Wednesday, February 29, 2012

1,500th Post: The Death of Central St. Louis

Continuing the tradition of my 1,000th post, I will again address a serious threat to the City of St. Louis

When was the last time you heard some say the following? "Hey guys, let's go take a stroll down Kingshighway in between Highway 40 and Interstate 44!"

Even if you replace "Kingshighway" with "Grand" or "Jefferson," I have a feeling the answer is still a categorical "Never."

Why is that? Why has a whole swath of the city become a no-man's land, devoid of houses, stores and really anything of value other than some rusty industrial buildings, most of which are empty? Was it always like this? Scanning over old property records and Sanborn maps, it's clear that the large Mill Creek railroad tracks have long occupied the area between Highway 40 and Interstate 44, so that could explain some of the malaise that occurs in this wide swath of land from Jefferson to Kingshighway. But the bookends, Dogtown and Lafayette Square, show that there was life in these areas, and indeed life still remains in those two vibrant neighborhoods.

I strongly believe the real culprits are the interstates which have sliced off the central portion of the city from the north and south sides. No one likes walking over an interstate, as planners realized in Washington, DC, luckily before the interstates could be completed in that city. Now, you can walk all the way from the Washington Monument to the District border in most directions and never have to confront the hell of an interstate on-ramp. In St. Louis, however, the central city neighborhoods were left isolated and targeted for "experimentation" on the part of city leaders who could use the different, admittedly suffering Compton Hill and McRee Town areas because they lacked strong advocates and neighboring areas to fight them.

Thankfully, the days of interstate building are over, but there's something just awful about the drive down what should be the major avenues of the city. It almost seems like the city's planners gave up on the area between the interstates, and started redesigning Kingshighway, Grand and Jefferson to get people in cars through the wasteland as fast as possible. We can do better, and the wastelands can hold new buildings again--or for the first time.

Let's work so that some day that Central St. Louis is the actual center of the city, and not the barren border lands between two vibrant halves.

6 comments:

  1. Highways helped kill St. Louis, as they do all cities.

    I moved to Portland, Oregon 14 years ago and was struck by the vibrance of its neighborhoods. It turns out that Robert Moses, the urban planner who advocated highways as the key to urban development, had come here and recommended that Portland do what St. Louis did- cut up it's urban core with highways. You can see his vision here:

    http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-4212-highway_to_hell.html

    Luckily, Portland didn't follow his advice.

    I recently attended a presentation by an urban transportation expert who reminded the audience that the most vibrant North American city, Vancouver, BC, has no urban highways. You get to the edge of the city with freeways but that's it. If you've ever been to Vancouver, you'd know what I mean.

    The highways we do have in Portland did the same damage that they did to St. Louis- cut wide swaths of dead zones and destroyed neighborhoods. But, that is what everyone was doing, probably to accomodate the car culture.

    Love your blog. Makes me homesick.

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  2. Tom Maher - KirkwoodFebruary 29, 2012 at 4:14 PM

    Well - my observations are strictly subjective and not based on research - just having lived for some time...
    Blame WW II.
    After the War, returning service people wanted more than living in a small house with a tiny yard. Money was flush, everyone was working, and they wanted a car and a house with a bigger yard and more flora. Land was available in NoCo and SoCo (and later WCo). Developers responded to the desires.
    Then people tired of it taking forever to get to jobs in the City and friends who had moved to opposite ends of the Metro area. So highways were built to move the traffic. Unfortunately, many interesting parts of the City were devastated and this then led, in many instances, to blight.

    Now, I dunno how objective this is, as I have lived in Kirkwood for virtually all of my looong life, although I went to HS and collitch in the City (or adjacent to it). I also live a block from I270, which took a lot of "my" area years ago. I have nothing against the City - I simply love my hometown; but I also enjoy the wonderful architectural experiences of STL. After all, 99% of my relatives in the '40s and '50s lived in Dogtown and South City; I learned a lot from those many buildings so foreign to Kirkwood.

    It seems to me that Chris is correct in his belief that Interstates destroyed the core of large cities - although I have very little adult experience of a large city beyond Kansas City and Chicago.

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    Replies
    1. While I agree that the area between the highways has many problems I would like to point out that Lafayette Square is between 40 and 44, as is Forest Park Southeast.

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    2. Agreed, Anonymous; unfortunately, due to the conditions of the surrounding neighborhoods, growth beyond these beacons of hope is limited.

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  3. I also live a block from I270, which took a lot of "my" area years ago. I have nothing against the City - I simply love my hometown; but I also enjoy the wonderful architectural experiences of STL. After all, 99% of my relatives in the '40s and '50s lived in Dogtown and South City, be aware from these histories.

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  4. You know how that area could be revitalized? Two words: Lego City. That's it. I bet you that if you took some of those old lots and put a giant Lego City there, it would bring back the area. Have you been to a Lego City? It would be the same way if instead you built an IKEA. The closest IKEA to St. Louis is in Chicago. Why would you built an IKEA in West County or in Clayton? I understand that those would be the most likely areas. But, things in IKEA are pretty cheap and better for people to use. So, why not open an IKEA in the city, say.... in this area.

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