Urban Decay

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.

 

 

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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.

Revisiting an abandoned Detroit public school

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A year ago, in September 2015, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I saw things I could not imagine were possible in the supposedly most powerful country in the world. I toured the city and observed impoverished neighborhoods, shuttered factories, empty homes in every corner of the community, and the omnipresent ruins from arson that have made the Motor City the arson capital of the United States. Detroit had a surreal feel. I called it City of the Future and published several photo essays and a photo gallery on my web site. The most memorable and heart-wrenching place I visited was the now shuttered Crockett Technical High School, at the corner of St. Cyril and Georgia Street.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

In my last photo essay on this gutted and neglected facility of learning, I recounted that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) recently had implemented a painful round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. In sum, 16 school buildings were closed permanently. In the previous decade, enrollment in the system had fallen 100,000 students, and by 2012-13, enrollment was about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

What I learned during my visit to Crockett from two friendly neighbors who were across the street would have been intolerable in nearly any other major U.S. city. I wrote in my September 2015 photo essay, “They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.” The tragedy was compounded, according to one of the neighbors, because the school had been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

When I jumped into the old school, I saw newly built science labs completely trashed, eerily similar to how ISIS extremists would destroy monuments of culture and civilization in Iraq and Syria. But in Detroit’s case, the vandals were not crazed religious radicals, they were local residents, scavenging for scrap and destroying either for pleasure, anger, or both.

You can watch this June 2015 Detroit area news report on the scrapping at Crockett–all caught on live footage, with impunity. As one resident trying to protect abandoned public schools said, “How we can we hold off scrappers when we don’t have a license to arrest.”

Today, the DPS is rated the worst in the nation for test scores. In May 2016 The Atlantic reported, “… the country has probably never witnessed an education crisis quite like Detroit’s.” And, then to no one’s surprise and certainly not to anyone in Detroit, no one really gave a crap. What happens in Detroit no longer seems to matter, no matter how awful and absurd.

After my trip to Detroit, I spent about four months trying to get respected Portland universities to host a lecture and photo show (click on the link to see how I presented the concept) on the decline of Detroit and how it looked in 2015. I was turned down by Portland State University, my alma mater Reed College, the University of Portland, and the Multnomah County Library. I made repeated requests to multiple faculty and these organizations.

The topic may just be too depressing or impossible to comprehend. Even worse, the story about mostly black Detroit and its current woes, like the simple destruction of one fine public schools by the community itself, did not fit a narrative of race that is preferred many people at this time. A dominant narrative will always defeat an alternative story, particularly one that is rooted in ugly reality. I suspect this yawning disinterest was a combination of all of these factors.

To accept the reality of what Detroit is requires confronting painful issues about the United States that have not been addressed by our national political system. What we see instead are two candidates vying for the presidency who have used Detroit as a prop and photo-op to tell an economic story that does not resonate with the lives of people struggling in the city. Those two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, know little to nothing about the ordinary people in Detroit and have never stepped into any neighborhood where schools are abandoned, houses are burned, and blocks have gone feral. If one day one of them or any presidential candidate actually visit a place like Crockett, then I will retract this judgement

But let’s be honest. No one running for the nation’s highest office will ever see or want to see the real Detroit.

Note, I published the same essay on my I Wonder and Wander policy blog on Sept. 30, 2016.

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.

Bottoming out in Spokane

During a recent trip to one of my favorite cities in the United States, Spokane, I toured lots of neighborhoods. I was struck by the degree of poverty I did not recall seeing before. There are pockets of despair in any city in the United States, but Spokane surprised me because of how close some of these neighborhoods with high numbers of foreclosures were to downtown. The number of foreclosed properties is reportedly higher in Spokane than either Washington State or the United States, according the company Realtytrac.com.  January 2016 alone saw 200 foreclosed properties in the city of 484,000 residents. As of 2014, the U.S. Census reports that more than 15 percent of all residents in the city alone lived below the poverty line.

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

The house on Stout Street

Relatives of mine lived on Stout Street, in northwest Detroit. It was once a middle-class neighborhood for working-class families. Now it has gone to hell. I have profiled the decay on this block before. I wanted to share how it looks with this short video. It still makes me want to cry every time I see it, because every house that used to be here is a story of lives come and now gone.

The footage was taken in September 2015.

 

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.)

Abandoned, east Detroit

Since coming back from Detroit in late September, I have reached out to five Portland area universities if they or their student groups might like a multimedia show on the realities facing Detroit. So far, I have not had any bites. I do not think the topic is of much interest to Portland area residents, as Detroit is nearly 2,000 miles away, and the realities facing a city with tens of thousands of abandoned properties and continued problems with public safety, poverty, and economic revitalization just do not register here. The Rust Belt and its many ills I think matter very little beyond the region that is experiencing continued economic decline for decades. But, I will keep working on this.

It still startles me how little people know and care about the pockets of distress in the United States, even though we still share the same country. This is not true all the time and everywhere, but for those pockets of intense decline and multi-generation poverty, it is as if we write them off as failed mini-states, doomed forever to failure. There seems to be an unwritten decision that just says, you are no longer worth it. And, for many in east Detroit, that looks a bit like what you see here.

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

Google Street View tells a story of Detroit’s struggles

 

Last night, I discovered a story how Google Street View can be used to tell the story of cities, including the agony of my home city, Detroit. I wish I had discovered this earlier, because it is a great tool to document change, despite the weirdness of Google’s spy cam on all of us, in our neighborhoods. I decided to use the time machine portal to see how the former home of my Michigan relatives fared between 2007 and 2013. So this is a very personal issue for me.

What I found was not surprising, and I had reported on this on an earlier post. What I discovered today was a more rich visual tale of the decay that really is the story of Detroit’s ills over the past six years (2007-’13). I think this kind of storytelling should be used in the face chirpy “Detroit on the rebound” news coverage that some want to promote that seeks to ignore the full story.

About a month ago, I published a blog about my reaction to seeing parts of Detroit that had fallen into disturbing decay, complete with ravaged neighborhoods, arson-torched homes, and the collapse of communities. This sparked a bit of a backlash by a group of current and former Detroit area advocates (all white, like me by the way) who rushed to Detroit’s defense and said negative storytelling ignores the “good people” and “good stories” and tales of the recovery. I then reviewed the data, and think rose-colored perspectives can be naive at best given the indicators of crime, poverty, employment, population health, and more. I do think balance is critical, but you cannot ignore what you see, particularly with tools like Google Street View, and in the work of recent documentary photographers.

This is an American story and an American tragedy, with many villains, many victims, and a still uncertain future. Recovery will take decades. Right now many people are struggling, and many people have just walked away–like my relatives did decades ago. Many in leadership positions in our country  would prefer to have our country spend tens of billions to preserve our strategic priorities in foreign lands and willfully ignore a once great city that is, by all definitions, an “African American” community that many in this country care very little about.

I talked about this with an old public health classmate of mine and how young Americans go overseas to address global issues of poverty and development. He wryly commented, maybe some new grads can work on “third world” issues in our country. I think he is right.