May 2003: While historically-styled new homes rise in the background...
November 2005: ...actual historic homes are left to the bulldozers...
March 2007: ...until an entire city block has been obliterated.
November 2007: And the survivors still crumble. Soon the new houses will be emulating historic forms that will themselves have completely vanished.
The offending vinyl box. There is a fine example of how to do it correctly, RIGHT NEXT DOOR. If a garage was truly required, there is an ALLEY RIGHT IN BACK. There's really no excuse for this thing.
New development just two blocks south.
Causes of the Collapse
Books have been written about the reasons why this all happened, in St. Louis and in other cities across the nation. The list includes, but may not be limited to, cheap suburban land. Highway construction. Government loan policy. An influx of poor rural blacks seeking work, just as deindustrialization was reducing the employment base. Racism. Blacklisting by banks. Fear of crime. Blockbusting. Industry moving to the suburbs. Pollution. Decaying infrastructure. Declining public schools. The perception that, hey, everyone else is moving out too.
Compounding all this was a big mistake the city fathers made in the nineteenth century -- they froze the city's borders, allowing the city to politically separate itself from the county. St. Louis has not annexed any new land, development, or population since 1876. The results were catastrophic for the old city. When the inner neighborhoods emptied out, the city's population plummeted. Tax base dropped. The school system spiraled downward.
The Interstate highway system inflicted slashing wounds on inner city neighborhoods, demolishing dozens or hundreds of buildings, and severing the webs of connections that mark a functioning urban community: businesses were cut off from customers; residents were cut off from jobs and from each other. The ironically-named "urban renewal" of the 1950s and 1960s further wounded the city, bulldozing neighborhoods that were economically poor but still healthy in a social sense, and taking a lot of salvageable buildings with them. Most of that "renewal" is gone now, and we're still trying to figure out what to do with its remnants. These wounds hastened the demise of other areas, which have just fallen apart from neglect and abandonment. Everyone moved out, nobody moved in. The buildings were boarded up. Fire claimed some, water got others, and bulldozers finished them all off -- a process that's still going on today.
The Potential of the City
St. Louis is a city with serious problems, but even in decay it's also beautiful.
In its prime, St. Louis was a world-class metropolis, on par with any city in America. and it had the architecture to match. The quality of its vintage housing stock is unmatched by any city in the Midwest. And there's more than just the beauty of a wealthy city. There's something I can feel the minute I arrive in the city -- a sense that I've arrived somewhere, that this is a place worth being, worth caring about. St. Louis has a sense of character and place unlike anywhere else. It's a man-made creation -- despite its rolling terrain and the mighty Mississippi nearby, the city is not dominated by natural splendor or scenic views, but rather by a feeling generated by its streets and buildings. It's a sense that's kept me going back again and again, to photograph, to explore, to document, and just to marvel at how much has gone to waste, and how much is still left.
That sense is the city's best hope for a bright future.
Today, at long last, people are beginning to return. City life today carries a renewed attraction for a generation of Americans who'd rather have a corner store than a quarter acre lot, who want more options than simply driving everywhere, who are tired of commuting, who want a place that feels real. Most importantly, many of these people are young, well-off, and mobile. They can live wherever they choose. The time is now to make sure the city is a worthy choice.
1900 Montgomery Street
St. Louis Place developed in the decade following the Civil War, in the city's peak boom years. It had alley houses and mansions, corner stores and churches, all centered around the long, linear green space of St. Louis Place Park. It was a typically thriving urban neighborhood.
But today it's one of the hardest hit areas in the city. There are places where entire city blocks have been completely wiped out.
In that regard, there's nothing outstanding about 1900 Montgomery Street, except that the vacancy is total. Eight structures, eight elegant, venerable, finely detailed, century-old buildings of red St. Louis brick, still stood in 2003, along with the destroyed remains of 2 more -- on land where once there were over 40 houses.
One of the alley house's back wall had already collapsed by 2002. The first ruin was bulldozed away in 2003. In 2005, the second ruin (which was an integral part of my finished project) and two more houses were demolished. The other alley house's sidewall gave way in a spectacular collapse; it surely will not stand much longer. Another house suffers deteriorating brickwork. Another, an opening in its mansard roof. Decay is an implacable foe.
A developer would likely bulldoze every surviving house on the site. I claim they're worth saving -- not because they're outstanding or special, but because they're so integral to the neighborhood that they're in. These typical houses are what give the whole city its character, and that character's what keeps me going back there. They make it a unique place, one worth being in.
1900 Montgomery is in an excellent location for new development, less than two miles from downtown. There's a major avenue two blocks east, and a sizeable city park one block west. With so much vacant land, the area is primed for redevelopment. New houses are going up all around the project site. My photographs from August 2003 show houses that weren't there in March.
And the day I did my site survey, part of a new house arrived on a truck.
It was a house with white vinyl siding. Since completed, it squats on its site with a two-car garage facing the street. A partial-height brick layer wraps the garage, marking it as the most important part of the building. It would be at home in Levittown, but here it's an anomaly.
I wish it were the exception, but it's not. Two entire blocks of similarly suburban housing went up just south of here: development by the book, by the numbers. The houses going up now look just like any other house in any other city. In a city where the neighborhoods have such a incredibly distinctive flavor and local character, this is ridiculous. Moreover, in a city whose greatest assets include its identity as a unique place, it is foolish.
These houses are quintessentially anti-urban, anti-city, anti-St. Louis: they are built with no regard for the immediate context of a neighborhood or the larger context of the city; they do nothing to define the street as a public space; they create low-density neighborhoods that cannot house sufficient population to return vitality and activity to the city's streets. These are suburban houses, set on lots that used contain multiple units. At their density, the city can't function as a pedestrian environment. The cars take over, and the most important factors that distinguish the city from the suburbs vanish.
Above all, by ignoring the fine scale, proportions, materials, and formal composition of the older houses around it, they obliterate everything that makes the nineteenth century neighborhoods of inner city St. Louis so physically distinctive, so attractive as a place. That attractiveness is the city's greatest asset -- one it must fight to preserve.