We've Moved

Ecology of Absence now resides at www.preservationresearch.com. Please change your links and feeds.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Downtown Prophecy?

The text on a plaque on downtown's Mississippi Valley Trust Building contains this sentence: "Francis was the only person to serve as both Mayor of St. Louis and Governor of Missouri."

This is David Francis, of course. At least, I hope so.

Farewell Rock Star Rags and Ching-Ching's

While the near north side is still cool, it just lost two very cool spots: Rock Star Rags, the vintage clothing wholesaler located at Ninth and St. Louis that occasionally hosted public by-the-pound sales, and Ching-Ching's Old Fashioned Snack Shop, located at 3332 N. 19th Street.

I had wondered why Ching-Ching's seemed suddenly to be perpetually closed, until I found the for-sale listing on CraigsList [LINK DEFUNCT]. Hopefully a reputable buyer will take over the operation. The area between St. Louis Avenue and Salisbury Street certainly needs a third restaurant to complement the frequently-mobbed Crown Candy and the Cornerstone. Personally, I'd like to be be able to get a veggie burger within walking distance somewhere other than my own kitchen. After a day's work of pointing basement walls or taking out loose plaster, Ching-Ching's was a relief.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Emigrant Home, Turnverein on Missouri Preservation's Most Endangered List

Missouri Preservation, formerly the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation, announced its 2006 Most Endangered Historic Places list at a press conference in Fulton last Saturday.

Among the thirteen places are the storm-damaged Nord St. Louis Turnverein and the Mullanphy Emigrant Home on the near north side of St. Louis. Another St. Louis-area building made the list: the Mark Sappington House in Crestwood, built in 1840 and threatened with demolition for a strip mall.

The list may draw greater attention statewide to the plight of these buildings. Across the state, St. Louis has a strong reputation as a leader in historic rehabilitation efforts, so people may take our forward movement for granted. The truth is that the city's north side continues to lose buildings at an alarming rate with no end in sight. Hopefully the inclusion of the near north side buildings will show people that great architecture requires political and economic maintenance, even (especially?) in a city on the rebound from decline.

Thanks go to Karen Bode Baxter for nominating the Turnverein and the Emigrant Home at the last minute.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Aldermen and the Preservation Board

Richard Nickel, the Chicago architectural photographer, salvager and preservation activist, once said that two things threaten old buildings: water and stupid men.

In what language does the prefix "alder" translate as "stupid"?

This question comes to the minds of anyone who attended Monday's Preservation Board meeting. Actions on two items from the agenda stand out as examples of the short-sightedness of the Gang of 28:

3524 Victor: David Guller, owner of this magnificent home in the Compton Hill local historic district, replaced windows, cornice and soffit without a permit. He was caught by a neighbor and had to apply for a permit. Unfortunately, his vinyl replacements don't meet the local district code and when Guller made an application for a permit on the already-done remuddling the city's Cultural Resources Office (CRO) denied his application. He appealed to the Preservation Board, which denied the appeal. Guller agreed to rework his soffit and cornice to the liking of the CRO. But he didn't want to replace the six windows on his front elevation, and somehow appealed the denial of his appeal.

How was this even possible? Legally, it's not. The city's Preservation Review Ordinance holds the Preservation Board's denial of appeal as the final deliberation, after which a matter would go to court through lawsuit. Apparently there is an unwritten exception that Alderman Stephen Conway, Guller's representative, used to secure a second hearing at last month's meeting. Guller did not appear, and the Board voted again to uphold the CRO denial. The item re-appeared this month, and Guller as well as Alderman Conway testified in support of his supposedly appropriate vinyl windows. The windows have embedded muntins and a terrible flat appearance; at the least, he could have sought simulated exterior muntins. best of all, Guller could re-install the wooden windows that he removed on the front elevation and keep his vinyl windows on the side and rear elevations (private elevations under city law). But he has thrown them out.

The Preservation Board smartly voted again to uphold CRO denial. If the matter comes up again, perhaps someone who supports CRO should file suit against Guller and Conway for abusing the process!

Forest Park Southeast Demolitions: The tides turned against 32 houses owned by Forest West Properties, a real estate corporation created by the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation. Forest West sought demolition permits for all 32 and ended up receiving 22 permits, the staff recommendation of CRO. While last month's consideration by the Board of the same matter met with widespread resentment of Forest West's lack of a plan for and lack of communication with CRO.

This month, things had changed. Namely, Alderman Joseph Roddy's name, absent from earlier deliberations, surfaced. CRO Director Kate Shea told the Preservation Board that Roddy had asked Forest West to buy the homes and tear them down for new construction. This fact is irrelevant to any discussion of the consequences of the demolition permit, the adequacy of their excuses for seeking one and approaches to preservation planning for these properties -- but it seemed to carry weight. Never mind that only Forest West's Brian Phillips testified in favor of demolition and that four people -- Claire Nowak-Boyd, Anthony Coffin, Steve Patterson and myself -- testified at length on the problems with the application.

The Preservation Board itself was diminished by the total absence of members John Burse and Alderman Terry Kennedy (continuing his string of absences and becoming the third alderman in this story) and the departure of Melanie Fathman in the middle of testimony on this matter. Richard Callow recused himself after asking to split the vote on permits so that he would not vote on permits for buildings that a client was seeking to buy. For some reason, his suggestion did not go anywhere. So members Mary "One" Johnson, Luis Porello, Anthony Robinson and Chairman Tim Mulligan were left to vote. Johnson is the most uncritical cheerleader of the status quo on the Board, with Porello often siding with her. On this matter, they were true to form with Johnson "complimenting" Phillips from the start. Robinson was oddly quiet; he would have been a voice of reason. Mulligan opposed the permits strongly last month but endorsed the staff recommendation this time.

In the end, the vote was 3-1 in favor of the staff recommendation to approve demolition of 22 buildings, with Robinson dissenting. Testimony from opponents was mostly ignored, unlike last month when it was led to enthusiastic discussion with Shea and board members.

What a difference an alderman can make!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Urbis Orbis Space Returns to Commercial Life

Nearly half a year after Gallery Urbis Orbis closed, its storefront space at 419 N. 10th Street in downtown St. Louis in finally going commercial again. This week, workers wrapped the windows in paper and banners marking the relocation of the Casa Semplice store to this space.

Some people may recall when this space was the front end of a large, cavernous used office furniture and equipment store. I remember looking for a desk there. This store operated there for over a decade until developer Craig Heller purchased the building in 1998. Urbis Orbis opened its doors there in late 2003 and brought art and civics to the storefront until December 31, 2005. After the departure of the gallery, the space gave life to art for several temporary exhibits. Kudos to Craig Heller for being willing to let the space drag out its non-profit days.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Green House in St. Louis Place

The Rehabbers' Club hosted a tour on Saturday of a very interesting green rehab at 1871 Madison Street in St. Louis Place. The rehabbers are spending around $35,000 total and using their own labor and recycled materials to transform a strange, dilapidated house into one of the most unique living spaces in the city.

Here are photographs from Saturday's tour.

This project joins the Catholic Workers' Karen House, the restored Columbia Brewery complex, the Black World History Wax Museum and New Roots Farm as a reason not to discount the cultural future of St. Louis Place. While the architectural context on many of its blocks has been totally destroyed through demolition and horribly anti-urban infill housing, some people are using this devastation to experiment and transform in ways not possible in more intact neighborhoods. Of course, most people are using the devastation to build vinyl monsters, but the works of those people leave only an immediate wound. Projects like the house at 1871 Madison make their mark on the city's history.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Forest Park Southeast Clear-Cut On Monday's Preservation Board Agenda

On the agenda for tomorrow's Preservation Board meeting once again is the matter of the demolition of buildings owned by Forest West Properties in Forest Park Southeast. (Read all about last month's attempt to get Preservation Board approval to demolish 30 buildings.) This time, the number of buildings is 32. This time, the Cultural Resources Office is recommending denying permits for ten buildings. However, the reasoning behind the ten buildings recommended is difficult to discern. It seems to have more to do with basic architectural features that with a comprehensive plan for the neighborhood. From a preservation standpoint, such reasoning may be logical but from a more holistic view it could end up producing dispersed vacant lots that diminish historic contexts appropriate for renovation and historic district designation without demolition.

In my testimony at last month's meeting, I suggested a plan for ranking the buildings architecturally as a worst-case preservation strategy. In the absence of compelling plans for the buildings' sites, the best case for planning still exists, despite what Forest West Properties says.

Since last month, a credible developer has made an offer to acquire over half of these buildings south of Manchester, in a pattern that would retain the remaining context there and may allow for a historic district to be created that would enable the use of tax credits.

As far as I know, Forest West has not responded to the offer except to immediately re-apply for preliminary review of the demolition. (The Board did not vote at last month's meeting because, due to absences and recused members, only two members were able to vote so no quorum existed.)

Forest West needs to explore sensible redevelopment of these buildings and not continue in a mad rush to tear them down. There is still time to build a true redevelopment plan. Forest West knows a lot about waiting, because they have owned these buildings for over a year without coming up with any plans for redevelopment. All they can do now is take the easy way out with clearance.

Their best bet may be a sale to a developer with expertise at complicated urban development that is architecturally sensitive and at working in rebounding marginal areas. Demolition only will make things worse for the southern part of "the Grove."

See the agenda for the meeting here.

Meeting details:
Monday, May 22 at 4:00 p.m.
1015 Locust Street, 12th Floor

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Films in the City Thursday & Friday

On Thursday, St. Louis readers should get on over to this:

The cine16 Film Series presents


Thursday, May 18 at 7:00 p.m.
Missouri History Museum, Lindell at DeBalivere

Films being screened: A Little Girl and a Gunny Wolf (1971); Soccer for Girls (1962); Fashion for a Career (c.1960s); Women in Science and Engineering (1984); My Name is Susan Yee (1976); Mother Hen’s Family (The Wonder of Birth) (1953); Jobs in the City: Women at Work (c.1960s); My Mother Is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World: A Ukrainian Folk Tale (c.1980s). The program was curated by Claire Nowak-Boyd in conjuction with a Missouri History Museum exhibit on America's First ladies. The museum cafe will be open through intermission, serving snacks and drinks of all kinds.

Then, if you need more films this week, check out what may be the first downtown street festival east of Tucker in ages: Locust Avenue Film Festival and Street Party. This event includes not only film screenings, but a fashion show, jazz, booze and bingo.

Sixth and Locust

A few days ago while walking downtown in the afternoon, I had one of those moments that are somewhat unnerving. The weather conditions were already bleak, with a slight drizzle and a stone-gray sky overhead. I came upon the intersection of Sixth and Locust and stood at the corner, amazed at what I saw: no movement, amplified by somewhat-dismal surroundings. I looked north up Sixth Street and saw neither a person nor a vehicle. I looked behind me, west on locust, and saw no one. I looked ahead east on Locust, and the street and sidewalks were also empty. Finally, I looked south down Seventh and saw a person standing at the intersection of Seventh and Olive. Still, I had not had such a moment downtown around the middle of a weekday in a few years.

Then again, at this intersection, such an experience is not too strange. At the northwest corner is the dingy hulk of St. Louis Centre; at the southwest is the huge Railway Exchange Building with many of its lower level windows tinted and internally covered for the Famous-Barr store (I hear that Macy's will reopen these windows); at the southeast corner is the group of buildings that once housed the Mercantile Library, built in the 1880s, clad in cast concrete in the 1950s and abandoned in the 2000s; and, at the northeast corner is the most lifeless structure at the intersection: a parking garage that once had a first-floor Woolworth's but now as first-floor parking. The parking garage is made more ugly by the way in which its owners converted the store space to parking. They simply removed the plate glass windows of the store, leaving the metal encasements to frame open views of parked cars inside a dark, deep space.

At any rate, this intersection is one of the remaining spots where downtown's renaissance looks doubtful even on a workday. However, all of the problems here are the buildings that compose the intersection and their conditions, and some of this will change soon: St. Louis Centre will close in June, with skybridge demolition in January and February next year before rehabilitation begins; Macy's parent company Federated will be making some improvements to the lower floors of the Railway Exchange Building, even as they stamp out a store name that was the last bedrock of local retail (something that Federated is doing to Chicago, too); and the Pyramid Companies own the Mercantile Library buildings and have banners tacked on them advertising available office space. The one question is what will become of the parking garage, built for and joined to St. Louis Centre.

Why not tear it down? Like St. Louis Centre, it was built over the sidewalk, limiting the possibility for re-introducing retail on the first floor. Extending sidewalks and enclosing the ground-floor's dark arcades is nearly impossible with Locust and Sixth very narrow here anyway. I suppose the garage could be cut back on its perimeter, but that seems too complicated to be economically viable. After St. Louis Centre is reworked, perhaps the garage site will be an attractive location for a new downtown high-rise.

Monday, May 15, 2006

1445 Monroe: A $250,000 House?

There is an old front-gabled, one-story shotgun house in Old North St. Louis at 1445 Monroe Street. This little home is clad in a permastone-like material but retains pretty elaborate wooden tracery along the front gable. I would guess that the home dates to the early 1880s.

This house sits directly across the street from the block face where a partnership between the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance has rescued three buildings from vacancy, including two old buildings that needed front walls rebuilt. This partnership assembled financing using 11 different sources of funding and spent over $250,000 per finished unit in the ongoing restoration of buildings like these.

Meanwhile, Noble Development Company purchased the house at 1445 Monroe on March 9, 2006, and the house is now vacant. Noble Development Company is apparently part of the "Blairmont" family of companies (link to an in-progress site of documentation) and now owns around 250 properties. While responsible developers are spending $250,000 per unit on buildings in need of intense rehab, the guns behind Blairmont won't even spend $1,000 on each of its many properties, that include overgrown lots as well as buildings like the James Clemens, Jr. House.

Then again, someday people may be paying $250,000 for a house at 1445 Monroe -- but not the modest but lovely house on the site now. Perhaps the street name will be changed by then. #14 Ingenuity Drive, anyone?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

USA Today Touts St. Louis

More say, 'Meet me in St. Louis' as city shows signs of renewal - Charisse Jones (USA Today, May 10)

USA Today came to town, and didn't quite get everything right -- although it's good to get good press from a paper read at airports, motels and chain restaurants everywhere.

Here are a few problematic sentences:

"The old post office, for years a relic surrounded by other vacant buildings, has been refurbished, its space fully rented."

This project is the worst representative of downtown renovation. The OPO is fully rented by government agencies and institutions invited (or cajoled) into taking space. The only entrepreneurial tenants are the Pasta House Pronto and the St. Louis Business Journal, and those both have ties to the developers of the project. Yawn!

"Lambert-St. Louis International Airport unveiled a $1 billion expansion April 13."

This is evidence of renaissance? All I have read about the expansion so far has been bad news: cost overruns, limited efficiency, lack of use of new runways and so forth. Plus, the airport is far away fom the city and has little to do with the quality of life for St. Louisans -- although I guess it's a bellwether for USA Today readers.

"McCree Town, a violent southside neighborhood that was filled with dilapidated housing, has been rechristened Botanical Heights, and people are lining up to buy new homes."

Not only did the paper get the McRee Town name wrong, it readily accepted force-fed facts to paint a rosy picture.

"After losing some corporate headquarters in recent years, the city hopes the presence of local institutions such as Washington University will help nurture new industries."

Huh? Perhaps the reporter skim-read a packet from CORTEX.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Deadline for Sale of Clemens House Is Today

Readers may recall that on February 10, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Lisa Van Amburg dismissed without prejudice a lawsuit by the Building Division against Blairmont Associates Limited Corporation over that company's neglect of the Clemens House. The dismissal was based upon an agreement between Blairmont and the City Counselor's office that gave the absentee owners 90 days to sell the house or face re-filing of the suit.

The 90-day deadline is May 10, today.

Blairmont still owns the Clemens House. Unless a last-minute sale has yet to be reported, Blairmont has failed to meet the terms of the agreement. Hopefully the City Counselor's Office will not fail to meet their terms and will re-file the case.

If rumors that Blairmont is a front for McEagle Development and/or the Pyramid Companies are true, one wonders why they would continue to show such reckless attention-getting behavior. Then again, aside from a handful of blogs, who is reporting on Blairmont or the Clemens House? The Post-Dispatch published one article by Jake Wagman in December but has been silent ever since.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Friday, May 5, 2006

Mullanphy Emigrant Home Owner Has Applied For Demolition Permit

Paul Hopkins, owner of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, has applied for a demolition permit for the building. One month has passed since the building was hit by a storm, and no firm plan has emerged for the building.

Things they don't teach you in Old House 101

When you buy an old, neglected city house in an old city neighborhood, you expect some problems, and others take you by surprise.

Did we expect the house to be dirty and contain a little junk when we got it? Yes. Did we expect to find more junk than could fill a thirty foot dumpster AND a forty foot dumpster AND a good portion of our yard? No. Did we expect to find numerous dead mice, buckets of animal excretions, morgue and hospital equipment, and prosthetic legs? No.

Did we expect the house to have bugs? Yes. Did we expect to have to shower obsessively for the first week because the house kept giving us fleas? No. Did we expect to have to gut the kitchen immediately and live out of restaurants and two giant Tupperware boxes for months, because of the sheer magnitude of the infestation? No.

Still, certain kinds of problems you can expect, even if their sheer magnitude takes you by surprise. Trash and bugs? Yeah, we expected that. We knew we'd have to replace the roof and relay a good portion of the back wall, but just didn't realize how very badly the house needed it, and didn't expect the top layer of the roof to blow off in a storm. We knew we'd have to reverse prior bad repair jobs, although we didn't realize that one of them would explode and flood our basement.

But yesterday we had a weird Old House Incident that I never, ever could have foreseen when we started looking into buying an old house.

Our cat Mallinckrodt has ringworm, which her most recent vet at the Humane Society thinks she probably got from the dingy basement where we originally found her almost a year ago. Ringworm is curable, but it is also highly contagious to other cats and to humans, so Mallinckrodt has been quaratined in our basement for over a month now as we treat her. We, of course, live upstairs, as do our two 9 month old boy kitties, Jarns and Swan.

Yesterday morning, when we got up, Swan didn't seem to be around. Curiosity quickly turned to alarm as we realized that he was nowhere to be seen. Finally, Michael opened the basement door, and there he was! Michael brought him upstairs, and we quickly realized that the little guy was probably covered in ringworm spores. I closed him in the first floor bathroom, so he couldn't infect us, Jarns, or the house (Ringworm thrives in rugs and fabric.). I called the Humane Society to ask what to do, and they said they'd give me some prescription shampoo to bathe him in, to prevent the fungus from taking hold.

Before I left to go pick up the shampoo, I thought I'd get Swan set up with a bowl of food, some water, and a litter box in his little quarantine room. I opened the door, fully expecting to have to wrestle a charging cat, and... the room.. was... empty?!?!??

I examined the room, and figured it out pretty fast. Our house had a major fire in 2003, and from what we can tell, it seems to have started under the first floor bathroom. No one ever completely fixed the room afterwards. So, there is a filthy, jagged, charred hole around the bathtub faucet, leading to the plumbing void, which is full of broken, heavily fire-damaged pipes. Apparently, Swan climbed through that hole and down into the plumbing void, and from there somehow twisted himself around and dropped down into the basement. (What?!?) That is the only way he could have gotten out of that room.

Sure enough, I opened the basement door and there he was.

I locked him up in the second floor bathroom, which has its own problems but does not have any holes charred in it, and went and got his shampoo. When I got back, I covered up every possible escape route in that part of the house, including the gap between the floor and the back wall of the house. Swan did not escape, although he did scratch me, scatter cat litter everywhere, completely shred the latex gloves I was wearing, and rip a sizeable hole in the bathrobe I was wearing over my other clothes. But the ringworm bath is done, damnit.

Yeah. I knew we were in for some intense and strange problems when we got this place, but I never, ever could have seen this one coming.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

A Bigger Picture

While I do not approve of the lease of 12 acres of Forest Park by behemoth BJC HealthCare, I do not oppose the possibility that the lease funds would not be exclusively for the upkeep of Forest Park. Certainly, our city's largest park deserves a guaranteed future of maintenance, but what about Penrose Park or Carondelet Park? Or, for that matter, Jackson Park or Sister Marie Charles Park? The city has 105 parks, all with maintenance needs. Some of these parks, like Fairgrounds Park on the northside, have considerable needs for the sort of rejuvenation that Forest Park has received. They are not as likely to receive the attention that Forest Park or Tower Grove Park have received, and without an infusion of funds may end up in serious disrepair. (Some would argue that this is already the case with a few of the city's parks.)

The loss of part of Forest Park, no matter how disconnected it appears from a motorist's perspective, is an affront to the Forest Park Master Plan. Now that the Planning Commission has approved the lease, I suppose that it's a done deal barring an uprising. This impacts the lives of people in Forest Park Southeast and the Central West End, who will lose tennis courts and a playground. Replacing these facilities before they are demolished needs to happen. Elected officials should try to getting more money each year than what is currently proposed . If BJC is getting its way, make it pay! Some talk of "fair market value" but since BJC is getting public land, the rules of the real estate market don't apply. The fair price is one that is democratically decided by all citizens through their government.

However, just as all citizens have a stake in Forest Park they have a stake in the other city parks. With the city's revenue low, city residents need to work together to make sure that no one loses their neighborhood park or its quality. That many people don't know or care about their stake in other parks should be changed. If the lease money gets distributed to the entire city parks system, that would be a great step toward rejuvenating all of the city's parks and getting people to think about their future, which is as important as that of Forest Park.

(Incidentally, BJC is chaired by Paul McKee, whose name has appeared in this blog before.)

Around the Old Post Office

According to Martin Van Der Werf's column in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, plans for the park just north of the Old Post Office on Locust Street are stalled to point of finally frustrating developers and Downtown Now! topper Tom Reeves. Perhaps the inability to put in this useless park will convince people that this site is ideal for high-density development, not a stale piece of green space. The Old Post Office is surrounded by dense architectural fabric on its east and south sides, and by a huge parking garage on its west. Why not mitigate the parking garage's ugliness and complement the remaining architectural fabric by developing this site with tall modern buildings?

The Roberts brothers want to build a glassy tower addition to the Mayfair. They could push it up to Locust, providing a lower connecting portion between the Mayfair and the new building that would make for a more pleasant transition. Another developer could acquire and build upon the western end of the site. Why squander the opportunity? Downtown has far too much open space, and needs greater density.

UPDATE: From a thread on the Urban St. Louis forum: "They should develop the plot of land the park will be on and build an underground plaza, beneath the parking garage."

Also in Van Der Werf's column is the announcement that the owners of the Chemical Building, just east of the Old Post Office, are renaming it "the Alexa" as part of their residential conversion project. Is this a sick joke?

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The South End of Old North

The southern end of Old North St. Louis -- which includes the National-Register-listed Mullanphy and Sts. Cyril and Methodius historic districts -- has been recently cut off from the more vibrant part of the neighborhood by two unfortunate grid-busting, suburban-style housing projects and cut off from downtown by vacant lots, fast food restaurants and automobile and truck yards. Demolition has been rampant, and truck-related businesses own many buildings here. Speculators have seized some of the area, including an impressive half-block owned by Blairmont Associates LC. There is one city block -- bounded by Tyler on the south, 13th on the west, Chambers on the north and Hadley on the east -- where not a single building stands.

Yet the last few weeks have seen signs of life no one could have predicted: a side-gabled, two-and-a half-story house at 2111 N. 13th Street that is the last building on its block is undergoing renovation; someone purchased an LRA-owned building at 1723 N. 13th Street in March and has already made progress on rehab; the owner of a corner tavern at the southeast corner of Howard and 14th streets has taken down part of a brick wall for relaying. These rehabs are by no means historic, and in the case of 2111 N. 13th, maddening for a preservationist to observe. Yet given the economy of that end of Old North, even these projects are somehow comforting -- rather than crumbling shells, we have two bad rehabs to critique. (We will need to go a long way before even contemplating local district standards on acceptable alterations.)

The strangest event lately had to be the revival that took place over the weekend on the south end of that totally-vacant city block. A church group threw up a tent, put out folding chairs and a port-a-potty, and brought in preachers and bands. The scene was almost surreal, especially amid the stormy weather of the last few days.

Hopefully, someone will make a more long-term investment in that block, which would make a great location for modern infill housing. In fact, I would love to see both the 1970s-era Murphy-Blair Apartments and the Bristol Place Townhouses developments fall to the wrecking ball for a large-scale infill project. With vacant land to the north of both projects along Monroe Street, a new project with restored street grid would meet the North Market Place redevelopment project. With rehab of the remaining historic buildings in this area, reclamation of the Blairmont land for responsible use, and the stabilization of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, this end of Old North would blossom.

It's comforting that a few good things are happening despite the barriers of the two housing projects. Yet there's no way much else will happen until the barriers are removed.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Advertising Anarchy

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with those self-important spray-painted graffiti slogans seen around St. Louis, most often on abandoned buildings in poor neighborhoods south of Delmar (we presume the taggers are among the many members of the No-Go Club). The lines include chauvinistic slogans like "work is terrorism" and more cryptic poser lines like "pouvoir assasains." (Probably a good thing that the tagger doesn't go north of Delmar.) Most often the tagger leaves behind the single anarchist "A" in a gesture of iconographic masturbation. The hand on these lines seems similar, so I assume that the same person or group is responsible for the graffiti.

Disturbing has been the recent trend of this tagger to jump from marking abandoned buildings to occupied or under-rehab houses and cars. Using abandoned buildings for tagging is itself problematic, especially when the tagging comes from outside of the neighborhood. The sloganeering is close to advertising in its style and tone, and is not much different than the Jesus billboards and Seagrams ads one can find all over the city on streets like Florissant, Gravois and Natural Bridge. The aim is to incite poor people to do something that would serve a middle class ideology, be it the expenditure of pocket money on booze or fast food or enlistment into the anarchist or Christian armies. Either way, the message is a command from without and, in class terms, above -- a sort of semiotic attempt at colonization.

The new tags spotted on buildings being rehabbed by do-it-yourself owner-occupants and on people's sidewalks marks a new tactic: warfare on the supposed "yuppies" who are "gentrifying" the city. The tagging presumes that these people are wealthy, which is quite a stretch for people trying to fix up shells neglected by years of ownership by oh-so-lumpen neglectful owners. Nevermind that spray paint really doesn't come off of brick without damaging the brick; that'll show the rich to stay out of the city that rightly belongs to the black-clad sons and daughters of the middle class who are playing at revolution for a few years.

The silliest tag has to be "Smash HR 4437" written on the Montessori school on South Grand (see photo here). Most passers-by don't know the bill, which would restrict immigration, by number. The kids at the school can't "smash" the bill by voting against the bill's supporters in Congress (although I guess the taggers probably hate voting). What's the point? Defacing a school? Scaring kids and parents and making them feel bad about their school?

Do the taggers even care what the point is? This is an act of selfishness that is a diversion from real social change, which involves consent as well as consensus -- not force and ignorance. Real social change also comes unexpected and strong, because it springs from within a society. Change is mass action, not unitary proclamation that assumes there is an audience ready to be lead.