Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Destruction of the Urban Environment

I am generally a fan of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs - except for that comment that the water towers in St. Louis "no longer hold water tanks" -- they never did! They're standpipes for pressure relief.

In any event, I was walking in South City today and saw a number of things that reminded me of the warnings Ms. Jacobs gave us all in the 1950s. I was walking, specifically, through parts of Fox Park, the Gate District, and Compton Heights.

First, I strolled up Oregon Ave. from my house to Geyer Ave. -- not to be confused with Geyer Rd. in the Kirkwood/Des Peres/Frontenac area. (I did have a detour to Nebraska Ave. for a while, because for two blocks between Sidney St. and Magnolia Ave., Oregon disappears).

Geyer Ave. is an east-west street in Compton Heights, Fox Park, and McKinley Heights that practically serves as a south outer road to Interstate 44. Jacobs fought against highway construction in Manhattan; in St. Louis, though, I-44 was built (and indeed, only opened in the mid-1970s!) straight through neighborhoods.

I-44 and its grassy right-of-way take up a nearly one-block wide path, and since there are no sound walls in the City of St. Louis along interstates, much of the adjacent property is not especially appealing for its original use -- residential. As a result, large swaths of property on the north side of Geyer, and some spots on the south side of Geyer, are either long-vacant buildings or just occasionally mowed vacant lots. It was particularly evident that where houses once stood, there is now just traffic, because at the time (about 1:45 PM today), traffic was backed up for miles on I-44 eastbound and the highways it feeds, I-55 northbound and the Poplar Street Bridge, because of construction and probably an accident or two caused by the construction traffic.

This destruction of the urban fabric is particularly true of the section in Fox Park, from Nebraska to Jefferson. Indeed, it is perhaps telling that on the Nebraska end, adjacent to Compton Heights, Geyer no longer exists for a half-block. Not only was the street closed, it was grassed over from Nebraska to the alley between Nebraska and Oregon.

And, at the Jefferson end, Geyer also no longer exits the neighborhood. Instead, where Geyer once entered Jefferson is the base of the I-44 eastbound exit ramp, and a tiny little stretch of sidewalk to allow neighborhood residents to access the McDonald's located adjacent to the ramp.

Ok, I have to confess, my luncheon destination was that very McDonald's. Yes, I realize McDonald's is a beneficiary of the suburbanization of America, and its products are far from health food. But, sometimes I just get a craving for a Filet O' Fish!

From my window seat at Mickey-D's, I had a strategic vantage point to observe:
1) The incredibly slow and heavy traffic making its way east on I-44 atop the Jefferson underpass. The primary congestion was clearly in the middle two lanes of the five that exist in that stretch (the far left lane ends unceremoniously between Jefferson and 18th Street; the next one over exits at 18th (er, um, Truman Parkway; the middle two lanes go onto I-55 north and the PSB; the far right lane goes to I-55 south).
2) Several police cars exiting I-44 east at Jefferson to pull over two tractor-trailers which somehow had an accident, or something. Since the tractor-trailers took up the entire curbline from the McD's entrance to Allen Ave., one of the officers parked awkwardly - with all lights flashing, at least - in that
little space between the bottom of the I-44 exit right turn lane, and the McD's entrance.
3) The many pictures of old St. Louis inside the restaurant dining room. I thought - Wow. It is entirely possible that this place, being adjacent to the highway and near downtown, could be a traveler's first or even only impression of 'downtown' St. Louis. Now isn't that a scary thought!

Anyway, after dining I headed out under the scary highway to the amazingly lovely Carnegie-endowed, Theodore Link-designed Barr Branch Library. Although the shelves seemed less well-stocked than when I was there last, the computers were hopping, and there was a little performance area in the children's area I hadn't noticed before. I had a little conversation with an elderly lady about Joseph Cotten; the lady was there for the 3:30 movie show downstairs. Indeed, the downstairs space is quite nice and modern, with a large auditorium and a meeting room with a sink and counter space.

After thumbing through the newspaper and a few other things, I decided to go exploring in the Gate District; specifically the Eads Park area, which is part of the Gate District East. This is when I saw some of the greatest affronts to urban design and respect for our heritage. I wasn't entirely surprised, but these were areas through which I had never walked, because they are kind of cordoned off and isolated from the surrounding community.

Some observations:
1) Once you turn off Lafayette Ave. onto Ohio Ave. north of Lafayette, you're pretty much in the suburbs, at least after you pass the old commercial/warehouse buildings on both corners occupied by Bob Cassilly's shop. From the rather confusing map on the neighborhood website, I believe this is the approximate entry to the Eads Park district.

2) I was shocked and confused to discover that Henrietta St. directly in front of the old Hodgen Elementary School has been closed, and made part of the new Hodgen Elementary School schoolyard - but still entirely asphalt-paved, of course. This makes the old building, which I believe was for sale, significantly less marketable, since its original front entrance no longer has street access.

Between this and the adjacent low-rise group home called Lafayette Habilitation Center and the four or five story section-8 Eads Park Apartments across the way, this block of Henrietta is pretty much just a cul-de-sac to serve institutional parking lots.

3) But I wanted to find the actual park in Eads Park. To do so, I cut through the side of the new Hodgen school property to access the "California Ave. entrance" to the park (an obvious former section of Eads Ave.). I was disappointed, to say the least. While there is new playground equipment, it is located as far from any homes as humanly possible, near the back of the now-closed Foodland Warehouse Foods (formerly National Supermarkets; then Schnucks for a few months) on Jefferson Ave. It's also been vandalized a little bit already.

The other access route into the park from the neighborhood is another obvious former street, a section of Ohio Ave. leading to St. Vincent Ave. At this 'corner' we can also see what seemingly was a community pool, but which is currently closed-up. Perhaps the subdivision association couldn't afford the liability insurance anymore? I'm not sure, but the service building sits boarded up on St. Vincent, and the pool tightly fenced in, adjacent to the park but with "No Trespassing" signs.

4) Eads Park - the park - has no relationship at all with the neighboring properties. They all back to it; none of them face it. This is because the park was cobbled together in the early 1980s by closing some streets and adding a few vacant lots behind a grocery store where nobody would ever buy a house, anyway.

The houses that back to Eads Park are, too, highly suburban in style and incredibly anachronistic given the nearby beautiful Victorians in Lafayette Square, and the similarly amazing homes in Compton Heights. I think they were thrown up in the early 1980s, too, and they look it - several have siding that appears to have mold problems. They all have wide driveways entering directly on the street; most have two-car garages attached; and many are located on two cul-de-sacs attached to the south side of St. Vincent Ave. Most also are situated on tiny, oddly-shaped lots. In short, a replica of Ballwin or Oakville, but located just minutes from downtown.

Meanwhile, across the street are historic replicas built in the past decade by Pyramid Construction. They seem quite odd, across the street from the attempted suburbs. They have much larger lots than the 1980s houses; indeed, I think my house would probably fit into the space between them. Nevertheless, that would certainly appeal to many buyers, and the historic replica look isn't done too badly. Admittedly, many only have fascia brick on the front facade, with all three other sides done in vinyl siding. It's particuarly ugly when you see a right or left facade with all vinyl siding and no windows at all, but a 30-foot wide side yard. I don't understand the rationale for not including any windows on those side facades - energy conservation, perhaps? A few windows would, at least, soften the look a little bit.

Later, I cut through the block of Henrietta Place from California to Nebraska, which was mostly spared from the demolitions in the 1970s. The "Place" thing is kind of cheesy, but I guess the address "10 Henrietta Place" sounds a lot fancier than "2810 Henrietta Avenue", which probably was the same building's old address. The houses on this block are mostly attractive and old; and even some of the recent new construction is well-considered. Some of it isn't, but on balance, it's a pretty nice block.

Then I saw the front facade of the new Hodgen Elementary School - which faces California and takes up the entire space from Eads (or where it used to be, anyway) to Henrietta (or where it used to be, anyway). This is a very suburban-looking building, but at least it is two stories. I'm still troubled by its seemingly adversarial relationship with the building it replaced, but I guess they had to put a play yard somewhere. However, I did notice the old Hodgen play yard, at the corner of Lafayette and California, which I assume now is largely unused.

Later, I strolled past the stately homes, also on very large lots, on Hawthorne and Milton in Compton Heights, which made me feel a lot better about urban architecture. I continued south on Nebraska, admittedly a bit of a dodgy stretch in places, but where most of the architecture is lovely, even if the behaviors evident are not. I stopped at QuikTrip - another modern car-culture icon, but also the most convenient store to my house in this instance - then strolled past St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, where 4:00 mass was about to start.

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