Getting Used to Failure: Thoughts on North St. Louis

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Crown Square - Old North - STLWhile St. Louis has always been near and dear to my heart, I have been something of a prodigal son to this fair town. After growing up in University City, I went to Boston for college (if I leave it that vague, it sounds like maybe I went to Harvard). Upon graduation I moved to Kansas City because, well, that’s where I got a job.

Although I think Boston is a world-class city, and I have quickly grown to love KC, St. Louis has always been Home with a capital “H” for me. When I finished teaching this year and people asked how I was spending my summer, I didn’t say I was going to live at my mom’s house. I simply said, “I’m going home.”
Home and I had a little catching up to do. My passions for this city and for urban environments in general had blossomed since I’d been away, but they lacked the concrete grounding of daily experience. So, before I had even started unpacking my bags, I took off on my bike for a re-acquaintance tour with the city. I cruised down Lindell, passed SLU, did a quick loop of downtown, explored City Garden for the first time (sue me), and then headed North.
I feel like the North Side has taken on mythical status for many St. Louisans. While it has a very large number of very real problems, it has also become an easy repository for all that is wrong with this city. It is what inflates our crime statistics. It is where the bad schools and the vacant buildings are. It is what we have to deal with in order to go to Crown Candy, windows up, doors locked. The North Side? Don’t go there.
So I went, pedaling slowly at this point, wishing I had eaten a smaller breakfast. I meandered through Old North, and down the beautiful (but very quiet) 14th Street Mall/Crown Square. I continued on through Hyde Park, up to the water towers on College Hill. Passing by Fairgrounds Park I was treated to a fantastic mid-morning roller disco show. At the risk of meandering, riding through the North Side was… nice. I didn’t feel unsafe or threatened, and I took in some beautiful sights. This was not the bogeyman of an area that I kept hearing about through the media and local lore.

College Hill neighborhood - STL
{shops and the old water tower in the College Hill neighborhood in North St. Louis}

Mild appreciation was not the reaction I expected to have. Although in many ways the North Side catches a bad rap, the statistics don’t lie: only 30.4% of residents 25 and older have a high school diploma, and only 63.9% of children ages 5-14 are even enrolled in a school (McEagle Properties’ Northside Regeneration website). In many ways, this is not an area that is down on its luck; it’s a disaster. If this is the reality beneath the peaceful surface I saw, then where was my indignation? Why wasn’t I fuming with righteous anger? I am not trying to universalize my experience, or claim that everyone feels the same way I do, but I doubt that I am the only one who has felt somewhat ambivalent about the area. If not, I think there would be a whole lot more people raising hell about the North Side’s condition.

I propose that this dulling of my feelings about the North Side has several causes. First, I think media portrayal is the primary factor in influencing people’s perspectives of the area, more so than firsthand experience.  If one based their opinion solely on mainstream news reports, they wouldn’t head North without a flak jacket and a police escort. In the context of these portrayals, the actual North Side takes on a feeling of benign blight, or tame chaos. When you expect the worst, finding something that is merely very bad is almost a relief.

However, I think there is a deeper reason for why I wasn’t as upset by the state of the North Side: I had forgotten that it didn’t have to be this way. St. Louisans are so used to failure, crime, and blight on the North Side that even band-aid solutions are taken as a step forward. This way of thinking is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.

O'Fallon neighborhood - STL
{an ordinary street in the O'Fallon neighborhood in North St. Louis}

True, the North Side will be a low-income area for the foreseeable future. I view this as a good thing. Low-income residents need a place to live from which they can access the resources of downtown. Any rapid increase in median income would be the result of gentrification and displacement, not empowerment and development. In order to see a better future for the North Side, one must break out of the “Poor area=Bad area” paradigm. A poor area is an area in which people who don’t make much money live. A bad area is an area with some combination of negative features like high crime, poor infrastructure, few economic opportunities, and low social capital, to name a few. Just because poor areas and bad areas are so often one in the same does not mean they have to be.

JeffVanderLou neighborhood - STL
{a scene in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood in North St. Louis}

As a reference, I’d like to quickly point out the Dudley Street neighborhood in the Roxbury area of Boston. This area is often referenced as an example of successful community development, and rightfully so. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the Dudley Street area faced many of the same problems as our own North Side. Vacancies were high, and arson was extremely prevalent as owners burned down buildings in an effort to collect insurance money.
The future seemed to be one of either complete collapse into blight, or one of possible “salvation” by way of the gentrification that was advancing from the neighboring South End. Instead, community members and concerned institutions rallied to turn the area around. They did this while putting a priority on ensuring that current community residents would be able to afford to stay. Today, Dudley Street is a diverse, vibrant, and low-income part of Boston. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is a successful community that meets the needs of its residents.
I bring this up not because I think we should follow the blueprint that worked in Boston (although there is a lot to be learned from what they did). Learning from success stories is great, but our St. Louis problems will require St. Louis solutions. I bring it up because there is no reason that the North Side can’t be in the near future what Dudley Street is today. This may seem like an obvious statement to some readers, but I think it’s incredibly important. When we focus too much on what the North Side is or what it was, we forget what it could be.

Yes, it will take many small steps to get there, but we need to be very conscious of, and hopeful for, where those steps are going. The North Side of St. Louis won’t be Dudley Street, nor should it be. It won’t be Tower Grove or Soulard, nor should it be. It can and will be a unique urban environment that serves both those who live there and the greater St. Louis community. Let’s not forget that. The sooner we re-frame how we look at the North Side, the sooner real change will begin.

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  • Davidwilliammanzo

    Joe’s insightful article mentions the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the Roxbury section of Boston. For more information see –

    Also the very fine film Holding Ground, might be very helpful.

  • Catching

    Everyone who cares surely wishes to see North StL recover. But building rehabilitation and public projects do nothing to reduce crime and bring the schools to an above-par level. Until people can face and fix that truth, nothing will structurally change. Rehabilitation can either begin from A) within the community by current residents, or B) by transplants and outsiders who will push out those unwilling to improve. Currently, I don’t see either option occurring.

  • Folks, the revitalization of northside is happening; it aint quick, but it is most definitely taking place.  Revitalization in St. Louis happens at a snail’s pace compared to a lot of other places.  Look at the Grove, Midtown Alley, Cherokee and Morgan Ford as examples of painfully slow, but certainly steady development.  If you look at the northside, don’t overlook the scaled modern in-fill housing, the fantastic squatters communes, the neighbors, the markets (however small), and the striking views of the arch!

    I was in the northside last week around midnight for a screening.  I was struck by the number of young people from around STL and the country living up there. Many had driven to St. Louis directly to the northside. I was struck by the peaceful stillness of the northside.  There are few rules on the northside right now; it’s still a time of great experimentation; you just need to scratch below the surface.

    I guess I’d rather live in the northside than in a town that considers the arrival of a buffalo wings chain to be excitement.


  • Lincolnphughes

    I can help but to feel bad for Mr. Duckworth (insert bad Mickey Ducks joke here) after reading their cynical outlook on this area of St. Louis.  Capitalism does seem to play a role in the destruction of this once vibrant area, but it should not be ignored while trying to rebuild it.  With the general trend of less federal funding for development projects in low income neighborhoods, North St. Louis would be a good spot to try experimental tax zoning or other innovative ideas.  Thinking about marginal gains while assessing revitalization projects (in whatever fashion) are important to celebrate and build momentum.  To celebrate these successes is a necessity to build momentum in this area.  This momentum will likely lead to gentrification but with hte amount of vacant housing, I predict there will be room for harmony.  Quack quack quack Mr. Ducksworth.

    • Douglas Duckworth

      If it wasn’t for government financing quite a few North Side projects wouldn’t exist, so I don’t know what you’re saying about the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector.  Without government action considering TARP we wouldn’t be sitting here today.   Gentrification.  We have acres of vacant lots!

      The private sector and public will have to partner to fix the problems in our city. That doesn’t mean we should sit around and act like the people in Clayton and St. Charles are out to salvage our depressed areas.  They want to make money.  The city must know what’s a good deal and what isn’t because far too many have had their impact upon the our urban areas in this country.  Look at the TWA Dome downtown and tell me what wasn’t the crime of the upcoming next few years! 

  • J.T. Mosbacher

    Excellent observations Joe.  I’m just glad to read something positive about North City and to see insightful comments below.  Changing perceptions about a neighborhood is one of the hardest things to do in my opinion.  Raising awareness about real issues is a step in the right direction. 

  • Joe Monahan

    @9ed79fdf4f6aff02c60b2059c373dd37:disqus I think I wasn’t clear enough and you misunderstood what I was getting at. You make a good point about the scale of North St. Louis, but I did not mean to present as close a parallel as you seem to think between North St. Louis and Dudley St. I used Dudley St. as an example because it is an area with which I was familiar, and an example that helped me make an important point: that low-income blighted areas in urban cores can be regenerated without displacing low-income residents.
    I would disagree that the revitalization of 14th St. trumps most redeveloped areas. From an architectural/rehabilitation standpoint it is pretty astounding, but as of right now I mostly see just that–beautifully rehabilitated buildings. Once this area becomes a focal point of community use it will be a success story, and not until then.

  • InSpired

    I feel the article is right and positive about it. The question is not can the northside be rebuilt though, but if it is rebuilt what about the maintainence and the neighborhoods social fabric. Sure I can see many commercial and neighborhood catalysts, college hill on north grand, o’fallon park, hyde park, kingshighway, delmar.  Basically I see the northside as a giant canvas, almost clean, where there is a chance for the city to start over and invest and reinvent itself with some historic neighborhoods and some modern neighborhods. But it all comes down to maintainence, social stability(gangs), quality education, quality services (grocery), and jobs(, and maybe immigrants….for diversity….?)   /: .

    • Douglas Duckworth

      It is a positive article, indeed.  Yet the city does not need to start over.  We do not need a blank canvass insofar as who gets to paint that picture?  This isn’t Brasilia or New Town.  The royal we needs to invest in institutions which are doing work today and long before I moved here.  The idle buildings are there as are the potential in vacant lots.  Our city needs funding, vision, and the empowerment of people on the ground who will steer reinvestment in a way that reflects their memory of what community was, should be, and will be tomorrow.  The devastation which fell upon the North Side can only be characterized as a crime upon our region, nation, and humanity, but we should think of the people trying to remedy that situation and give them the resources to get it accomplished.    

  • Douglas Duckworth

    I don’t agree with the idea that we should keep North St. Louis poor so that the poor have an affordable place to live.  The concentration of poverty in North St. Louis is entirely “bad” as joblessness brings the crime problem.  For decades unemployment in these areas has been more than twice that of whites.   People are not working and that’s different from being working poor.    

    In a capitalist system being poor will always be considered bad, given resources are required in exchange for the goods and services needed to survive.  This becomes a bigger problem in a time of austerity, where those reliant upon government spending find themselves with none.  This is tied to how things might change for these areas since income also influences the ability of people to be politically active and maintain their home and neighborhood.  So when areas are dominated by poverty they will in turn have less organizational capacity to capture resources needed redress the problem.  For example Newt Gingrich once said that HUD was a prime target for cuts due to its weak constituency.     The idea that North St. Louis should rely upon downtown for goods and services is a fine example of the racist imbalance present in capitalism, where certain minority areas are undervalued simply due to their purchasing power and also skin color.  Thus plutocrats are not going to risk putting in basic services like grocery stores due to the idea that they’re too much of a gamble.  This assumption ignores that everyone regardless of income requires high quality food in order to be a functional human being.  We deprive these areas of resources and expect crime and education to not be an issue?  Then the solution is not that they should have a massive rebuilding to what once were functional neighborhoods, but that they should rely upon downtown?  Ignoring equity, do they even feel welcome downtown?  I wonder if people residing in North St. Louis have as much anxiety leaving their area going south as some of us do going north? Fundamentally, the North Side needs massive reinvestment on the scale in terms of alleged funding of what was proposed by Paul McKee, however the vision and especially implementation should be entirely different.  All levels of government must reinvest and rebuild our cities with citizens on the ground at the helm, working with experts, defining what should be built and where.  The result I think should not be shrinkage of the city, but a restoration of the urban form and social fabric which must not be exclusively enjoyed by people residing downtown.  None of this will ever happen.   .           

  • StudentoftheCity

    The one major gap in this good piece is the massive population loss that the North Side faced in the last decade. College Hill alone lost 37% of its residents between 2000-2010, and as you note it’s one of the more striking neighborhood centers. As housing stock continues to age (without the sort of rehabilitation we often see in South Side neighborhoods), low income families move to places with intact housing and denser community — hence the sustainability/population increase in many inner-ring county municipalities. 

    Our next question, then, becomes this: how do we create a positive environment even/especially for low-income families in St. Louis City? That’s the true challenge in urban rebirth.

  • Malbrite10

    I would like to point out that “North St. Louis” by most definitions is a 30-ish square mile area. That’s roughly the size of Boston’s entire corporate limits, yet you’re remarking that “North St. Louis” could be “Dudley Street”. North St. Louis has its own Dudley Streets.
    The fact is that, from a built environment/physical environment standpoint, revitalization along 14th Street in Old North St. Louis trumps most redeveloped areas across the country. It’s something St. Louisans should be very proud of–an against-all-odds reclamation of the center of a neighborhood. Whether social indicators catch up due to the restoration of the business district is another question entirely, though, and an important one. We’ll have to wait and see on that one.

    I’m veering from the point here a little bit. The North Side is not one unified entity by any means. To be sure, it is mostly poor and mostly African American. But certain neighborhoods and blocks shine while others rot. 

    To that point, there are middle class pockets throughout the North Side–Visitation Park, portions of the O’Fallon neighborhood, North Pointe, etc. These areas should be nurtured and their stability ensured. Increasing income and opportunities for current residents of the North Side, as well as attracting new residents, should be goals. Just because these goals are difficult to achieve across much of the North Side does not mean they should not be pursued. I hope that’s not what this article is suggesting!

  • rawest1

    There isn’t really a shortage of “concerned institutions” active in the area.  The “community members” have to actually want progress and know how to take the steps, if any progress is to be made.