City of Ghosts: Photographing Disinvestment in the St. Louis Urban Landscape

The photos are beautiful, stunning. It strikes me that there is so much truth in the photos, that to nitpick or complain about the attention brought to St. Louis’ decay, to dwell on sensational language, or reach for the exception that proves the rule, is misplaced. Yeah, yeah, yeah, there’s a much more positive story to tell in St. Louis. The photographer, Demond Meek, isn’t required to tell it, he can photograph what he wants. And to be honest, it remains less than clear what that better story is exactly (declining population but rising affluence, the unlikely saving of many buildings while many more are lost, a looming renaissance in the number of residents and quality of life?). Images of neglected urban landscapes are powerful. The photos make clear what has happened to St. Louis.

The photos have come to everyone’s attention via a feature on the Daily Mail online. It starts, “With boarded up windows, peeling paint and crumbling bricks these deserted St.Louis buildings have been long forgotten. Residents seem to have fled years ago and the dilapidated properties now serve as a bleak reminder of the Missouri city’s declining population and struggling industry.” (And just in case you would like to know who’s to blame for the neglect, the Daily Mail online commenters are happy to tell you it’s the “liberal democrats” who rule cities, and those who only care about the “thug life”.)

The story’s captions read: “Abandoned: Meek explains that he wanted to focus on run-down buildings that were ‘once considered beautiful or treasures’. Deserted: Meek was inspired to ‘re-explore’ St. Louis after attending a meeting about tackling the city’s urban issues. In ruins: There are approximately 6,000 abandoned buildings in the Missouri city which has seen a declining population over the last 60 years. Forgotten: The deserted homes provide oddly beautiful pictures but tell a sad story of a struggling city.”

“I wanted to focus on the buildings that were once considered beautiful or treasures – a few of which could be fixed up with a little bit of love,” Meek is quoted as saying in the Daily Mail piece. Not all the photos in that story appear on his online project gallery and vice-versa. It’s fairly clear that not all the buildings are abandoned. At least one storefront looks to be completly restored. A couple homes appear to be occupied, and new windows or fresh plywood appear in others. Yet, to his point, not a single one is as it once was.

The online comments from St. Louisans have been widely negative. Michael Allen has a good piece up on the Preservation Research Office site, but his idea that “local knowledge” would have helped the photographer “differentiate the holdings of slumlords and city agencies from the hopeful projects of urban caretakers” is beside the point here. The most hopeful future project of the most caring urban caretaker doesn’t erase the reality of the past and present.

One specific building Michael describes as “my friends cottage” looks rough, but is well boarded up. He includes an image of the home looking much better in 1972. Ironically, in that 40-year-old photo, the neighboring home (now demolished) is vacant, displaying broken windows and grafitti. No doubt there are many people in St. Louis who care about many of these buildings, but there is no one who has been caring for them. Buildings do not reflect the affection or intentions of residents or admirers, but instead the reality of investment and maintenance.

Meek is a St. Louis resident and, judging by his website, a very successful commercial photographer, having produced images used by the likes of Monsanto in national advertising campaigns. The photos here were apparently all taken by an iPhone and posted on Instagram. This surely has led to more than one iPhone-carrying urbanist to know they could have taken the same photos. I for one, am glad it was Meek. But if he, or anyone else, is looking for that more positive story, check out: Brick Phoenix Rising: Hyde Park South (if you’re wondering if buildings can be saved) and visit the nextSTL Development Ticker.

More photos from Demond Meek: