These past two evenings have taken me on business near East St. Louis. I have driven its rugged streets at twilight, passing modest brick and frame homes, scattered one- and two-story commercial buildings, broken factories and vacant land. The landscape today seems neither steeped in history nor carelessly updated; it hovers somewhere in between tenuously. East St. Louis has its proud center city and its large industrial districts, but much of the city consists of areas that lack the architectural elements that make for memory. The vacant land, much of it grown with scrub trees, certainly also works against the city's ability to present itself as someplace definite.
I wonder what sort of future lies in store for a city that lacks a strong character in real life yet carries a negative media stereotype that, however far from reality, is more likely to be digested by people than glimpses of frame bungalows and rough-brick storefronts.
What will become of a city whose lifeblood was industry and commerce when even the most optimistic prediction has it regaining only a shell of those forces? The modesty of the neighborhoods of East St. Louis may be in part due to the overwhelming style of its packinghouses, foundries and factories, which even in ruins are among the region's most impressive buildings. Downtown East St. Louis also was a place with buildings of great presence, like the Spivey Building and the Majestic Theater.
Nowadays, in an era where the notion of a city center is not even taken seriously by its supposed proponents but where exceptionality and deviation are required stylistic components for the middle class, the future of East St. Louis does not make visual sense. While its homes are sturdy and lovely and its neighborhoods comfortable, they don't possess what most people seek. At least not today.
After all, St. Louis city vernacular buildings were declared obsolete in 1947, but by the 1970s people were clamoring for brick tenements and townhouses. Now, these buildings rarely sell for less than $100,000 in the most desired neighborhoods.
Perhaps there is a time when appreciation of the East St. Louis vernacular will come full circle. The houses are smaller than many new homes, and offer large lawns without the excesses of the far suburbs, and much closer to what is at least one of the centers of the region, downtown. What may seem banal today may seem like a welcome retreat from giant homes and garish styles tomorrow -- if the East St. Louis common stock of building survives that long.