by Joe FrankPosted August 2, 2005.
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 Avenue from my house to Geyer Avenue -- not to be confused with Geyer Road in the Kirkwood/Des Peres/Frontenac area. (I did have a detour to Nebraska Ave. for a while, because for two blocks between Sidney Street and Magnolia Avenue, Oregon disappears).
Geyer Avenue 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 on July 30, 2005), 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 McDonald's entrance to Allen Avenue, 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 McDonald'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.
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 Avenue entrance" to the park (an obvious former section of Eads Avenue). 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 Avenue. 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 Avenue leading to St. Vincent Avenue. 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 Avenue. 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.
More About the Un-Urban Eads Park
While on my Saturday afternoon urban hike I didn't bring a camera, here is some pretty recent aerial photography of the area in question.
This image shows South Jefferson Avenue on the far right side (east), Lafayette Avenue on the bottom (south). On the left side (west), most of California Avenue is visible, and on the top (north) is part of Park Avenue.
A few things are evident that I neglected earlier.
1) There are actually tennis courts in Eads Park, which is also known as Eads Square Park. However, the courts look pretty much unused and are in disrepair. The park was dedicated
2) I learned my estimate of "early 1980s" was a little off. About 1/2 the houses in the houses in the St. Vincent Court development (less prosaically called the "Lafayette Towne Resubdivision") were built in 1979; a second phase came in 1987. The north side of the 2600 block of St. Vincent, part of the "Classics of Eads Park" development by Pyramid, was built out from 1997 to 1999.
3) The new Hodgen School, meanwhile, was built in 2000, on the site once occupied by the corrugated metal Hodgen Branch building. The old Hodgen School was extensively renovated in the late 1990s. The Lafayette Habilitation Center building dates to 1985. Eads Square Park was dedicated in 1979.
Here's what the Neighborhood Profile from the 1999 Consolidated Plan says about this area:
[excerpted from section entitled "History"]
"During the late 1960s, a large amount of change took place in the neighborhood. In 1968, the federal government created the 235-subsidy program for home ownership by low-income people. Some unscrupulous real-estate companies took the program as an opportunity for profit. By working on white residents’ fears, these companies bought up homes at a low cost, which they in turn sold or rented to low-income African-American families. This practice, known as "block busting," had a huge impact on the area south of Park as widespread panic ensued. Between 1960 and 1970, the area east of Compton lost 62 percent of its population. By the early 1970s, much of the area’s housing stock had become derelict or been demolished.
"Beginning in the 1970s, a succession of different redevelopment plans for the area arose. The first, 'New Town' from 1973, suggested leveling the area east of Compton and creating a large lake, surrounded by expensive homes, enveloped by a stone wall. Residents in the area formed the Southside Forum in reaction to this plan and together managed to strike it down. By 1975, they had joined forces with the HomeBuilders Association to devise a workable plan for the community. The HomeBuilders Association sponsored the New Town in Town Redevelopment Corporation and created a redevelopment plan for what was now being calling 'Lafayette Towne.' The original plan proposed dramatic restructuring of the street grid into a series of cul-de-sacs, demolition of large amounts of the remaining buildings, construction of single-family homes and apartments, and the creation of communal green spaces connected by walkways.
"Plans for Lafayette Towne continued over the next decade, but residents' hopes dwindled as construction and redevelopment lagged behind the pace of demolition. By the late '80s, Pantheon, which had development rights in the area, had readied large amounts of land for construction, but only a fraction of the area had been redeveloped. Large amounts of vacant land resulted.
"By 1990, there was a new plan for the City to buy the property from Pantheon and redevelop the area as six individual "neighborhoods" making up the Gate District. A highly acclaimed Miami firm was retained by the City to formulate a master plan for the area. The firm's design incorporated the restoration of older buildings with new construction and created six smaller neighborhoods with distinct entrance gates and tiny parks. Problems of communication and agreement led to revision of the plan, hampering its manifestation.
[excerpted from section entitled "Characteristics"]
"The area east of Compton is now referred to as The Gate District East and reflects the series of planning and redevelopment efforts made since the 1970s. The 1990 Gate District Plan divided this area into four smaller neighborhoods: Buder Park, Eads Park, Saint Vincent Park, and Lafayette Terrace. The largest amount of redevelopment over the years have occurred in Buder Park, the area north of Park, and in Eads Park, east of Nebraska between Park and Lafayette.
"Under the earlier plans, Eads Park was created at a cost of $1 million, complete with amphitheater, tennis courts, walkways and swimming pool. Two-story suburban style homes were built around cul-de-sacs just west of the park. As the momentum and funding for the construction of single family homes faltered, subsidized apartment buildings were constructed to the north. These include Caroline Apartments, Hickory Square Apartments, and apartments for the elderly. Most of the housing built during this time period is in good condition. The park, however, is a different story. The closing of streets made the park only accessible via walkways and, in a sense, cut it off from the surrounding community. Today, the amphitheater is underutilized and littered with trash. The tennis courts are in fair condition but also underutilized. The swimming pool has remained unused for at least the last decade; at this point, bulrushes are beginning to grow through the cover.
"A substantial amount of development has occurred in these areas since the 1980s. When the city bought back the redevelopment right to the area from Pantheon, it allowed SLACO and Pyramid to begin projects in The Gate District East. SLACO formed a partnership with the developer, Vatterott, and has built new single family homes between Park and Hickory west of Buder Park.
"In the last three years, Pyramid has constructed new two-story homes in Eads Park. These new developments have brought new residents to the area and have been particularly successful in attracting African-American professionals. Today this area is a mixture of older brick buildings, development that has taken place since the 1970s, vacant land, and newly constructed housing developments. Large portions of vacant land still exist to the west of Eads Park in the St. Vincent Park area and along Lafayette Terrace, the area south of Eads Park."
Most of that author's comments are still accurate today about the condition of the city park. I can't figure out where the amphitheater was, however; I see no visible evidence of a stage or anything resembling such. However, there is a fire hydrant smack dab in the middle of the park, where Ohio Avenue used to be.