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Monday, August 28, 2006

Thinking About East St. Louis Vernacular Buildings

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.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The regular people of East St. Louis are great. I spend a lot of time there.

It is hard to work with the politicians and city government of East St. Louis..

It is very difficult to get anything done.

Mayor Officer is a cool guy, but like St. Louis, the mayor has little power.

The City Council runs the show.

Urban Review said...

Michael this is so true! The tenement buildings which were "obsolete" are in high demand today! The neighborhoods these buildings formed, then called slums, are prized today and are what we are seeing replicated in New Urbanist Developments. Some mighty wasteful generations.

Joe said...

I hope ESL can attract some middle-class African-Americans to come back, instead of heading up the bluff to Fairview, Belleville, etc.

Realistically, the number of blue-collar jobs that were there 50 years ago will not return.

My grandfather drove a truck for Swift in the 1950s. My aunt recalls her mom (my grandma) putting handkerchiefs over their faces because the stench was so overwhelming.

Maybe it's OK we don't have the meatpacking houses anymore.

There are many ongoing efforts to attract more jobs (including modern light-industry) into ESL -- but it's slow-going.

Anonymous said...

There was a commentary publish recently by the city manager which sums up the vision of the leadership. "There is none." The manager stated he had a manadate to clean up the downtown area and one of the ways he was going to do was to force the buildings owners to clean it up or the city will clean it up and send the owners a bill. Now, judging from the empty lots in the area we know how the city cleans. Now if this manadate is set upon him by the city government then the leaders need to re-evaluate that mandate. The downtown and surrounding areas cannot afford to lose anymore of its rich Architectural idenity which sets it a part or should I say cannot lose any more the personality of the different communites.
The city should:
1)provide financial assistance to those building owners who which to help revitalize the downtown ares by provide quality retail space.
2)mandate that any new construction which take place in downtown and any other part of the city be reflective of personality of those given areas.
Prime example, look at Virginia Place. The new consturction built there among the most Architecturally design homes look out of place. Don't take my word for it check it out for your self.

Anonymous said...

There was a commentary publish recently by the city manager which sums up the vision of the leadership. "There is none." The manager stated he had a mandate to clean up the downtown area and one of the ways he was going to do was to force the buildings owners to clean it up or the city will clean it up and send the owners a bill. Now, judging from the empty lots in the area we know how the city cleans. Now if this mandate is set upon him by the city government then the leaders need to re-evaluate that mandate. The downtown and surrounding areas cannot afford to lose anymore of its rich Architectural identity which sets it a part or should I say cannot lose any more the personality of the different communities.
The city should:
1) provide financial assistance to those building owners who which to help revitalize the downtown areas by provide quality retail space.
2) Mandate that any new constructions which take place in downtown and any other part of the city be reflective of personality of those given areas.
Prime example, look at Virginia Place. The new construction built there among the most architecturally design homes look out of place. Don't take my word for it check it out for your self.

Anonymous said...

What does the presence of a large number of old, abandoned buildings mean to the people of East St. Louis today? Do they wish to see them restored to their former glory, or do they view them as eyesores and hazards? As much as I like old buildings, I don't think every one should be restored, particularly if there is no feasible use for it.
Let's face it, East St. Louis isn't going to become another haven for upscale singles like some of the gentrified neighborhoods in St. Louis. Another thing to consider is that many of those East St. Louis structures are part of a past that the present residents don't necessarily claim as their own. Those buildings catered to a long-gone white population.
Who owns those old buildings anyway? Is the city powerless to take action against absentee owners that allow their property to deteriorate?
At it's peak, East St. Louis had almost 90,000 people. Today it is about one-third of that. The best solution may be for the city to disincorporate a lot of its land and retreat to smaller boundaries.