We've Moved

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

Friday, March 31, 2006

NYT Article on St. Louis Mostly Positive

A New York Times reporter spent 36 hours in St. Louis and wrote up his findings in the grey lady. The tone is admiring, although I take exception to his characterization of Old North St. Louis as "dilapidated." Still, I'm glad he writes that the local taboo of going north of Delmar is totally unwarranted. If only locals would agree.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Another Brick Story

Some neighbors excavated paving bricks from brick sidewalks in Old North in the construction zone -- 41 new homes are being built and nine buildings are being rehabbed as part of the North Market Place project -- that are being paved with concrete. They stored them alongside of our house. Then they dug more and stored those alongside of our house.

Now that we are anticipating building scaffolding along the length of our house, the bricks need to be moved. I have been moving them by hand to a new stack in the middle of the yard. First, I moved them in two's -- one in each hand. Then, I moved them in fours, arranged in alternating directions so they stayed a manageable square unit. I graduated to groups of six before triumphing at carrying stacks of eight this past weekend. I have completely moved the newest accumulation and have gotten about 20% of the first pile gone.

There are easily 500 bricks between the two piles. They appear to date to the 1870s or 1880s. Our neighbors may use some of them, but as part of storing them we are using them to build beds and fill in missing areas in our paved area (we have extensive original brick paving around our house).

There are thousands more of the bricks in the neighborhood, under grass and weeds or being uncovered as the new homes are built. I hope that neighbors continue to save them, because we are glad to store them in our yard (actually four fenced city lots) and have plenty of room. What we lack is the time to dig pavers ourselves.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Belmont and Johnson

The intersection of Belmont and Johnson in downtown St. Louis is long gone. Belmont Street ran east-west from 14th Street to 16th Street, between Clark and Spruce. Johnson Street ran north-south between Clark and Poplar, between 14th and 15th streets. The two streets were narrower than the primary arteries around them, and served the warehouses and other businesses that existed in this pocket of dowtown St. Louis near the railyards.

These streets disappeared over the years first as businesses expanded and then as surface parking took over the area. New railroad tracks into Union Station were built in the 1950s and obliterated the streets completely. The tracks ran below grade and created a wall that was compounded by the already-existing wall-like railyards to the south and Union Station train shed to the west. Today, this pocket of downtown is mostly parking lots, with the Drug Enforcement Agency and Veterans' Administration occupying buildings in the area built in the last 12 years. For years, this area was the preferred site for any number of plans for a new train station and other transportation portals. Now, the new multimodal transportation center will rise just south of the elevated section of I-64/40 that runs through here. This pocket will serve as a gateway and will sport a raised walkway between the MetroLink station on 14th Street and the multimodal center.

Back to the story: If you are standing at the site of the intersection today, you are probably on the MetroLink tracks. Stand clear!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bricks and Water

The snow that fell yesterday melted quickly enough that we needed three buckets to catch the drip in the dining room. Our plans for brick repairs and a new (flat) roof hit a snag as 100 years of deferred repairs proved to cover too many problems for us to tackle without a second mortgage. We have misshaped parapets, a bowed back wall, concave and convex areas of brickwork, a leaning chimney, lumpy corners, cracked bricks and even a hollow section of a parapet wall. The house is three stories tall in front and two stories tall in the rear, making scaffolding a lot more expensive and the job generally more time-consuming. The rear wall, of course, has to be taken down entirely and relayed, with all of its windows and doors re-installed. A porch on the rear wall, which was deteriorated, has to be demolished and rebuilt.

We could simply tuckpoint some of the areas, but the structural deficiencies of the walls would catch up with us and the repair costs may be higher later. We don't want to do any brickwork after the roof is installed.

Ah, the pains of having architectural knowledge and preferences way out of proportion with income! By the time we get the place watertight, the dry season will be upon us anyway...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Last Night's School Board Forum

Last night, the local branch of the NAACP held a school board candidates' forum at Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. In attendance were incumbent James Buford, Peter Downs, Dennis McLin Shireff, Joe Clark, Donna Jones and Board Member Ron Jackson, who was representing incumbent Darnetta Clinkscale since she was out of town. The two-hour forum featured opening statements followed by a question-and-answer session. The candidates all seemed comfortable and level-headed; the forum was not marred by the confrontational tone other such events have engendered in recent years.

There were few surprises, though. Buford and Jackson had very little to say beyond patented defenses of the status quo and denial of the mistakes of the past three years. I really want to understand their viewpoints, but I don't think that I know why the believe in what they are saying. Their stance comes across as arrogant no matter how plainly they speak. One interesting remark by Buford that was encouraging came when asked how he would pay for the $500 million schools plan that superintendent Creg Williams wants to implement. Buford stated that the city needs to end tax-increment-financing once and for all, so that the schools get their fair share of money. He sounded sincere on this point, although his office give shim little power to act on the view. Does Mayor Slay know of Buford's view, which is a deviation from Slay's development agenda?

Shireff seemed passionate, but spoke largely in energetic platitudes that lacked specific details. His sincerity was admirable, though. For some reason Shireff withdrew from the race this morning. Joe Clark, a retired district employee, stated his opposition to outsourcing and to deep budget cuts, and interjected some humours lines. However, Clark seemed to take cues from the audience when in doubt, rather than offering an earnest answer. His stance clearly is in opposition to the board majority, but some of his solutions are lacking in practicality. For instance, he wonders if re-opening closed schools might help lower transportation costs since kids might be going to school closer to home. That sounds good, but the distribution of types of schools is not even, and the arrangement of resources prior to 2003 was not exactly efficient.

Jones and Downs did pretty well, with Jones getting the best lines and offering the fresher perspective. Both were insistent that fiscal accountability must be implemented before making big plans for the future. To those who say that such calls are empty or reactionary, they made the point that accountability is fundamental and a bigger obstacle to reform than people want to admit. It's far easier to deny and evade -- or raise taxes -- then to actually audit the district and evaluate the cost of outsourcing and administrative salaries. Jones stated that running for School Board was one of the scariest things she has ever done, because of the fierce nature of partisans involved.

Some critics allege that Downs and Jones offer no useful ideas, only criticisms. However, they are have a definite and positive plan: small class sizes, increasing teacher, substitute teacher and staff pay above poverty level, reopening closed schools, an effective district-wide discipline policy (with the resource sto actually implement), introduction of timely maintenance, reopening alternative schools with adequate resources, fiscal accountability and revaluation of the privatization of district functions. Those are a lot of important plans, and ones that will make the district a better public school district. If their plans seem weak or conservative, it's because the terms of debate have shifted in the press to those of how to most efficiently privatize the district.

The biggest distinction is that Downs and Jones answer questions from their critics with thoughtful answers, and if elected would ensure that the School Board follows an open democratic process that has been lacking since 2003. Process itself should not be a partisan instrument; an open hearing of issues levels the playing field, leaving no one at advantage. In the age of Halliburton and Sodexho, we need public officials who actually believe that citizens -- not corporations -- own government. Buford tried to convince people at the forum that he was independent of the local private power structure by stating that he had resigned from several boards after being appointed to the Board of Education and would resign from every board on which he serves if necessary. He set himself up for unfair attack, but also opened the question of whether it is simply the appearance of independence he is seeking. Clinkscale has voted for every step of privatization without reservations. We can do better, even among candidates who are not as radical as Downs and Jones.

Every candidate as well as Jackson stated opposition to charter schools, favor of a tax increase for more revenue and some degree of confidence in Creg Williams -- so there is some common ground.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Don't Go on MLK?

Overheard at a downtown lunch counter today:

"You know, a whole part of Atlanta is bad. You know, I think it's the south side. Yeah, stay out of there," said the first person.

"It was like that here for awhile. The only good part was West County. It still is, kind of, except for those areas they are fixing up," replied the second.

"We have some bad parts here. Chris Rock has a saying, it's like, something like 'Martin Luther King was a man of nonviolence. But if you go to a street named for him you will find people doing violent things. If you're on a street and see that it's Martin Luther King, get out of there.'"

"Yeah. Isn't that the truth. Martin Luther King is a bad street."

I think that I found the target audience for the You Paid for It segment on the streetscape improvements on MLK. (The improvements -- coming amid unfortunate demolition -- are expanding west into the Wellston Loop, so that at least part of the street will look worthy of its name.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

International Protection

Does anyone know where one can find this sign?

Hint: It's in St. Louis, north of Delmar Boulevard.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Mallinckrodt Workers, Give 'em Hell

Over the weekend, Mallickrodt workers at the Hyde Park plant rejected a contract offer from parent company Tyco International Ltd. Plant managers locked the 430 workers out on Friday, and now the workers are picketing the plant.

The issues? Tyco wants to eliminate pensions for new workers, limit personal and sick days (without changing the nature of work at the plant, which is physically and mentally demanding) and an end to overtime pay for working Sundays. In short, Tyco wants to destroy any pretense that it cares about its workers' health or well-being, and wants to renege on its obligation to adequately compensate workers. What Tyco is doing is not uncommon, as even the City of St. Louis is mulling over various pension elimination plans for public employees. Pensions are disappearing for labor-intensive and often demeaning work that big businessmen would never do themselves; exploitation, once an implied tenet of the employee/employer relationship, is now a naked fact that is practically legal.

Our nation is wealthier than it ever has been, and St. Louis is seeing unprecedented investment. Now should be the time to do what is right, but instead business and government leaders are greedier than ever. Rather than share the abundance, these people want more of it than they did when wealth was scarce. Capital is in a truly decadent mode in the world, with profit -- not products -- as the only goal of businessmen. Our society is suffering because of their pursuits, and as a result is rapidly becoming one in which fear, hatred and self-destruction are becoming widespread tendencies of those being left behind (most of us, really).

While the Mallinckrodt workers' strike is laudable, one wonders who will come to their aide. Laborers -- I'm not talking about unions -- have no friends at City Hall, in Jefferson City or in Washington, D.C. Local alderman-turned-Congressman Dick Gephardt, a supposed labor hero, is now an international trade law advisor to one of the richest trial law firms in the country. However, the politicians and businessmen may not get the last laugh: a struggle that cannot be carried out through sanctioned political means just may find another way of carrying itself out.

"In the City" this Thursday

The Academic Film Archive of St. Louis and The Missouri Historical Society present:

The CINE16 program
"In the City"


The Challenge of Urban Renewal (1966), directed by Ted Yates

Heritage Homes of St. Louis (1967), directed by Pat Williamson

Detached Americans (1958), directed by Don Matticks

Thursday, March 16 at 7:00 p.m.
Missouri History Museum, Lindell at DeBalivere (lower level)

FREE admission.

The snack bar on the museum's second level will be open before the show and during intermission.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Northside, Southside

Gone (last week): Empire Sandwich Shop building on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis. A vacant lot is in place.

Going: Cordes Hardware buildings on Salisbury Avenue between 11th and 14th Streets in Hyde Park on the northside. A gas station expansion is forthcoming.

Neither demolition was needed. In fact, both the Empire building and the Cordes buildings were in far better shape than many of their neighbors. One wonders what exactly is meant by a "building boom" in the city these days. The elimination of small old buildings with low rents perfect for small businesses cuts against the prevalent political rhetoric.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Valuable Historic Sites

Just the other day, I saw new boards on the three-story brick commercial building at 1508 St. Louis Avenue. The for-sale sign that had graced the vacant building as long as I could remember was gone. There is a new owner, I guessed.

And, I am right: VHS Partners LLC purchased the building in November. They sure know how to pick buildings to board up, I'll tell you. From 1508, one can almost see the vacant lots at 1314, 1321 and 1414 St. Louis and the boarded two-story commercial building at 1311 St. Louis that their shared-address allies at Blairmont Associates LC own.

Their plans and identity are uncertain. The condition of these properties is pretty bad by any standards this side of St. Louis Centre.

Monday, March 6, 2006

University City documentary screens on Wednesday

University City: the First Century debuts this Wednesday, March 8, at 7:00 pm at COCA (the Center of Creative Arts located at 524 Trinity in University City). Covering the 1850s through the 1990s in 58 minutes, this documentary explores the unique history and character of University City, Missouri. It is produced and written by Margie Newman and Lynn Josse with photography and editing by Alan Brunettin, narration by Jim Kirchherr and original score by Dan Rubright.

This is the first full-length documentary film about University City.

Hundreds of photographs, as well as vintage films and a dozen interviews are part of the documentary. Given the prior collaboration of Josse, Newman, Brunettin and Rubright on the awe-inspiring -- albeit very different -- ...it's just one building, expect to be informed and inspired by the story of a very unique American suburb.

After the screening, television man Dick Ford will moderate a panel discussion featuring the filmmakers and three of the experts who are interviewed in the program (Esley Hamilton, John Wright, and Sue Rehkopf).

Doors open at 6:30 with a suggested dontion of $10 at the door.


In recent years, I have used my own markers to figure out when the seasons were changing.

When I lived in Chicago, I considered it to officially be winter when I would wake up and feel the cold in my bones. I'm not talking about a momentary sensation, but rather walking around and feeling cold in your bones that you cannot shake. When I felt that and caught myself wondering if I'd ever be warm again, I considered it the first day of winter in Chicago. When the cars of people I know started breaking down (During winter 2004/2005, I had to hold one of our car doors shut as we drove because the lock stopped working after a particularly cold night!), it was officially the dead of winter in Chicago.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've started seeing little signs that spring is coming in St. Louis. Now, when I get up and leave my house before six to work the opening shift at my job, there is actually a little bit of sunlight out. It's just a little hint--the sky is still dark blue--but nonetheless, there is a little light. There is evidence that the sun is going to rise, and my solo walk is a little less nerve wracking with that much more light out.

I'm not sure, but I think spring is almost, almost here because I just experienced another telltale sign: An ice cream van drove past my house, playing its song loudly, for the first time this year!

When I see the magnolias flowering and see all the tiny white butterflies flying everywhere, I will know for sure what season it is.

Gaslight Running-in-Circles

There are concrete culvert-pipe barriers in Olive Street at the west side of its intersection with Whittier Avenue. These barriers block automobile and scooter traffic on the 4200 block of Olive, best known as the first block of the ongoing Gaslight Square redevelopment project. Thus, the new homes built on a block famous for its social prominence in the city now are inaccessible to the average motorist. Even more important is that Olive Street, a well-used east-west artery, is now effectively blocked between Whittier and Pendleton. Westbound drivers have to veer north to Washington Boulevard (Westminster Avenue to the south is one-way in the opposite direction), but they can't simply take their journey to that street. Washington is blocked by a gate west of Pendleton!

When the new houses on Olive went on display, Olive was not blocked. Even after people moved in, Olive was not blocked. The reason for the blockage has to be homeowner complaints about traffic. However, expansion of the redevelopment project to the 4100 block of Olive to the east is moving forward. Having the street blocked in the middle of the development area seems extremely shortsighted. Not only will connectivity be lost, but the barriers carry strong negative connotations. Not only do these barriers often mark areas that are crime-ridden, their presence can make crime easier by blocking routes used by emergency vehicles. Fear of vandalism may play a part in the closure, but every residence on the block has a new garage -- many of which are two-car garages.

Also, another option for traffic flow that remains that seems worse than driving down the 4200 block of Olive: driving down the alleys on that block. Both the north and south alleys behind the new homes are wide open and newly-paved. They make for a smooth ride that can keep a journey down Olive in motion.

However, with all of the blocked streets in this part of the Central West End, do we want all of these meandering paths? Congestion only becomes worse when there are no logical routes between points and when most traffic is forced onto a few streets. An open grid may enable greater traffic on Olive, but it would keep traffic orderly and predictable.

Most important, traffic flow would help revive some of the dead pockets of the northern and eastern Central West End -- areas where there are the most street barriers.

Sunday, March 5, 2006

The Arch is Surrounded

The National Park Service has completed the construction of most of the bollards surrounding the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (better known as the Gateway Arch grounds). The result? Not as bas as many people expected, but still terrible. While the spaces round spikes improve upon the impenetrable nearly-waist-high temporary concrete barrier around the grounds, their presence disrupts the integrity of the Arch grounds.

The bollards form rows of alien spikes visually dividing the Arch grounds from the sidewalk. This effect is particularly bad given how visually separated those grounds are from the rest of the city. It's as though, in the name of "homeland security," the grounds have been given an extra line of defense against the city.

Of course, the grounds really need further connection to the city, and the terrorist threat to the Arch is debatable. I also note that the architectural vision of architect Eero Saarinen for the grounds has suffered a second major blow -- talk about the Arch being under attack. The first major compromise came in 2001, when the Arch was lit permanently at night. Saarinen did not want the Arch lit, and instead wanted it to gently reflect back the lights of the city. The unlit Arch was a lovely nighttime monument, although not as easily digestible to tourists and people who are always tourists in their own city. The lit Arch is much less interesting, and the harsh lighting's glare shows that the surface of the Arch was never intended for illumination.

Perhaps the bollards will be used to keep the grounds from being trampled by the throngs of downtown pedestrians flocking to the proposed new floating islands in the Mississippi River -- if they don't get hit by cars trying to cross Memorial Drive and I-70 first. From those expensive islands, the throngs can declare triumph over the vision of Eero Saarinen and the city leaders of the last century -- just as those leaders triumphed over the rich architectural history of the city's riverfront.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Left Placeless (At Loughborough and Grand)

The western edge of Carondelet was disconnected by the construction of Interstate Highway 55 in 1961, and was subsequently absorbed into the Holly Hills neighborhood despite retaining strong architectural similarities with its old body. While decades of highway-traveling St. Louisans see the highway as a natural western boundary to Carondelet, the common fields of the village Carondelet stretched as far west as the road that became Grand Avenue. These fields lay largely undeveloped until Carondelet was annexed into St. Louis in 1870, and found a focal point when Carondelet Park was plotted in 1875. The area south of the park gained many of the features of old Carondelet, with hilly terrain dotted in relatively low-density frame homes and brick bungalows.

Later additions to this area built it up further with sturdy buildings, mostly one and two stories. In the early years of the 20th century, flat-roofed homes with shaped parapets were prevalent. The builders were familiar Carondelet contractors, including William and Theodore Degenhardt, whose family lumber business had ballooned into a real estate force in Carondelet at the turn of the century. By the 1920s, Spanish Revival and Craftsman bungalows filled in the remaining vacant lots. A few homes rose in the years after that on lots where very old frame homes collapsed, rotted, burned or simply fell from favor. Many of these buildings were concentrated on City Block 3026, bounded by South Grand on the west, Loughborough on the north, Blow on the south and the former Alaska Street -- later part of a Schnucks grocery store parking lot -- to the east.

That Schnucks store was a moderate intrusion in the neighborhood, but nothing like the real estate project that was proposed by the Schnucks family real estate arm, the Desco Group, in 2004. They called for tearing down their store, all of the buildings on City Block 3026 and the Nordyne plant to the south. The cleared area would become the site of a new retail development called "Loughborough Commons," containing a large Lowe’s hardware store, a new and expanded Schnucks store and other unnamed tenants. The need for the project was created through public relations, not public demand; Carondelet and Holly Hills are steady but not booming retail areas, and surely the Schnucks store was doing very well as it was. The project hinged on a lot of retail space built on speculation, too. Negotiations with Nordyne were successful, and the backing of the alderman helped convince homeowners to sell out -- or face eminent domain proceedings. One household, at 7016 S. Grand, that did refuse to leave were dragged into eminent domain proceedings that kept their home standing into December 2005. Getting approval of city board and the Board of Aldermen for the project was quite easy, and Mayor Francis Slay used the project in his 2005 re-election literature.

Demolition of Nordyne commenced in April 2005. Next came the venerable Carondelet Sunday Morning Athletic Club at 1012 Loughborugh, followed by demolition of the homes (except 7016 S. Grand) in July and August. As soon as the Nordyne land was cleared of structures, it deeply resembled a muddy no-place that was even worse than the monolithic plant that it replaced. By the end of 2005, history had been removed completely from the site. Far from looking clean, however, the cleared site looked chaotic and volatile.

Here we see another attempt by profit-driven developers to carelessly obliterate a definite geography. The modest homes, athletic club and even the Nordyne Plant were ripe with traces of history. Their comparable age, small material scale and dense placement gave the blocks along Loughborough, South Grand and Blow historic character. Each ornamental brick, old-growth tree and original front door served not only as visual stimulation for a passer-by but gave the area a series of tiny identification marks. Not only did the place consist of the city blocks, those blocks contained different lots, the lots contained buildings and the buildings encompassed thousands of little unique parts. Each house was a unique architectural creation, and most were memorable compositions. This was a place made for the casual eye of the pedestrian.

In stark contrast, the Loughborough Commons project omits strong repulsiveness. The very name is an assault on the notion of public space, despite its providing its own punch line in jokes about its plainer-than-Jane architecture. To call private, regulated space a "commons" mocks not only public willingness to participate in the robbery of their own democratic rights but also the fundamental principles of urban life. Cities create architectural space by balancing private and public spheres as well as enclosed and open space. A commercial strip mall may contain more open space than a small city park, but it does not create any space that belongs to the citizens at large. There is an admission price, so to speak, and the design is not the result of consensus or even government input. Worst of all, the space is adverse to pedestrian access -- unlike real urban commons that are vehicle-free. Loughbrough Commons consists of private stores surrounded by paved parking lots, with very skimpy sidewalk connections. The customer is expected to arrive via private vehicle and chart a sure course; casual wandering is not invited, nor is it even desirable. (Who would wander around a parking lot except a mugger or stray cat?)

The design of the strip mall buildings hardly warrants critique; they are typical functionalist boxes. The developer does not care about the design any more than I do. If the buildings themselves attracted any attention, they would overshadow the large backlit plastic signs affixed to them. Their role is the containment of space, and provide no decoration or enjoyment. The best hope that designers of such buildings have is to avoid offending any one user of these buildings. Better still would be getting the user to completely forget what the buildings looked like, since the goal is the association of the location with a particular store brand. No mix of uses is included either, because that would require greater architectural effort and would diminish the impact of the store's advertised names. Function dictates form, and form is obscured as close to the point of obliteration as possible.

The Commons project is yet another exercise in place-erasing. The design and function are purely commercial, and make no meaningful relationship with the topography, surrounding buildings or even the street grid. The strip mall faces the interstate highway, like any other. The context has not been embraced or even ignored. It has been taken at a value of zero, as if the strip mall's function in itself should be the only concern of the design. The end result is the reverse, though: the strip mall pierces the city fabric as a void, a zero-value surrounded by the strong presence of the southern part of Holly Hills. From the houses to the abundant, planned flora of Carondelet Park, this setting is a well-defined urban space. The strip mall has claimed part of the context, but visually it seems a tasteless anomaly.

If this were a chance occurrence, there would be little reason to worry greatly. The architecture of "Loughborough Commons" would discredit itself, and the public would seek to prevent another rupture of their geography. Unfortunately, though, this is just the latest trauma to attack a city whose general public has long since resigned itself to such attacks. Even in this area, the interstate highway took away some definition of place and disconnected Holly Hills from Carondelet, way back in 1961. Then came the existing Schnucks store on Loughborough, and the Nordyne expansion project. By the time THF arrived to build their project, the context here was diminished. Citywide, so much erasure of place had happened that a "what-the-heck" attitude was prevalent. Primary opposition to the project came from residents whose homes Desco took, although every last one has now settled with the threatening real estate giant on a "fair price." Eminent domain opponents who sided with residents seemed more interested in securing a fair price or defending the right to private property -- the same right that enabled THF to claim it has proper rights to build its strip mall -- than in defending the right of citizens to place. Enough place still existed here that its preservation would have been greatly beneficial to the social fabric of the neighborhood.