We've Moved

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

Friday, December 31, 2004

Old Post Office project clears last legal hurdle

From the December 24 St. Louis Business Journal:

Judge ejects suit against Old Post Office tax credits

Save the Lemp Avenue Underground Railroad site!

I don't know much about the proposed threat to the Lemp Avenue site, but I saw this on Indymedia:

Save The Site
When: 2:00pm, Saturday 01 January
Contact: Barbara Woodruff, woodsba@sbcglobal.net
Location: 3314 Lemp Avenue
Transport: Feet from the old Lemp Brewery and just off Broadway.

This site is believed to have been a part of the Underground Railroad and is now in danger of being destroyed and replaced with condos.

We cannot allow our historical sites to be destroyed. This site is of special significance to the African American community as well as the community at large.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

A joke, courtesy of our friend Julia Kite.

An expressway walks into a bar and angrily tells a city street to shift out of the way. So he sits down shakily and watches a black tarmac road walk in. The expressway starts shaking and hides in the bathroom until the black tarmac road leaves. "Why is such a strapping highway like yourself scared of a little road?", asks the city street.

"He's not any little road, he's a cycle path!"

Bryan Cave will stay

The Bryan Cave law firm will remain in its current space in downtown St. Louis rather than move to Clayton or build a new building in south dowtown, acoording to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The city of St. Louis had offered the firm lots of tax incentives for building a new building at either Cupples Station or "Ballpark Village," a move that may have fueled an unsustainable boom in downtown office construction. Other companies would have no doubt wanted similar incentives. Under the present deal, the city is providing a $300,000 forgivable loan so that the firm can expand its space in the Metropolitan Square building from 7.5 to a full 9 stories.

This is good news for downtown, which has recently lost many offices even as it has attracted residents. Downtowns hould not only be a vibrant residential neighborhood but should be the preeminent place for large and important firms in law, finance, engineering, architecture, etc. In short, it should be downtown. I don't expect it to ever regain its status, but that doesn't stop me from hoping that my expectations are foiled.

As for Ballpark Village, I guess it will have to wait for its first new building. I'm not holding my breath.

While Cupples Station could have used a large tenant, it seems to be stable once again. Supposedly Amy and Amrit Gill (of Moolah Temple fame) and McCormick Baron Salazar are both interested in rehabbing some of the remaining buildings, and Downtown Now! has put on hold its stupid plan to demolish Building 7, one of the two remaining Cupples buildings on the block bounded by 10th, Spruce, Clark and 11th.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A rose by any other....

Names of restaurants founded and owned by Chicago developers Jerry Kleiner and Howard Davis:
Red Light

Names of Jerry Kleiner's children:

(Source: Cathy Bergen's article "The Drive-By Developer" in the December 19 issue of the Chicago Tribune Magazine)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Another travesty.

AMF's Western Lanes, the south city bowling alley on Bingham just east of Gravois, is closing! This is appalling. It's the last full-sized bowling alley left in Saint Louis proper. With $1 bowling nights and its storied history, it was a huge draw for young and old. Unfortunately, it drew young and old willing to seek it out, and in dispersed St. Louis, that often does not seem to be enough people to keep anything but a few weblogs going.

Alas. If you went there this last summer and saw a guy wearing a gold bowtie and suit and a gal wearing a vintage dress, that was us. We did our part to help Western. Did you?

St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
It's the last roundup at Western Lanes

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The legacy of Richard Nickel

Today at the Chicago Cultural Center I attended a slide-show presentation of Richard Nickel's photographs of the buildings of Adler and Sullivan, given by Ward Miller of the Richard Nickel Committee. The slide-show included lesser-known color photographs of such notable buildings by the firm, including the Auditorium Building, the Ann Halstead Flats and the Jewelers Building. I was awed once again by the sensitivity to architectural detail that Nickel imparted in each of his images. He articulated buildings in another language than architecture, and thus made them greater than they were when he found them.

As a fitting summation of the day's introspection, I found this essay online tonight: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground by Dan Kelly. Kelly traces minor buildings and fragments of Chicago buildings by Adler and Sullivan -- the ones Frank Lloyd Wright discouraged Nickel from including in his unpublished Complete Works of Adler and Sullivan -- and concludes:

"...the most minor buildings that construct the city's neighborhoods are always "missed" when they're gone, most often because no one bothered to notice them when they were still here. It follows that preservation isn't just about landmark status or collecting museum-quality ornamental scraps; it's about noticing what builds a neighborhood into a neighborhood. The city's blandest buildings can possess rich histories."

Indeed. This insight had to be what drove Nickel to keep working, and it's what drives this blog. Hopefully, we will help people avoid the "missing" of buildings and, with more effort, the losses themselves.

No such thing as a free ride?

First Day Of Fare Strike Descends On Chicago

That's right. Yesterday was the first day of the citizen fare strike against the Chicago Transit Authority, which is calling for massive cuts in regular train and bus service -- including the elimination of 24/7 hours for the entire Blue Line -- beginning in January 2005 despite its planned expenditures for the multi-million dollar "Gold Line" that would link tourist attractions.

May chaos ensue until CTA backs down, drops the Gold Line plan and demands that Mayor Daley share some of the city's $271 million tax increment financing surplus with CTA.

Of course, that probably won't happen since CTA Board President Frank Kreusi and most of the board are beholden to Little Daley.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Two Theaters That Closed in 1981

New to Ecology of Absence today are pages on two theaters on two different scales in two different cities that closed in the same year, 1981. Neither has reopened and both are deteriorating badly. Yet the future looks brighter than ever for both.

They are:

  • Chicago's Uptown Theatre

  • Saint Louis's Sun Theatre

    (For perspective on the timeframe of the vacancies, consider that I was born on December 31, 1980.)
  • Monday, December 13, 2004

    Dust, Noise, Destruction 24/7: Welcome to Downtown St. Louis!

    "There's nothing you can do to eliminate 100 percent of the dust. But the bad news is, there are residents that are being inconvenienced. The good news for the city is, there are residents." - Stacy Hastie, Chief Executive, Environmental Operations Inc.

    Quote from
    Razing of Century Building raises neighbors' complaints
    in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 11 [dead link]

    Saturday, December 11, 2004

    Closing Locust

    A thread on the Urban St. Louis discussion forum shows that the Federal Reserve Bank is closing Locust Street between 4th and Broadway to build a "security plaza." This plan leaves me with mixed feelings. I never like to see any streets closed in downtown St. Louis, because inevitably they close to assemble dead super blocks. On the other hand, I am a staunch opponent of automobile traffic in downtown areas, because such traffic is unnecessary in a small, walkable downtown like the one in St. Louis. Traffic also perpetuates the myth of the need for parking, which leads to many bad planning decisions, like the one that created the ugly parking garage at Broadway and Locust that the Federal Reserve Bank acquired for their "plaza" project.

    This plaza may be a great place to sit and avoid traffic for the handful of downtowners who like to enjoy just being in a dense and busy environment while they read or otherwise relax. Or it could be a dead space in which the Bank's security will usher away any loungers or geeky photographers in the name of protecting the bank from terrorism.

    Two undoubtedly good things come out of this project, though: the plaza's replacement of the street makes the visual blunder of the aforementioned parking garage, which was built over the sidewalk, a tad less offensive; and the plaza project coincides with the restoration of the grand Romanesque Security Building (now fully caught up in irony), completed in 1891 and designed by the Boston firm of Peabody, Stearns and Ferber--their only St. Louis project.

    As to the other results, we'll see what happens. I tend to think that it will be another dead space in this age of paranoia.

    Thursday, December 9, 2004

    Rolling, rolling, rolling

    From today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

    SSM plans new medical complex

    SSM Healthcare is going to build a new campus in Fenton to replace St. Joseph's Hospital in Kirkwood. Their reasons are the typically illogical anti-urban ones: the inability of the old buildings to serve new purposes (always an exaggeration) and the need to have "three times the footprint" of the existing hospital (read: more surface parking lots). While Kirkwood is far from urban, relocating hospitals and other institutions even further from the city is not a good thing. As the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis has demonstrated, people will follow the relocated institutions.

    Fenton may not seem much farther out than Kirkwood, but keep in mind that St. Joseph's Hospital is in downtown Kirkwood and on a bus route. The new hospital will be past I-270 and may not be served by mass transit at all. Mildly bad becomes really bad.

    The notion that Kirkwood isn't suburban enough for the hospital's needs isn't a new one, but it's devastating nonetheless.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2004

    More about this year's TFT parade: Sad news

    A friend informed us that there was a fatal accident at the Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade which we wrote about several entries back. An inebriated driver plowed into the line of bikers, killing one and injuring another. The driver was also injured.

    Articles about the accident:
    Deputy killed in parade crash from the Daily Herald
    Drunken Driving Charged In Toys-For-Tots Biker Death from NBC5.com

    (Thanks to Gary Noll for letting us know about this.)

    Two Events on December 12 in Saint Louis

    "Gaslight Square, an oral history" Book Release Party.
    Sunday December 12, 2-5pm
    Riddles (in the Loop)
    Thomas Crone will be signing books.
    664-6369 for more information.


    Jane Jacobs' book _The Death and Life of Great American Cities_ will be discussed Sunday 12/12 at 1pm. The location is Grbic at 4071 Keokuk (@ Meramec).

    Monday, December 6, 2004

    List of pre-2003 vacant Saint Louis Public Schools properties

    Although this list dates from prior to the 2003 and 2004 rounds of school closings, it is a great source of basic information about all of the vacant property owned by the St. Louis Public Schools:

    Facilities for discussion

    Since television station KMOV published this list, the Roberts Brothers Company began renovating Enright School and a health center purchased the former Hamilton Branch buildings.

    The page is linked to pages that list the occupancy rates for the district's then-open schools. Some of those schools have closed an consolidated, but the schools with over 100% occupancy have seen little changes to alleviate their overcrowding. The current School Board majority seems too bent on depleting the district of resources -- through such stellar acts as selling one of the most sucessful schools, Waring, to St. Louis University for its basketball arena site -- to notice that conditions in schools aren't improving.

    In 2005, St. Louis needs to elect real reformers to the Board of Education. If the Slay machine puts up another Great Slate, the fight will be difficult but we must make sure that this city improves its schools. The city will die if it can't retain families, and the current School Board has failed our families.

    Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade in Chicago

    Yesterday, Michael and I watched an ingenious and fun urban charity event: the annual Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade. Anyone who wants to ride their motorcycle in the parade can, as long as they bring at least one toy to donate to Toys for Tots. Thousands of bikers meet at the Dan Ryan Woods on 83rd (far south city) and ride along Western all the way up to Foster (far north city).

    What I like about the parade as a social and civic action is that it benefits everyone involved (save for a few frustrated motorists and pedestrians who want to cross Western that morning), and it costs very little. The motorcycle riders get to show off their bikes, meet other bikers, and most of all to feel like they're doing something important that will make people happy. Numerous Chicagoans get to watch and enjoy a parade that comes pretty close to where they live no matter where they live (Not everyone is close to the Loop, but the length of Western that the Motorcycle Parade covers cuts through a huge part of the city.). Toys for Tots gets publicity and attention. And, most importantly of all, a lot of disadvantaged kids get toys for the holidays. Besides the money spent by individual bikers to purchase toys and travel to the parade, the only big cost of the event is printing posters to advertise it. It's a pretty low cost and simple event, but it's something that makes a lot of people happy. Social and civic actions like that are very important in cities (and everywhere else), and there ought to be more of them.

    And, of course, watching the parade was a lot of fun, too.

    The kids and adults from our neigborhood who were watching it seemed to really be having a good time. I especially remember one little girl who stood on a bus stop bench and waved and smiled at all the passing bikers. She kept this going for a very, very long time.

    The bikers themselves were having a good time, too. Some were outwardly stoic, while others smiled and waved. A few had even decorated their bikes with tinsel garlands and/or antlers. A fair number of them wore Santa hats with their leather, and there was the occasional full Santa suit. Many mainstream parades have one Santa who is The Official Santa, but it was nice to see a parade where anyone who wanted to could be Santa, and they were all considered equally valid and all received the same smiles from children standing on the curb. The relatively unplanned and unregulated nature of the parade allowed a lot of room for riders' personal creativity to shine through, and I found that much more heartening and fun to watch than more professional, polished parades that I've seen. Michael and I spent quite some time later that afternoon talking about how small, relatively informal parades like that are easy to organize and can make a lot of people in a city or neighborhood happy, and how they have great potential for promoting community interaction. Perhaps cities could treat small-scale, do-it-yourself, neighborhood parades much like they do block parties, with easy-to-obtain permits, so that these events could be fairly regular occurences.

    Chicagoland Toys for Tots website (complete with photos from the parade)

    Thursday, December 2, 2004

    Mexican Hat Factory Redux

    A good thing that I've been seeing around Saint Louis lately is the updating of historic buildings that underwent earlier renovations that weren't very respectful of architectural features. People are taking out dropped ceilings and carpeting and re-opening large, hemmed-in windows and doors. This is far from the norm, regretfully, but it seems that a significant number of people are amending past mistakes. Certainly, Missouri's 1997 historic rehab tax credit provides an incentive to remodel previously-updated buildings in a manner more sympathetic to their unique architectural features.

    One of the biggest of these projects is happening right now at the "Allen Market Lane Apartments," better known as the Mexican-American Hat Factory, in Soulard. This 100-year-old block-sized factory sits at Russell and Tucker. McCormick-Baron spent $4.8 million to renovate it in 1980, for elderly apartments. Under their new moniker, McCormick Baron Salazar, the firm is renovating it again, this time for $11.8 million. They are removing dropped ceilings that obscure the 470 10-foot-high windows, replacing all of the windows and fixtures and... keeping all of the residents! The work progresses around the residents, who will stay in the building. The building will remain in use for moderate-priced elderly apartments.

    This is a great example of how developers nowadays can restore apartment buildings without having to sell out units as condos and force out residents to finance renovation and make a huge profit. Of course, this project benefits from $7.7 million in state and federal historic and low-income housing tax credits. Andy Trivers, designer of the new MetroLofts, Hi-Pointe Lofts and other housing projects in the city, is the architect.

    The project coincides with the current renovation of nearby building also designed by the firm of Weber and Groves, the former City Hospital at 1515 Lafayette. That project, however, will not create any affordable rental housing.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2004

    Neon signs in Chicago and LA

    There's a nice little article by David Witter in this week's Newcity about the sad decline of neon signage in Chicago. Witter compares neon to Impressionist painting in the way that its colors change with changing natural light at different times of day, showing an appreciation of beauty in something that others might dismiss as outdated, garish, and rusty (Anyone wanna ask this guy to move to St. Louis, eh?). Also of particular note in the article is the list of the main reasons for the demise of neon in Chicago: general pressure against liquor stores, the city's preference for signs that lay flat against buildings (as opposed to free-standing signs), the sheer cost of creating and maintaining neon signs, and Chicago's brutal weather.

    The article is online here: The Death of Neon. For those of you in Chicago, Newcity is also available for free in print in boxes and stacks in various locations around the city, which I mention because the print edition, unlike its online counterpart, has photos of the signs that the article describes.


    If you like neon and you're ever in Los Angeles, it's worth a trip to see MONA, The Museum of Neon Art. Their collection includes contemporary neon art and old signs that they've salvaged and restored. While I enjoyed my entire visit to MONA when I went there during the summer of 2003, what I remember most vividly is the moment of walking into the back room where they display all the old, restored signs and hearing

    nnNNNnnt! nnNNNnnt! nnNNNnnt! nnNNNnnt!

    ...the wonderful cacophony of all the old signs buzzing and flashing on and off noisily, each one operating at a slightly different tempo. The signs themselves and the colorful light they cast on the white gallery walls all moved in time to the neon's strange, percussive song. I'm smiling now just thinking about it.

    Tuesday, November 30, 2004


    Here is a blog devoted to the progress of rehabbing one home in Saint Louis:

    1411 Hebert

    I don't know of another blog that tracks a specific building's changes. I recommend this one highly. It's of special interest because the subject home is one of many rehabs that constitute an exciting "first wave" of intensive rehab activity in the Old North Saint Louis neighborhood.

    Monday, November 29, 2004

    Sewers in Japan

    From the Infiltration listserv comes a link to impressive photos of a Japanese sewer.

    That's all we know since no one one the listserv can translate.

    Terror on Ninth Street

    I visited Saint Louis last week, and spent some time in the Century Building. Yes, I was inside of the remains of the grandest marble building ever built. The experience was chilling, bizarre and intense. It would have been even more intense if I had made the visit with my colleague Claire Nowak-Boyd, but she had obligations that kept her home in Chicago while I went ahead with a truly terrible trip.

    Last Wednesday morning, I was downtown in St. Louis, walking without an umbrella in the near-freezing rain to go to the Century. No one was there to let me in, so I wandered around and come back in an hour via MetroLink. As I ascended from the Eighth and Pine station, I heard a crack overhead and suddenly a light shower of glass mingled with the rain literally falling around me. I saw a set of vertical blinds flying in the strong wind many stories above. My first thought is that the workers at the Paul Brown Building had knocked their boom crane against the Arcade Building, causing a window to break. Then, a quick glance above revealed that a window had broken out in the Laclede Gas Building above.

    A worker walking by turned to me and said, "That's the problem with those windows. They don't open and close, so they make a vacuum and the wind just sucks them out."

    Right on. Needless to say, the window now sports a plywood bandage.

    I kept walking and, a few moments later, was inside of the fence at the Century Building, meeting up with salvager Larry Giles to get my hard hat. Then I went inside of the gruesome wreckage of the old gem. I watched as Larry and his two workers desparately began assembling bracing for the Ninth Street arch that he is trying to preserve in its entirety.

    Water dripped consistently above the spot where Larry and his workers were working. The roof was removed weeks ago and there are some holes in the second floor due to the wrecking activities. Otherwise, the structure is fine even if slightly weakened. I believe that one could devise a workable plan to rebuild the building even in this late stage of demolition. The street frame with its exterior concrete piers is holding up well, as is the facade. Demolition of the corners has not damaged the intergrity of other spots in the building. Oh, well.

    (The next day, another worker headed to the Board of Education Building rehab walks by and states to me that he thinks that the Century Building could be saved as-is if demolition stopped, and glass structures were built to encapsulate the corner areas and roof. Hmmm.)

    At any rate, Larry informed me that the wrecking plan was altered to accomodate complaints from the Bell Lofts at Tenth and Olive; now, wrecking has to proceed from Locust to Olive, catching the arch in the middle. The original plan called for wrecking the corners first and then wrecking the building from the Syndicate Trust Building wall eastward toward the Ninth Street elevation. The arch would have been in the last area to be wrecked.

    Hopefully, though, the salvage efforts will be completed without interference. Saving the entire arched entrance ornament system is a remarkable achievement that could only be bested by saving the entire building on-site.

    Wednesday's weather escalated into snow by mid-day, so the wreckers and Larry's crew both stopped work after lunch.

    When I returned to the site on Friday, the weather had improved and both operations were back in action, as they had been on Thanksgiving (hopefully Saint Louisans are thankful that Larry and his crew have been working seven days a week on this important and grueling task). I was able to take many good photographs that I will share on the EOA site later this week.

    While the work was going on, I shuffled around the columns, open elevator shafts -- some still framed with original Winslow Brothers cast iron framing -- and piles of debris from the upper floors (the whole building is considerably smashed and somewhat unstable). The old Walgreens' store space still sported macabre signs, one almost reading "BEAUTY" but missing some letters because the wall had been smashed out. The upper floors have been thoroughly gutted, but the ground floor's shops paces are still full of furniture and a few old computers, buried under debris.

    Being inside of the Century Building during demolition was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It was plainly terrible to observe the signs of structural ingenuity exposed before destruction in addition to seeing the decorative beauty trampled. As the building continues to fall, more of the things that made it great are exposed in a grim irony.

    As I said to Larry Giles while looking up through the archway at the Old Post Office as snow fell, this view never existed before and it's beautiful as much as it is gruesome. But I never, ever wanted to even know that such a view existed.


    COMING LATER THIS WEEK: I will have an article on the significance of the Century Building demolition in The Commonspace and we will post images of the Century Building to EOA.

    JUST UPDATED: We have posted a haunting postcard image of the MacArthur Bridge.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2004


    Good: It seems that the Preservation Board spared the House of Deliverance church last night, despite my pessimistic handicap.

    Monday, November 22, 2004

    Northside congregations that hate their buildings

    From Steve Patterson's Urban Review of St. Louis & Region comes this sad alert:

    Church wants to raze eight properties in Hyde Park Historic District

    No doubt the Preservation Board has approved demolition of the House of Deliverance as I type. I can't wait to return to St. Louis in February and help stop the ever-continuing tide of destruction.

    One church that we can save is the nearby Bethlehem Lutheran Church (from 1895), abandonded by its congregation since 1987. The building sits empty and decaying, but it still stands--and the congregation lost an earlier fight to tear it down. The pastor has stated that if anyone stepped forward with a viable resue plan, he would welcome it. If preservationists work to find a plan, Bethlehem Lutheran won't become the next northside church that no one knows about until it's up for a demolition hearing.

    Daley's admin cuts already insufficient police coverage of Chicago Housing Authority projects on the South Side.

    According to the November 17-23 issue of Streetwise, City Hall has decided to cut back police service to Chicago Housing Authority housing projects. They plan to create an 80-officer special response unit. The remaining 141 officers will be reassigned from specifically covering CHA homes to covering districts that have CHA homes in them.

    Daley says the goal is to integrate services so that nearby, non-CHA residents get more coverage, and that CHA residents feel more like a part of the neighborhood because they take their complaints to the district commander, just like everyone else. Terry Peterson, executive director of the CHA, agrees with him on this. Daley also points to the effectiveness (he claims) of targeted special units in reducing gang violence.

    CHA residents, though, aren’t so confident about this one. One resident interviewed in the article says that they should wait until the CHA’s redevelopment plan is finished before removing police coverage. He worries that if the redevelopment project fails, reduced police coverage could mean crime levels in CHA projects returning to the horrifying levels they reached during the 80s and 90s. Melvin Johnson, executive director of the Teenage Basketball Association, also points out that CHA projects just need more police coverage than other areas do. He suspects that this is simply a cost-cutting measure, though Daley denies it.

    Of course, even the extant, not-yet-reassigned police coverage for the CHA is far from being sufficient. In the July/August issue of The Chicago Reporter, Brian J. Rogal and Mary C. Johns interview a number of CHA residents and found numerous complaints against the Chicago Police Department’s coverage of CHA developments. Most frequently, residents complain that police sit in their cars in front of developments rather than walking around, talking with residents, building trust, and actually stopping crimes. Several residents said it’s common for police covering a CHA project to stay in their cars even when visible drug dealing is taking place within their sight, or when there are radio orders for them to do a building walk-through. Other times, police randomly bother CHA residents (most frequently black males) in the name of stopping crime, rather than bothering to track down the actual criminals. I highly recommend reading Rogal and Johns’s article, "Lack of force", to learn more about this and read the CHA residents’ specific stories of police neglect and abuse.

    So, service is already insufficient, and the Chicago Police Department and the Daley administration are cutting it way back. Particularly notable is that they’re only doing this on the south side, using it as a test to see if this program is okay to try on projects in the rest of the city. Streetwise lists the projects receiving cuts as “Robert Taylor homes, 4429 S. Federal; Stateway Gardens, 3653 S. Federal; Hilliard Homes, 2013 S. Clark; Ickes, 2326 S. Dearborn; Ida B. Wells, Pershing Road and King Drive at 39th Street; LeClaire Courts, 4843 W. 44th St.; Altgeld Gardens, 922 E. 131st St.; and Dearborn Homes, 2840 S. State St.” This smacks of Spatial Deconcentration, the planned removal of services from urban areas populated heavily by poor blacks, with the goal of making those areas dangerous and unpleasant places to live and forcing poor blacks to move out into other areas where they will be out of the way, living at lower densities, robbed of the geography of their history, and (in the minds of the arbiters of Spatial Deconcentration) less likely to organize politically. Once poor blacks (or other minorities) are removed from an urban area, rich whites then landbank the areas and make huge amounts of money from demolition, planning, and rebuilding—“urban renewal.” Another facet of Spatial Deconcentration that I frequently see in action is that certain neighborhoods are allowed to become so dangerous (again, by planned removal and restriction of critical services like police and fire protection) that the city outright blames it on the residents of the neighborhood in question and forces them to move elsewhere, like the city of St. Louis is doing right now in the McRee Town neighborhood. The cuts in police service specifically to South Side projects seems like it fits right into this.

    When the city selected sites for CHA high rises in the 1950s, they chose broad strips of land which cut through the city and often broke up healthy communities. The projects were designed within these strips both to be isolated from surrounding neighborhoods, and to divide and isolate the neighborhoods from each other. The city’s placement of the projects and the city’s placement of new expressways that were being built at that time were both targeted to isolate poor, heavily black neighborhoods and communities, and to reinforce extant patterns of spatial segregation in the city. The city’s placement of the projects and the expressways are two of the major reasons why even today, fifty years later, the South Side of the city is still predominantly black and poorer, while the North Side of the city is still predominantly white and wealthier. The administration of the city of Chicago’s latest cuts in already insufficient police coverage of CHA projects specifically on the South Side is one more little sign that Daley and the city admin fully intend to continue using public housing in Chicago as a mechanism of discipline, control, and segregation, rather than as a tool of welfare, caring, and positive change.

    If you know any more about the reassignment of CHA police, please let us know. I’ve not been able to find much about it, which scares me, because this is a really big deal and people need to hear about it. Once again, Streetwise picks up an important story that everyone else seems to be neglecting.

    Saturday, November 20, 2004

    Chicago's Riis School threatened with demolition

    We just added a page on Chicago's Jacob Riis Elementary School, which the city plans to demolish soon. The Chicago Public Schools closed Riis in 2001. Riis School is a sturdy and remarkable example of early Chicago Public Schools architecture, which diverges dramatically from St. Louis' older schools by William Ittner and Rockwell Milligan. Riis is rather boxy and strictly symmetrical, but is nonetheless a striking visual anchor in the Taylor Street area.

    Why is Riis being demolished? To make way for a wholesale condo-and-apartment development that will replace the ABLA Homes, one of Chicago's oldest public housing projects. This development's impact is projected to include a huge population boost necessitating the opening of another public school in the area.

    That is, if the new development allows families to come back to the area. Perhaps an influx of childless Loop office workers will permanently displace the working class families of Taylor Street. After all, the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago has already decimated the historic African-American Maxwell Street area for a similar bland world of one-brick-thick boxes.

    Maxwell and Taylor Streets once were the scene of economic diversity and use diversity. People can still see some of that world remaining on Taylor, where add-on storefronts abut row houses next door to apartment buildings and the public library. This mixed-use area is vital and active, but for how much longer will depend on the whims of the city development agencies as they import the suburban single-use zones under the guise of New Urbanist styles.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2004

    Interpreting the land

    On Friday, we attended a slide show presentation by Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), held at Chicago's outstanding community space Mess Hall. Suffice to say that Coolidge presented a strange array of odd places that his organization has interpreted through documentation and -- ah! -- creative interaction. CLUI aims to reveal the strange contradictions that our landscape presents to us as well as seeking how social use inscribes these contradictions. Coolidge's slide show covered many parts of the West, a decaying model of the Chesapeake Bay, roadside curiosities and such. These are only the strangest of the strange places CLUI engages, since we have seen short films of theirs that cover the whole country.

    CLUI aims to open up museums in each of the seven "interpretative units" of the USA that they have designated, so they are doing more than taking their findings back to their L.A. headquarters. Coolidge stated that they are still seeking a Midwestern location, since talks with an owner of an abandoned Ohio amusement park are falling apart. St. Louis, anyone? We mentioned the Carondelet Coke Plant to him after his talk, and offered to take him there should he visit St. Louis in the future.

    Coolidge is smart, likable and exults in the delightful paradox of joy and sadness that careful investigation of the US landscape brings. Like us, he knows that revealing the landscape's alterations could be a step toward transformation. I recommend that everyone look into CLUI and its exciting work, which may be the most important geographical research going on in North America.

    Also about the Cubs.

    The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has put ads on its trains that pose the riddle, "What do Cubs and Sox fans have in common?"

    The answer that the ads supplied was "The Red Line," because both teams' stadiums are located along the CTA's Red Line.

    One summer day, when my friend Alma and I were riding the Red Line, we noticed a copy of the ad that had been altered by a grafittist. Just above the CTA's dull answer to "What do Cubs and Sox fans have in common?" was scrawled a replacement answer:


    DJ Spooky in the Windy City

    DJ Spooky will be giving a talk on music, urban space, & architecture:

    6:00pm, Wednesday November 17th

    University of Illinois - Chicago Department of Performing Arts
    1040 West Harrison, Room 1286

    Wrigley Field steals the sidewalks

    Today, the Tribune Company reports in its newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, that has come up with a new plan to expand its stadium in Chicago, Wrigley Field. The plan entails moving walls ten feet outward into current sidewalk space along Sheffield and Waveland Avenues. The plan eliminates unsightly columns that would have punctured these sidewalks, but it manages to do worse: the sidewalks will only be 12 to 16 feet wide after the walls are moved out!

    The Tribune Company's spokesperson states that this is no big deal because these streets proper are closed at game time, and can be used by pedestrians who cannot fit on reduced sidewalks.

    This ignorant statement demonstrates a total lack of concern for the people who live in the neighborhood and good urban design. Ideally, sidewalks should be at least 30 feet wide to accomodate foot traffic and other uses (children playing). At a location as busy as the area around Wriglet Field, such space is certainly needed even when the stadium is closed. Twelve to 16 feet of space is insufficient at this location, as it is in any location (although I realize most places don't have even that much sidewalk width).

    Does the Tribune Company want to turn Chicago into Wilmette or Schaumburg?


    Friday, November 12, 2004

    Good news for Penrose Park and for bicyclists

    From today's St. Louis Post-Disptach comes a good story:

    Local bicyclists get wheels turning to restore Penrose Park velodrome

    The long-abandoned velodrome in Penrose Park will probably reopen next year due to the efforts of dedicated cyclists, bringing more people through one of north city's most revitalized neighborhoods. No credit goes to the self-defeating Parks Department, whose officials still think that there are too many parks in the city for its current population, when in truth there is about enough for today's population and certainly not enough for the St. Louis peak population of 856,000.

    Thursday, November 11, 2004

    St. Louis Public Schools administrators get even more money

    An article in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out: High-paying salaries triple in district.

    As the article states: "In fact, St. Louis' top administrators seem to be far above nationwide averages when it comes to pay."

    In light of the 23 lost accreditation points, perhaps the School Board should compare these administrators' salaries against those earned by their higher-performing predecessors rather than against other cities' payrolls. St. Louisans have an annoying tendency to compare their city to others before actually improving it. The schools crisis demonstrates just how foolish this tendency can become. Few people, aside from St. Louis Schools Watch publisher Peter Downs and his writers, are actually comparing past performance with current performance in order to find solutions rooted in the actual history of the district.

    Finding solutions through review of actual history is difficult because history shows that no one has been a certain hero in the schools crisis, and that the Alvarez and Marsal year has been one of the worst in district history--and not simply for ideological reasons. The School Board majority as well as the district administration is too invested in covering up their own mistakes to admit failure.

    Detroit: Old, dirty and green

    The Greening of Detroit

    Tuesday, November 9, 2004

    More demolition at Manteno State Hospital

    According to The Manteno Project, wreckers demolished the Todd Cottages at the Manteno State Hospital last month. The Manteno State Hospital is a former mental hospital located in Manteno, Illinois, about one hours south of Chicago, Illinois. The Georgian-Revival-style hospital was constructed in 1928 and is a unique example of the cottage-style mental hospital popular after the more-famous Kirkbride style fell from favor. The cottage-style plan placed patients in small cottages -- Manteno had 38 -- located away from larger administrative and medical buildings. The State of Illinois favored this construction plan after the state prototype, the Bartonville State Hospital in Peoria, received much renown.

    The northern half of the Manteno complex was converted into an Illinois State Veterans' Home years ago, while the southern half was left empty longer. This part has been undergoing a steady transformation in the last three years, with many of its old buildings being converted to business use and new homes constructed around the complex. Sadly, some its abandoned buildings have been demolished recently. In June, Manteno lost a major structure, the Mechanical Shop.

    Fortunately, we visited Manteno State Hospital in May and photographed the Mechanical Shop and both the interior and exterior of Todd Cottage. Still, the demolitions leave major holes in this impressive campus.

    Two sides to urban life in St. Louis


    Remember the Century (formerly Save the Century) has posted demolition photos from November 1 - 7 at the Century Building.

    ...& GOOD

    Steve Patterson's blog Urban Review of St. Louis is a great addition to the ever-growing sea of St. Louis blogs. His writing is trenchant and unfliching, and he covers things that we can only wish to have time and energy to cover.

    Monday, November 8, 2004

    Resistance in St. Louis

    In today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

    Catholic parishes fight draft closure list

    Do you think that your neighborhood is safe? (Call for submissions)

    Do you think that your neighborhood is safe?

    We want to know what you think about where you live. Please tell us, in as many or as few words as you think are necessary, if you think your neighborhood is safe and why (or why not). We aren’t looking for any specific type of answer; we just want you to be honest.

    Please send in answers by January 31, 2005. We will publish your response and all the others in a zine (a handmade magazine). If you include your contact information, we’ll send you a copy of the zine when it’s finished.

    Send responses to eoa@eco-absence.org, or (if you prefer hand-writing and manual mail) to Neighborhood Safety Zine, c/o Claire Nowak-Boyd and Michael Allen, 1310 N. Artesian #2R, Chicago, IL 60622, USA.

    If you know anyone else who’d be interested in responding to this, please let them know about it. Feel free to repost this notice elsewhere (politely).

    Thank you for your time!

    Name (Pseudonyms are fine. We will print whatever name you give us here.):
    My area is (choose one): Rural Urban Suburban Other
    How long have you lived there?:
    Do you think your neighborhood is safe? Why or why not?:

    Abandoned hospital as an unexpected spokesmodel (Harvey, IL hospital on TV)

    While channel surfing around 4pm the other day, I came across something I'd never expected to see on television: The abandoned hospital in Harvey, Illinois. Harvey is a rusty southern suburb of Chicago, populated primarily by working-class African-Americans. It's known to many abandonment enthusiasts as the home of the Dixie Square Mall, the abandoned mall where a scene in Blues Brothers was filmed in 1979. The mall is still abandoned, sagging in the middle of a cracked, weedy parking lot spotted with signs that allege that the Harvey Police use it as a helipad, and therefore you ought to stay off. Despite this, the mall still gets fairly regular visitors, several of whom claim to have heard or seen wild dogs living there.

    The old hospital, though, doesn't get much attention. (In fact, I couldn't find a single image or page about it on the web to link to in this entry.) It sits big and empty and sad in the middle of a fenced-off field of overgrown Queen Anne's Lace on 147th street, where rushing cars pass it by the hundreds. Across the street is an empty, boarded gas station. On one side of it sit several homes and a school. On its other side, seemingly occupying what used to be part of the hospital complex, is the City Public Auto Auction. The Auto Auction was the subject of the half-hour-long infomercial that I saw the other day, the reason for the old hospital making it on Chicago television. Various spokeswomen stood next to cars and proclaimed "City Public Auto Auction! This white 1997 Grand Prix for only fifteen hundred dollars! City Public Auto Auction! City Public Auto Auction! On Sibley Street in Harvey! City Public Auto Auction!" over and over for dozens of cars, and each time the program cut to a new car you could get a slightly different glimpse of the hospital. Always it was just a vague, dark red, dark-windowed form in the background, but occasionally you could see more, the fence or its tall, simple early modernist entry area. These were just little glimpses, but they were enough to make me watch the entire program.

    Abandonment is everywhere if you keep your eyes open.

    * For the curious, this program was on 4pm Central on Thursday, November 4 on channel 34 in Chicago. I don't know if it'll be on again next Thursday, but if I'm home then I plan to check.

    Relevant links:

    Harvey's Dixie Square Mall on Dead Malls dot Com

    The City of Harvey Website gives a more positive look at the city (as you'd expect it to). While this doesn't relate directly to the abandoned hospital and to blight, I think that many of us who are interested in blighted communities could use an occasional reminder that there's more to these places than just abandonment, poverty, and crime--people do live there.

    Thursday, November 4, 2004

    The silver lining in St. Louis

    I would like to thank the voters of the city of Saint Louis for soundly deafeating the charter alteration amendments on Tuesday. I wasn't sure how these would fair, and admit being surprised at the resounding defeat. This makes me hopeful.

    I am surprised and disappointed that Green Party Sheriff candidate Don DeVivo only received slightly over 10% of the vote against the corrupt and unpopular incumbent Jim Murphy. Even the Post-Dispatch would not endorse Murphy in the primary, but the paper went on to completely ignore the race -- and the race for Public Administrator -- entirely. At least the Arch City Chronicle cared enough to endorse DeVivo.

    The city will never change if even the worst Democrats aren't effectively challenged.

    At this rate, Slay is a shoo-in for a second term.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2004

    Another story from Detroit.

    In today's issue of the Detroit Free Press comes this article: Finding Beauty Among Ruins: Explorers brave danger inside abandoned urban buildings.

    The article uses the term "urban spelunker" in place of the more widely prevalent term "urban explorer," but otherwise does a good job of profiling young people from Detroit who explore abandoned and restricted places.

    I'll refrain from my usual critique of the "urban explorer," but suffice to say that while I explore abandoned places, I do not see myself as an "urban explorer." Read my essay Narrating Abandonment for my position.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2004

    Before you even get a chance to catch your breath: The likely demolition of Detroit's Statler Hotel

    What's happening with the Century is by no means an isolated incident.

    In downtown Detroit, the stately and finely designed Statler Hotel, which dates from 1915, is probably about to be demolished. Its most likely replacement is--say it with me now--a parking lot. People cite civic improvement, especially in the name of improved image and improved parking for the upcoming 2006 Superbowl. Apparently, having a few more parking spots and one less abandoned building in a city known for abandonment during one lousy, one-day one-time football game is more important than the PERMANENT loss of history and architectural beauty. That ain't comin' back folks. That hole in the ground is forever.

    Read more about it and sign the petition at Save the Statler.

    The Statler Hotel page at Forgotten Detroit has an excellent history of the Statler, along with comprehensive photos.

    Thursday, October 28, 2004

    More fires in St. Louis's McRee Town neighborhood

    From the October 26 St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

    "3 suspicious fires hit McRee Town

    "Suspicious fires were set in two vacant buildings in McRee Town early Monday and in a third building nearby, authorities reported. The fires were in the 4000 block of McRee and Folsom Avenues in McRee Town and a three-story multifamily building at 39th Street and Shaw Boulevard.

    "All the fires were discovered between 3 and 4 a.m., and police bombing and arson squad detectives presume all three were set by the same person. McRee Town was beset by a rash of fires in December, but until Monday the area had had just one fire over the past six months."

    Seems that wholesale land clearance and gentrification have done nothing to make this area safer.

    Be the Century Building for Halloween.

    Halloween is in just a few days, so we thought we'd suggest a costume idea that's actually frightening: The partially demolished Century Building.

    First, you'll need to procure a large cardboard box, or, lacking that, several sheets of cardboard or smaller boxes that you can combine into a big Century Building shape. Local stores like liquor stores, grocery stores, and big-box chain stores often have boxes that you can take (for free!). If you go to a store and don't see any, ask a worker. If possible, try to find a white box to save yourself effort later when you decorate the box (to match the color of the Century's facade).

    Once you've got a big box, you'll want to add a head hole, armholes, and a place for your legs to go. We suggest starting this step by cutting the flaps off of the (open) top of the box and turning the whole box upside-down, so that there is an entire open side of the box for your legs. This will make it easy for you to remove the costume if you need to go to the bathroom, and will also make it easy for you to walk or run around incase you're pursued by any bloodthirsty, money-hungry developers (more on that later).

    After you've made an opening for your legs, add the head and arm holes. When considering the size for the head hole, you may want to take into account that it'll be easier to just make a smallish head hole than to deal with making a very large hole and adding suspenders to hold the box up on your shoulders.

    When you've got the box tailored to fit you, you'll want to make the box look less like a cardboard box and more like the Century Building. If the box you're using is not close to white, you'll want to make it off-white to capture the look of that beautiful, rare, soon-to-be-rubble Georgian marble. Paint (cheap poster paint, perhaps) would be effective and easy. You could also glue or tape paper to the box.

    For the roof, you probably just want to color, paint, or paper the top of the box over so that it’s black, to match the roof of the Century. (Built St. Louis has a good view of the Century’s roof here). If you’re big on accuracy, you could draw a few gray rectangles and circles or even glue on very small gray boxes to represent the structures on the roof.

    Next come the windows and main features of the building. Michael Allen's 2002 article on the Century at Indymedia has a couple of images of the whole building that give a pretty good overall view of how the building looks. There are similarly helpful photos at Built St. Louis on Rob Powers's article"The Case Against an Urban Plaza". Also on Built St. Louis are this picture and this picture. And, of course, if you live in or near St. Louis, you could always go see the Century (or what’s left of it, anyway) for yourself.

    It’d probably be a good idea to sketch everything on and lay out where it will go before you get started. (Remember, yard and meter sticks exist to help you!) The media you use to represent windows and other important features is up to you. You could use pencils, markers, or paint. You could glue on construction paper, magazine page cuttings, wallpaper, or aluminum foil for the windows. Be creative! If you want to really capture what the place looks like, you might consider adding the image of the boards that cover the bottom floor’s windows and entranceways (And the spray-painted words that adorn them, i.e. “NO SCRAP,” “UNSAFE,” etcetcetc). If you’re excruciatingly detail-minded, you could draw in the graffiti tag that is painted on the inside of a couple of windows (that tag being “HOVER”).

    Before you start adding (drawing? painting?) in smaller details of architectural ornament, you should absolutely go look at What We're Losing in the Century Building, Built St Louis’s short photo tour of the Century Building. There, you can see some good, close-up images of the building's ornament.

    At this stage in making the costume, you may be worrying if you don’t consider yourself to have much in the way of art skills. But relax: No matter how sloppily you decorate your Century Building costume, you can be confident that without a doubt it will be better designed and executed than the hideous parking garage that will replace the actual Century Building.

    Once your Century Building box is fenestrated and decorated to your liking, it’s time for the painful part: Starting demolition. Using scissors, a box-cutter, your hands, or whatever you deem necessary, rip two adjacent corners off the roof of your building. Try to do so in a way that leaves the edges looking rough and gory, but just be sure that you don’t rip so much off that the support structure of your costume is compromised and you have to work to make it wearable again. To see photos of the demolition in progress so that you can make your damage as accurate as possible, visit Save The Century or KWMU's article on the demolition.

    You may wish to simply leave the corners ripped off so that people can see you (and your clothes, or so we assume) underneath. You could also fill in the shapes of the missing corners with a representation of the exposed floors, rooms, and inner structure of the building showing through. (Incase you’re a stickler for detail, you might want to know that the top floor of the building has collapsed since demolition started.)

    You could also use cardboard, paper, or fabric painted/markered a bright red to depict gore, if you want to draw attention to the violent, cruel nature of what has been done to the Century and consequently downtown St. Louis. If you really want to get graphic with this, you cold even draw blood dripping down the side of the building from its demolished corners. To make this even more dramatic and personal (If you’re really furious about this or perhaps will be going to a party where you’ll see Mayor Slay on Halloween), you could extend the depiction of violence to your face and arms. Many drugstores, supermarkets, and big-box chain discount stores sell fake blood and tooth black-out wax (to make it look like your tooth was knocked out) this time of year, and those would be effective. If you want to create the look of a black eye, rub red, pink, or purple eyeshadow or blush (A plum color is best, but other colors work.) in an irregular circle shape around one eye. Then, add a thinner layer of black, very dark brown, very dark purple, or very dark blue eyeshadow over this. Smear and blend as necessary to make it look more realistic.

    THERE YOU GO! Once everything dries, you’re the Century Building!

    If you want to do a couple or buddy costume, your partner could go as Mark Finney, the greedy developer whose Conlon Group once owned the Century Building and drove out its tenants, or as Steve Stogel, the developer who put toegther the current plan to demolish the Century. For this costume, your partner should wear a suit and tie. (Thrift stores are your friend!) Stuff the pockets of the suit with play money (which you can buy or easily make with paper, a pen, and scissors). Besides that, wearing a plastic pig nose would really help convey your developer’s character. You may also wish to get a pair of thrift store shoes and cover them with toy cars to represent the parking garage that will replace the Century, and the general tendency of car-centric development that has leveled many a beautiful historic building in St. Louis and other cities worldwide. If you have chosen to show blood dripping from the demolished portions of your Century Building costume, the person dressed as Finney might have fake blood dripping from her/his/etc mouth, as if Finney was eating the Century to fulfill his disgusting greed. Alternately, you could make a wrecking ball (string, tape, and a lightweight ball) attached to Finney’s arm, which he could use to strike the poor Century.

    Have fun, be dramatic, and make sure plenty of people see you in costume. If you send us a picture of you dressed as the Century Building, we’ll post it in this here blog. We also highly encourage you to send photos of you dressed as the Century to Steve Stogel, Mark Finney and Mayor Slay. Their contact information is:

    Steve Stogel, President
    DFC Group, Inc.
    7777 Bohomme Ave., Ste. 1210
    Clayton, MO 63105

    Conlon Group Inc
    20 Allen Avenue
    Saint Louis, MO 63119

    Mayor Francis G. Slay
    City Hall, Room 200
    1200 Market Street
    St. Louis, MO 63103

    Happy Halloween.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2004

    More Century Building

    Thanks to Built St. Louis for a smattering of links to St. Louis Business Journal articles on the Century Building:

    Closing the deal: Six-year struggle comes to an end

    Judge denies effort to stop demolition of Century Building

    Doube jeopardy (a highly disturbing, ignorant editorial)

    Friday, October 22, 2004

    The more things change...

    Apparently, the millions of dollars being reinvested in downtown Saint Louis and the countless historic buildings being reborn as lofts and hotels are not -- repeat, not -- part of any sensible urban planning.

    That's right, the totally senseless is still as inherent in St. Louis urban development as it has been for the past fifty years. This week, however, one of the most senseless things ever to happen in St. Louis began: the demolition of the downtown landmark, the Century Building at 9th and Olive.

    The 1896 office building is a Missouri singularity and an American original. It's clad entirely in marble and utilizes a unique combined concrete-and-steel frame construction. Largely unoccupied since 1994, the building now falls to make way for a useless parking structure.

    The Century Building is part of the last remaining intact group of downtown office buildings, those clustered around the Old Post Office. This group is now forever altered, and irreplaceable. No other intact corner in all of the city compares to 9th and Olive, which paled in comparison to the senselessly-destroyed brilliance radiating from 7th and Olive (mostly destroyed in the early 1980's).

    KWMU radio has posted photos of the demolition in progress.

    Built St. Louis has images of the Century prior to demolition along with an impassioned plea for saving the building.

    In April 2002, I published an article about the city government's plan to purchase the Century Building and its neighbor, the 1906 Syndicate Trust Building: The Biggest Windfall in St. Louis History.

    The Save the Century site stands as a grim reminder of the widespread support that the building had from thousands of caring Saint Louisans, who could not stop this devastating event.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2004

    Abandoned Buildings in St. Louis: Magic and Death

    1. If one person looks another in the eye while sitting in the former cafeteria at the former Enright Middle School, the first person will begin shivering and the second person will go home angry but will not be able to explain why.

    2. To ensure seven years of good luck, dance with your best friend in one of the two tallest buildings at Carondelet Coke. (If your best friend cannot make the date: you will be cursed with occasional acne for a period of three weeks or less, depending on the number of syllables in your best friend's mother's maiden name.)

    3. [Archaic.] If a person stands in a hallway of the Tower of the City Hospital and hears a whistling sound, that person needs to repent for an injustice against a close relative. (Alternate version heard in Soulard Market: The whistling connotes imminent death.)

    4. While standing in the locker room of the Armour Packing Plant, say the name of your beloved three times, then spit violently. That person will never stop calling you. To reverse this spell, you have to gather four rusty bolts of varying sizes and place them in your right shoe for two days before putting that shoe on and returning to the Armour Packing Plant. Then you must stand motionless on the roof for three minutes, and cannot think about any of these things: tax collection, leather, onion soup, sex with your loved one. You only have one chance to reverse this spell without having to actually take responsibility for your actions.

    5. If a couple conceives a child in St. Mary's Infirmary, they will name the child Jean or Lucinda if the child is female or Thomas or Lawrence if the child is male.

    Sunday, February 1, 2004

    How Do You Get to the River?

    It's late in January and I find myself slipping on the ice. I am walking down a deserted city street that runs near an abandoned industrial complex. Few cars travel this street, but luckily one has driven here recently, or I wouldn't have the fortune of walking in the tire tracks that save me from a fall. Still, I can't avoid slipping every few minutes.

    Why am I enduring this desolate and dangerous walk on one of the coldest winter days of this season? I am looking for access to the Mississippi River in the city of Saint Louis. Such a search requires patience even when one knows where to go, as I do. Beyond the public and dirty river access provided at the levee parking lot at the foot of the Arch grounds, all other access points require a little bit of walking.

    There is an almost-inaccessible short promenade at the foot of Bellerive Park, but the last time that I tried to go there I found construction equipment in my way. Technically, that promenade is the only park in the city that offers access to Old Man River. It's odd that the city doesn't even post any signs in upper Bellerive Park pointing out how to get to the riverside.

    Yet its even more odd that a city with a riverboat on its city seal, that was a pivotal seat in the river-based exploration of the Western United States and that was once a prosperous inland port does almost nothing to point out that the Mississippi River is more than just an iconic legend around here. Even Downtown Now's new signs, which readily point out places where people can spend money, do not point out how to get to a place where one can sit by the peaceful flow of muddy water that was so important to the city's founding and commercial development.

    Signs really wouldn't help much, though, because they could only point to access that doesn't exist. Much of the riverfront in the city consists of concrete floor walls or industrial tracts such as my favorite river-watching spot. And the ostensibly grand civic riverfront of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has been host to burger barges and a shabby surface parking lot in the last twenty years. City planners have gradually cleared the riverfront of moored vessels, but they have never studies moving the parking lot.

    South of the Arch grounds, one can walk though the usually-open gates on the flood wall and get to the river, but then the whole sense of the urban world disappears as one stands between a tall wall and a river. This is a bit more intimate spot than the access offered in front of the Arch grounds and Laclede's Landing. There are no cars. But then again, there aren't likely to be any people and hence the experience is rather cold. Engineering thwarts the potential for an urban river outlook.

    Elsewhere in the city, people don't have many choices. The north riverfront trail offers many good vantage points and in a few places provides points of access. These points, however, entail walking down banks and trespassing. They aren't public in any sense at all. Around the Chain of Rocks Bridge, once can get fairly close to the thicket of trees and foliage growing near the riverbank, but without a machete won't get too far.

    Then there is my favorite place, which I want to keep a secret. This place is not easy to get to, but it provides a clear vantage point far from automobiles and flood walls. I can see the city behind me and the river in front of me, and I can sit down and listen to the river. I don't feel good about having to keep this place private, but it's not my choice. Like 96% of the rest of the city's riverfront, it is not a public space in the eyes of the law. Of course, all of the riverfront is natural public space. The Mississippi is the city's greatest natural resource, despite its forces removal from the lives of Saint Louisans.

    We have turned our backs on the Mississippi River because it no longer is the backbone of our commerce. Like the railroads, the river is a commercial casualty of the interstate highway. But that's fine, because the river is a natural force that would much rather beckon weary city dwellers to its peaceful banks on a cold January day than be clogged with steamboats and barges. It's time for us to cooperate.

    Thursday, January 1, 2004

    Ecology of Absence

    And so if perforce we must study disease let us study it systematically. I cannot indicate to you the precise nature of that constitutional social disturbance of which our architecture is symptomatic; but little by little I will reveal to you the hidden causes and make clear and palpable to you the aspects and nature of the malady.
    - Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats

    There is so much empty land that in some places the city seems to have ceased to exist.
    - Camilo Jose Vergara, The New American Ghetto

    This project documents the disease of abandonment of the built environment and its treatment. We aim to reveal the odd interaction of social and ecological forces that lead people to build, abandon and reclaim buildings and structures. Thus, we draw upon the fields of history, urban archaeology, ecology, sociology and architecture to investigate the troubled urban areas of the Midwest.

    Ecology of Absence originally was supposed to be a book about the social and ecological lives of abandoned places in the metropolitan area of Saint Louis, Missouri. The project quickly grew into the present website, which presents visual and textual information in an attempt to present abandonment as a systematic occurrence that is shaped by political decision-making, economic circumstances and natural forces. Ecology of Absence also documents the recovery and demolition of buildings, as well as other matters pertaining to architecture and development in and around St. Louis, East St. Louis and other cities that we will begin to cover in the future.

    We are interested in developing a critique of the contemporary condition of American cities, and thus transcend each limit that we set. Setting out to photograph and write about interesting abandoned buildings, we realized that such documentation -- like each building itself -- lacked urgency without being set in its context. We did not want to capture only the beauty of decay, but provoke people into addressing the massive and unsustainable decay of a city like St. Louis.

    Ecology of Absence aims to provide an information source for people who envision cities as sustainable places where people's needs are met. Thus, the project promotes ecologically-sound building practices and the recovery of abandoned sites for public welfare while opposing gentrification, land-banking and the further destruction of inner cities. We document abandoned places to pinpoint that moment of disuse before which these places are transformed again through restoration or destruction. At this moment, buildings and structures are full of information (things left behind) and ripe for contemplation.

    Yet the moment of disuse is also the moment at which these places can be reclaimed. The question of who gets to reclaim these places is a political one, and we do not shy away from investigating this question as part of our research of each site. All architecture is the containment of space and is fraught with political decisions from the start: Who contains the space? Which space gets contained? Who gets to inhabit the contained space? The current crisis in older American cities demands that any meaningful documentation invest itself in these political questions. Our documentation carries with it a bias in favor of the people who are being left behind by and forced out of the speculative reclamation of cities.

    In the end, Ecology of Absence may become a comprehensive project on the abandonment and reclamation of certain Midwestern American cities. For now, it remains deeply engaged in the investigation of the particular places that we encounter in our daily lives.