by Michael R. Allen
It’s late in January and I find myself slipping on the ice. I am walking down a deserted city street that runs near an abandoned industrial complex. Few cars travel this street, but luckily one has driven here recently, or I wouldn’t have the fortune of walking in the tire tracks that save me from a fall. Still, I can’t avoid slipping every few minutes.
Why am I enduring this desolate and dangerous walk on one of the coldest winter days of this season? I am looking for access to the Mississippi River in the city of Saint Louis. Such a search requires patience even when one knows where to go, as I do. Beyond the public and dirty river access provided at the levee parking lot at the foot of the Arch grounds, all other access points require a little bit of walking.
There is an almost-inaccessible short promenade at the foot of Bellerive Park, but the last time that I tried to go there I found construction equipment in my way. Technically, that promenade is the only park in the city that offers access to Old Man River. It’s odd that the city doesn’t even post any signs in upper Bellerive Park pointing out how to get to the riverside.
Yet its even more odd that a city with a riverboat on its city seal, that was a pivotal seat in the river-based exploration of the Western United States and that was once a prosperous inland port does almost nothing to point out that the Mississippi River is more than just an iconic legend around here. Even Downtown Now’s new signs, which readily point out places where people can spend money, do not point out how to get to a place where one can sit by the peaceful flow of muddy water that was so important to the city’s founding and commercial development.
Signs really wouldn’t help much, though, because they could only point to access that doesn’t exist. Much of the riverfront in the city consists of concrete floor walls or industrial tracts such as my favorite river-watching spot. And the ostensibly grand civic riverfront of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has been host to burger barges and a shabby surface parking lot in the last twenty years. City planners have gradually cleared the riverfront of moored vessels, but they have never studies moving the parking lot.
South of the Arch grounds, one can walk though the usually-open gates on the flood wall and get to the river, but then the whole sense of the urban world disappears as one stands between a tall wall and a river. This is a bit more intimate spot than the access offered in front of the Arch grounds and Laclede’s Landing. There are no cars. But then again, there aren’t likely to be any people and hence the experience is rather cold. Engineering thwarts the potential for an urban river outlook.
Elsewhere in the city, people don’t have many choices. The north riverfront trail offers many good vantage points and in a few places provides points of access. These points, however, entail walking down banks and even trespassing. They aren’t fully public. Around the Chain of Rocks Bridge, once can get fairly close to the thicket of trees and foliage growing near the riverbank, but without a machete won’t get too far.
Then there is my favorite place, which I want to keep a secret. This place is not easy to get to, but it provides a clear vantage point far from automobiles and flood walls. I can see the city behind me and the river in front of me, and I can sit down and listen to the river. I don’t feel good about having to keep this place private, but it’s not my choice. Like 96% of the rest of the city’s riverfront, it is not a public space in the eyes of the law. Of course, all of the riverfront is natural public space. The Mississippi is the city’s greatest natural resource, despite its forces removal from the lives of Saint Louisans.
We have turned our backs on the Mississippi River because it no longer is the backbone of our commerce. Like the railroads, the river is a commercial casualty of the interstate highway. But that’s fine, because the river is a natural force that would much rather beckon weary city dwellers to its peaceful banks on a cold January day than be clogged with steamboats and barges. It’s time for us to cooperate.
by Michael R. Allen
And so if perforce we must study disease let us study it systematically. I cannot indicate to you the precise nature of that constitutional social disturbance of which our architecture is symptomatic; but little by little I will reveal to you the hidden causes and make clear and palpable to you the aspects and nature of the malady.
– Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats
There is so much empty land that in some places the city seems to have ceased to exist.
– Camilo Jose Vergara, The New American Ghetto
This project documents the disease of abandonment of the built environment and its treatment. We aim to reveal the odd interaction of social and ecological forces that lead people to build, abandon and reclaim buildings and structures. Thus, we draw upon the fields of history, urban archaeology, ecology, sociology and architecture to investigate the troubled urban areas of the Midwest.
Ecology of Absence originally was supposed to be a book about the social and ecological lives of abandoned places in the metropolitan area of Saint Louis, Missouri. The project quickly grew into the present website, which presents visual and textual information in an attempt to present abandonment as a systematic occurrence that is shaped by political decision-making, economic circumstances and natural forces. Ecology of Absence also documents the recovery and demolition of buildings, as well as other matters pertaining to architecture and development in and around St. Louis, East St. Louis and other cities that we will begin to cover in the future.
We are interested in developing a critique of the contemporary condition of American cities, and thus transcend each limit that we set. Setting out to photograph and write about interesting abandoned buildings, we realized that such documentation — like each building itself — lacked urgency without being set in its context. We did not want to capture only the beauty of decay, but provoke people into addressing the massive and unsustainable decay of a city like St. Louis.
Ecology of Absence aims to provide an information source for people who envision cities as sustainable places where people’s needs are met. Thus, the project promotes ecologically-sound building practices and the recovery of abandoned sites for public welfare while opposing gentrification, land-banking and the further destruction of inner cities. We document abandoned places to pinpoint that moment of disuse before which these places are transformed again through restoration or destruction. At this moment, buildings and structures are full of information (things left behind) and ripe for contemplation.
Yet the moment of disuse is also the moment at which these places can be reclaimed. The question of who gets to reclaim these places is a political one, and we do not shy away from investigating this question as part of our research of each site. All architecture is the containment of space and is fraught with political decisions from the start: Who contains the space? Which space gets contained? Who gets to inhabit the contained space? The current crisis in older American cities demands that any meaningful documentation invest itself in these political questions. Our documentation carries with it a bias in favor of the people who are being left behind by and forced out of the speculative reclamation of cities.
In the end, Ecology of Absence may become a comprehensive project on the abandonment and reclamation of certain Midwestern American cities. For now, it remains deeply engaged in the investigation of the particular places that we encounter in our daily lives.
by Michael R. Allen
LOCATION: 526 East Catalan Street; Patch/Carondelet; Saint Louis, Missouri
NAMES: Laclede Gas and Light Coal Gassification Plant (1902-1950); Great Lakes Carbon Coke Plant (1950-1980); Carondelet Coke Plant (1980-present)
DATES OF CONSTRUCTION: Earlier smaller buildings, 1902; large buildings, 1915; various structures, 1916-1980
DATES OF ABANDONMENT: 1987 – present
OWNERS: Laclede Gas and Light Company (1902-1950); SG Carbon (1950-82); Carondelet Coke Corporation (1982-1989); Land Reutilization Authority (since 1989)
Aerial view from around 1950.
Around 1858, the Vulcan Iron Works opened on the eastern part of the site now known as the Carondelet Coke Plant. This site was bounded by Catalan Street on the north, the Mississippi River on the east, the River Des Peres on the south and railroad tracks on the west. This plant produced iron from ore, and was one of the first such concerns on the south riverfront of St. Louis. The plant was served by the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad, whose line remains in use today by Union Pacific. North of Vulcan Iron Works, on the site recently home to St. Louis Ship, stood the works of the Carondelet Marine Railway. The marine railway conveyed boats out of the river via rail cars that went under the keels while the boats were in the river and then brought them onto dry land for repairs. The works existed from the 1850s onward. During the Civil War, the Marine Railway became home to a new use: construction of gunboats for the Union war effort. Engineer James Buchanan Eads leased the works, which became known as Eads’ Union Marine Works or the Union Iron-Works. His company became St. Louis Ship-Federal Barge, which closed around 2001.
The 1883 Hopkins fire insurance map shows the Vulcan Iron Works site occupied by the St. Louis Ore and Steel Company, owned by Western Steel Company. The map shows blast furnaces, a converting mill, a rail mill and a bloomery and bar mill on the site. The Western Iron Boat Building Company had a facility just north of there and south of the Carondelet Marine Railway Site. Early on, iron ore from southeast Missouri was a valuable thing, but when better deposits were found around Lake Superior, the Missouri iron industry shrank. Laclede Gas and Light Company purchased the site in 1902 for the purposes of building a coal gasification plant. Coal gasification breaks down coal into various gaseous components, which at that time were needed for the household gas much of the city used for lighting and cooking.
Coal gasification produces many other valuable byproducts, including coke, and utility companies engaging in early gasification efforts began creating co-generation facilities that would produce both gas needed for household use and coke needed for steel production. In 1915, Laclede Gas and Light built new buildings designed by the noted firm Mauran, Russell & Crowell and installed new equipment at their plant on Catalan Street. This expansion created gave the plant coke production abilities on par with major coke ovens in other cities. The operation continued after natural gas became a much cheaper source for household gas than gasification. In 1950, Laclede Gas and Light sold the plant to the Great Lakes Carbon Company, which concentrated on coke production. The company operated the plant for thirty years before selling to local owners organized as the Carondelet Coke Corporation.
In 1987, Carondelet Coke Corporation closed the coke works, which had been mentioned in a US Environmental Protection Agency report that asserted that coke works were the most carcinogenic type of American industrial facility. By 1989, unpaid taxes led to the property’s being acquired by the city of St. Louis’ Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). At forty acres, the plant became the largest property owned by the LRA. LRA solicited sales from time to time, but with contamination levels high, could not find a responsible buyer. The flood of 1993 washed across the grounds, spreading slag and coke piles across the eastern part of the site and knocking down a few structures.
Over the years, the site of robust industry returned to first nature as vegetation and animals took over the site. Youth found the site a good place for exploration and rabble-rousing. Some brave squatters moved in. Yet almost twenty years after the plant closed, in 2006, the city of St. Louis finally found a developer willing to remake the site. The plan calls for demolition of all structures and construction of light industrial buildings.
This postcard view is looking east toward East St. Louis. The St. Louis-side road deck in the foreground remains.
This week, workers were demolishing more of the East St. Louis road approach to the the MacArthur Bridge (originally the Municipal Free Bridge, and opened in 1917). The road deck has been closed since 1982.
LOCATION: 5858 & 5859 Clemens Avenue; Saint Louis, Missouri
DATES OF CONSTRUCTION: 1963 (two-story building); 1967 (one-story building)
DATE OF ABANDONMENT: 1994
DATE OF DEMOLITION: 2007
OWNER: People’s Health Center, Inc.
This drab set of school buildings, across the street from each other, sit empty on a block that is rapidly being transformed. The St. Louis Public Schools built these buildings to relieve overcrowding at the original Hamilton Elementary School, 5819 Westminster. The district closed the branch school in the 1994 round of school closings. Private developers are building new — albeit anti-urban — homes in the 5800 blocks of Clemens, Enright and Cates. People’s Health Center has purchased the former school buildings for conversion to use as a neighborhood health center.
Photographs from August 2003 by Michael R. Allen
Added July 2004