St. Louis

Renewal and Decay in The Grove

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

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.

 

 

Churches made St. Louis great

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

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.

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.

Japanese Garden, Missouri Botanical Garden

The Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden is one of my favorite places in St. Louis. Whenever I visit, I always come here, usually with my mom, and enjoy the serenity and beauty of this incredibly peaceful place. The 14-acre site within the larger garden complex was opened in 1977 and remains one of the most visited places in St. Louis, and for great reason. Visit the garden if you come to St. Louis. You will not be disappointed.

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

Winter morning in Lafayette Park

Paris? Toulouse? Perhaps Lyon? No, not really, but the city that is home to this park was profoundly influenced by its original French-American inhabitants, who named their town after their beloved king, calling it St. Louis.

Lafayette Park, also known as Lafayette Square, is the oldest public park in the United States west of the Mississippi River. It was dedicated in 1851, 10 years before the Civil War. It is found on St. Louis’ south central side. It remains a treasure for anyone who appreciates urban design and American architectural history. The former upscale neighborhood surrounding the park has been well-preserved, including the elegant French row houses and mansions. This is where the 1 percent called home in the city’s heyday.

I visited in early January and found the public space well maintained and used by dog walkers. If you visit St. Louis, visit this park and spend a few hours wandering the neighborhood.

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

Historic Lemp Brewery, in St. Louis

At the time of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the Lemp Brewing Co of St. Louis was the third largest brewery in America. Founded by a German-American entrepreneur, Adam Lemp, in the city’s south central area, the brewery proved to be an innovator up until the time of Prohibition. Family misfortunes and the Temperance movement took their toll. In response to the outlawing of booze, the Lemp facility attempted to brew a non-alcoholic beverage called Cerva, which flopped. The company could not sustain the factory operations.

In 1922, the family owners sold the complex, covering an entire city block, to the International Shoe Co. for practically nothing. The ISCO in turn finally sold the complex in 1992, leaving it without major tenants. The old brewery and factory site is considered an archtecturally and historically significant site in St. Louis, and the Lemp Hall is still used for catered events.

If you find yourself in St. Louis, a visit to Cherokee Street, which ends at the Brewery’s doorstep, is well worth your time. I lived nearly two decades in St. Louis and knew nothing about this place until I came back recently. Proves to me how ignorant I was as a teen and how wonderful older American cities can be if you bother to spend time exploring.

For the brew historians among you, and there are many I think, here are some interesting anecdotes:

  • Lemp brewed the first successful lager beer in the United States.
  • Lemp used natural underground caves in St. Louis to allow its beer to ferment and produce a superior product.
  • Lemp was the first shipping brewery to establish a national shipping strategy.
  • It was the first brewery to run its own railroad, the Western Cable Railway Company, that connected all of the plant’s main buildings to shipping yards near the Mississippi River.
  • The mansion of the Lemp Family is included on many haunted homes and buildings lists, if you believe in ghosts.

A wonderful documentary that does not use a distorted fisheye lens, like a GoPro I used here, can be found on the Built St. Louis web site.

Summer’s perfect food, a ripe, sweet Missouri-grown watermelon

I practically lived on watermelon for about 15 years of my young life, growing up in St. Louis. Missouri, hot as hell as it was, also was an ideal place to grow the fruit, and the sweetness was to die for. Eating all that watermelon was maybe a gift from heaven, as watermelon is all natural, nutritious, and full of healthy vitamins (A and C) and minerals (potassium and magnesium). It has far fewer calories than processed food, and it reportedly has been linked to promoting recovery in athletes. (Click on the photo to see a larger picture in 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.