St. Louis HIstory

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.

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.

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.

The former ‘King of Beers’

My photographic safaris in my former home town of St. Louis inevitably lead to beer. You cannot tell the story or show the story of St. Louis without focusing on the suds that made the city a world-famous beer epicenter.

As I have published on this blog before, St. Louis became the leading center of American brewing. German-American families became the barons of the new American industry that brought beer to the masses. The Anheuser-Busch dynasty conquered the local market and then the country, producing brands like Budweiser and Busch that were both bland and iconic at the same time.

The Anheuser-Busch complex occupies several city blocks, in the southeast corner of the city, overlooking the mighty Mississippi River. Globalization finally brought the King of Beers to its knees.

Anheuser-Busch became a lowly American subsidiary in 2008 to the Belgium brewing conglomerate InBev, which turned to massive debt financing to acquire the American industrial icon for $52 billion. The sale generated allegations from locals of “traitor” toward billionaire investor Warren Buffet.

The plot thickened in September 2016, when shareholders approved the $104 billion merger of Anheuser-Busch Inbev and SABMiller, another global beer conglomerate, based in London. The announcement was followed by reports of job cuts. The earlier merger had led to nearly 2,000 job cuts in the St. Louis facility between 2011 and 2016, according to local news reports.

Looking at this beautiful industrial facility, sculpted in classic St. Louis brick by great craftsmen, I see a great American business that helped create this city. Now I feel both nostalgia and sadness knowing that this uniquely American corporation has turned into a satellite facility of a company that knows nothing about the city or people who made the brand famous.

Yup, there is a tear in my beer, and I’m crying for you dear.

A City of Catholic Saints and Churches

Scene above: The world-famous King St. Louis IX statue on Art Hill in Forest Park, Sts. Peter and Paul Church, St. Anthony of Padua Church. Click on each picture to see a larger photo on a separate picture page.

St. Louis’ namesake comes from French King Louis IX, one of France’s few pious rulers who ruled in the 13th century and died in 1270. The city’s European origins can be traced to French traders on the Mississippi River. One, Pierre LaClede, gave the trading post its name after the revered ruler 252 years ago. That name stuck, and the city of St. Louis was born (on ground inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans).

The city’s name also helped to attract many Catholic European immigrants, from Italians to Germans to Irish. Many of the city’s strongest and most powerful education and social institutions, from hospitals to orphanages to private schools to St. Louis University, were also founded by Catholics. The Archdiocese of St. Louis virtually runs the city’s homelessness programs and non-profit social service sector.

For a visitor to St. Louis, one of first things one sees are brilliant and beautiful church spires rising tall above old neighborhoods. These institutions still play a vital role in many depressed areas of the fading, formerly great industrial city. Every time I visit my family in neighboring University City, I always take a tour and rediscover this amazing legacy. I still am dazzled by the skill and confidence with which St. Louis’ earlier residents built their community purposefully, to live up to the city’s name.

 

 

North St. Louis, a gentrification-free zone

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

I recently visited the St. Louis, to see my family. I normally use my visits to tour historic sections of the once proud and fourth-largest U.S. city in the late 1800s. But those are the long-gone glory days.

Today, the city is struggling to define itself in the post-NAFTA, post-industrial reality of the “new economy” that has led to the greatest level of income inequality the nation has seen since before the Great Depression.

The pain and fragments of this change are visible everywhere in the city, mainly in the form of shuttered factories and feral and abandoned houses that almost give Detroit a run its money as the epicenter of U.S. urban decay. They are most pronounced on the city’s north side, historically the racially demarcated home to the city’s poorer African-American residents for more than eight decades. That is the story I went out to photograph this trip, in June 2016.

Love can be in short supply in north St. Louis.

Love can be in short supply in north St. Louis.

St. Louis experienced what many Midwest, industrial cities confronted during and after World War II. The U.S Interstate System promoted out-migration to the surrounding county. White flight rapidly accelerated population losses following the 1950s. (See a superb illustration of that white flight here: http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/map/.) The population dropped from 880,000 residents at the start of the 1950s to a mere 315,000 souls in 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

Industry, including automobile manufacturing and other sectors, began a long slide to obsolescence. St. Louis and the surrounding region were once major players in automobile manufacturing and home to several “Big Three” plants: one Ford, two Chrysler, and one General Motors. The city’s world-famous Corvette plant closed its doors in 1981 after a 37-year run. At its peak it had a payroll of more than 13,000 employees. Since then, Ford shuttered its plant in nearby Hazlewood in 2006, and Chrysler closed two plants between 2008 and 2009 (north and south plants), costing the region about $15 billion, according to one study. (GM still has an assembly plant 40 miles from St. Louis in Wentzville.)

I wanted to see first hand how things look on the city’s infamous north side, or “home” as it is known to its residents. It had been years since I did such a trip. I was startled by the lack of businesses except gas stations, beauty shops, food and restaurant establishments, and garages.

I met a sixty-something man on a street just off Vandeventer Avenue and North Market Street. He told me he had worked for Chrysler until being laid off in 2009, when the Fenton plant was shuttered for good, before the factory was razed to the ground. A grandfather, he called himself T-Bone, and had just purchased his two-story brick home for $24,000. He hoped to acquire two adjacent lots through a process that allows property owners adjacent to vacated lots to acquire those lots at no cost after three years of maintenance. He told me he wanted to become more engaged in local politics to help restore his section of the city. He lived two houses down to a boarded up, abandoned home, one of several on his block.

Beautiful old brick homes have long gone feral in the economically challenged neighborhoods of north St. Louis.

Beautiful old brick homes have long gone feral in the economically challenged neighborhoods of north St. Louis.

Today, more than one in four St. Louis residents live in poverty. The U.S. census puts the median household income in the Gateway City at $35,000, well below the U.S. average of $53,000. Racially, the city is as divided as ever with blacks and whites evenly divided, and now Hispanics and Latinos numbering (officially) under 5 percent.

All of these numbers mean that the city, and its poorest residents, are struggling. That struggle can be seen on just about every block north of Delmar Avenue, all the way to the city’s borders with adjacent and also struggling municipalities like Jennings. Anyone visiting the city should soak its charms—the Gateway Arch, the amazing churches, the historic downtown, and especially charming and historic Lafayette Square.

Then they should take a drive for an hour or two and see what life in the new urban, post-industrial America looks like. Gentrification is not a problem that is displacing residents in the city’s north side. No urban, yuppie, or tattoo-covered and scrappy millennial pioneers from the affluent suburbs are rushing to create art centers or startups in old factories sites. This is the place people leave if they can.

This is not Portland, Seattle, or Boston. This is a much tougher, more violent, and grittier place. It is also in many ways a more friendly place too, where people will still say hello if you have street cred and give them respect. This is St. Louis, and the recovery, if it comes, is still a long ways off. Without long-parted industry, that future is still not certain.

St. Louis, once a great city

Before the Arch was built, St. Louis aspired to greatness through the early 1900s. It then began its long spiral downward. This once prosperous industrial city has seen most of its manufacturing leave and the population contract since the 1960s. Suburbanization, car-centered urban planning, racism, and very painful economic restructuring completely changed this community. The city’s leadership and the corporate owners of the St. Louis Cardinals still managed to build a new baseball stadium for the beloved Redbirds downtown. I still love this city, despite having completely opposite feelings growing up there.

You can track the demographic changes in St. Louis, St. Louis County, and the surrounding bi-state area on this very informative interactive map. You can also read how eminent domain and the freeway system destroyed neighborhoods and fragmented the city. The Arch, that great structure I love so dearly, was part of this process that leveled entire blocks.

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

As beautiful and grand as architecture get, all in St. Louis

I grew up in Metro St. Louis until I was 18. I did a fabulous city architecture tour in my senior year of high school and was blown away by the depth and richness of St. Louis’ architectural past. I learned it was misfortune and visionary legislation that made this possible.

A disastrous and deadly fire in 1849 led the city passing an ordinance preventing the construction of wooden buildings. The easy access to clay deposits led to a boom in brick buildings that provide a richness almost unparalleled in any American city. The money from the industrial era and real-estate speculation allowed for the construction of amazing homes and neighborhoods, even though slums were widely prevalent. Those gems from the golden era of St. Louis remain today. The pictures here are from the historic Cherokee Street area, near the river in South St. Louis, and the Lafayette Square area, in south central St. Louis. In racial terms, those remain mostly white, but that is also changing. Cherokee Street now hosts Hispanic celebrations, due to their large presence.

A web site dedicated to St. Louis’ diverse architectural styles provides a nice overview for those who do not have a background in architecture, with a nice sample of the gems any visitor can find with a map and simple curiosity. The styles I have captured are mostly Second Empire, inspired by French designs, and one Neoclassical design for the Chatillon mansion.