by Michael R. Allen
Look at the west face of the 2900 block of North 13th Street in Old North in April 2005. While only one building was occupied, we had a solid, uninterrupted row of historic buildings running from Sullivan Avenue north to Hebert Street. I took this photograph while house hunting, and looked at it frequently to confirm that my decision to purchase a house on Sullivan across the street from Fourth Baptist Church (right at the corner) was a good one. Some would have run away from the prospect of living in close proximity to an unhealthy row, no matter how beautiful its individual buildings were. I was intrigued by the possibility of glorious renewal.
That possibility has closed in the three years since I took the photograph. The building show in the first photograph at right is unchanged, but the west side of the street barely resembles even its scarred former self. Fourth Baptist Church burned on September 20, 2008, and shows severe damage. The four-flat north of the church and its annex was occupied in April 2005 but now is vacant and boarded. Someone stole its cast iron fence a few weeks ago. Beyond that house is the row of city-owned buildings that were hit by partial roof collapse in February 2008 and devastating fire in July 2008. I think that the south side of the row is savable, but the north end is past the point where its salvage is likely. (I do think that its ruined brick walls could become part of new construction.) Past the row, the old Dummitt’s Confectionery building disappeared right after I took this photograph.
The worst case scenario for the west face of this block is loss of all but the four-flat next door to the church. What a strange landscape that would be, but one joining the legions of such obscene wounds throughout Old North, St. Louis Place, JeffVanderLou, The Ville and other north side neighborhoods. No block of mostly-vacant buildings is immune. Possibility is latent in all of the city’s historic architecture, but its realization is not. Realization takes an effort unlike any ever seen in St. Louis before.
Old North is blessed to have residents committed to healing the wounds and a community development corporation that has already healed a few. Many north side residents strive to emulate that energy in their neighborhoods. But the 2900 block of North 13th Street shows us the limits of even the most boundless energy when that energy does not have access to massive capital.
My whole sense of place is changing as the built world across the street from my front door disappears. I still see possibility, but I also sense limits more strongly. Everyone in Old North has lost some part of what defines their place in the world, and some long-time residents barely know what Old North is these days. Yes, neighborhoods are collections of people, but without buildings people have nowhere to live, work, worship or shop. And they leave — along with their money.
Things seem relatively better now only because we lost so much of our near north neighborhoods in the past fifty years. Losing more is unacceptable, and we need to step up our efforts to safeguard what is left — and build back the places for human life that we have lost. Look at what happened to one block, and think about how that process has repeated itself on blocks across the north side for over a half-century. We have lost buildings, people, blocks and entire neighborhoods. In the process, we have let half of the city become the biggest development challenge in the region, and made its resource-deprived residents nearly second-class St. Louisans. Our cultural attitudes and political system enshrine the deprivation of north St. Louis.
When do we make it stop?