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

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Farewell: The Last Opening at Gallery Urbis Orbis

Friday marks the final First Friday opening at downtown's Gallery Urbis Orbis. While the art scene is constantly changing in every city and there are little certainties in terms of gallery spaces, Urbis Orbis could not be confused with your ordinary art gallery. Yes, Gallery Urbis Orbis sold art. Yes, it had exhibits and openings with wine and such. But its more significant function was civic in nature.

During its run of over two years, Gallery Urbis Orbis has provided a foundation for progressive cultural life. The gallery has cleverly used the traditional opening to create a monthly night in which some of the city's smartest people get together and chat. Ideas have been shared and big plans have been made on even the least-attended First Friday opening here. The gallery has mixed these dependable, almost salon-like evenings with other programming that falls outside of the realm of the "art gallery": a meetup of political activists and artists; a meet-and-greet with aldermanic candidate and urbanist Steve Patterson; a memorial service for a well-loved city booster; countless planning meetings for cultural efforts large and small; and many other things. Much like the late, lamented Commonspace, Gallery Urbis Orbis served as a civic space with a citywide audience. Creating another space like it -- and I do hope that someone does -- will be a challenge.

Gallery co-owner and painter Alan Brunettin, whose work will be featured at this final opening, has often graced the gallery window on Tenth Street as he works on a painting. As far as I know, Alan has been the only artist to consistently work in a street-level, visible space. His presence has been encouraging to pedestrians, suggesting a liveliness that complements the solid old buildings around the space well (and draws one's eye away from the hideous hulk of the Renaissance Grand parking garage across the street).

Alas, the gallery closes. Alan and Margie Newman, his partner and gallery co-owner, will depart for Chicago in January. Things change, of course, but this one is truly bittersweet.

We will be serving the complimentary wine, one last time, this Friday at Gallery Urbis Orbis (419 N. 10th Street) from 5:00 - 10:00 p.m. I hope the turnout is large and spirits high despite the loss, because this fine space and its creators deserve no less.

Investment in the schools is down: Gifted and ESL are on the chopping block, and Montessori may follow.

Peter Downs wrote last week in the St. Louis Schools Watch that the Missouri legislature has decided to cut funding for gifted and English as a second language instruction.

Rather than responding argumentatively, I would like to share some stories from my life.

Several weeks ago, my parents came to visit us, to see our newly purchased house and help us work on it. My mom had seen the place before, but it was my dad's first time seeing our house. He was very proud of us. He told us how happy he was to see that the neighborhood is starting to do better, because when he lived and worked here in the past, it was not. He told us about how he lived in an apartment on 14th Street as a kid. The apartment had no bathtub. When they needed to bathe, they would take water from the kitchen faucet to fill up a metal basin which sat in the kitchen. Once, after a hard day of working out in the heat in the junkyard, his father took him to the public bath house on Saint Louis Avenue to shower, because they knew the kitchen basin would not be enough. Dad commented that as a kid he knew they didn't have a lot of money, but when he remembers things like that, he knows that they were really, really poor. After a quiet pause, he said "Everything that has happened in my life happened because of the gifted program. College. Jobs. Everything happened because someone labelled me a smart kid and put me in gifted."

I now live in the neighborhood where my dad used to live when he was a little kid, going through extreme poverty. I live exactly one block from Ames School, where he later worked as a teacher after completing college thanks to the background he got in the gifted program. Sitting here, close to these two sites, I am almost frozen with fear over what the SLPS will be like without gifted, and what that will mean for all the kids who would have gotten that important extra educational push.

Peter Downs notes that the statewide cutting of gifted and ESL mimics cuts in the St. Louis Public Schools. What really stands out to me is that at Euclid and Washington Montessori Schools, fourth and fifth grade students were taken off the Montessori program this year. They were reorganized as standard classrooms.

I went to Washington Montessori from kindergarten to third grade, and I went to Euclid Montessori from fourth to fifth grade. Though I faced many typical SLPS nightmares there (ranging from small things like bad, nutritionless lunchroom food to big things like a friend ending up in a coma due to construction workers' negligence, and a bunch of us getting shot at on the playground during gym), overall the education I got there was outstanding. My first to third grade teacher, Mrs. Saputo, and my fourth to fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Debaun, were probably the best teachers I've had in my entire life. The Montessori method of using concrete objects to express abstract ideas was wonderful. To this day, when I'm trying to remember what part of speech a word is, I picture the big red circle for verbs, the giant black triangle for nouns, and so on. When I am tutoring a kid in complex multiplication problems, I help myself understand how to break down the problem by picturing the beads we used in my Montessori classes to represent large numbers.

But Montessori went beyond regular math and grammar lessons. Because of its fluid structure, teachers were able to give us individual instruction based on our own needs. When I was in second grade, Mrs. Saputo was able to give troubled readers their own lesson for their level, give a different lesson to average readers, and let dorky little me make up my own spelling words (Because of her class, I was one of six winners of the city spelling bee in fourth grade.). Outside of the traditional curriculum, we had other great lessons. Mrs. Debaun brought in a botanist, and my class worked with him to restore and plant small raised flowerbeds around the school (which previously had been solidly overgrown with weeds). She had people bring in live chickens to our class. Presenters came in and burned incense and taught us about Native American culture. Mrs. Debaun herself told us about her vacation to China and taught us to make Chinese papercuts. We visited a local home for babies born to crack-addicted mothers, and stitched together a quilt to donate to the home. We weren't just learning about the three R's, but about the larger world beyond ourselves. We learned very tangibly how to plant a seed and nurture it into a vegetable, how to sew something and share it--pure Montessori.

Also significant is that because of the structure of the classrom, we children were able to learn to do our work on our own, which is a very, very important lesson. We were also encouraged to sit and work together, which I partially credit for the fact that my best friend from third grade and I are still close to this day.

I still learn by the Montessori method. I remain less interested in sitting in a lecture hall than in going out and working in my community. I don't have a college degree yet, but from my Montessorian tendencies, I am learning how to curate a film series, tutor at-risk children, and research the landscape of my city.

I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn't gotten to attend gifted and if I hadn't gotten to take Montessori classes. I wonder what my dad's life would have been like if he hadn't gotten to attend gifted. Where would he be now? Would I exist? Would my dad have a job at all, let alone one that paid the bills? Would he still be scraping by, eating biscuits and lard as he did when he was a kid? I really, really don't want to think about the terrible, horribly grim answers to these questions, but all across St. Louis and the state of Missouri, students who would have been in the gifted program or who would have taken Montessori classes will have to spend their lives finding out.
From the SLS Watch: "Superintendent Creg Williams has agreed to meet with Montessori parents on November 30, at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the future of the Euclid and Washington Montessori schools. " The meeting will be informal. It will be at Washington Montessori, which is located at 1130 North Euclid Avenue. The 94 Page, 95 Kingshighway, and 97 Delmar bus routes can get you there.

Jobs in the City

Yesterday, I wrote a post about how the blog attributed to Mayor Slay claimed that investment in the city is up 54%, and I pointed out that it used a measure of investment (building permits) that simply does not show the entire picture. In my post, I asked: "Slay, where are the jobs?"

Today's post in the Slay blog is entitled "Growing Jobs." It talks about business incubators in the city, and businesses they have churned out.

Business incubators are certainly important. It is wonderful that someone is out there trying to help independent businesses get on their feet.

Still, I don't think it answers my question. The programs discussed in the post are great, but when our city has 9.1% unemployment, they are only one little drop in a big bucket.

Then again, the current city administration's idea of creating jobs seems to be eminent domaining people out of their homes to build yet another big box store. It temporarily creates some demo and construction jobs, but all that the city gets in the long term is a couple dozen $6 and $7 an hour part-time jobs where people are forced to stand on their feet on a hard floor all day long. Oh, there's also eminent domaining people out of their homes to build newer, cheaper, uglier homes, but that doesn't even create long-term $6 an hour jobs. We lose the refined, exceptionally crafted architectural fabric that makes our city stand out among other American cities, and we're left with little but a vast parking lot and jobs that by definition require people to get public assistance to survive.

We're starting to get people moving back in to the city right now, and perhaps more importantly, people are excited about the city again. But people won't stay in a place where they can't meet their basic needs. If you can't get a job, you can't feed yourself, and if you start to starve, the survival instinct's gonna kick in sooner or later.

This administration needs to get more proactive about creating good jobs--the kind of jobs that pay a living wage, the kind of jobs that people can keep, the kind of jobs that don't force people on to public assistance because they pay so little. So far, Slay's record shows that he seems to think that tearing down a historic building = a job. It does not. (In a debate earlier this year, Irene Smith asked Mayor Slay what his economic development plan for the North Side is. He responded by saying that his administration had torn down thousands of buildings on the North Side. That was all he could come up with.) And opening a big box store that pays $7 an hour is not really creating a job, either (I can show you my paychecks and the bills they're somehow supposed to pay to personally show you what a $7.50 an hour job is worth.). Where are the good, sustainable jobs?

The current city administration needs to get serious about creating actual decent jobs in St. Louis, and it must stop pretending that knocking down historic buildings is the same thing as creating sustainable jobs. The Slay administration must start seriously trying to improve the St. Louis Public Schools for the thousands of (mostly black) children who rely on them (A $7 an hour job don't pay for private school, that's for sure!), so that our city's children actually have some of the skills they need to get, keep, and create jobs in the city. Jobs and schools are two intertwined problems, and they are two of the most important problems that the city of St. Louis must face if it wants a positive future. In response to these problems, the Slay administration has shown only that they are very, very good at sitting on their hands.

Over at the Clemens House

Our latest site update covers a recent theft of cast iron from the James Clemens, Jr. House (also known as the Clemens Mansion).

UPDATE: The hearing of the City of St. Louis vs. Blairmont Associates Limited Company will he heard tomorrow, Thursday December 1 at 1:30 p.m. in the City Circuit Court's Division 5 in the Civil Courts Building at Tucker and Market. Judge David Dowd will preside. The case number is #054-2163 and the court phone number is 314-622-4342.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Investment in the city is "up"

Yesterday's post in the blog attributed to Mayor Slay said that investment in the city is up 54%, if you measure investment by building permits.

It's noteworthy that the author of the blog posted this the day after the Post-Dispatch ran a front page story with the headline "As city again attracts residents, jobs slip away."

It's great that there are rehabs, and I guess some of the new construction going on in the city could be worse (in terms of demolition, urbanity, and building materials, though on the whole it's pretty bad), but building permits alone only reflect a little piece of the story. I want to know: Slay, where are the jobs?* And more specifically, as someone who makes $7.50 an hour, I want to know: Where are the decent jobs that pay a living wage?

And while we're measuring important investment in the city, why not talk about investment in the schools? You can cry "past administrations" all you want, but the fact is that the cuts at the recent budget meeting of the School Board were very hurtful to an already critically injured system, and you know it.

*According to the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association, the unemployment rate for St. Louis City in 2004 was 9.1%.

Ceiling collapse at a Schnucks store, and other tales of DESCOism.

According to the St Peters Journal, last Friday, part of the ceiling of a Schnucks store in St. Peters collapsed while the store was open. Several customers were hit by falling debris, but it seems no one was seriously injured. Here is the story, its headline curiously omitting the name of the major local retailer whose store had the dangerous problem: Section of store's ceiling collapses

Let's see. There's:
1) This incident
2) The construction of a new Schnucks and Lowe's site at Loughborough Commons has been stopped because the vibrations it created are damaging nearby homes.
3) The construction on the Century Building site, which is being developed by DESCO (The real estate arm of Schnucks), has been stopped for several months because the piers they poured are faulty.
4) The long-abandoned Schnucks just north of Downtown is still owned by DESCO. They don't even bother to turn the lights on here at night, even though the parking lot is a very popular cut-through for motorists and pedestrians alike. This site cuts off Hadley street between Cass and Ofallon, taking out a vital part of the street grid (There are just a couple of routes between Downtown and the Near North Side.), so people naturally travel through it, but DESCO leaves the lights off despite the obvious risk to public safety.

All I can say is that at this rate, any time I have to go near a Schnucks, I should probably wear a thick helmet with a light on top of it. Yeesh.

Tornado sirens: Not working in parts of StL County; Kind of working in St. Louis City

On KMOV.com:

Officials investigate tornado siren warning system failure

Apparently, sirens did not sound in several municipalities out there in St. Louis County.

We heard them here in Old North St. Louis, though they sounded a good fifteen minutes after the most dangerous weather had already passed. Perhaps most troubling, though, was how garbled the voiced instructions were. They came from several different speakers, each of which spoke at a slightly different time. The result was.... well.... Let's just hope we never actually have to count on those speakers for instructions in case of an actual disaster, because we will all be in big trouble.

For the curious: The City Of St. Louis Emergency Management Agency's rather outdated, uninformative website (Shouldn't this be used to disseminate useful information, rather than animated GIFs and event schedules from 2003?)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Northside Speculators by Any Other Name...

There is a company called VHS Partners, LLC that may be ran by the same people behind Blairmont Associates LC.

Both have the same addresses for tax bills (those of Eagle Realty Company and Roberta DeFiore), the same agent (Harvey Noble) and only invest in north side neighborhoods in the 63106 and 63107 zip codes. The only difference is that most of the VHS Partners' properties are west of Florissant and east of Grand between Delmar and Natural Bridge, while Blairmont Associates sticks to areas east of Jefferson and west of Broadway between Cass and Branch. Oddly, neither Blairmont or VHS has many properties in depressed Hyde Park. At least not under these names.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Carondelet Coke makes the Mayor's blog. Did it do something wrong?

Today's post in the blog attributed to Mayor Slay is about Carondelet Coke, a massive, vacant former coke production plant on the riverfront in (you guessed it) Carondelet. The tag line is "What to give the urbanist on your holiday list?" Nice try, but the massive, street-blockin', mono-use site that monopolizes a large section of city waterfront don't exactly fall in the category of what an urbanist would consider even vaguely urban. (Mind you, I'm quite fond of the surreal ruins of Carondelet Coke, but it's not urban.)

But here is the more important part. The author of the blog sez:

"It is offered “as is” – and may require environmental remediation."

MAY require remediation? The site is/was a COKE PRODUCTION PLANT. Coke is a byproduct of petroleum. Coke production is one of the most toxic industrial processes known to humanity--no exaggeration. Study after study after study has found that byproducts of coal production lead to the growth of cancer in human and lab animal skin and lungs. (Try Googling "coke production" together with "cancer" and you'll get a lot of relevant reading.) I'm hoping that this comment was intended to be cute, but not everyone reading would know enough about the site to realize that. When the subject is this grave, it's just not funny.

Channel 5 Covered Bad Piers on Ninth Street Garage

Piers Being Re-Worked on Snakebit Site - Mike Owens of TV station KSDK Channel 5 reported on the delays in the Ninth Street Garage on the Wednesday, November 23, newscast. Watch the report on the KSDK website.

Here's a story that broke first in the blogs and was picked up on television news. I feel good about helping get the story to the attention of news organizations with wider audiences. (Note that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has yet to report the problems with the parking garage gone wrong.)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Shopping is a Feeling

A quick survey of the downtown Famous-Barr store earlier today showed that it was far from being crowded. There were no lines at any registers, and plenty of space to walk around the store at a fast clip. I was very disappointed, as I always have been in the ten years that I've been doing holiday shopping at the store.

St. Louis Centre, of course, was a ghost town. A windowpane in the skywalk over Locust Street near a Famous-Barr entrance was missing and covered with plywood. The tile floors are caked in more grime than many abandoned houses I've been inside. Gold's Gym will be opening inside the mall at the corner or 7th and Locust, but will wisely have its only entrance off of the street.

At least Papa Fabarre's, the lovely cafe inside of Famous-Barr, was bustling on Wednesday when we joined a friend for lunch there. Federated would do well to leave Fabarre's alone, unless they want to completely kill off the store. Fabarre's has been a consistent and largely unchanged part of Famous-Barr for many decades, and has not lost any of its charm. Its menu is broad and simple, with low prices that only a department store could afford to get away with. (I frequently get a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato and fried there for $4.64 including tax.)

Anything unique about the store is departing next year, except for Fabarre's. Right?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Who is Blairmont Associates?

Today I discovered that the beautiful former Brecht Butcher Supply Company warehouses between Hadley and Florissant along Cass Avenue, immediately north of the Greyhound Station, are owned by none other than Blairmont Associates. Readers may recall that Blairmont Associates is a troublesome and largely anonymous group of speculators that has purchased hundreds of acres in the city's Fifth Ward, mostly in the Old North St. Louis and St. Louis Place neighborhoods.

Blairmont owns the James Clemens House, the scene of an unfortunate robbery last week. (More on that soon!)

No one has found much about them, as their corporate registration was done through a third party and their mailing address was at Eagle Realty Company.

The city Assessor's database record for the Brecht buildings gives a new address, however.

According to the record, Blairmont Associates' address is 4131 Davis Street in Boulevard Heights. 4131 Davis Street is a private residence owned by Roberta M. Defiore, Ph.D., who is employed by St. Louis University and assists the St. Louis Archdiocesan Office of Urban and Community Affairs, the strategic planning arm of the Church.

Interesting. But I still don't know who Blairmont is. For all that I know, this record is in error and the address is wrong. The record leaves out the customary "LC" behind the name of Blairmont, but that's probably one of those danged old typos Claire mentioned.

Word is circulating that the city's Building Division is suing Blairmont over the condition of the Clemens House.

Whatever is going on, Blairmont may want to come forward and tell Fifth Ward residents the who, what and why they want to know -- before suspicions run too deep.

Bad Piers

From the minutes of the October 4 meeting of the Missouri Development Finance Board:

"Mr. Miserez asked Ms. Kathleen Barney to give a project status update on the Ninth Street Garage construction issues. Ms. Barney reported there were deficiencies in many of the piers poured and that with a total of 56 piers, 16 of the poured 37 piers were discovered to be substandard. The Office of Administration monitors the construction for MDFB and is considering that all the piers are bad. The developers of the project have hired experts to evaluate the piers, which has caused a delay to the project. Ms. Barney reported that the problem is the developer's responsibility and there will be no additional costs to MDFB."

We reported the news about the concrete pouring on August 16.

(Thanks to Arch City Chronicle for the link.)

DetroitBlog Thoughtfully Covers the Loss of a Small, Vernacular Detroit Building (or, "Why don't I recognize the neighborhood I grew up in?!?")

The November 17th post at detroitblog is a wonderful piece about a small, three-story vacant 1890s building being torched and subsequently wrecked. Even though I have no direct experience with the building that I can remember, and I don't know the area, I still find this essay deeply saddening. To any St. Louisan, the theme of the slow-but-terribly-steady disappearance of a post-industrial city's vernacular architecture should be familiar. Little disappearances like this--a fire here, a demo there--happen every day. One thread is pulled out, and it goes unnoticed, but suddenly tapestry of blocks and streets and neighborhoods are visibly unwoven. I can only think of a handful of demolitions in my neighborhood that have happened in the last year (one of which is happening right now), but somehow over the years, Old North has gone from one of the densest areas of St. Louis to an area where many blocks have vacant lots outnumbering buildings. It happens one by one, piece by piece, with buildings like this little one on Henry, between Cass and Clifford in Detroit.

In a similar vein, and also good reading: an earlier and more elaborate detroitblog post on the history and decay of a common Detroit row house, and an update showing what that same rowhouse looks like when it's engulfed with overgrowth during the warmer months.


Wondering about analogous disappearances in St. Louis? Check out EoA's pages on 2652 Geyer, Dummitt's Confectionary, 19th and Farragut, 1854 N. 39th, Florissant Center Apartments, 914 Madison, Chouteau Avenue row houses....the list goes on. Or, if you really want to learn about disappearances in vernacular architecture, walk down a block in Hyde Park, or any other city neighborhood, for that matter.


The CSB Turns 20 Years Old, Still Takes About 20 Years to Get Around to Handling Residents' Complaints

Yesterday, the author of Mayor Slay's blog posted to inform us all that the Citizens' Service Bureau is now 20 years old. My immediate reaction was one of awe--they've been at it THAT LONG and they still can't fulfill basic functions as an organization? If I was that dysfunctional, illogical, and disorganized when I turned 20, I would have never survived to 21!

Incase you're not familiar with it, the Citizens' Service Bureau is like customer service for the City. Street light burnt out? Call the CSB. Boards have been taken off of a vacant building? Call the CSB. Is your dumpster overflowing, your alley blocked with illegally dumped tires, your neighbor parking on mud on the lawn front of their house, your sidewalk half-ruined by a sloppy City demolition of an LRA building? Call the CSB!

But as anyone who's ever called the CSB knows, it ain't quite that easy. They have a very, very slow turn around time. Partially, this is due to the sheer volume of calls they get; St. Louis is a big city, and maintaining it is a lot of work. But the CSB could run much more efficiently if it was better organized. The biggest problem is that each time somebody complains, a brand new case file is created. CSB complaints are not connected to addresses. For example, imagine that someone had broken in to a vacant building on our block by taking the boards off of it and leaving them off. If I called to complain, then you noticed it and called to complain, then you told your next door neighbor and she called to complain, and then the business owner on the corner saw it and called to complain, that would create four separate reports that would not be linked to each other in any way. Instead of having a file labelled 634 N. Grand, there would be four different reports filed under separate case numbers. There is no way of tracking properties that have repeated problems. And if there are four separate reports, does the Building Division then get sent to the same place four times over? How does that work? The current system does not make sense.

If CSB reports were tied to addresses, it would be possible to see if the problem had already been reported and scheduled for a response. It would also be possible to keep track of problem properties and address them. If people are continuously illegally dumping or breaking boards off a certain building, law enforcement or another agency might be able to address that.

It would also make sense to be able to review complaints by property owner, to establish if there is a major pattern of problems that requires action. For instance, our neighbors on Sullivan who happen to have a City dumpster behind their house get in trouble sometimes when there is too much dumping in it. That may or may not be their fault, but it's not that big of a deal. The CSB Representative could look up all three properties that they own and see that it's not a consistent issue--the dumpster still needs to be taken care of, but it's not a frequent enough problem to warrant significant concern. However, in Forest Park Southeast, trash frequently piles up around the property at 4501 Manchester, which is owned by PJD Investment Co., (which is operated by Dave Renard of the Renard Paper Company. The Renard Paper Company sits directly across the street from 4501 Manchester, but Dave never stops to clean up the trash!). If someone called the CSB to complain about the latest pile of insulation, branches, and broken light fixtures dumped in front of 4501 and left unabated, the CSB Representative might be able to look up PJD Investment Co. and see that they also own properties on Swan, along Manchester, and elsewhere in the neighborhood, and that those properties often have similar problems (illegal dumping, no maintenance, and boards being removed). The records would show that PJD Investment Co. has owned these buildings for years, and so it's not as if they had only just purchased them and had not yet had time to address problems. The records would suggest that PJD Investment Co. is a bad neighbor and a negligent property owner, and the City could take steps to do something about it. I am, of course, wary that this might be mis-used as a form of small-time eminent domain in order to take desirable property away from owners. But optimistically speaking, if CSB complaints were indexed by property owner and punitive actions were taken only where they were really, truly necessary, this could be a powerful tool for getting negligent landlords in line. (Of course, the single most negligent landlord in St. Louis is the City's own Land Reutilization Authority, but that's a whole different essay. Who knows, maybe keep a record of what a mess they make of their own property would do some good?)

One more way that the CSB needs to change is that there should be a way to expedite cases in which there is an extreme problem at hand. Sometimes, a problem as simple as a pile of tree branches or a removed board-up can create great problems. But I cannot count the times I have told a CSB representative that the problem was making life on our block much more dangerous, only to receive fumbled variations on "There's absolutely nothing I can do about it." CSB responses can take weeks and even months to be completed, and they don't come any faster if the issue at hand is causing great personal danger to community residents. You just have to keep walking past that trash-covered vacant apartment building where suspicious people sleep on the porch and lawn every night. You just have to keep walking past the alley full of branches where people hide. You just have to keep hearing the agonizingly slow, screeching metallic rattle of somebody dragging stolen scrap metal down the alley behind your apartment every night, cos the CSB doesn't care if that boarded up building on your block is an active center of theft, they'll get to it when they get to it. If the CSB was really oriented towards making the quality of life better for St. Louisans, it would speed up cases where people or property were in significant danger. This could save lives, and might also help to protect StL's wonderful old buildings from architectural theft and other forms of vandalism.

In closing, I will leave you with a paragraph I submitted in response to the satisfaction survey that the CSB invites StL residents to fill out after their complaint has received a response. I got this e-mail on November 2. Those of us living around this corner had been complaining to CSB since late summer, when the problem materialized, and it took until November 2 for me to get this response from the CSB. I wrote this in the comments box at the bottom of their satisfaction survey:

"This large deposit of branches started blocking the alley behind Swan over two months ago! The blockage of the alley created a large amount of crime on our corner, from people who knew they could deal drugs and harass neighborhood residents because no police car (or other car) would be able to follow them up the alley. On my way home from work (I can't drive, so I was forced to walk past that corner.), I was cussed out and threatened IN FRONT OF MY OWN HOME repeatedly by vagrants who took to living next to the pile of debris. I explained this to the representative on the phone, but she didn't seem to care, and it still took you guys this long to take care of it (There should be a way to expedite CSB requests in cases where they are causing or contributing to unusually dangerous conditions!). We've already had to move out of that area because it was so dangerous, and you're just now getting around to taking care of that problem?!? That's not acceptable! I don't know how anyone in city government expects people to start moving into St. Louis if we can't even take care of little basic problems like this for people who already live here."

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bell Telephone

SBC is now AT&T. The merger went through today. Eric Seelig of Pointless Website [ link now defunct] asked on the phone, "What exactly are the legal implications of a monopoly that was broken up, re-forming?" I'm scratching my head on that one, too, and none of the SBC AT&T employees I talked with had much to say about it.

One of them did have something to say about the new logo (unveiled today!), though: "It looks like a whiffle ball."
"Like a whiffle ball?" I asked.
"You know the old logo that looked like the Death Star?"
"It looks like that, but like it was drawn by a child. It looks like it was drawn by a child. The letters are all lowercase, and that makes it look even more childish. Nobody likes it. Billion dollar company, and that's the best they can come up with?"

...hm. I wonder when we'll see this brave new design posted atop the massive, gray tower on Pine Street?

The end of the department store?

The Death of Marshall Fields and the Dissolution of the Sense of Place - Lynn Becker (ArchitectureChicago Plus, September 21, 2005)

Becker's essay is one of the best accounts of Federated's name-erasing sweep across the country. While the essay only mentions the death of Field's, its arguments apply to the end of Famous-Barr too.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Update on the Century Building legal battle

From Roger Plackemeier:

To the curious and interested.....

awhile back I sent out an update message on the Century Building malicious prosecution suit. At the time I reported that we had had a hearing on the motion made by the plaintiffs to disqualify Matt Ghio as our attorney. During a hearing on Friday for another matter we learned that Judge Ohmer had denied the disqualification motion back on September 30th, but neither side had been notified. Chalk one up for the good guys!

Thanks to all who sent messages of inquiry and support.

Two Good Things

Two localish things that make rehabbing a house in Old North St. Louis a pleasant experience:

- The music of Grandpa's Ghost of Pocahontas, Illinois. If you really want to know what Illinois sounds like at night when the spirits start coming out to play, don't take the word of some guy from New York City. Getcherself some Grandpa's Ghost.

- Ching Ching's Old Fashioned Snack Shop at 3332 N. 19th Street, just a few blocks north in Hyde Park. While I am not wild about some of the "rehab" touches on this building, the story behind it is encouraging: a couple saved up their own money and avoided a rehab loan to take this former LRA building from a shell to one of Hyde Park's bright lights. And what a light it is! The food is awesome. Where else on the north side can vegetarians like us get a burger and fries that we can eat? That's right, veggie burgers are available in Hyde Park.

UPDATE: Ching Ching's closed in 2006.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dead Zone

The empty land in downtown St. Louis fronting Locust Street between 8th and 9th streets covers over one-half of a city block. This land is surrounded by numerous historic buildings: the Board of Education Building, the Orpheum (later American) Theater, the Mayfair Hotel, the Mercantile Bank Building and the rear end of the Old Post Office. The site is prominent, but the space is dead.

Currently, this entire space is covered by three parking lots. One of these lots is crudely paved with gravel ringed by the top of a remaining foundation walls of a now-gone building. The sidewalk along Locust is in horrible disrepair. This area is a visual and functional dead zone in a downtown rapidly gaining pedestrian movement.

Civic bigwigs want to keep it that way, except they would replace the asphalt and gravel covering the lot with grass. They have released proposed renderings of a sterile and ill-designed "plaza" that is too large to be a good urban space and too devoid of uses to remedy the blight of the location.

The one use the planners have allowed to intrude upon the site is an ugly glass-walled addition to the Mayfair Hotel, proposed by the Roberts Companies. This addition would sit in from the sidewalk lines, and not even come close to fronting Locust or Eighth streets. Yet it would be large enough to make building a building at the corner feasible. The design is based upon the site's always being dead space.

Could we please bring this site back to life? The last thing downtown needs is more open space. One block to the east of this site is the more modestly-sized "plaza" built by Mercantile Bank on the site of the Ambassador Building, wrecked in 1996 and 1997. This open space consists of a big driveway and some landscaping, so it's pretty unattractive. But its size is not wholly inappropriate to a big city and, if a building were built across Locust on a parking lot, the site would be framed tightly. If Mercantile would turn the site over to civic use (there is not even a place to sit on the site at present), this could be a fairly urban downtown plaza.

Let's be sensible.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Bridge Spin

We attended Tuesday's meeting on that silly new Mississippi River bridge at Webster School. Claire can tell you all about her experience arguing with an obstinate engineer, and I'll let her write about it. To judge the spin on the new bridge, I quietly looked at drawings and maps and waited for an engineer to come talk to me. When an engineer engaged me in conversation, I was cool and let him talk me up; I wanted to know how they would sell their product to someone expressing almost no opinion.

Below is a paraphrased and exaggerated version of the exchange.

HIM: This bridge is still going to be the biggest bridge being built right now, he told me. Despite the scaled-back design and the elimination of the impressive single-span truss, it will still create some local records for truss width and height. It will be monumental.

ME: Oh, interesting. Very good.

HIM: Do you live in the neighborhood?

ME: Yes.

HIM: Well, we scaled back all of our plans for the interchange. The parkway is gone. All we are proposing is one interchange at Cass Avenue. This won't have such a big impact on the neighborhood. This won't be as disruptive.

ME: Good. That's what I came to see -- how it will impact the neighborhood. I haven't seen the maps yet, so let me look at them before asking any questions.

So, he first stressed how big and important the bridge will be under the new plans, then how it will be less harmful to Old North St. Louis. I see they have strong talking points that address the two types people most interested in the bridge: highway enthusiasts and near north side residents.

Too bad the plans don't match the spin on the second point. The bridge's off ramp will claim the historic Joseph Wangler boiler works and, despite its not being in the way of the new off ramp, the factory building and warehouse at 13th and Cass. Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh streets will be interrupted for the off ramp and will not connect to downtown. Several homes in Old North east of I-70 are still being torn down for a new interchange at St. Louis Avenue.

Not as disruptive as before, yes.

Still very damaging to the built environment on the near north side. My concerns are somewhat parochial and surround the connectivity of the heart of Old North St. Louis with downtown. The biggest impact of the bridge on the city cannot be mitigated without halting the project completely -- it will become a wall between the area of Laclede's Landing and the North Riverfront industrial corridor. This wall will eliminate views of the downtown skyline from numerous large warehouse buildings on the North Riverfront being considered for future loft apartment conversion. The bridge piers will cut too close to exciting projects planned for the old Southwestern Freight Depot and the St. Louis Stamping Company buildings.

For another opinion on the bridge, read Steve Patterson's recent post in Urban Review St. Louis.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Making a List: What Streets Should be Reopened?

What closed, blocked or vacated St. Louis streets would you like to see reopened?

Please let us know.

Here's my list:
- Swan, Norfolk and Vista at Taylor
- St. Charles from 10th to 9th and 8th to Broadway (lots of demolition of new junk needed for this)
- Dolman at Lafayette and at Chouteau
- Carroll at the Truman Parkway
- Hadley between Warren and Benton
- Benton between 13th and Hadley
- 14th between St. Louis and Warren and between Madison and Chambers
- Montgomery between Blair and 13th
- Chambers between 13th and 14th
- Locust between 4th and Broadway
- Pine between Jefferson and Beaumont
- 16th and 17th between Martin Luther King and Cole
- 15th between Delmar and Cole
- 13th between Market and Clark
- Geyer between Jefferson and Ohio

That's just off the top of my head and includes merely places that I have been in the last week. What do you want to add?

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Busch Stadium, 1966 - 2005

The much-publicized demolition stunt at Busch Stadium yesterday was as uninspiring and uninteresting as the new stadium itself. At 3:00 p.m., the first swing of the wrecking ball occurred. Yet it was swung from inside of the stadium, on which demolition really started ten days prior, and could not be seen from sidewalk level anywhere nearby. The only visible damage seen was the demolished mezzanine ramp, which had come down prior to yesterday (although few fans seemed to notice.) A small cheer started to rise up from the crowd long after the first swing, at about the moment when most people realized that wrecking had commenced. But it died as quickly as people started walking back to work.

In the old days, wreckers like Spirtas would have done something dramatic. The Cardinals cancelled an implosion when they fell ahead of schedule on completion of the new stadium, a decision that will save money and avoid spectacle. Nowadays, even the passing of a landmark like Busch Stadium is treated like a neutral even by city leaders. The suggestion the Cardinals propaganda makes is that the demolition is a non-event that will be over before we realize it is going on. They promise the noise and dust won't be too extreme, the season will start on-time at the new stadium and nothing will be out of the ordinary. The new stadium itself is almost a non-building, with its trite, neutral appearance.

Demolition, however, is very much out of the ordinary. The psychological impact of seeing a landmark destroyed is big, and once there is a huge pile of rubble where Busch Stadium once stood the spin will be hard to justify. There will be a disruption.

The Stadium will be gone, and a scar will be left in its place. At the rate it will take the Cardinals to redevelop the old site, the city and its residents will be faced with that scar for a long time to come.

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Recent Slay Blog entries part B: Two major transit projects destroyed Old North in the first place, so why not make it an even three?!?

On the new bridge that is set to span the Mississippi River and smash violently through the Near North Side (my neighborhood, mind you), the author of Mayor Slay's blog wrote recently:

"•The new bridge would be good for Downtown and for the City of St. Louis"

Yeah, EXCEPT FOT THE NORTH SIDE. The bridge will further cut my neighborhood, Old North St. Louis, off from Downtown with the big, icky wall it would create. Already, there are only a couple of walking routes left, and in order to drive on the neighborhood you have to go around it. The street grid between Downtown and my neighborhood has been barbarized, and to what end? The abandoned Schnucks (Still owned by Desco! GEE, THANKS DESCO!) isn't really worth those dead ends, is it?

Old North's connection to Downtown is part of what has driven its amazing revitalization in recent years. Certainly, the fact that Michael and I could walk to our Downtown jobs in under half an hour was part of what drew us here. And it seems that every time I go Downtown, I run into people I know from Old North. During my Sunday AM shift at the grocery store today, two of my neighbors happened to come into the store to shop, completely independently of each other. Old North folks are connected to Downtown. Oh, and I need not point out that Downtown's growth will naturally spill out into the surrounding areas.... If we let them remain connected to Downtown, that is.

What I find particularly offensive about the bridge plans is that major transit lines smashing through this area drove its destruction in the first place! Old North was one of the densest, most vital areas of the city, with multiple dwellings and businesses on nearly every lot. When the Interurban Rail tracks smashed through part of the neighborhood in the 1930s, bringing demolitions and relocating many tightly knit communities, the area gradually began its decline. (Even today, some of the most devastated areas of the neighborhood are near those tracks!) Within a couple of decades, the area was again the victim of a large-scale transportation project, this time when highway 70 was constructed. It cut the neighborhood right in half, and to see what came of it, you need only look at a satellite image of the area and see how many vacant lots there now are. Even as the area now rebounds, parts of the neighborhood east of the highway seem to go left out of the positive change.

You'd think that Old North and the City of St. Louis would have learned that slicing up Old North with transit lines that bring demolition and create physical barriers is a really, really bad idea--the kind of idea that killed the neighborhood in the first place! But what does Slay's blog say about the bridge?

"•The new bridge will be built"

So, we keep blocking and chopping up regular ol' city streets and walking paths, only to lament that we must build more enormous-scale transit projects because for some mysterious reason, no one can get around. And we keep assaulting the Near North Side with stupid, destructive transit projects, even though they have a terrible track record.

This reminds me so much of old 1930s and '40s plans for St. Louis that I've read. Entire city neighborhoods, including Old North and Hyde Park, were declared "obsolete." And there was a definite focus on big streets--first it was the widening of North Florissant (which now gets moderate traffic at best!) and Gravois to make a sort of city street expressway, and later the expressways themselves were put in. The idea was demolish demolish demolish, and make big wide roads for cars. If that line of thinking worked for this area, wouldn't it have worked sometime in the past 70 years? Why is now different? And why are we still operating on these outmoded, obviously ineffectual methods of city planning?


The author of Mayor Slay's blog also commented on the problems with financing the bridge, declaring:

"You can’t build a bridge on pointed fingers."

Yeah, I'll tell you where you can point them fingers, and for that matter, where you can put that bridge. Take it and use it to permanently slice your neighborhood apart and to isolate your community from its surroundings. Put it there in your gleaming Southwest City neighborhood and see how your neighborhood looks in ten years. Take that bridge and keep it, 'cos we don't want it here.

Mayor's blog conspicuously misses the mark on SLPS high schools

On October 31st, the author of Mayor Slay’s blog wrote about student performance in the St. Louis Public Schools, focusing on black students.

What really caught my attention in the Slay Blog entry was the author’s claim that SLPS high school students tend to perform more poorly than their younger counterparts because they are “veterans of past administrations,” meaning past superintendents, past school boards, and perhaps even past mayors. The post is even titled “The Past Haunts Some SLPS Students.” This sounds a little strange to me.

For about seven months this year, I worked with SLPS students of all ages as the Homework Helper at the Central Library. Whenever I would ask the kids what they would change to make their schools better, if they could, the answers were never anything like “Oh, my school used to be bad, but now it’s great, no worries. I had hard times in elementary school but now everything is fine!” Their complaints were more immediate: a broken heating system making one student’s high school unbearably hot all day every day; school food that was so bad as to frequently make students ill*; countless stories of rampant student violence escalating within the schools; teachers who did not respect the students at all. And this is just what I’ve heard from the kids--someone I know who works at Roosevelt High School told me that last school year, there was a significant outbreak of tuberculosis at Roosevelt. These words do not depict students attending perfect schools who are burnt out on learning from earlier experience; rather, these students are suffering from very basic, major problems right now. Their daily experience at school still endangers their health, and sometimes even their lives. Talk about barriers to achievement!

SLPS high schools being worse than SLPS elementary and middle schools is nothing new, despite what the Slay Blog post implies. For my whole life, I’ve watched families I know start fretting when their lifelong SLPS student hits seventh or eighth grade, because that means high school is coming, and these parents know that SLPS high schools are significantly worse than any of the K-8 schools are. My own family moved to the Chicago suburbs from St. Louis in 1997, just as I was nearing the end of seventh grade at Gateway Middle School. My dad found a new, better-paying job in Chicago, but a large part of the reason we left was that my parents had studied and studied all of the SLPS high schools, and didn’t like anything that they heard. (Trust me, they did thorough research. It was this same care that first drove my mom to camp out overnight on the lawn of an SLPS building when I was five in order to get me and my sister into magnet schools.) All through 1997 and for several years after that, I remember my mother frequently repeating “The St. Louis Schools know what to do with kids in elementary school, and then they kind of know what to do with them in middle school, but by high school they have no idea.” I reiterate: This happened in 1997. SLPS high school kids having a harder time in school than younger SLPS students is not a new phenomenon.

I also really don’t like the solution that the Slay Blog’s explanation of the problem suggests. If the kids really are doing badly because of poor school conditions in the past, brought on by past administrations, then the implied solution seems to be that it’s not “our” fault and there’s nothing that the current superintendent, school board, or mayor can do about it. The very statement that it’s because they are “veterans of past administrations” seems to carry with it shrugging and throwing one’s hands up in the air. But this attitude is exactly the problem that has plagued SLPS high school students for so long! People in the SLPS administration have been giving up on high school kids for years and years, and after reading this blog entry, it seems that the official word is that the mayor gives up on them, too.

This attitude is absolutely not acceptable. If our high school students are doing worse than everyone else, we should be giving them extra attention, not turning our backs on them. SLPS high school students are the next generation of citizens and workers in St. Louis. They are the near-immediate future of our city. Do we want a city full of people who’ve gotten the education and attention they need, or a city full of people who are used to civic authority dismissing and neglecting them? How can we expect gang violence in St. Louis to reduce at all if gang recruiters care about our teenagers, but the SLPS doesn’t? In a country where one out of three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, you’d think that there would be much greater attention given to giving black teenagers a decent education that offers them more opportunity in the future.

The mayor’s blog can spin it any way they like, but the reality is that formerly successful SLPS students starting to struggle when they hit SLPS high schools is nothing new. It’s not something that’s going to disappear several years from now when current grade school students (veterans of this administration) hit high school, especially if Slay’s official opinion is simply that it ain’t his fault.

* Their complaints about just how bad the food is are particularly poignant when you consider a statistic that the author of Slay’s blog cited in this very post: “...almost 35,000 SLPS students – 86 percent of the total — qualify for free or reduced price lunches.” The literature for The Urban Studio, a new youth-oriented nonprofit opening a block from my house in Old North St. Louis, states that 100% of students at Webster Middle School received free or reduced-price lunches last year. These kids are relying on school food for a large part of their daily nutrition. That’s a lot of kids who have to eat the miserable stuff every single weekday!

Urbis Orbis Update

Alan Brunettin wants everyone to know that there will be one last First Friday at Gallery Urbis Orbis, on December 2.

Thursday, November 3, 2005

Final Exhibit at Gallery Urbis Orbis

Gallery Urbis Orbis, the coolest art gallery in St. Louis, will be closing on December 31st (coincidentally or not my 2Xst birthday). This Friday may be the last chance folks will have to enjoy the experience of hanging out at Urbis Orbis, which is almost like a monthly salon for the most active and creative people in town. (I wonder what people will do after it closes -- I'm almost sure that any successor space won't be located downtown.)

Anyway, this Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. is First Friday at Urbis Orbis and Claire Nowak-Boyd and I are the guest bartenders again, even if it is the last time. Come on out and enjoy an evening with great weather.

The farewell exhibit is "Arrivederci, Louie," featuring paintings and drawings by Alan Brunettin.

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Bus Maintenance Center Under Demolition

Demolition of the St. Louis Bus Maintenance Center (originally the Anderson Motor Service Company) has commenced. The block will be cleared of buildings now. No word on progress on the Fire Department's investigation of the cause of the blaze that heavily damaged the building on September 15.