Decay

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.

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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.

Bottoming out in Spokane

During a recent trip to one of my favorite cities in the United States, Spokane, I toured lots of neighborhoods. I was struck by the degree of poverty I did not recall seeing before. There are pockets of despair in any city in the United States, but Spokane surprised me because of how close some of these neighborhoods with high numbers of foreclosures were to downtown. The number of foreclosed properties is reportedly higher in Spokane than either Washington State or the United States, according the company Realtytrac.com.  January 2016 alone saw 200 foreclosed properties in the city of 484,000 residents. As of 2014, the U.S. Census reports that more than 15 percent of all residents in the city alone lived below the poverty line.

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

Lafayette Park and Fox Park, endurance and decay

St. Louis’ iconic architecture defines the city’s legacy as a once wealthy and prosperous community, before its decline in the post-World War II years. Freeways smashed through historic neighborhoods, like Fox Park and Lafayette Park,. Today, they provide enduring examples of building styles in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

I spent a morning in Lafayette Park and the Fox and McKinney park neighborhoods. There were signs of decay, reminiscent of Detroit, but no where near that scale of destruction. For me, St. Louis is a place with tightly packed homes on modest lots, built out of brick, and with care and craftsmanship. Even the crumbling apartments retain a quiet grace.

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

Abandoned, east Detroit

Since coming back from Detroit in late September, I have reached out to five Portland area universities if they or their student groups might like a multimedia show on the realities facing Detroit. So far, I have not had any bites. I do not think the topic is of much interest to Portland area residents, as Detroit is nearly 2,000 miles away, and the realities facing a city with tens of thousands of abandoned properties and continued problems with public safety, poverty, and economic revitalization just do not register here. The Rust Belt and its many ills I think matter very little beyond the region that is experiencing continued economic decline for decades. But, I will keep working on this.

It still startles me how little people know and care about the pockets of distress in the United States, even though we still share the same country. This is not true all the time and everywhere, but for those pockets of intense decline and multi-generation poverty, it is as if we write them off as failed mini-states, doomed forever to failure. There seems to be an unwritten decision that just says, you are no longer worth it. And, for many in east Detroit, that looks a bit like what you see here.

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