Urban Blight Photographs

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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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.