Illustration by Virginia Bosworth
Letter from the Editor
An issue is not simply a problem, a negative, a difficulty. An issue is the beginning of a discussion, the intersection of multiple opinions, something unsettled that needs attention. This semester, we are addressing the issue of vacancy in St. Louis. This condition is impossible to overlook: nearly any street you pass in St. Louis city has at least a handful of unoccupied storefronts, decaying houses, or empty lots. Only the most affluent neighborhoods have been able to evade this trend, which has been evolving for several decades. Delving into the past, several of our writers explore the impact certain historical events have had on St. Louis, from the practice of redlining to the elimination of the Mill Creek Valley community to the demolition of the Pruitt Igoe housing project. As a result of these events and many other circumstances, the population of St. Louis has declined from 857,000 to 318,000 over the past six decades. Now, the city is left with an extremely low population density and thousands of vacant lots. Without the resources needed for maintenance, the city has allowed such properties to fall into disrepair. Neglect only exacerbates the issue; St. Louis needs relationships, activism, and innovation to reach its full potential. Could vacancy be an asset for St. Louis? We invite you to read this issue and
see the potential rather than the problem. Elaine Stokes
This issue . . . VACANCY
THE BRICK THIEVES
AN INTERNATIONAL STUDENTâ€™S PERSPECTIVE
SENZA DIMORA : HOMELESS
MILL CREEK VALLEY : A Symptom of Void St. Louis
PRUITT IGOE : Rephrasing the Question of Vacancy
CONTRIBUTORS elaine stokes nichole murphy libby perold tori sgarro michael savala AUTHORS nichole murphy claire huttenlocher tori sgarro michael savala libby perold martin lockman elaine stokes
editor in chief head of social media managing editor managing editor treasurer ILLUSTRATORS & DESIGNERS virginia bosworth anna darling sophia keskey elaine stokes sara wong daniel raggs audrey cole leora baum alicia ajayi margaret flatey zach rouse 4
V A C
Old industrial cities across the USA are shrinking, and St Louis is no exception. With this shrinkage comes large amounts of vacant lots and buildings citywide. These vacant lots can be seen as a detrement to the city and community, or they can be utIlized as spaces for opportunity, innovation, creativity and community engagement. As of 2010
one out of every five housing units are vacant totaling 176,802 houses
seventeen out of every hundred lots are vacant totaling 21,769 lots
Across the city
11,136 parcels of land are owned by the land redevelopment association (or LRA)
which is a department of the City of St Louis that aquires and sells land that has been abandoned or forfeited to the city because of a failure to pay taxes just mowing the lawn of each of these lots currently costs the city
the LRA is responsible for: keeping lots trash free demolishing decrepit and dangerous buildings mowing the lawns of vacant land
$2.6 million annually
So What Can Be Done? Cities are continually searching for creative solutions to the issue of vacancy. These are just a few ideas:
pocket parks 5
sunflower soil remediation
vacant buildings vacant lots Text & Graphics by Anna Darling Drawings by Sophia Keskey 6
REDLINING While it is true that post-industrialization has been unkind to St. Louis in terms of occupancy and employment, there is an argument to be made that the roots of these problems began to take hold during the height of industrialization. The promise of gainful employment brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants and migrants to St. Louis. In the mid-twentieth century, overcrowding was a typical problem of industrialized cities. Tensions between different ethnic and racial groups grew as neighborhood borders expanded and threatened the racial harmony previously observed. As a result, the city and its residents took various measures to ensure the “character” of racially homogeneous neighborhoods under the guise of protecting property rights. The reality of such policies was that the black population would continue to live in overcrowded sections of the city in inferior housing, while their white counterparts fled the city in favor of suburban areas. Federal policies like the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) ratings essentially institutionalized segregation and racism in the housing market. HOLC rating assessed areas of risk in terms of investments based on the character of the neighborhood, which ultimately boiled down to the racial or ethnic makeup of the area so that the sections of the city that received the lowest rating of either C or D were exclusively African American neighborhoods. The rating system made it easy for banks to justify not serving entire sections of the city, by determining which areas in the city were either “definitely declining” (C) or “hazardous” (D). The practice of denying or limiting financial services such as loans and mortgages on the basis of wealth, race, and geographical location is considered redlining. The effects of redlining are still visible on the city. During the mid-twentieth century, the black population was almost completely confined to North St. Louis. Today, while the majority of the entire city’s population is African American, there is still a sharp distinction between North St. Louis and the rest of the city. While gentrification and renewal projects have slowly begun to bring people back to the city, issues of vacancy still plague St. Louis as a whole. North St. Louis particularly struggles to attract such renewal projects or residents in general. The mentality behind the HOLC rating system and redlining is undercutting the progress of rebuilding in 7
North St. Louis. When areas were rated in the 1940s, the attitude of most planners and investors was to abandon hope for the city’s recovery. Most believed that areas of the city rated C or D were lost causes and not worth the money or effort to attempt revitalization. As one of these areas, North St. Louis was left to crumble. Unfortunately, the feelings of planners and investors today have not proven to be much different from those of the 1940s. A recent article in Businessweek shows that redlining is still alive and well. The Midwest BankCentre of St. Louis was brought to the attention of the U.S. Justice Department for practices of redlining. The bank had no branches that served African American neighborhoods. While such practices continue, it is not difficult to understand the inability of North St. Louis to achieve greater occupancy as seen in other parts of the city. These policies only perpetuate a cycle that started at the peak of industrialization when the composition of the city began to change and those with the means [left the city to rot] This wording sounds a little harsh, consider rephrasing. As long as people are unwilling to invest in North St. Louis, the cycle of “benign” neglect will continue to the detriment of St. Louis’s under-served population. THE EXTENDED REPURCUSSIONS Redlining has played a major role in St. Louis’ development, particularly by creating a racial division within the city. The map at right shows the zone designated in the 1941 Realtors Agreement, which prevented realtors from selling properties to black residents in any neighborhood outside this zone. Although the gentrification of the loft district north of d still mostly occupied by black residents. Furthermore, this zone spliced the city in half, with black residents settling predominantly to its north and white residents staying predominantly to the south. Written by Nichole Murphy Graphics by Elaine Stokes
For more on St. Louis Housing and Discrimination visit: http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/map/ http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_20/ b4228031594062.htm
St. Louis & the 1941 Realtors Agreement
Green Dot = 10 Black Individuals Purple Dot = 10 White Individuals Data courtesy of the 2010 Missouri Census
THE BRICK THIEVES 9
In the middle of the night, a group of five men arrives at an abandoned property in North St. Louis. They immediately start their tedious work on a dilapidated home, peeling bricks from the rotting frame and loading them into a rusty pickup. Groups of brick thieves like this illustrate a problem that is deeply rooted in history and issues of public policy. The rich history of brick in St. Louis has been heavily influenced by the different groups of people who settled into their lives on the North Side over the past decades. However, bands of brick thieves probing neighborhoods for new targets would not exist without the families who moved away, the policy that prevented people from moving in, and the ruins they left behind. When the city of St. Louis was originally developed, the ground was found to be rich with clay. This red clay has high value, especially in southern regions where the clay is sandy and unappealing. By 1839, the famed St. Louis brick companies were producing over 20 million bricks every year. After the devastating St. Louis Fire in 1849, local demand further increased due to an ordinance requiring outer walls to be constructed of either brick or stone. Most landowners chose the cheaper and more charming red brick that still is present in the majority of buildings seen in the city today. Both immigration and migration contributed to the changing landscape of the city. After the German Revolution failed in 1848, a flood of German immigrants infused the North side of St. Louis with new money and new ideas. Then, with the turn of the twentieth century and the end of World War I, a wave of African Americans added to housing shortages in the city, severe blockbusting practices and white flight. By the 1960’s, it became clear that the entire city was shrinking, while St. Louis County’s population was expanding rapidly. These conditions led to neglect and abandonment in the city, setting the stage for the brick thieves. Thus, this unusual form of theft is not simply a matter of criminal action, but also a product of social and physical conditions in the city. Brick theft serves as a reminder that parts of the city are breaking down, as well as the people, who are desperate and face challenges such as foreclosure and unemployment. Brick thieves typically target abandoned houses, mostly in North St. Louis where land vacancy is the norm. Lately, arsonists have become involved with this underground economy, torching vacant buildings at night in order to speed the brick thieves’ process. The fire eradicates the wooden frames, leaving the bricks loose and exposed. Firemen actually help these efforts by tearing down
walls in the attempt to put out the flames, facilitating the collection of bricks in the morning before the demolition crews arrive. These bricks are sold by the ton to expanding southern cities. Now the components of once beautifully constructed Old North houses make up entire blocks of southern cities. Not only are people leaving the city as population plummets, but parts of this city are leaving as well, and we are left with architectural gravesites, remnants of another time. In the affected neighborhoods, demolition seems to be the primary development activity, and brick theft is only a symptom of a larger problem. It seems as though policy makers believe that by tearing down eyesores and making room for new developments, the problem of unemployment and poverty will somehow vanish. In 1975, as vacancy was starting to become a serious problem, the “Team Four Plan” was introduced to focus solely on the residents who remained instead of investing in the future of redevelopment. Unfortunately, the truth is that the constant demolition on the North Side also removes housing stock and depletes voter rolls. The sense of identity in these neighborhoods disappears, and such continued vacancy turns people away from the city. However, change is unlikely as the protection of vacant buildings is clearly not a law enforcement priority, so conviction rarely leads to criminal prosecution. For now, it looks like the underground brick economy will continue to thrive while the foundation of the city is failing.
Written by Claire Huttenlocher Illustrated by Sara Wong Sources http://preservationresearch.com/resources/brick-theft-in-north-st-louis-apreservation-crisis/ http://www.stlmag.com/St-Louis-Magazine/April-2011/St-Louis-Brick-Thieves/ index.php?cparticle=1&siarticle=0#artanc http://preservationresearch.com/2012/05/demolition-and-boundaries-in-northst-louis/
The O’Fallon,Penrose,and College Hill neighborhoods comprise St. Louis’ 21st Ward. The latter of these neighborhoods was just added to the 21st Ward during the most recent redistricting process. While O’Fallon and Penrose have been relatively stable neighborhoods, College Hill has traditionally been a center for crime. Under the work of Alderman Antonio French, a crime prevention program has been instigated. Alderman French has also been overseeing the transformation of The Sanctuary, an old church (seen at left), into a community center. These efforts are major steps in improving the overall quality of life for residents of the 21st Ward. Written & Photographed by Elaine Stokes
An International Student’s Perspective Daniel Ngai* faced a pivotal decision: if he stayed in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China took back the territory, he feared he would never make it to America. However, if he left now as a student, he would have the choice of whether to stay in America or return to Taiwan after graduation. Ultimately, Daniel decided to leave Taiwan to pursue a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. However, as he set off for America on August 4, 2010, he might not have realized the challenges he would face as an international student. Not only would he have to struggle through the demands of graduate-level research, but he would also be thrown into an entirely new culture with little direction on how to navigate his new life. Since arriving in America, he has realized that his status as a Taiwanese immigrant creates a cultural gap between him and his American peers. Despite the obstacles Daniel has encountered in his transition to American life, his status as a Taiwanese immigrant guarantees him a community in St. Louis. Before even stepping foot off of the plane, he had an automatic network of connections to other Taiwanese-American immigrants. The St. Louis chapter of the Taiwanese Association of America (TAA) contacted him soon after his arrival, and because of the TAA’s presence throughout America, Daniel will always have a network of connections. A quick call to this community guarantees him a place to stay, food to eat, and many people to rely on no matter where he goes. Nevertheless, Daniel did not come to America to be part of a Taiwanese community. Rather he describes his needs as an international student in America as, “academics, research, English practice, and American friendship.” While the TAA provides valuable resources to him, Daniel explains bluntly, “they do not have what I need.” The TAA does not meet the needs he mentions, and so there are still many holes left in his life in America.
can communicate more easily. Therefore, Daniel often finds himself studying and talking about homework with his Taiwanese peers in Chinese. Although he attends the same university as his American peers, he receives a completely different educational experience. Daniel’s English ability is a major factor keeping him from bridging this cultural gap. Although he moved here two years ago, he still struggles when speaking to Americans. He describes not feeling confident expressing himself in English or even making a joke. Therefore, in an effort to cross the cultural divide that separates him from other American students, Daniel joined the student club “Teach English as a Second Language” (Teach ESL) last year. Through Teach ESL, Daniel meets with an undergraduate English tutor every week and attends club events. Beyond improving his English skills, this has helped him meet new students and gives him connections to other international students and American tutors. Through his own resilience, and with the help of Teach ESL, Daniel has begun to break down the language and cultural barrier. Daniel has made progress since coming to America, but his struggle with this cultural barrier will not end when he leaves WashU. When asked what he wants to do after graduation, Daniel’s answer does not stray from what he set out to do the day he decided to come to America — he wants to find funding to continue his research in America and eventually gain the status of “permanent resident”. Once he enters the real world after graduation, be it St. Louis or another city, his experience at WashU will shape how he acts and feels about being an American. * Name has been changed. Written by Tori Sgarro Illustration by Daniel Raggs
Daniel believes that a discrepancy in “incentives” creates these absences in his life as an international student. While he might have much to gain from studying with an American student in the areas of language acquisition and social connection, the American student has an incentive academically to study with another American because they
SENZA DIMORA : homeless I was walking from Italian class towards the Duomo, Florence’s most iconic building. The plaza is always crowded with many people: some are tourists, some residents, and some overwhelmed students such as myself. I look both ways before entering the plaza for bikes, taxis, and determined pedestrians flying through the intersection on a daily basis. I get a glimpse of a bike—a man on a mission rushing to get somewhere—and I stop. He makes some sort of disgusted noise with his tongue sticking out. I was confused until I looked around and saw an olive skinned woman wearing a brightly colored head wrap, blue jacket and floral ankle-length skirt turn with an angry look on her face. She knew that the noise was directed at her. She dressed in stereotypical ‘gypsy’ garb, which provokes an offensive yet widespread term used towards olive-skinned ethnic people who tend to wear floral skirts and are have a reputation to beg, pickpocket, and steal. And those who dress the part unfortunately have to deal with other people’s perception of them.
“Off Track”) that focuses on issues of homelessness as it exists in Florence, not entirely unlike Saint Louis’s own What’s Up magazine. In addition, Florence’s Ospedale degli Innocenti (“Hospital of the Innocent”) has been the site of charity for hundreds of years, with today’s Ronda Charity donating food, blankets, and supplies to the area every night. Although homelessness is a large scale problem in Florence, there are many efforts to stop its spread and help out those who need it. In Florence, the issue of homelessness and poverty have reached an extreme scale; from clothing identification and persistent begging to nightly charities and literature on the manner. Socially, I feel that it will take a while for the greater society to accept this as a problem, but solutions exist, and they are on the rise.
It is a common tendency in America to fear and distrust homeless people—a lot of it is based on stereotypes from select instances, but in today’s society, where social classes live and work so separately, these ideas are fairly mainstream. Though, despite this perception, a certain sympathy exists in the conversation between the needy and the wealthy. An actual conversation may never happen, but a charitable spirit is very popular in American society—‘give to the needy’. Here in Europe, or at least in Florence, that sympathy does not exist at all. In fact, much of Western Europe displays hatred towards those who beg. No sympathy exists even on a superficial level; Western Europeans avoid people who visually fit the stereotype altogether and teach others to stay far away from their reach. These affected people are, as a result, severely discriminated against and judged as pickpockets, criminals, and all around undesirables. While it’s true that people pickpocket and that women in typical ‘gypsy’ floral dresses do go around the tourist areas begging for money, not all of these people are pickpockets, and certainly not every woman wearing a floral dress is begging for money.
In Western Europe, or at least here in Florence, a huge stigma exists against the visibly poor and those who blend in, but progress is being made to include those left behind. Here there exists a newspaper called Fuori Binario (meaning
Written by Michael Savala Watercolor by Audrey Cole
Mill MILLCreek CREEKValley VALLEYA :Symptom A SYMPTOM of VoidOF St.VOID Louis ST. LOUIS Today, if one were to mention the Mill Creek Valley area to a common St. Louis citizen, a puzzled expression would rise over his face. “I think you’re mistaken,” he would say, “that area doesn’t exist in St. Louis.” And he would be right. The Mill Creek area was a predominantly African-American neighborhood from post-Civil War era through to the mid twentieth century. In a post-War migration boom, the area accumulated many African-Americans from the rural south, and other areas surrounding St. Louis. Although the area was populous, starting in 1953, the city of St. Louis passed bonds to clear the Mill Creek Valley and other surrounding areas, such as Chestnut Valley, in an effort to break up the government recognized “slums.” The city started implementing such efforts in 1959. Now, such a place as Mill Creek Valley no longer exists. Mill Creek Valley, though seen as a slum to many, was in fact home and a true community to the 20,000 people who lived there. A special context report from the St. Louis government states that in the area, “A mix of homes, tenements, shops, saloons, dance halls, and night clubs gave the area a special character.”1 And Washington University Professor Taylor’s article on the Mill Creek area added that musicians would play ragtime jazz in several of the nightclubs, and the area was home to such institutions as The Pine Street YMCA, and several churches.2 By the 1950’s, over 800 businesses inhabited the area, and around 95 percent of the community’s residents were AfricanAmerican. For them, proximity was a serious benefit to the area: “Everything the residents needed - from grocery, clothing and hardware stores to restaurants, schools and churches - was within walking distance of their homes.”3 At the same time of such a population boom, the city of St. Louis set out to accomplish several urban renewal projects. In 1951, The Municipal Land Clearance for Redevelopment Law was passed, which brought in overseers to observe and execute urban renewal – reconstruction of highways, land clearing, and implementation of stricter housing codes – across the city. By 1954, the Federal Housing Act declared the Mill Creek Area a slum and set out to demolish it along with the funding of the 1955 bond issue that gave $110 million for renewal in the St. Louis area. 15
Replacing grocery stores, clothing stores, and jazz clubs, the city implemented a highway system in Mill Creek Valley’s place. People were pushed out of their homes. Except for a few accepted stores that met zoning requirements, everything had to go. Roadways took place of culture and community. As a result, these new efforts displaced thousands, with the NAACP conclusion that instead of “urban renewal,” the project should have been called “Negro removal.” Critics of the demolition came to call the derelict, “cleared” area as The Hiroshima Flats, subtly arguing that the results of the destruction recalled images of the sparse land, a result from the atom bomb. Although other housing projects opened, such as LaClede Town or PruittIgoe, and many other residents fled to The Valley (another neighborhood), the violent segregation of black slums still permeated St. Louis’ housing system. Declaring it was a slum, the government justified Mill Creek Valley’s destruction, using statistics to prove the residential conditions “unfit.” A 1954 report stated that “99% of the structures needed major repairs, 80% were without private baths and toilets and 67% lacked running water. Moreover, there were rat and other infestation problems. With the cramped conditions, proximity of housing and garbage-filled alleys, fires were a common occurrence.”4 No doubt, the conditions needed improvement. However, the city of St. Louis brought about change in a completely incorrect fashion. Looking at what it is today, Robert Powers remains outspoken against what happened in Mill Creek Valley: “Today, the same block contains one huge AG Edwards building, and some parking lots. Nobody lives there… It’s a monoculture – the exact opposite of what a functioning city must be.”5 He looks back to what happened in the 1950’s, “Rather than funneling money into repairing and upgrading the physical apparatus of the neighborhood, the powers-thatwere decided it must be obliterated…forc[ing] thousands of black residents into true poverty. They pushed the deterioration elsewhere, rather than relieving it; and they destroyed a functioning neighborhood.”
by Libby Perold
Apart from all the numbers, the true loss here was a residential community, something so rare and foreign to us nowadays that it seems difficult to sympathize with such a loss. We drive down an expressway in midtown, and never imagine that once, in the place of that very highway, was a church, a store – a whole interworking of people. Unfortunately, St. Louis’ vacant past penetrates the city’s present. Between 2000 and 2010, the city has lost almost 29,000 residents, a number that is anticipated to gradually swell. If vacancy is part of St. Louis’ past, and present, is it possible for it not to be part of its future?
http://stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/planning/cultural-resources/preservation-plan/Part-I-African-American-Experience.cfm 2 http://law.wustl.edu/staff/taylor/slpl/stacentc.htm 3 http://www.umsl.edu/virtualstl/phase2/1950/mapandguide/millcreeknode.html 4 http://www.umsl.edu/virtualstl/phase2/1950/buildings/typicalresidence.html 5 http://www.builtstlouis.net/2008/01/heard-you-cant-find-mill-creek-anywhere. html 1
Image source: http://nextstl.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=26&t=4261
How the shadows of an industrial past have emptied St. Louis
he greatest cities exist as much in the mind as in the world. The historical memories of Rome and Paris cast greater shadows than their brick-and-mortar skylines ever could. Layers upon layers of history superimpose themselves over the cityscape, impressing intaglio of the past into the fabric . The past of St. Louis casts shadows as well. The city of St. Louis contains over 11,00 vacant lots and 8,000 vacant buildings. Industries and neighborhoods have crept away from the city over the last fifty years, leaving a legacy of vacancy. Many of these sites are, by modern standards, almost unusable by virtue of their toxic history. These contaminated lots, known as brownfields, are the shadows of our city’s industrial past. A brownfield site, as defined by the EPA, is a piece of property whose development is hindered by the “presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” These sites range from nuclear plants to lightbulb factories to gas stations. In a city like St. Louis, with a long history of manufacturing, these postindustrial vacancies have become almost ubiquitous.Vacant factories, lots, and even houses can sit for decades with developers unwilling to take on the risk and expense of environmental rehabilitation. The Carondelet Coke Plant on East Catalan was abandoned in 1987, when Carondelet Coke shuttered its doors and turned the property over to the city of St. Louis
in a tax foreclosure sale. The land, which for seventy years had been home to various coke ash facilities, sat vacant for the next two decades. When the site was tested by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 1996, it had high enough levels of contamination to qualify for EPA remediation grants. However, the DNR was hesitant to accept the money. Although EPA grants available under the Superfund law could have paid for the cleanup of the site, the EPA aid also carried with it a certain degree of ignominy. Potential residents of the site might, with good reason, shy away from purchasing property that had been so publicly condemned as a health hazard. With the city desperate to avoid the stigma of an EPA Superfund site, but equally desperate to rehabilitate the land, the site was enrolled in the Brownfield Voluntary Cleanup Program. Established in 1994 by the Missouri State Legislature, the Voluntary Cleanup Program allows the enrolled “volunteer” organization to reduce its liability for potential contamination while gaining access to State and Federal grants, tax incentives, and assistance in overseeing the cleanup. Laclede Gas, one of the three former owners of the site, agreed to partner in the cleanup. In the wake of this action, the site sprung suddenly to life. Laclede Gas installed pollution monitoring wells, and began a serious assessment of contaminants on the site. Then, just as suddenly, nothing. One of the largest issues preventing the development
of these sites is liability. While a patchwork of laws and regulations on the local, state, and federal levels attempt to establish responsibility for environmental cleanup, the source of pollutants is often difficult to prove in court. Complicating the matter, many pollutants can spread through the environment and contaminate sites far from their point of origin. Laclede Gas, after ensuring that the pollution was contained to the site, refused to do further remediation work.
Active Brownfield Voluntary Cleanup Site Completed Brownfield Voluntary Cleanup Site Inactive Brownfield Voluntary Cleanup Site Brownfield Parcel
When contacted for comment by St. Louis Today, representatives of Laclede pointed out that the pollution encountered on the site could have come from a number of sources, including “other companies” or “floodwater.” In fact, subsequent events somewhat vindicated this position. During the period of Laclede’s voluntary “clean-up”, pollution worsened as vandalism and illegal dumping began to creep onto the site. In 2006, nearly two decades after the lot was abandoned, the City of St. Louis embarked on a major effort to rehabilitate the site and market it to developers as a business park. However, the cleanup immediately hit snags when remediators discovered even higher levels of contaminants than expected. Over the next six years the project, which was originally slated to cost the taxpayers 6.7 million dollars, has since almost doubled to 12.3 million. As of 2012 the site was classified as “undergoing remediation” by the St. Louis Brownfields Program. Setting aside the ongoing Carondelet remediation, the shadows of St. Louis’ industrial past still loom large. The St. Louis Brownfields Program lists six remediation success stories; another page on the site casually mentions the number of potential brownfield sites in city hands: 10,000. As for the Coke Plant, only a vacant lot remains; stripped, scrubbed, and emptied. Construction on the proposed business park is rumored to start this summer, but today, a quarter of a century after it was abandoned, the site is still waiting for a tenant.
Carondelet Coke Plant
Written by Martin Lockman Graphics by Anna Darling Photograph by Libby Perold
PRUITT IGOE : Rephrasing the Question of Vacancy The past several decades have led to an increasingly singleminded view of metropolitan development. While low density sprawl has become the norm in suburban zones, designers have decreed that city centers must retain high density in order to be dubbed successful. Acceptance of this view dooms many Midwestern industrial cities to failure, as cities like Detroit and St. Louis steadily lose population. However, a new perspective has begun to emerge. A handful of designers now recognize that sites of vacancy, even those with the most negative connotations attached, could inspire a new way to think about the urban environment. Here in St. Louis, the vacant lot that once held the infamous Pruitt Igoe housing project is doing just that. Once regarded as the icon of everything wrong with St. Louis, Pruitt Igoe has recently become an inspiration for change, representing a new method of urban progress.
more creatively when considering what its purpose could be. Urban designers have been praising density as the key to successful urban populations since Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961. While this theory has provided a necessary critique of inefficient urban sprawl, it also condemns shrinking cities like St. Louis to failure due to its population decline. Jacobs wrote in a time when depopulation of cities was of little to no concern. This issue has arisen within the past few decades and now requires visionary proposals for remediation in much the same way that urban sprawl needed attention fifty years ago. Density is not the only answer; it is simply an early answer to a problem that arose half a century ago. Depopulation has replaced urban sprawl as the essential issue in Midwestern industrial cities; it is time for a new answer to a new question.
The Pruitt Igoe public housing project was designed by Minoru Yamasaki and construction was completed in 1954. The low income housing project was comprised of 33 high rise apartment buildings meant to provide a high quality of life for its residents. Indoor corridors would provide communal gathering areas, skip-stop elevators would allow for efficiency and easy access, and apartments would give residents a clean, safe place to live—in theory. However, instead of experiencing the continued population growth that analysts expected, St. Louis‘ population began to decline. Thus, although Pruitt Igoe was intended to accommodate for a booming population, the housing project ended up experiencing high rates of vacancy and fell into disrepair. In July of 1972, the first of the Pruitt Igoe towers was demolished, and the other towers followed soon after.
We can no longer afford to look at low density as a malady that needs to be cured. Rather, we must look at openness as an area of opportunity for innovative development. Fortunately, the Pruitt Igoe site has been the instigator of this type of open dialogue. Last year, the “Pruitt Igoe Now” competition called designers and artists of all backgrounds to submit proposals for Pruitt Igoe, asking for ways to revitalize the vacant site. Submissions ranged from modest to extravagant, realistic to otherworldly, yet all incorporated a sense of hope regarding the site’s future. This is the attitude that needs to be applied to St. Louis as a whole. Pruitt Igoe and the many other vacant lots in the city can be turned into parks, information centers, gardens, agriculture sites, or could even be encouraged to return to their natural state. Working in conjunction with low density instead of working against it could transform the urban fabric into a new medley of urban and country lifestyles. New eras call for new arrangements: suburbs emerged as a part of the post-World War II decades, and now cities require a new urban format. By accepting low density and vacancy as a constraint with which we need to work, sites like Pruitt Igoe and its surrounding neighborhood can become the building blocks of an unprecedented urban community.
Now the Pruitt Igoe site is an urban forest. After decades without maintenance, trees have sprouted up to create a dense covering, only interrupted by a couple of rutted dirt roads and the occasional asphalt patch. If you venture past the chain link fence that surrounds the property, you will also discover mounds of trash dumped there illegally. Standing in the middle of the site, you forget you are in an urban environment.You feel as though the city is miles away. The abandoned Pruitt Igoe lot serves as a symbol for the greater St. Louis area: open land waiting to serve a purpose once again. However, the time has come to think 19
Written by Elaine Stokes Illustration by Margaret Flatley To see a list of the winning and finalists’ proposals, please visit www.pruittigoenow.org
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