We've Moved

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

Sunday, April 30, 2006

bus + bike + me = eep!

Does anyone have any advice for a gal who's going to take her bike on the bus for the first time?

I am a frequent public transit rider (I buy the month pass!) and moreover a frequent bus rider, but never in my years of riding Metro and the CTA have I ever taken my bike on a bus. Like many of my colleagues who've never ridden a bus before are intimidated by the prospect of doing so, I've never taken my bike on the bus before, and the idea kind of intimidates me. I've taken it on Metrolink and the El, but that's pretty foolproof--you just wheel right on to the train car, and there's plenty of room. The hardest thing in that situation is not falling down or letting your bike fall. But when it comes to taking my bike on the bus, I picture myself standing there fumbling with the bike rack and trying to hoist my sloppily-painted hot pink bike up into it, while a busfull of impatient, late-to-work people watches silently, cursing me in their minds (at which point I drop the bike, probably onto myself).

What an optimistic image, no?

I'm starting a new job, and after extensive perusal of the various relevant bus schedules, it looks like it would really be to my advantage to bike to the bus, and then take the bus to work. And as a non-driver, taking my bike on the bus is a skill that would greatly improve my ability to get around anyway.

So, some time this week I'm gonna do a practice run or two, so I know what to expect before I've got a whole busload of people waiting on me at rush hour.

Any advice for me?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Ruins and Ideology

A new online journal of urban exploration, Liminal City, is in the works. The first issue is not yet published, but the site hosts an engrossing essay by Michael Cook entitled "On the Excavation of Space and Our Narratives of Urban Exploration." His essay takes aim at the "endless cataloguing of the picturesque" by documentary photographers and writers who study ruins as well as the restoration of ruins. Cook wants more narrative and less science in the representation of urban exploration.

Not surprising, then, that Cook critiques my essay "Narrating Abandonment" (see page two of his essay) and finds my arguments too hostile to mystery and awe. However, his description of my essay's larger point as a call for "a politics of urban exploration that would build a radical counter-hegemonic discourse" is the best summary I have read. Cook seems opposed to "civilized time," which is all well and good except the stance side-steps every social problem ruins pose. I can't apologize for looking at an abandoned building and thinking that it is resource that people need for shelter of lives or activities, and that the architecture of an abandoned building is socially beneficial and should be restored and conserved. The social imbalance caused by capital distribution hardly afford most people the romance of the picturesque. Exploring abandoned places is exciting, but mostly depressing; and abandoned factory reminds me of the structural un- and under-employment of our times, while and abandoned house reminds me that affordable, clean housing is scarce in this nation. Ruins can be aesthetically and experientially stimulating, but rarely to those people who live amid -- or inside of -- them. What some people call "scientism" others might see as steps toward resolution of great social problems. Rehabbing a vacant building often creates expensive housing, but also creates affordable housing and jobs. Romanticism is an ideology with resonance among the middle and upper classes.

Or, to put it simply for those who have been following Ecology of Absence: I once enjoyed exploring derelict buildings; now I live in one. That is an oversimplification, but it's not far from the truth. Cook raises good points, but from a framework at odds with mine, which is driven not by my own desires but by the needs I see around me as I live in a city recovering from de-industrialization and massive decay.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Twenty Years Since The Chernobyl Disaster

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the explosion of Reactor Number Four of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near Chernobyl, Ukraine. The explosion and fallout spread radiation worldwide and has claimed nearly ten thousand lives so far. The disaster left a large "exclusion zone" of the most contaminated areas around the power plant; access to this area is limited, and it includes several vacant towns as well as the large city of Pripyat.

To me, the accident is a frightening reminder of the consequences of technological over-development. While the exclusion zone is small compared to the total amount of habitable land on the planet, it is immense compared to the size of one person. The number of deaths also is frightening. If the Western way of life requires such monstrosities as nuclear power plants, that way of life risks destruction of life itself. How can anything as superficial as the Western way of life be worth that risk?

The disaster also illustrates that Soviet communism's own obsession with technology and ignorance of ecological impact mirrored that of Western capitalism. Without ecological and long-range historical perspective, no society is sustainable.

Here are some links related to the disaster:

Excellent photos from the exclusion zone

Despite Mutations, Chernobyl Wildlife Is Thriving - Kate Ravilious (National Geographic News)

Survivors remember Chernobyl (News24)

Kidd of Speed: The famed website of Elena, who chronicles her motorcycle rides through the abandoned areas around the reactor.

Wikipedia article

For a book-length account of the disaster, I highly recommend Piers Paul Read's Ablaze! His detailed account covers the technological failure of the reactor as well as the social dynamics at the power plant and in the Soviet government in which the disaster was embedded.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Preservation Board Meeting Leads to Good Decisions

Yesterday's Preservation Board meeting yielded some good outcomes for the city. The Board was short a few members: perpetually-absent Alderman Terry Kennedy, Mary "One" Johnson and Melanie Fathman. (Of course, the seat that gets filled by a member of the Planning Commission remains vacant.) That left board members John Burse, Richard Callow, Chairman Timothy Mulligan Luis Porrello and Anthony Robinson to deliberate on the full agenda for the evening.

The noteworthy votes included a vote on a sign, a vote on a storefront banking facility and the two demolition applications mentioned in this blog. The sign-related item was the application from Hammerstone's bar in Soulard to restore the vintage neon Budweiser blade sign on the corner of its building (the restoration will involve major replacement). Staff at the Cultural Resources Office denied the permit because local Historic District standards for Soulard prohibit such a sign type without a variance, despite the fact that the sign pre-dates the historic district ordinance and the lifetimes of many of the people attending last night's meeting. The sign has been in place on the building at least since the 1950s, and signs of its type date back to the late 1920s. St. Louis was a major manufacturing city for neon signs, and they are an important and lively part of the city's architectural heritage. Steve Patterson spoke on the subject and passed around a book that included photos of local streetscapes in the 1950s with many similar signs. Currently, the Hammerstone's sign is covered in Dryvit -- somehow that is acceptable under Historic District standards. Thankfully, the Preservation Board unanimously voted to approve the application.

This vote was a great demonstration of what constitutes an appropriate variance. The Historic District standards no doubt intended to prohibit bad new signs, but in doing so removed the protection for existing historic signs that may not date to the "old days" of Soulard but have attained great historic significance in themselves. The standards also prohibit new signs that would be thoughtful. I appreciate the standards and the precautionary principle embodied within, but they are short-sighted on signage (as most local district standards are). Accumulation is the urban condition!

A unanimous vote to allow a walk-up ATM in the Central West End for a new National City Bank branch location was also a good thing that will hopefully encourage banks to use walk-up ATMs instead of drive-through lanes in the city.

I was very surprised that the Board ended up unanimously denying the demolition application for the Lutheran Altenheim Home in Baden. Few architectural historians had paid much attention to this wonderful institutional building, and in light of in-progress interior demolition, Cultural Resources head Kate Shea was resigned to only trying to guarantee salvage of architectural elements. Thankfully, Board member Callow asked one simple but important question: Had the owners, multi-state residential care facility operators Hillside Manor Property LLC, determined the presumably prohibitive cost of reuse? The answer, after staff of the company denounced the building for being too old and for having been built around, was "no." The Preservation Review ordinance stipulates that there must be demonstration that the cost of reuse is prohibitive before the Preservation Board can approve a demolition permit -- no matter how much far the demolition-happy Building Division has let the owners go. Callow moved to deny the application and the other members vote in favor of it.

The best part of the evening was the result of the consideration of Forest West Properties' application to demolish 30 houses in Forest Park Southeast. I've written much about the application before, so I won't go into great detail. Suffice to say that the climate of hostility toward preservation dissolved at the meeting. Before the meeting, I heard that a reputable developer has a strong interest in acquiring almost all of the 30 buildings, saving those on Chouteau and Swan if my source is correct. While I lack details about the developer and their plans, the potential interest is something that myself and Kate Shea mentioned at the meeting. Kate's presentation was good, and included more reasons for preservation than for demolition -- and, in fact, she reversed her recommendation by the end of the meeting and recommended denial of the permits. Apparently, her only contact with Forest West prior to the meeting were two short phone calls! Forest West sent a representative since director Brian Phillips was out of town. The representative discussed reasons for demolition, mostly involving the abuse of the buildings by people rather than building conditions. I spoke against the demolition, as did Claire Nowak-Boyd and Steve Patterson. We made great points, touching on how wrong the demolition was from the standpoints of urban planning, architectural and social history, neighborhood stabilization and economic development. Everyone worked well with each other, including Kate Shea, and by the end of the testimony a clear and multi-faceted case for preservation was made. (This is the sort of meeting that Jane Jacobs would have loved.) Oddly, due to Forest West's affiliation with Washington University, Board members Burse and Porello recused themselves; Callow also recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest with a client. Mulligan and Robinson seemed very swayed by the testimony -- Mulligan brought up Botanical Heights and called it a failure -- but ended up deferring the matter due to concern over the lack of a voting quorum. Shea promised to deny the permit the next morning; hopefully, Forest West will take heed and look into selling the buildings rather than try some end-run through the Board of Alderman or Planning Commission (possibly difficult without a development plan, and Forest West's representative said that the company has no plans to develop the sites itself).

What a great outcome! Hopefully, it opens the door for reconsideration of the demolition plans and our mystery developer will emerge with a solid plan.

The final agenda item was an appeal of a Preservation Board decision against very inappropriate modifications to a house at 3524 Victor. Apparently, upon being told that the law -- and that is what the preservation ordinances are -- prohibited his "choices," the owner complained to his alderman, Stephen Conway, who made a fuss. Both should know better.

RIP Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs has died at the age of 89. Has anyone had a greater impact on theories of urbanism and, most important, on the shape of cities in the last fifty years?

Most Disgusting Slogan Ever

There is a convention of Hardee's franchise owners in St. Louis right now.

The convention is named "Meat Me in St. Louis."

That is all I have to say on that topic.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Most of Thirty Buildings Proposed for Demolition in Forest Park Southeast Have Architectural Merit

I have posted my review of the 30 buildings in Forest Park Southeast that Forest West Properties seeks to demolish. The review includes photographs and brief assessments of each building.

What Does the Mayor Think About McDonald's?

At yesterday's zoning appeal hearing for Pyramid's McDonald's relocation project (read more at Urban Review), items introduced into evidence was a purported letter from Mayor Francis Slay supporting the relocation.

One of the people who spoke in favor of an appeal was a woman living on Arkansas Avenue in one of the homes at Keystone Place. She stated that she would never have purchased her home had she known McDonald's would be moving across the alley from her home. Furthermore, she stated, a couple on her block had placed their home for sale and moved to Richmond Heights in response to the announcement that McDonald's was coming. (Not too drastic a move given the collusion of alderwoman, powerful developers and lucrative junk food that makes an announcement of a plan tantamount to its approval in the current alderman-driven development system.)

Are we to believe that Mayor Slay, an avowed urbanist and supporter of great density, supports the move of a nuisance business with low lot density to a location where it will lower home values and cause residents to leave new city homes?

Maybe, maybe not. Steve Patterson and others have pointed out that Mayor Slay (along with State Senator Maida Coleman and State Representative Mike Daus) sent his letter to support the construction of senior housing by Pyramid at Grand and Chippewa. That this construction would entail demolition and/or relocation of McDonald's is obvious; however, the mayor did not expressly support spot zoning for the location at Grand and Winnebago as some people have claimed.

Perhaps the mayor could show leadership in this situation by supporting dense new construction at Grand and Winnebago as well as at Grand and Chippewa. This new construction could include McDonald's, but a drive-through of any kind would be a detriment to a part of South Grand showing great signs of renewal.

Of course, no mayoral opinion in the world has as much force as the action of an alderman. Until we change the city charter to limit aldermanic control over development, consistent zoning is impossible. That does not excuse the actions of Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, but it does suggest that there is a much deeper problem that needs resolution as soon as possible. (Nay, this problem should have been resolved fifty years ago before our population sunk below 500,000 residents.)

I hope that committed citizens defeat the McDonald's relocation. And I hope that they keep fighting until they abolish the aldermanic stranglehold on development and zoning that is preventing this city from developing an urban comprehensive zoning plan worthy of a great city.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Volunteers Needed for LRA project

Need anyone who can walk, drive, write or talk and wants to do something about LRA building conditions on the near northside.

What: Old North residents and student volunteers are doing a survey of LRA building conditions in the "Murphy-Blair" historic district. Instead of complaining bit-by-bit as each new problem arises, we want to present LRA with one professional work write-up, with contractor bids and dollar figures. All LRA would have to do is write a check and issue a press release, what could be better?

Why should you volunteer outside of your neighborhood?: Hate the way our beautiful old buildings are rotting? We have concocted a "proactive" plan and want to give it a try. If it works it could be used as a model for YOUR neighborhood.

How: You will be paired up with one other volunteer. The team will get a short list of addresses, a form to fill out for each LRA address, and a map. You can take just one address or more if you like. Go out to the address, complete the paperwork, bring it back to the office for the data entry girl.

Who: Organized by Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, with help from Washington University engineering students. We hope to provide enough city dwellers to pair up with the students one-to-one. The student group is called Engineers without Borders.

When: Saturday morning or afternoon (arrive anytime between 8am-12pm, work for half an hour or longer, wrap up by mid-afternoon). If you are going to the rehabber's club meeting, you could stop by either before or after!

Where: meet in Old North St Louis at the Urban Studio on 14th St (across from the ONLSRG office). The address is 2815 N 14th Street, St. Louis, MO 63106

Old North in 1970

The 1970 census for the "Murphy-Blair" tract, known today as Old North St. Louis, reported the following building conditions (among people who responded, of course).

Total Units of Housing: 5,224

Total Buildings: 1,736

Buildings by Condition
Sound: 94
Minor Deterioration: 1,009
Major Deterioration: 478
Dilapidated: 115
Vacant and Open: 123
Rehabilitated: 40

A lot can change in 35 years! Today, there are probably only half as many buildings remaining, and probably under 2,500 habitable units of housing. The conditions are distributed somewhat more favorably, although the exact count will come in the next census. I'm looking forward to good news.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Brunettin's Legacy

Local artist Lyndsey Scott has of late been painting in a certain gallery window on 10th Street downtown. I am glad to see that local legacy of Alan Brunettin lives on, at least for a little while longer. (Brunettin himself can be found in some Illinois city on Lake Michigan, albeit without storefront exposure.) If only some wealthy urbanist would bankroll anyone who wanted to stand in a downtown window and make art to delight the occasional observant passer-by...

Charrette on MLK Drive this Saturday

This announcement fell into my inbox:

Help plan for the future of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Ville Neighborhood! Alderman O.L. Shelton, the City of St. Louis and AIA St. Louis are working together to bring together design professionals, developers and neighbors for a charrette to be held at Marshall School, 4342 Aldine, 63113 on Saturday Apr. 22.

Green input and perspectives are welcome! If you'd like to participate, contact Michelle Swatek with AIA St. Louis at mswatek@aia-stlouis.org or (314) 621-3489.

Massive demolition coming to Forest Park Southeast

The agenda for the Preservation Board meeting on Monday, April 24 shows an application for demolition permits for 30 buildings in Forest Park Southeast. These buildings are owned by Forest West Properties, which is tied to Washington University. Apparently the demolition is related to an infill housing project.

A quick memory scan and drive-by shows that at least ten of the buildings are of high local architectural merit and are structurally sound. I was surprised at how many of these buildings are masonry and how many are two-story buildings. I'm sure that the infill housing developer and their friends in city government will be talking "density" even though they will be replacing four unit buildings with single-family homes. Some of the wood-frame buildings on the list are of questionable architectural merit and are quite dilapidated, but probably 10-15 of these buildings are clearly worth preserving.

We will be developing a site section with photos and short evaluations; in the meantime, we managed to find photos of three of the buildings in our collection:
4371 Hunt Avenue; 4484 and 4486-90 Vista Avenue.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Magnolia Square: The Triumph of Mediocrity

The website for "Magnolia Square," the development set to replace St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, shows that the development has changed since it was proposed to the city's Preservation Board in December. For one thing, DiMartino Homes (James Wohlert's company) has joined with two other companies, Heyde Homes and Prather Homes, to develop the project. Perhaps this move addresses perceived shortcomings on DiMartino's part.

Most interesting is that, despite intense criticism of the site plan and a supposed effort by the Planning and Urban Design Agency to make it more site-appropriate, the site plan has not changed much. The four lots on January are still unusually large and suburban; the corner lots created have no alley access and all four place the primary elevation of the homes along the length rather than the width of each lot. This layout takes suburban principles and rather awkwardly places them in the city, where such lots are rare and mostly used for grand, large homes. Yet the developers no doubt know that large, wide homes fetch larger prices than city-style shotguns. I should note that the hipped-roof option for the "January Model" of home one can build on these lots looks a lot like the rectory of the church that will be demolished. What gross pastiche!

Other models are called "Marie" and, most silly, "Royal Star." The Royal Star is a masterpiece of deception, though, and critics should note its innovative form. The Royal Star manages to create a rambling mess of a automobile-centered dwelling featuring a connected three-car garage with -- I'm not kidding -- shotgun-style parking! This model is designed for a more traditionally-sized city lot, so it is very narrow and long. With the garage in back, it almost stretches from the front yard to the alley, killing that oh-so-sought-after yard space developers like DiMartino like to sell. I guess that's a privilege of the buyers of the January model.

The Royal Star also has its entrance off to one side of the porch, which is an architectural tendency that enforces the deceptive nature of the model. Not only is it a suburban home trying to disguise itself as a shotgun, but it won't even make its front door obvious. A true expression of a an entrance is clear to indicate the function of the porch and doorway; this arrangement may assuage concerns for "security" but it robs the home of the beauty of clear functional expression.

There is not much to say about the Marie Model, which is tolerably average. Overall, the design quality is lacking. The materials shown on the renderings are not encouraging. For instance, the graceless bulk of the Royal Star will be clothed in siding on three sides. The brick veneer may harmonize with the neighborhood but is not a very progressive choice of materials. If we have to tear down wonderful buildings to build anew, we should build something greater than what was there before. Here, we could have built modern housing that could showcase contemporary innovation in materials like concrete, stone, steel and other metals, actual brick masonry and glass. With the architectural context of the block very heterogeneous, experimentation would not have been visually inappropriate.

I should also note that the developers are claiming that Magnolia Square is on The Hill, when in fact it is in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood. I suppose the target buyers are ignorant of proper city neighborhoods. I will admit that "Southwest Garden" is a contrived identity for this area, but it really is not part of the Hill proper.

Overall, the development offers its only real advance for infill housing in the lot dimensions for the western part of the block. Otherwise, nearly every other aspect is a clumsy urban adaptation of suburban forms. The city should have worked with the Catholic church to issue a Request for Proposals for this block, and allowed for public input before proceeding with this mediocre development. This project is not worth losing one of the most thoughtful church settings in the city.

Buster Keaton at MHS

This week's ciné16 program marks a departure from our usual format, but that should be a good thing. Here is the information:

Academic Film Archive St. Louis presents

'The General' (1927) 75m, dir. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton’s character Johnny is a good man, faithful to his two loves: Annabelle Lee and his locomotive, “The General.” At the start of the Civil War, Johnny gets rejected for combat service because the Confederacy needs him to drive his train for them. When the Union captures his train and his girlfriend, the faithful lover springs to action!

Featuring original score by our town's own ambient power duo Incorporated.

Where: Missouri History Museum, Lindell at DeBalivere

When: Thursday, April 20 at 7:00 p.m.

How much: Free (Except for food and drink at the Museum cafe)

More information: AFA St. Louis

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Pyramid scheme protested

About 40 people showed up today at 12:30 p.m. for a protest against the relocation of the McDonald's franchise on South Grand to fulfill a bizarre development plan concocted by The Pyramid Companies that involves their need to use state affordable housing tax credits and their push to "complete" the Keystone Place project that they started ten years ago. The unpopular plan manages to retain the support of Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15th) despite the lack of real support for the plan among her constituents. Urban Review has more information; for the moment, I have little to add to the discussion.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Anniversary of Richard Nickel's death passes again

Thirty-four years ago day, Chicago photographer, historian and salvager Richard Nickel was killed when several thousand pounds of the steel and concrete guts of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building fell on him. Nickel was inside of the building -- designed by Louis Sullivan -- on the first floor, having come to the building to rescue a stair stringer and a few other items after repeated warnings from wreckers to stay away. Nickel stepped forward a few years too far ahead of the preservation game to have had things easy. He saw destruction around him, especially of the works of the now-lauded Sullivan, and set out to at least document condemned buildings through photographs. Then he made the fatal discovery that he could recover parts of these buildings that would otherwise never be seen again. Motivated only by a love for preserving knowledge, and often privately very bitter, Nickel took over 11,000 photographs and saved countless pieces of architectural ornament, most of which now belongs to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Nickel rarely made a dime from his efforts, and never held a steady job except for the one that he assigned himself. He was somehat reclusive and shunned public attention, instead exerting influence through relationships with writers, architects and historians whom he thought were sympathetic to his lonely cause.

Nickel's work demonstrated that systematic efforts for photographic documentation and architectural ornament recovery were as important to architectural history as theory and research. While his amateur salvage efforts pale in comparison to those of St. Louis' own Larry Giles, at the time Nickel started saving parts of Sullivan buildings in the 1950s scholarly interest in architectural salvage was nonexistant. Nickel blazed his own path, and influenced architectural historians and preservationists that have come since his departure. Without Nickel, so much that I hold as certain may not even exist at all -- buildings and ideas both.

Rectangular Signs, Triangular Problem

We saw some interesting yards signs last night on the 3700 block of Arkansas (a.k.a. Pyramid's half-built Keystone Place), just a few feet from where the new McDonald's is supposed to be built:





Wow. Those are some strong sentiments coming from those homeowners (and I agree with them!). As we went around the corner, we saw one more sign:


How telling about the way that St. Louis is being developed by many of our most prominent big names. Pyramid has yet to even finish this previous development, and already its residents feel that it is in danger. What puts it in danger? Why, another potential Pyramid project, when they haven't even completed the last one on that block!

DHP Got Bargain Price for the Turnverein

Most sources have reported the December 2003 sale price of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein to troubled DHP Investments at $100,000. Before yesterday, I had not learned the real sale price: $44,000.

Of course, the Turnverein likely needs $3-5 million in work to complete a full renovation -- so even the lowest price is a hard bargain. But still, if the previous owners were willing to sell for such a low price, any developer had a chance at the building. I suppose in 2003 DHP Investments seemed like a good developer for the property, although I know almost no one involved in historic renovation work that ever had any contact with the company. I know of no projects that DHP completed.

The good news is that the Turnverein now can be had for at least as low as $44,000, if not much lower.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Natural gas-like odor coming from the East Side

The Post-Dispatch reports that a strange odor heading from the East Side into Downtown St. Louis is not natural gas.

While I'm sure that's a relief to the folks who've smelled it, it does make one wonder what such an odor must have been. Even from my limited knowledge of it, it strikes me that the history of large-scale strange odors from the Metro East is not a good one. With active copper, zinc, and meatpacking byproducts plants located just a stone's throw from Downtown, well, that smell could be any number of scary things. Big River Zinc itself is considered to be one of the worst polluters in the nation.

And, of course, there is also big mama Solutia, formerly Monsanto. The town of Sauget was even called Monsanto when it was first founded, but the name was later changed to Sauget when Monsanto learned that having a town of the same name limited their control of the copyright on the name. The Solutia/Monsanto plant has a long history of environmental contamination, even having released PCBs in the past.

In his heartbreaking 1991 book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol quoted Post-Dispatch reporter Safir Ahmed about the (then Monsanto) plant: "When the plant gives off emissions that are viewed as toxic, an alarm goes off. People who have breathed the smoke are given a cash payment of $400 in exchange for a release from liability." Though I believe this practice has since been discontinued, the fact that it happened a mere 15 years ago is disgusting, depressing, and terrifying. The book describes a number of other atrocities as well, including Dead Creek, a dried-out creekbed that was so polluted that children have been known to set it on fire accidentally with the friction they create by simply riding their bikes across it. It has since received sediment remediation, but nonetheless members of the community are advised not to drink the groundwater or let their kids play there.

So what was that strange odor coming from the Metro East today? I don't know, but I'm glad I didn't run in to it.

A little bit architect and a little bit hermit crab

In our house, not only are the humans interested in architecture, but so is one of the cats. Swan, who is about eight months old, has recently become a precocious architect.

For the past couple of months, Swan has built a number of little houses all over our house. This week, he is actually working faster than the demolition crews (a.k.a. Michael and me) can dismantle the homes.

Swan starts his construction process by knocking over a box, trash can, recycling bin, or paper shopping bag. He then goes in to the shell he has created and removes all the material inside (gut rehab style), sorting out all the scratchy things from soft things like plastic grocery bags. He then puts all the soft things back in to the box, sometimes taking the extra effort and importing plastic grocery bags from other parts of the house. When the house is complete, he moves in. He does a pretty good job of defending his property--the other cats are generally afraid to go in, and when they do he puts them in their place.

Some might argue that Swan is only lining cardboard boxes with plastic, and that is not a house, but I would submit to you that his cardboard boxes lined with plastic are not all that different in quality than many suburban-style homes being built in the region today!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Correction on the Cass Avenue Schnucks

Earlier this month we reported that Desco Group owned the Schnucks on Cass Avenue. We apologize for making the statement, because they sold the property at the end of last year. The former Schnucks is owned by a company called Allston Alliance LC, which seems to be part of our favorite inter-tangled family tree of north side speculators (let's call it the Blairmont family) as well as a more identifiable company. Allston Alliance was created on March 8, 2004. On August 11, 2005, the company's manager, Roberta M. DeFiore, filed a change in registered agents. The original agent, Clayton-based registration company CT Corporation System, was replaced by John Steffen, founder of the Pyramid Companies. The corporate address was changed to the Pyramid address at 906 Olive Street in the Frisco Building.

On December 30, 2005, the sale of the Schnucks site to Allston Alliance LLC was reported to the city assessor.

I have no idea what, if anything, this ownership situation portends for the future of the site. One might suggest "senior housing" in light of other recent Pyramid projects, but that's just, ahem, speculation. Whatever happens, hopefully development will happen within the next few years and will involve reintegration of the site into the street grid.

By the way, check out Steve Patterson's post at Urban Review today on Blairmont Associates' involvement in the 25th Ward aldermanic race last year.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Scrappin' on Locust

Several days a week, pedestrians on Locust Street will see a battered red GMC pick-up truck of a late 1960s or early 1970s vintage with its bed overfilled with scrap metal. The truck is parked outside of the Old Post Office, and its driver is a scrapper with great tenacity. He will go through the considerable debris created by various projects at the Old Post Office, which have gotten few and far between since the formal opening on the Ides of March. There is some metal coming from the ongoing construction of the Century Building's tombstone, though, and with the mishaps and delays plaguing that project, the metal will be coming for awhile.

The scrappy scrapper is friendly and energetic -- and motivated, since this work is the only job he holds at the moment. Thankfully, the construction workers and guards at the Old Post Office never interfere with his pursuit of enough money to buy a few meals. In fact, the workers frequently separate metal and give it directly to him.

52 is Only a Number

You don't think that St. Louis has much to offer you culturally. You blame the city for an innate conservatism that is as much an American defect as it is a specifically St. Louis one. But you don't care -- complaining about this city's inadequacies gives you plenty of cover for your own. Maybe you are even booking a one-way ride out of here. You are frustrated to be in a city without bright lights and long nights, and you don't hesitate to tell everyone as loudly and as often as you can muster.

If this sounds like you, chances are you have never heard of the mode of cultural production called 52nd City. This glorious enterprise -- including an honest-to-goodness print magazine, a smart blog and cool events -- didn't have to revive St. Louis' cultural landscape, the one that hypothetical you are ignoring. Instead, the folks behind 52nd City are drawing together parts of that landscape to create new connections between parts and people that make St. Louis an exciting city. We have started to see the results: a must-read blog that points out events and places that often are new to me, an awards program honoring people that are probably new to 99% of the general public but whose work helps everyone, and one of the most interesting online magazine issues that I've seen. These folks are celebrating what we have so no one can leave town without being made aware of the wonderful local version of those fabled jazz clubs and obscure bookstores of Those Other Better Cities.

If you want to get hip to this city, join the 52nd City crew for their magazine launch party tomorrow at the Atomic Cowboy, 4140 Manchester Avenue, from 7:00 p.m. 'til 9:00 p.m. Otherwise, you'll probably just leave town without looking back -- until your new buddies start talking about all the cool things happening in some old river city, and golly how cheap housing is there...

Monday, April 10, 2006

There's no place like Home.

After the recent storms (tornado?) that hit the Near Northside, we found ourselves missing part of our roof and missing our chimney cap. Though the roof will take some financial acrobatics to replace, we thought the chimney cap would be relatively simple to find.

When we got home from work the day after the storm, we measured the chimney. It is 42" by 18", a typical size for houses in this part of town. Because it was after 6pm, our neighborhood hardware store was closed. We headed on down to Home Depot to quickly make our rather urgent purchase.

We walked and walked, and finally found the chimney cap section. They sold only one size of chimney caps: 13" by 18". Huh?!? Even if we were to somehow attach three of those together, they STILL wouldn't be big enough to cover our chimney. I shouted at the boxes, "Who has a thirteen inch wide chimney?!?" We found a store worker and asked if they had any other chimney caps, and he said no.

Yyyyeah. Not surprising, for a store that sells a cornucopia of different kinds of drywall, but only one kind of plaster (which is sold in paper bags so flimsy that they have holes in 'em before you even get 'em in the cart). Not surprising, for a store that did not have the rather common type of asphalt we needed to patch our very common flat roof, but that nonetheless has a selection of things like texture-in-a-can. Not surprising, for the home of the $9.99 really ugly metallic brass ahistoric "carriage light."

So, on my next day off I did what I should have done in the first place and stopped by the delectably anachronistic Marx Hardware, located on 14th Street just a couple of blocks from our house. They're pretty reliable, and if they don't have something, Steve Marx can tell you where to get it. He can usually tell you where to get it on the Near Northside, and if he can't tell you that he will at least be able to point you to an independent business somewhere within the city limits. After we chatted for a moment about neighborhood news, Steve told me that Marx doesn't have the kind of chimney cap we need, but they are manufactured in the neighborhood by Hy-C.

Although our new chimney cap is on the pricey side because of some of the specific details of our chimney, we are still pretty happy about the purchase. We like to keep our money in our neighborhood whenever possible. Hy-C is located in a neat complex toward the southern end of our neighborhood, and the fact that it proudly posts its company history in its office makes us extra happy.

Schedule and money constraints often push us to shop at Home Depot, rather than Marx or another local spot. It can be a difficult choice to make. But sometimes there isn't any choice to make, thanks to Home Depot's paltry selection of goods for historic buildings.

...maybe I'm just being too cranky, though. Maybe I should just use a can of spray-on wall texture to try and protect my flue from the rain! Oh, so practical!

Friday, April 7, 2006

Media Catching Up on Mullanphy and Turnverein Stories

Yesterday, Tom Weber at KWMU covered the great effort the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group is putting into finding a new owner for the Mullanphy Emigrant Home.

KTVI Fox 2 News will air a story on DHP Investments on its Monday 9:00 p.m. news program, with the Nord St. Louis Turnverein featured.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Two of our weird cats, and three of our heavy midcentury appliances

Why is our kitten Jarns so obsessed with our nonfunctional 1946 Maytag washing machine?

Perhaps he had one in a past life--maybe in that life he accidentally crushed a digit through its electric ringer (which earned a reputation for regularly breaking shirt buttons)?

Or perhaps he WAS one in a past life?

Relatedly, we often wonder if the 1953 Magic Chef stove* that our friend Anthony has generously loaned us long term has become possessed by our late cat Chubby. Chubby only had three legs, the Magic Chef only has three working burners.... Both the Magic Chef and Chubby are known for making a distinctive, rattling buzzing sound.... I could go on....

At this rate, one wonders what kind of cat anomalies we will witness when we finally get around to cooking our first batch of waffles on the art deco waffle iron I bought Michael for his birthday last year.

*Manufactured in St. Louis, on Kingshighway, in a wonderful building which U-Haul has since bastardized.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Lone Star

A wall tie with no wall to anchor on the Mullanphy Emigrant Home. May the weather be mild for the rest of the week.

Demolition held off on Mullanphy, Turnverein buildings

Jim Shrewsbury, President of the Board of Aldermen, and Barb Geisman, Deputy Mayor for Development want to help preserve the Mullanphy Emigrant Home and the Nord St. Louis Turnverein. Geisman should be commended for stepping in to hold off on the emergency demolition that the Building Division seeks.

The cost of demolishing the Mullanphy Emigrant Home and the cost of rebuilding the wall seem to be the same, and slightly less that the $100,000 that owner Paul Hopkins seeks for a sales price. The results of either approach could not be more different: the loss of a historic building that enhances the near northside and also is a valuble economic asset, or demolition for a relatively worthless vacant lot.

Either way, the city fronts the money for work costing less than the money the owner seeks. How does demolition make sense?

If the owner's insurance will pick up the demolition cost, it could pick up the cost of rebuilding the wall and enhancing the value of a historic building. However, without a development plan the building may face similar hurdles in the future. What it needs most of all is a change in ownership. Hopkins will have to take a loss to keep the buidling standing.

As for the Turnverein, there is less certainty on its future but no immediate danger of further collapse, since all that fell were walls already destabilized by a roof collapse. Some bracing on the remaining ports on those walls and removal of the building material inside would buy some time -- but, again, we must not stop working to find a real future.

Time is of the essence for a historic assets that are worth something to more people than just the owners. I am glad that some city officials understand what needs to be done.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Update on Turnverein and Mullanphy Buildings

The Building Division has issued emergency orders of condemnation for the Nord St. Louis Turnverein and the Mullanphy Emigrant Home. These orders would bring about demolition. The Building Division is waiting a few days before proceeding to see if staff at the city's Cultural Resources Office or other interested parties can put together plans to stabilize both buildings. These plans inevitably involve changes in ownership, and normally cannot be effected too fast.

If you can help, call the Cultural Resources Office at 314-622-3400.

The owner of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, Paul Hopkins, does not want the building to be demolished. He is interested in any reasonable offer for his building. To arrange to make an offer, please call Sean Thomas at the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group at 314-241-5031.

It ain't democracy, but it does start with a D

This morning, I walked on over and voted.

The new Diebold touch-screen machine was not working yet at my polling place, so I filled in the bubbles on a piece of paper and then fed it in to another Diebold machine, which read the votes.

As the machine sucked in my ballot, one of the election judges commented, "It's working good now. We had a lot of problems with it earlier."

"What kind of problems?" I asked.

"We had a lot of problems with it earlier." That was all the response I got.

Remind me why we are using these machines?

Mainstream Media Ignores City Storm Damage

No mention of any storm damage in the city of St. Louis in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The most recent story on KMOV Channel 4 also does not mention any damage in the city. While any storm damage is sad, their aerial shots only show damage to suburban locations -- and personal motorboats -- in the region. In addition to St. Louis, Granite City and East St. Louis received damage on Sunday. On the 6:00 p.m. news program, KMOV did show a shot of one of the flag poles at Kiel Opera House that was blown over.

KSDK Channel 5 and KTVI Fox 2 also omit the city from their coverage.

All outlets are reporting the tragic death of Delancy Moore, an East St. Louis civic leader who was inside of the K & G store in Fairview Heights when a tornado struck. Moore was purchasing Easter suits for poor boys that attend the church where he was pastor.

Monday, April 3, 2006

Disasters Natural and Man-Made Hit the North Side

Our exurban buddies at Blairmont Associates LC have another name, Path Enterprise Company LLC, chartered on February 2, 2004.

Let's review the other names that seem wrapped up in the scheme to acquire hundreds of parcels in the city's 5th and 19th wards on the near north side:

N & G Ventures LC, chartered on January 28, 2003;

Noble Development Company, chartered on February 4, 2003;

VHS Partners LC, chartered on June 28, 2002;

and, of course, Blairmont Associates LC, chartered on June 14, 2002.

The companies have a two-week registration spacing, with two companies created in each year. Is there another company for 2004? Yes. There is one more with an interesting connection that I will discuss in the future. I have no knowledge of any companies created last year or this year.

The address for some of these companies is at Eagle Realty Company, 721 Olive Street Suite 900 in St. Louis. However, campaign finance disclosure reports list a different address: 1001 Boardwalk Springs Place in O'Fallon, Missouri. This happens to be the office of McEagle Development Company, developers of WingHaven and failed developers of BaratHaven.

Tornados and developers all seem to track from the west through the city. Do they both leave destruction behind?

The answer coming from the tired shells of the Clemens House and the Mullanphy Emigrant Home is yes.