Urban Renewal in St. Louis on Jane Jacob’s 100th Birthday

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St. Louis was really good at Urban Renewal. It renewed the riverfront, then renewed a large section of downtown, then renewed the Mill Creek Valley, then renewed a portion of the city to build the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development. The city renewed other swaths of historic decaying structures, replacing them with Interstate highways. So much renewal, so much success.

It’s tempting to think that city leaders and citizens simply didn’t know better half a century ago. Certainly, suburban development, clearing urban “slums” and erecting modernist parking garages, office towers and residential buildings, was said to be the future.

History, at least its first draft, is written by the winners. Urban Renewal was winning. But part of the forgotten history is that people did fight back. Residents did oppose demolition. Activists did go to the courts and seek relief and the protection of their rights.

Today would be Jane Jacobs 100th birthday. Jacobs and supporters of her activism certainly lost more battles than they won, but the wins were big: Boston’s North End, the defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and others. Undoubtedly, the biggest victory was the birth of a movement, a broad recognition of cities, their fine grain development patterns, and the importance of the sometimes messy, discordant development patters that created interest and vitality for, and by, residents.

In some ways Jacobs needs no introduction, but reading (or re-reading) The Death and Life of Great American Cities is always challenging and enlightening. And there’s more to her life and career than one book. I encourage you to explore her other writing and read more about her life. [Books by Jane Jacobs] [Jane Jacobs on Wikipedia]

More on nextSTL:

To honor Jacobs on this day, we share images of Urban Renewal in St. Louis:

The Mill Creek Valley:

Mill Creek Valley demolition Mill Creek ValleyMill Creek ValleyMill Creek ValleyMill Creek ValleyMill Creek Valleythe Mill Creek Valley after demolitionMill Creek Valley

The Gateway Mall:

Union Station looking west Gateway Mall 2Gateway Mall 4 Gateway Mall 1 Gateway Mall demo

The St. Louis riverfront, now the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial:

st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8904995691_ost-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905612312_ost-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8904995247_oold-cathedral-then_8909508045_o old-cathedral-then-and-then_8905155917_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8904995607_o  st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8904995291_o  st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8904995033_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8904995213_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611746_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611810_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611846_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611892_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611928_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611984_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611606_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611646_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611728_o st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905611444_ost-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905612148_oold-cathedral---st-louis-mo_8557740424_o  st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8905612120_o  st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8904994867_o

Pruitt-Igoe:

Pruitt Igoe 5Pruitt Igoe 9Pruitt Igoe 8Pruitt Igoe 7Pruitt Igoe 3Pruitt Igoe 2Pruitt Igoe 10Pruitt Igoe 6Pruitt Igoe 4 Pruitt Igoe_Urban Renewal

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  • kjohnson04

    Urban Renewal, or how to ruin a city in 5 easy steps. I’d wager we would have retained most of the population we had in 1950 if we hadn’t gone on this ‘fool’s errand’ of urban renewal. Jane Jacobs had the right idea.

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  • illusion87

    The last Republican control of St. Louis was in the 1940s. Post 1940s-now it has been controlled by Democrats who, as you can see, have completely ran the city into the ground (pun intended).

    • Adam

      Please. Chicago has had nothing but Democrat mayors since 1940 and it’s doing great. Cincinnati had almost all Republican mayors between 1940 and 1970 and it’s in the same boat as St. Louis in terms of urban renewal. That democrats might have run St. Louis into the ground does not imply that all Democrats run their cities into the ground, nor that all Republican-run cities flourish.

      • Chicagoan

        Actually, Chicago has had a Democratic mayor every year since 1931, when William Thompson (Republican) lost to Czech immigrant Anton Cermak (Democrat). Cermak united the Cook County Democratic Party’s Irish leadership with the huge groups of Eastern and Southern European immigrants and created the machine. Interestingly enough, in spite of Chicago’s history of Democratic corruption (Illinois, too), Thompson was the most fraudulent of them all.

        Regarding Chicago “doing great”, there’s a lot of great, but a lot of not great as well.

        Downtown is as strong as ever, while just about every neighborhood on the northside is in a pretty nice place. A few neighborhoods on the southside and westside have also been doing well.

        But there are still neighborhoods that are really having a hard time. On top of that, city finances are an absolute mess.

        I doubt installing Republican leadership in post-World War II St. Louis does anything, those were wild times and radical change was happening, each American city got pummeled for a while.

        • Adam

          Yeah I was just using 1940 as the baseline for comparison because illusion87 did. And “doing great” relative to St. Louis and other rust-belty places like Cleveland, Cincy, etc.

          • Chicagoan

            I know, I just felt like rambling 🙂

          • Alex Ihnen

            Look at where half the US GDP comes from – those mostly Democratic mayors must be super awesome!

          • warz19

            Thank you, Alex. This says it all.

          • illusion87

            We all can post nice graphs!

          • Steve S.

            “Debocale” … hmmm that tells me all I need to know about the trustworthiness of that graph …

          • illusion87

            Yep, typical lib move, ignore the facts and point out a spelling error. Lol.

          • Steve S.

            If the spelling hasn’t been checked, the “facts” probably haven’t been either. Clear sign of shoddy workmanship.

          • Adam

            ^ LOL. nice Excel spreadsheet.

      • illusion87

        So you can agree that the Democratic leadership in St. Louis exclusively since the 40’s has indeed been a direct cause of this cities failures since then.

        • Calling the one-party rule of the city the “direct cause” for our population decline (let’s don’t forget that the city is still declining) is a stretch, but the lack of electoral competition has not benefitted St. Louis. However there really is no second party in the city right now, so partisanship may not return real competition. Perhaps nonpartisan elections would expand voter choices and avoid the one-party monotony. As long as the city is still losing population, and tax base, no elected official is entitled to re-election.

        • Adam

          As long as the exclusively Republican leadership in Cincinnati from 1908 to 1971 was also a direct cause of that city’s failures.

          • illusion87

            Sure, but you can agree the failures in Cincinnati were beyond 1971.

          • Adam

            Um, no. Cincinnati didn’t suddenly go to hell after 1971. Just like in St. Louis, white flight and urban renewal were in full effect there long before 1971, even with their Republican leadership. Sorry the world isn’t as black and white as you’d like.

    • Justin

      People are too quick to give politicians credit for decline or improvement in a city. Not all problems can be solved by politicians.

      Additionally, cities controlled by democrats typically face very different problems than those controlled by republicans. Thus making comparisons difficult.

      I wish the problems we faced were so simple that we could solve them by simply electing someone from a different political party.

      Lastly I believe republicans developed the city’s 1947 plan which lead to much of this urban renewal nonsense.

      • Evan Lazer

        As it is both are two heads from the same snake

  • HawkSTL

    I can’t believe that all of that architecture was destroyed. Of course, we know that it was. But, seeing it in pictures is something else. Very sobering.

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  • Colocon

    Great central planning by all knowing gov’t. bureaucrats and their cronies at its finest.

  • matimal

    This series of photos is crushingly sad to see.

  • Tom of the Missouri

    So sad all the great decisions of the planners. Different degree and result of course, but they are not unlike the brilliant planners that worked for Stalin managing the farms of the Ukraine. The same philosophy drives both – that a central elite group should make decisions for and help guide the less intelligent and enlightened and lead them by the hand to a new modern age. I am with Jane Jacobs. I have a bit of a problem with next STL. I love the site and the subjects it covers but the problem is that they just want to replace one set of planners with a more enlightened set, i.e. a set that agrees with them. In my opinion the solution is to have low taxes, minimal government bureaucratic meddling (i.e., even more regulation and more taxes) in the decisions of the citizens and business owners and then get out the way. That is the set of rules that in the 19th and early 20th century made St. Louis the 4th largest city in the country and effectively an industrial age silicon valley.

    Those are the rules that have driven Hong Kong, Singapore and now create a couple of new cities in China every year the size of Manhattan. Those are the rules that drive the state in the United States that has created the equivalent of every net new job in America in the last eight years – i,e, Texas, you know the place with no income tax and very few zoning rules.

    This could happen overnight in St. Louis, too, with the right set of rules. Money in the modern age moves at electronic speed overnight where it is treated best or at least well. It also flows instantaneously to places where brains that control the money are given the maximum freedom from legal, bureaucratic and taxing tyranny. The best laid and wonderful plans, which btw St. Louis has as many in their backroom files as any city, will never work with the wrong kind of economic, political and legal culture. The Show Me Institute has been trying to tell everyone this but everyone just laughs at them.

    Contrast Jane Jacob’s beloved SoHo in New York with Washington Avenue in St. Louis. SoHo was created with maxim freedom and minimal government oversight. It was created by artists and squatters who moved in and forgot to ask permission from a St. Louis type building department that demanded perfect million dollar elevators and brand new sprinkler systems demanded by the the local inspectors and exorbitantly expensive pipe fitters union. Yeah, Washington Ave. finally happened and it was wildly celebrated by the political friendly St. Louis media but it took decades and the city’s populations continued to dwindle. I am also not sure I would ever want to buy an expensive condo there, given what happens to cities with falling populations and a feudal type political system,. In the meantime while St. Louis created a few hundred apartments and condos over 20 years on Washington Ave and a handful of other places, St. Charles and St. Peters were building thousands upon thousands of new housing units every singe year for decades and with hardly any media notice. The money goes to and the most vibrant and interesting cities are created where there exist a fair set of minimal rules that apply to everyone and where there are the fewest Stalinesque planners, politicians and officials with life and death power over their decisions. And in these situations no subsidies are required.

    • Chicagoan

      Actually, Jane Jacobs found inspiration in Greenwich Village more so than SoHo.

      You’re onto something with your thoughts on urban planning, specifically zoning. Most of America’s great urban neighborhoods came to be before prohibitive zoning became so common. You’re perhaps right about the negative effect of “Stalinesque” planners, but a lot of the best planners often had grand, large-scale plans and a heavy hand (Burnham, Haussmann, et cetera).

      • Imran

        It can’t be a happy accident that most old city streets have fairly uniform set-backs, heights, massing etc. there must’ve been strict rules, even prohibitively so.

        • Steve S.

          Prior the the invention of the elevator, physics provided the strongest height limit, i.e. how many stairwells a person was willing to climb.

          There were certainly rules in effect, and some of those rules had interesting consequences. The mansard was developed to circumvent a Parisian height limit, for example. But a lot of the traditional pattern is actually the result of emergent patterns: buildings were front-loaded onto their lots in order to maximize private space in the rear, air circulation for temperature regulation was much more important in an era before air conditioners, buildings were made cheaply in accordance with local design norms (i.e. architectural vernaculars), and so on. As you can start to see, the “rules” for design are centered around creating comfortable living environments before we could mechanically create superior creature comforts.

  • Mike P

    How cool would it be to have an Old Town St. Louis like in European cities.

    • J

      Hi Warsaw!

      • Chicagoan

        Krakow is even better.

    • PhilS

      It should be remembered that this, and most of Warsaw, was all reconstructed after the war. Krakow was spared a similar destruction.

      Cool, it is. Too bad our “Old Towns” are in the middle of flood-prone corn fields and soccer parks.

    • jhoff1257

      I would argue Lafayette Square, Soulard, Benton Park, Lasalle Park and dozens of other historic and still intact neighborhoods in St. Louis could qualify as Old Town St. Louis. In fact, Soulard, Lasalle Park, and Lafayette Square are collectively known as Old Frenchtown.

      Doesn’t lessen the pain I feel after viewing images of St. Louis’ land clearance, but we fared a lot better then most of our peers.

      • Steve S.

        we fared a lot better then most of our peers.

        …Not really. In terms of total percentage of prewar urban fabric lost, St. Louis ranks in the bottom percentile (20%+ of overall urban fabric lost), along with Detroit and Cincinnati. Rust Belt cities that fared better than it include Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and, surprisingly, even Cleveland.

        • Sadly, St. Louis was better at ripping out its own heart than most peer cities — although the city also became better at historic preservation than most. Today the city has the best urban historic tax incentives available to any city in the country and a demolition review system that protects over 75% of the built environment. St. Louis learned from its awful failures.

  • Alex P

    It’s tempting to think that those homes in Mill Creek Valley were falling apart and needed to be torn down regardless, however Soulard and LaFayette Sq. looked exactly the same way. They look so bad in the photos because those were captured after evictions were taking place. Let Soulard sit empty for a year and it will look that way too.

    • Alex Ihnen

      That’s absolutely right. It’s even more true of the riverfront. People say it was vacant and abandoned, but the images were taken after the evictions and as demolition began. It’s a tragic story.

      • raisin

        I’m not sure it was tragic at the time, though. My long-deceased relatives lived in Mill Creek Valley and described it as squalid and awful. They didn’t seem to lament its passing. Now, I realize that just because it was that way at one time doesn’t mean it had to be that way in perpetuity. But, it helps explain the decision-making at the time.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Absolutely. That’s something I’ve touched on when considering Pruitt-Igoe. There were real problems and challenges to address. Easy to forget that in redlined neighborhoods it was impossible to get a loan to repair a building, that many lacked indoor plumbing, and construction had nearly ground to a halt for a couple decades.

          • Guest

            Let’s not forget the mindset back then. The desire to leave the old, over built, over ornamented structures that didn’t fit in with “modern” America with it’s auto centered lifestyle led to the desire to, with very few exceptions, eradicate anything quaint and outdated. All that old stuff was fine to preserve in Europe because it was much older, but in the USA, hey…we’re modern…let’s get rid the out dated, quaint environment and build an environment that’s modern and “fittingly” so. This applied to even a dream that the poor could be part of this (in projects like Pruitt-Igoe) …but still kept “apart”. We see how the “dream” became a nightmare, and that warehousing the poor (i.e. racism) is shame beyond reason that resulted in it’s disastrous result.

            As far as the red lined neighborhoods…Lafayette Square, CWE and Soulard were once such and didn’t become success stories because of big developers, but by those who saw the beauty and value in past attention to craftsmanship and detail…which today is sorely lacking today because of cost …and usually poorly reproduced when attempted.
            Mill Creek Valley was eradicated and Laclede Town was one of the ideas that materialized. Modern, yet reflecting old urban in architectural style of what was there and in intended function, it sadly resulted in failure. Even though very attractive architecturally (IMO), it in no way was on a par with what was there…but that’s in today’s appreciation for hundred year old architecture and not in the vision of the time it was built…which didn’t appreciate it.

            I don’t know if this is true or not…never researched it…but someone once told me that in the 50’s LOOK Magazine did a series to determine which American city was the most “European” (whatever that means…) and St. Louis came in first. That came to mind one time while meeting with a client in the Ralston-Purina tower on an upper floor, looking south over Soulard and thinking to myself how all those old roof tops and chimneys brought to mind merry old London.

          • Alex Ihnen

            I only looked for a bit, but did find this:

          • Guest

            Thanks for the effort, Alex…! Interesting. Granite City, Il. was also voted an All-American City in that same year, though I had no idea Look Magazine had anything to do with it.

            As for the “most European American city”, with information at the fingertips per the internet this lazy old fella could do some homework himself. If I find anything on that I’ll get back with ya (but I’m not expecting to find anything). The fellow that told me this had given me much interesting information on St. Louis’ history and architecture but I found later some of what he told me wasn’t quite right.

          • Steve S.

            Most of America’s “most European” cities are also its oldest — and for good reason! La veille ville de Québec (Old Québec City) is probably the most “European” city in the US+Canada, while Boston and Philadelphia are generally considered the most “European” cities in the US. Other cities along this vein include New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, and some of the other older major cities, particularly in the region between the Hudson and Potomac rivers.

  • Mathew Chandler

    Looking at some of these photos, depressing me thinking of what this city was, and what we sacrificed.