Documentary Photographs St. Louis

The landmarks and urban landscape of South St. Louis

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

During my last trip to St. Louis this month, I did not find time to do as many photo trips in the city as I had planned. Because my activities took me between south St. Louis County and University City, I limited my picture-taking to neighborhoods of South St. Louis.

St. Louis, as long as I have been alive, has been one of the most divided cities by race I have ever seen. There is a long history of redlining, federally supported programs like the Interstate Highway System, and private lending practices that have contributed to entrenched racism in how residents of this great city have been segregated.

Historically, the north side of St. Louis, north of Delmar, has been the home of the majority of African-American residents. South of Delmar and south of Forest Park, one finds a larger concentration of white residents. Neighborhoods like the traditionally Irish neighborhood of Dogtown or the Italian-American neighborhood of The Hill are two of the more famous areas in South St. Louis.

University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon’s masterful book on the racial and economic history of St. Louis, Mapping Decline, provides an in-depth look at this history and its legacy that is now visible throughout this fallen American metropolis that I still love. (You can see his maps of these racial divisions here.)

These photos have no central theme other than highlighting noticeable landmarks, including the former St. Louis County Insane Asylum, also called the Missouri State Hospital, which housed the institutionalized mentally ill. I also found an array of small businesses, my favorite frozen custard shop in the universe called Ted Drewes, some landmark bars, and the brilliant Turtle Playground (known also as Turtle Park), which sits across Highway 40 from the St. Louis Zoo.

While taking these photos, I met a property manager and groundskeeper by the major mental health facility that sits on the highest point of land in the city. She asked me what I was doing. We had a great conversation how she constantly sees photographers coming to properties she cares for, taking pictures of decay. She said she didn’t understand why they kept coming. I laughed. I told her that I loved St. Louis and felt attached to its fate. I told her I took pictures because every building and every business had a story, about people and a community that are worth remembering. I think she appreciated learning my passion. We are now connected. That is the power of telling a story.

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South St. Louis County on a clear fall day

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

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.