The following was jotted down in my notebook shortly after my move to St. Louis City in August of 2010. I had spent most of the previous summer in Portland, Oregon, and the two years prior in Lawrence, Kansas.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of St. Louis was realized a few months ago as I decided to walk from the Central West End (my new neighborhood) to the downtown Arch. It was only a few days after moving into my new home. In any other city I’ve spent any meaningful amount of time in (Chicago, Portland, New York) this seemed normal enough. Generally speaking such jaunts have proven bountiful in great discoveries of local restaurants and public spaces. This particular walk in St. Louis turned out to be a bit different.
It started pleasantly on Euclid, passing little shops and restaurants. Couples and families were out enjoying their afternoon as medical students scurried off to BJC. A bit further and I found tremendously beautiful architecture, each house more ornamental and historic than the next. I was kicking myself for not bringing a camera when I came upon a bizarre dead end. On the other side the street grid seemed to continue, so I couldn’t figure out why anyone would build a massive wall where a four-way intersection would otherwise be. Fortunately an opening was made for pedestrians so I continued onward – only to be stopped by sheer shock.
On one side of this wall was a magnificent neighborhood with tree-shaded streets, meticulously cared for gardens, and a full-fledged sense of vitality. The other side, nothing. A vacant lot, a boarded up building in shambles, an empty parking lot and a warehouse that showed no signs of current use. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “am I going in the right direction?” Surely I had absent-mindedly begun walking away from downtown, but no – I was headed East, a straight shot to the CBD. Never before had I seen such a severe contrast from one side of a street to another. Clearly, I had left my neighborhood.
I continued on past vacant storefronts, empty lots, and a pile of demolished police cars. It was eerie. A couple blocks further and my surroundings changed just as dramatically as the last time. Suddenly I was on SLU’s campus, blending in with the crowd of students and professors. It was a classic scene, complete with a water fountain and cascades of posters touting student events. I turned north and found myself at Grand Center, home of the one and only Fox Theatre. Across the street was a fantastic public space with sculptures, outdoor cafe seating, and people having picnics in the grass. Lovely.
At this point I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised anymore, but not half a block East and I found myself amidst an ocean of empty parking lots. It was if I’d accidentally wandered into a suburban strip mall after closing hours. This walk was slowly becoming less than enjoyable.
In the distance I could see buildings, but this would be the last time I’d get my hopes up. Upon walking in to what seemed like a wonderful streetscape, my heart sunk into my stomach; Beautiful buildings made of magnificent old red bricks lined the street, some had old advertisements from the 1930’s and 1940’s painted on their sides, but nearly every last one was vacant. I began peering into those that weren’t boarded up. They were amazing! High ceilings and old wood floors, with brick walls that would fill any hip loft owner with envy. “That would make such a great art studio for my friend!” I thought, “And that would be an awesome coffeeshop!” It was so easy to envision a return to the strip’s glory days. A few “For Lease” and “For Sale” signs peppered the landscape, so I began making calls. No one answered. I left messages. I called over half a dozen real estate owners, and to this day not one has called me back.
The few rare buildings with inhabitants had their blinds tightly shut and closed off to the world. I wondered if I was naively walking into a “bad part of town” – but who would hurt me here? I was clearly the only person around, as the ghost town lasted for nearly 10 blocks. I can’t remember how many times I uttered, “Where the hell am I?” as I wondered when it would end.
After what felt like hours, I arrived at the hip-strip known as Washington Avenue. Cafes, restaurants, and lofts created a jovial atmosphere, but most thankfully there were people! The occasional missing tooth of an empty parking lot or vacant parcel created a hiccup in the rhythm, but overall I finally felt like I was in a city again. Downtown was next, the journey was almost over.
My general schema of a downtown business district includes lots of people in suits running around beneath skyscrapers. It’s the standard formula of any other city I knew of – not exactly my kind of scene, but it certainly has an energy to it.
This downtown had the energy of a soggy biscuit. There were tall buildings, but where were all the people? Then I realized most of the tall buildings weren’t buildings at all, they were parking garages. As soon as I realized this, more and more of the buildings turned out to be cleverly disguised parking garages. You know, for all the people that weren’t there. Why weren’t they there? Maybe because everything was a goddamn parking garage. But I shouldn’t let my frustration get the best of me, the arch was ahead. The elegant symbol of modernism, the architectural triumph that boldly declares this city apart from all cities. I took a deep breath and marched forward, eager to escape from the concrete towers. What could get between me and the arch now?
Oh yea, ten lanes of high speed traffic. I watched in amazement as brave souls darted across the first three lanes onto a bridge that crossed over four more lanes. They waited on the little sidewalk of this “safe zone” while waiting for a break in the traffic in order to lunge towards the other side. There was a light for pedestrians, but it was either broken or simply took forever. Ultimately I made it to the waterfront, but could hardly enjoy it now after the tour of an angering and downright depressing corridor of my new home. Needless to say, I took the train home.
In the coming weeks and months I would learn of the baggage and history behind this bizarrely bipolar place, with its neighborhoods and universities floating freely like little islands scattered through a sea of vacancy. Lines were drawn in the sand to indicate their borders. No matter how it’s painted, the story is usually a sad one. Manufactured and institutionalized racism, mindless and self-destructive political fragmentation, and a history of leadership that seems ignorant of the ground crumbling beneath its feet. The good news is that the skeleton of an amazing city is all around us. While it’s foolish to cling to the nostalgia of “how things used to be”, a revival is all but impossible. There are people doing incredible things, bonding together to create an immense energy whose effects we’ve only begun to witness. I believe there are a multitude of solutions to the problems that plague St. Louis, though I will not expand upon them at this time.
What’s important, however, is that St. Louis is a place of potential. Due to my upbringing (military) and the jobs I’ve held, I’ve spent my life bouncing around different US cities on a constant basis. I feel informally qualified to make objective statements of comparative urbanism, so I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now: While there are undoubtedly many cities that “have their shit together” more than St. Louis, I truly believe this city to possess a vast reserve of potential far greater than any other in the country. It’s only a matter of making it happen.
Although not included in the original piece, the images below (largely pulled from the nextSTL Groth Guides to St. Louis neighborhoods) give an idea of the journey. Kasey would have walked through the city's Central West End, Midtown, Covenant Blue/Grand Center, Downtown West and Downtown neighborhoods.
The Central West End's shops centered on Euclid Avenue:
Homes in the Central West End:
Where the Central West End ends:
Getting into Midtown:
Saint Louis University:
Headed east again:
Getting to the lofts and downtown:
Taking the train home (shown at CWE station):