount of black paint to transfer the details of the photo onto a sizable canvas. Through the massive scale of the work, Close transforms the familiar face of his friend into a monumental presence. The artist stays true to varying areas of focus and blur in the photograph, while carefully depicting minute facial features, such as pores, wrinkles, and hairs.”