Midwest Cities

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.

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Skylines of the Midwest, Cleveland and Detroit

Detroit and Cleveland, once proud Midwest cities that defined America’s economic might, now symbolize what has become of America’s industrial economy. Both cities have lost residents by the tens of thousands (in Detroit’s case by more than 1 million residents in five decades). They have seen industrial production shift overseas, and now are struggling to define themselves in the new American economy. Wonks label cities such as these as part of the “rust belt,” in part to diminish what industrial production meant and means to America’s overall economic health.

The jobs that once accompanied heavy manufacturing are not coming back. There is still a lot of heavy industry in both cities, including steel plants and in Detroit’s case, automobile assembly and manufacturing, among many others. But the future is likely more tied to firms like Quicken Loans, owned by billionaire Dan Gilbert, who has properties in both cities and sees declining Detroit as a bargain for real-estate acquisition. (He recently raised hundreds of millions in junk bonds for his Detroit property schemes.)

I also have ties to both cities through my adoptive and biological families. I was born in the Motor City. I spent a fair bit of time in Cleveland over the years because of my adoptive father’s family ties.

Here is how the two former majestic American metropolises look today, in a way they would like the country to perceive them: strong, modern and proud. But behind that facade, there is a lot of struggle, felt by the people trying to re-invent their lives in the “new economy.”