Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Matthew Mourning: Random Thoughts on the Cult of Destruction in St. Louis

In anticipation of a temporary move to Baltimore (more on that later), I was using Google Streetview to surf the city—extensively so.

After an hour or so of clicking and zooming and dropping the yellow Streetview man all over the city, several emotions came over me: shock, admiration, depression, and hope.

Shock, primarily, because I cannot believe how intact the city of Baltimore is. I found a fairly large area on the northern periphery of downtown that seemed to have been cleared and replaced with a series of modern housing developments. Yet, for the most part, Baltimore’s signature (and unrelenting) row houses are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. The density and population capacity the city must have had at its height are simply astounding! Even knowing something of Baltimore’s history and architectural vernacular, I was still caught off guard. This was where the admiration came in; at the power of cities working at their best to produce a better quality of life simply by being cities. By being walkable. By having services located nearby. By offering opportunities for a tight-knit community to form. While Baltimore’s rows seem more monotonous than, say, St. Louis’s more architecturally diverse vintage 1880s streetscapes, even they offer a level of democratic individuality.

(I know I’m romanticizing a lot, but keep in mind I’m speaking of cities at their utmost ideal; the fulfillment of their potential).

The depression took me upon seeing whole blocks of these rows boarded, vacant. No cars, no trees, no pedestrians lining the streets. Just walls of row houses sitting vacant. I could “hear” the eerie silence even behind the computer screen, hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I got to thinking: how has Baltimore not torn out more of these rows and created park space or built new housing or just left them fallow, waiting for a time when investment would bring something new? Do whole abandoned blocks not cause issues with surrounding occupied blocks? Do they not pull the image of the city down? This, mind you, was my gut reaction, even as an avowed preservationist. Of course, I was happy to see them remain—thus the hope that later kicked in—but even I was wondering how they could have been spared the wrecking ball.

Then I remembered that I’m a St. Louisan; an automatic member of the cult of destruction.

My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse. Often the replacement is meant to serve the purpose of moving or storing automobiles. This is the city’s greatest power because it is the simplest task at its disposal. Vacant buildings and lots provide convenient opportunities for combining narrow urban lots to form parking lots and garages. A 1920s-era bond issue already widened most roads to an extent likely even then excessive; certainly this was so by the time the region’s vast interstate network was introduced. So a declined city that wants to better move automobiles through itself need only maintain its roads and ensure every new development has ample parking.

The more and more I experience cities, the less and less I am willing to accept St. Louis’s exceptional status as a destroyer of its most unique asset, its built environment.

Check out this recent thread on Skyscraper Page, but especially this 1950s-era photo of a recently-constructed Pruitt-Igoe complex at Jefferson and Cass:

You might see where this is going: I’m going to rail on the brand of urban renewal represented by Pruitt-Igoe. It’s out of scale, tore down a dozen blocks in the making, and apparently was not very well-built to serve the population it intended to serve. Sure.

But look around! Pruitt-Igoe’s decline certainly had a strong influence on its surroundings, but no one at the St. Louis Housing Authority held a gun to the city’s head and demanded they do this to the surrounding neighborhoods!  Of the hundreds and hundreds of structures shown in the photo, nearly all have been demolished, including the 33 11-story Pruitt-Igoe towers themselves.

Look to the south of the site (bottom and bottom-left in the photo). We see, in order, Cole, Carr, then Easton, today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Row after row of cast iron storefronts—gone, no matter how irreplaceable they might have been! Look to the west (far left in the photo), today’s Jeff Vanderlou with apparently beautiful rows of mid- to late-19th Century houses, shops, and churches.

North (top and top right of the photo) shows the portion of St. Louis Place that’s now an “urban prairie”. This site was already tattered when plans circulated in the early 1990s to place a golf course and gated community on the site. Of course, since there was a plan, even an unfunded and ill-conceived one, the buildings came down. Now, naturally, Paul McKee, Jr., of the North Side development, is picking and choosing which of these structures represent “salvageable” “legacy properties”. In other words, we can reasonably expect yet more clearance of a good number of properties in this photo that have clung to life over decades of turbulent change.

New Orleans has endured decades of decline, like St. Louis, and, recently, one of the nation’s worst natural disasters ever recorded, unlike St. Louis. It is said that 33 percent of New Orleans’ structures are officially “blighted” circa 2009. Certainly blight in either city is formidable and a problem that needs to be addressed sensitively. The answer, however, is not to simply tear out buildings right as they become vacant. No New Orleans neighborhood–not even the most-storm damaged–is as empty as St. Louis Place. New Orleans did replace old neighborhoods with a series of low-rise public housing complexes, but their surroundings did not become the urban blank slates witnessed in St. Louis.

We must look to our peer cities and realize that our history and heritage, but moreover our urban built environment are our greatest assets. We need a comprehensive plan, backed by the force of law, to protect our remaining assets and to encourage the growth of new ones bound for their own protection one day. We need to make sure we no longer take lightly the piecemeal (or wholesale) destruction of our built environment for something less or worse than what was there.

We need to recognize that our auto-centric infrastructure not only destroyed neighborhoods upon its introduction. Our interstates and oversize roads continue to provide barriers to pedestrians and still lower adjacent property values and, of course, are still ugly and disrespectful of their urban context.

We need to be bold and comprehensive with regard to stabilizing and strengthening our built environment. Planners and designers of Pruitt-Igoe had the wrong idea–the superblock, the identical hulking towers, the clearance projects–but they had the optimism, the sense of direction, and the boldness and comprehensiveness nailed. Today’s stock of leaders in our city are diffident, conservative, fearful or unwilling to change anything for the better.

We need new zoning and urban design guidelines to ensure that neighborhoods such as those pictured surrounding the Pruitt-Igoe complex can repopulate and spawn a new, bold identity. While Paul McKee has apparently stepped up to the plate to do so, this blog has communicated before its lack of faith in the city to assure something bold and truly beneficial to the area, aesthetically or socially speaking.

So when I use this blog to harp on a business needlessly taking down two buildings for outdoor dining, or a gas station in Hyde Park demolishing a vacant but beautiful historic commercial row for expansion, or yet another church ruthlessly ripping out mixed use buildings for a parking lot…I’m thinking of the photograph above. If only we had pro-urban rather than anti-urban planning! None of this would happen. There would not need to be so many individual battles; prospective parking lot pavers would encounter difficulties, roadblocks in making our city less walkable, less enjoyable, more ugly, less human. The photograph shows we have suffered too much, too long, too deeply.

We can solidify St. Louis as an urban environment. We must!

This post originally appeared in Dotage St. Louis. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: St. Louis

14 Responses to “Matthew Mourning: Random Thoughts on the Cult of Destruction in St. Louis”

  1. Jeff says:

    I will repeat my comments on Skyscraperpage:

    It’s truly miraculous that despite all the senseless destruction, St. Louis still holds on to a level of original urban density that 90% of cities would kill for. For every lost neighborhood, there are two that remain, relatively intact. Matt’s post highlights a very ugly side to St. Louis’ history of destruction, but it does not paint the complete picture. St. Louis was an early leader in the historic preservation movement. Still today, visitors to the city praise our amazing built environment– not just a few buildings or isolated pockets here and there– but throughout the city. Blocks upon blocks of dense red brick architecture abounds across St. Louis. Indeed, our built environment remains our single biggest competitive advantage, and it’s what truly sets St. Louis apart from the vast majority of Midwestern cities.

  2. Jim Uber says:

    Right on.

    I live in Cincinnati in the historic Over The Rhine neighborhood. Every time I get depressed about the still huge number of vacant buildings around me, and the increased pace of change and investment required to renovate them before they fall down, I give thanks that these unique structures were built so well that they still survive. And I also give thanks that either our preservationists worked hard that they would survive, or our city leadership was too inept to put together the plans to wreck them, or both.

  3. AF says:

    I have spent a lot of time scouring St. Louis on Google Streetview, and it is indeed a disheartening experience, but only because the tremendous beauty of what remains gives evidence to what was.

  4. Have you ever seen the show The Wire? Half the show revolves around what goes on inside and outside Baltimore’s vacants. I can’t recommend that show enough…it’s more focused on the drug war than urbanism, but there are plenty of urbanist themes that run throughout the show. (One could argue that the drug war is itself an urbanist theme, in that it colors many Americans’ impressions of cities and their quality of life.)

  5. Atrios says:

    visit philly’s better residential neighborhoods when you’re on the east coast. like baltimore (endless rowhouses) without the complete economic devastation.

  6. david says:

    I grew up in St. Louis and currently live in the L.A. area. Living in L.A. with its traffic and sprawl has deepened my appreciation for STL’s compact, dense urban fabric. When I recently went back to STL to visit I was saddened to find that so much of the north side had indeed disappeared. However, there are signs of positive change nearby, especially in the downtown area where lofts and mixed use developments have been filling in for the last decade or so. Hopefully this will lead to more reinvestment in the currently neglected parts of the city. I would love to see more rowhouses and corner stores returning to the “urban prairies”.

  7. If, as an urbanist, all you’re striving for is density…then yes, I can imagine that Baltimore would seem quite “intact”. However, as a resident, I can assure you — it’s anything but intact. The city’s housing problem isn’t new — it’s been on a steady decline for decades, and the city “leadership” refuses to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem, preferring to slap bandaids here and there.

    Please contact me when you’re here — I’ll be more than happy to take you on a tour of blight.

  8. Mark says:

    I just recently moved from a “Cult of Destruction” city (Buffalo) to Baltimore and I feel the same things you do when looking at Baltimore. You truly feel its history and the formerly acceptable density levels of middle-upper income America. The row houses that are in good shape symbolize Baltimore’s charm but the ones that are boarded up symbolize its poverty and violence-it balances out into a fair picture of what urban Baltimore truly is as a whole.

    On a side note, although Buffalo has better architecture in terms of specific buildings, Baltimore has an amazing balance of architecture spanning so many different eras and so much of it well executed. Sometimes looking out on the city feels like looking at a scattered timeline of American architecture.

  9. Chris Barnett says:

    There was a photo in today’s WSJ illustrating a low-income housing development in China.

    It looked almost exactly like the Pruitt-Igoe photo above. Wonder if it will work any better there?

  10. George Mattei says:

    Moving from the Northeast to Midwest, I can tell you that the attitudes are very different. In the Northeast you have this sense of “This is where America was founded. We’re not going to tear it down!” There is more belief that the historic form of the cities is important to preserve. This also goes towards small towns, which have highly exclusionary development policies to keep out new development in order to preserve their small-town heritage.

    In the Midwest, many cities and small towns are much more eager to demolish older buildings. I think it has to do with the fact that the Midwest’s identity is much less wrapped up in its built environment than the Northeast. You can’t say, “Well, Paul Revere lived here” for example. Most people in Cleveland and Detroit don’t say “Hey, our cities have lots of vacant buildings, but they’re darn nice ones!”

    Finally, there is much more room to expand in the Midwest than the Northeast. I think this gives real estate in general more of a “disposable” feel to it. There’s probably still much more value in some of those Baltimore row houses than there is in a block of decrepit houses in Detroit or Cleveland.

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    Re George’s remarks above: Indianapolis was platted in 1821, which is a scant 35 years after Cincinnati’s founding in 1787. But there is precious little still standing here that dates to 1870 or before. Our American Legion Mall (a very small replica of DC’s mall) was an urban renewal project 100 years ago. I work in a commercial-industrial part of the city (which started out as residential) where the second and third waves of land assembly, knock down and rebuild are ongoing.

    However, that pattern seems to be pretty characteristic of near-downtown areas of many cities on the East Coast, too. I doubt George Washington would recognize much in Center City Philadelphia (outside the immediate Independence Hall/Society Hill area), Valley Forge/King-of-Prussia (outside the park), DC (outside of Arlington Cemetery) or Manhattan.

    The market did (and does) a fair amount of this work, unaided by the bulldozer urban renewal of the mid-century “planners”. Creative destruction, Schumpeter called it.

  12. Alon Levy says:

    In Manhattan, you have to specifically look for old historic districts. There’s one in Lower Manhattan right between the skyscrapers, but by and large the housing stock of even the areas developed in the 18th century is at the oldest from the late 19th century. Buildings that go further back than 1870 are notable.

  13. George Mattei says:

    Good point. Let me restate: the Midwest is big on demolishing buildings and not replacing them. Larger cities on the East coast have demolished large portions of their built environment, but it’s been more through the creative destruction model, vs. the demolish and leave a vacant lot concept.

    A lot of this has to do with the economics of real estate in the different areas. But some of it also has to do with attitude. Yes, many cities demolished massive areas in the 50’s and 60’s. My hometown, New Haven, pioneered this practice.

    However, there is now a much more robust preservation corps and preservation ethic in New Haven, and most other east coast cities, than in Columbus, my adopted home.

    Again I think that goes back to history-the East coast isn’t as enamored of the new and shiny like the rest of the nation is. They are like an aging ballplayer-living vicariously through their glory years.

    Cities in the Midwest are either somewhat economically vibrant young pups, like Columbus or Indianapolis, who are eager to “make it to the big leagues”, or are older cities with very weak economies which just can’t support the built environment they have.

    Either way, the psyche of east coast cities are much more linked to their history than most Midwest cities. There are exceptions of course, but that’s the general rule I have observed.

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    George, I have to disagree.

    Large swaths of West Philadelphia were converted from rowhouses and commercial buildings into surface parking lots in the 1960’s and 70’s while nearby institutions assembled land. Philadelphia’s sprawling suburbs don’t look all that much different to me than the ones here in Indianapolis; Valley Forge Park is surrounded by sprawl.

    I don’t think that the development psyche of Philadelphia is that different from a Midwestern city, or that it’s as controlled by the region’s connection to history as you might imagine.

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