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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.

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