by Michael R. Allen
Over the weekend, several friends alerted my attention to a rather naive essay in the Daily Mail showing “abandoned” St. Louis buildings. Two of these friends own one of the houses depicted in the arresting images by Demond Meek thay provoked the articles, entitled “City of ghosts: Haunting abandoned buildings of St Louis after the city’s population FELL by 70 per cent in a century”. These friends are rehabbing a small house in Old North St. Louis that may seem neglected to a passer-by lacking the local knowledge that helps differentiate the holdings of slumlords and city agencies from the hopeful projects of urban caretakers.
The Daily Mail article makes a generic argument about St. Louis not caring about its beautiful buildings, but its reporter chose the wrong photographs to make that point. The first image used shows a building in the 1500 block of Palm Avenue owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority, but available for rehab through a partnership between LRA and the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. The second photograph depicts the massive Second Empire Loler Residence at 2135-37 St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis Place, dating to 1871 and definitely in need of care. Yet that need is partially addressed by a new historic district designation for St. Louis Place that makes rehabilitation tax credits available for the house.
The other houses include my friends’ “cottage”, a few buildings owned by Northside Regeneration LLC — which now apparently is studying rehabilitation of many buildings — a foreclosure or two, some LRA-owned houses and even one house on Chambers Avenue in Old North that is occupied. I wonder whether an the residents of that house have seen the essay and what they would make of being included in an international chronicle of the ravages of abandonment. Whoever they are, their presence is keeping that building off of the list of endangered north side homes.
A few years ago, the New York Times used a photograph of Old North St. Louis to demonstrate the ravages of abandonment in this city. Oops. The photograph that august paper chose for its urban-decay-in-St. Louis article showed a historic two-story house at the corner of Monroe and 13th streets. Today, that house has been stabilized and made ready for rehabilitation by the Old North St. Louis Restoration group using a grant from a large national bank. Oops, again.
I doubt that the Daily Mail will follow up on its article, but if it does it should look again. Behind some of the buildings in this weekend’s articles are people who care about the future of the buildings depicted. Their stories would add some complexity to the supposed ruins, and some sense of moral urgency. Perhaps readers in London can afford to sublimate the gaze upon vacant St. Louis buildings, but St. Louisans cannot — and, largely, do not. The real story, underreported even locally, is that people do care about these buildings.