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Friday, June 30, 2006

What We Can Learn from Jennings

Internet happenstance led to my discovery of the website for the Jennings Historical Society. Jennings is a small city in north St. Louis County, located not far from the city limits of St. Louis. While Jennings was incorporated in 1946 and saw rapid growth after the opening of Interstate Highway 70, settlement there dates back to 1839. While the Historical Society's website isn't deep in content, its presence and wonderful design suggest that there is an effort going to take an interest in the history of one of north county's most interesting cities.

Jennings was instrumental in the development of the shopping mall in St. Louis. Both Northland Shopping Center in the 1950s and River Roads Mall in 1967 were innovative, albeit auto-centric, development projects that fell into vacancy and disrepair before demolition. Northland fell last year for a new big-box strip, and River Roads is under demolition at the present moment for a new subdivision developed by the Pyramid Companies.

Jennings, however, lives on. While the city faces the same problems as other municpalities in St. Louis County that went from great early suburban development to stangant economies, it could stand to preserve some of its recent past. The suburban development of the 1950s is increasingly the subject of serious research, and its atomic-age modernism seems rather intimately-scaled when compared with suburban development that followed it. Jennings is still the site of 20th century retail, gas station and other commercial buildings that tell the story of the postwar settlement of St. Louis County -- as well as older buildings that show the development that the once-rural county supported before highways.

Historic preservation is needed in Jennings as well as other "inner ring" suburbs. The rush to increase revenues may wipe out a lot of interesting places and buildings there. I hope fellow preservationists look at mid-century suburban architecture as seriously as they do early 20th century urban office buildings. Places like Jennings are very important antidotes to development projects like WingHaven that undercut all sense of place and totally condemn the pedestrian. Jennings developed into a car-friendly place that also retained a specific character. Those of us who despise the suburbs can find things to like about these cities -- and our involvement can redirect development efforts from replacement sprawl to urban development that builds on local character. A site like that of River Roads would have been a great place for the New Urbanists who are instead building non-places on the remote corn fields of St. Charles County.


Joe said...

"A site like that of River Roads would have been a great place for the New Urbanists"

And, indeed, it would have been transit-oriented! Until very recently (that is, last month) River Roads Shopping Center was the convergence point for numerous MetroBus routes. The Riverview-Hall MetroBus Center will largely replace that function. Similarly, Northland used to be a major transfer point with direct on-site bus service as well.

Jennings probably has the most bus routes in North County. The #64 Lucas Hunt, #16 City Limits, #36 Spanish Lake, #61 Chambers Road, #74 Florissant, #41 Lee, #40 Broadway, #27 North County Shuttle and several express routes, serve Jennings either in the River Roads vicinity or the Northland vicinity, including streets/roads such as Jennings Station, West Florissant, Halls Ferry, Lucas Hunt, and even Hord Ave.

But I guess the New Urbanists have no interest in going into a racially-mixed, working-class community with significant fiscal stresses and a certain level of police-community tensions.

www.tobyweiss.com said...

Thank you for highlighting preservation issues with Jenings. A few years back, I started (but have yet to finish) a photographic documentation of West Florissant, starting at Hwy 70 and heading west to where it ends at New Halls Ferry. That stretch perfectly illustrates the architectural history of STL City to Suburb. At 70, it's all late 1890s to early 1900s brick architecture, and then ramps through the deacades. It's an organic unfolding of 20th century architectural styles, transportation modes and the living history of White Flight.

Of which my family took part. My father's family kept moving west up West Florissant, from the 1930s - 1960s. I was born in jennings, then we migrated to Ferguson, before he packed us off to far North county (by Sioux Passage Park). Each of these Father-Related moves was always inspired by blacks slowly moving in. The minute he/they "spotted one," they were gone. I'm glad his race issues only affected where I lived for 7 years, and I still have a deep love and interest in Jennings.

The crucial intersection of West Florissant & Lucas-Hunt is teetering on the brink of total wipe out. Northland is already toast, and what's replacing it is horridly banal. They're preparing to wipe out the south east corner businesses and homes for another big box retail development. And they're sniffing hard around Norwood Country Club (the golf course which was the whole reason that part of town ever got developed in the first place), wanting to fill it with homes.

I get that land-locked inner-rings have to do something to generate cash and life. But rather than erase everything, they need to take stock of what they have, what should be kept and what can be traded in. But because half of Jennings was developed because of Car Culture, it's considered meaningless. ALL parts of the story are important, and the story Jennings shows is precise and compelling. Thanks for noting the importance of this.

Anonymous said...

No offense... but what person in their right mind would want to live or work in Jennings as opposed to WingHaven? Not many I know. Are you willing to risk your life. My family fled this suburb with a quickness about a decade ago and we haven't looked back. And just an FYI... Jennings IS a suburb... albeit a very dangerous, nasty, run down one.

Josh H. said...

Jennings was a great city... at one time. I am pleased to see River Roads Mall is being torn down for a few reasons:

1) To refurbish the center, bring it up to code, and get tenants to occupy it would take a lot more money and time that the city of Jennings really doesn't have and a task no retail developer wants to take on. To remove all of the asbestos in the mall would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars alone and the structures, due to lack of upkeep, are far from stable. Case in point: trees have rooted on the roof of the old Stix Baer & Fuller/Dillards, and the front canopy/awning that was on the fron of the mall by King's Beauty and the old Bowling Alley entrance separated from the building overtime and had to be removed. Even if River Roads were to be refurbished as a mall, WHAT retailer would even open a store there!? Banana Republic? Gap? Pottery Barn? How about Macy's... it could be like a goodwill gesture to the city of Jennings since they are going to be new in St. Loius! HA HA HA! Doubtful... most retailers have learned their lessons with these types of neighborhoods and projects. Just look how quickly Northwest Plaza went from a beautiful, renovated, enclosed shopping mall to an almost vacant haven of gang-related crime. Retailers are in business to make money; not throw good money after bad.

2) After having lived in Jennings most of my life until I was a teenager in the early 1990's before my Mom and Dad moved us west to Ballwin I worked in the Walgreen's at River Roads Mall and feared for my safety many times. Going out to the parking lot after the store closed I was almost robbed more than one time. The only thing I would like to return to River Roads for would be to see the wrecking ball hit the old Walgreen's spot.

3) For people whose homes have faced this retail disaster (those off of Ada Wortley and Cozens) they DESERVE to see this property-value-lowering brownfield leveled. The plans for redevelopment will help them greatly regain some value for their homes.

4) If anyone wants to be angry that River Roads fell into such disrepair, it unfortunately is a fact of life. And for those that mourn the loss of Jennings as a city, it is no more a "city" than Chesterfield, Ballwin, Florissant, or Oakville are. These are all just suburbs... and surburbs have a natural lifespan and go from desireable to undesireable over time.

My last question is to Michael Allen and Toby Weiss is this: Since you two lament the loss of Jennings so loudly, do either of you currently live there?? If you don't, you have no reason to complain and if you TRULY want to make a difference, MOVE THERE. Get your hands dirty by being two people who push to help Jennings have some sort of renaissance. Just don't get discouraged when your house gets broken into repeatedly, your car gets stolen out of your driveway, or you get carjacked at the gas station.

Yes, it is sad to see Jennings falling by the wayside. I went to St. Sebastian (closed) and then Rosary High School (now merged with Aquinas-Mercy at the Rosary site), but to talk poorly of respectable suburbs like St. Charles is just out of line. And I am sure Michael that if you were given a choice between living in the "remote corn fields of St. Charles County" and living in Jennings... you know you would pick St. Charles everytime. Also, just for your edification, St. Charles REALLY isn't that remote and isn't all corn fields either... there are too many folks who have fled from places like Jennings, Dellwood, and Ferguson for that kind of solitude ;)

Just my two cents on this nonsense.

- Josh

www.tobyweiss.com said...

If Josh knew that Michael lives in Old North St. Louis, he'd know that Jennings would be picked well before St. Charles.

I have no problems with River Roads coming down. To my eye, there's only one architecturally worthy section of it. The rest was just a hodge-podge precursor to Big Box Retail. And I could never understand why Jennings had TWO large retail centers.

I want Jennings to have more new homes, even if they'll look as gross as that new development about a quarter-mile north of the RR site. Just like sports can't revitalize downtown, retail is not the saviour of muncipalities. Residents are.

The reason I don't live in ANY town outside the city limits is because the city suits all my needs and desires. To move back to Jennings would mean double the gas use and drive time. It wouldn't be a cost-effective move.
My main beef is the careless planning of ANY town revitalization. It's just my sentimental attachment to Jennings that makes that one sting, something Josh can probably relate to.

Greg said...

I'd like to thank Michael for the positive remarks about our Jennings Historical Society website.

I grew up in Ballwin and Manchester, and I live now in Jennings. My wife and I moved here 6 years ago to a house that was available next to her grandparents' home.

Jennings might not be the best municipality in our region, but it does appear to be on the upswing. My wife and I regularly attend city council meetings, neighborhood watch meetings, and we are active in the Jennings Historical Society. We want to do whatever we can to help make positive changes here.

Housing is affordable in Jennings, and there's a WIDE range of housing here - from tiny to huge, we've got 'em. One of the most exciting properties here was the McClusky-Elms mansion, which was located at 2520 McLaran Ave. I was quite upset when it was torn down in '03 to make way for 6 houses. However, it was in bad shape, and most of the land was already developed into housing.. who would invest over $200,000 to fix it up when the yard is not that big, and, of course, it's not in University City or anything. We only could have done it if we had won the lottery.

Our biggest problem in Jennings, I think, is the gang mentality, probably an effect of some of the more negative aspects of hip-hop culture on the young people. We also have a bit of a property abandonment problem. And parents who unknowingly teach their kids how to throw trash out the car window. Nothing you don't see in parts of North St. Louis. However, we do have a police force that will issue tickets for running stop signs and other violations. I can't say the same for St. Louis in areas like Goodfellow and W. Florissant. You can speed and run every stop sign on Goodfellow for a week straight, and you won't get caught.

I'm told the schools here are quite good, and very strict. I see kids walking from St. Louis to Jennings to attend school.

Jennings is a mixed bag, for sure. Hardly any sit-down restaurants (some are on the way), but plenty of hair salons.

By the way, anyone wishing to witness the wrecking ball tearing down River Roads had better get their butt down there NOW! They've been working on it for a few weeks now.

Greg Morey
Jennings Historical Society