St. Louis

Finding hidden treasures in St. Louis

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

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.

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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.”

Sunbeam at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

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St. Peter’s Basilica is the heart of global Catholicism and the main house of worship for the Catholic Church in the Vatican City, the tiny but influential nation-state located in beautiful Rome.

I took this shot in 2006. I had a basic point and shoot camera. The lighting as magical inside the massive building, which was designed by Italian architect Donato Bramante, in the early 1500s.

I first remember seeing a painting of the interior of the cavernous and enormous basilica at the St. Louis Art Museum as a kid. That painting, Interior of St. Peter’s, Rome, by Paul Panini Romae from 1731, was on my mind as I wandered in the sanctuary, with thousands of other visitors on a hot October day.

One of the lessons I took away from visiting St. Peter’s and the Vatican City was a simple one. Never underestimate the power of the Catholic Church.

Renewal and Decay in The Grove

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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

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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

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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

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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.