Cherokee Street Historic Preservation Old North Shaw

Cities Change, But Big Projects Remain the Same

by Michael R. Allen

The dean of New York history, Kenneth T. Jackson, recently published a salvo in the New York Times intended to advance the argument that New York’s neighborhood preservation movement was stifling the city’s chance to build new high rises. In his article “Gotham’s Towering Ambitions” Jackson argued that without new office buildings, New York could fall behind other global cities.

This week, Roberta Brandes Gratz published a very sensible, lyrical response to Jackson in The Huffington Post (“Urban Change to Believe In”. Gratz challenged Jackson’s view, arguing that New York has experienced a transformative change without giant new buildings –and that change is more impactful and long-lasting. In fact, Gratz argues that those voices Jackson called obstructionist actually are at the forefront of celebrating urban change.

“[I]t is time to celebrate the new kind of change that manages growth by balancing old and new and recognizes that the new derives its value from existing in the midst of the old,” writes Gratz, in an essay that captures what actually covers a larger context than just Manhattan. The larger context is the future of the American legacy city, and the past few decades of incremental urban change that has stabilized cities once in free fall.

Accrued urban change on Cherokee Street.

While St. Louis is several shades removed from the cosmopolitan metropolis of New York, the lilt of development debate has a few parallels. While New York is a high-demand market, St. Louis city remains fairly low-demand. In fact, we may still be losing residents. Yet our mythology of growth keeps city officials chasing big projects – not skyscrapers, but strip malls, warehouses, entertainment “districts,” and occasionally sports facilities. None of these projects seems to be very good at embracing the existing city fabric, and we are often told than none can afford to be – X number of jobs is more important than anything else.

The rallying cry in St. Louis is not a Jacksonian ode to the skyscraper jungle we could become, but rather the hegemonic official searches for “jobs” and “retail.” As Jackson criticized preservationists, St. Louis developers and officials are prone to blame a similar crowd — preservationists, urban design activists, boulevardiers — for the supposed push-back on projects like Northside Regeneration and City+Arch+River. In both cities, the supposed rabble of agenda-pushing activists actually looks more like average citizens demanding accountability and protection of their neighborhood quality of life. At the recent TIF Commission hearing on Northside Regeneration, none of the speakers against the project — panned as “barking dogs” by the developer — was a preservation or urban design activist.

The powers that want-to-be succeeded in attaining green lights for Ballpark Village, Northside Regeneration and City+Arch+River. If anything, the rallying against elements of these projects ultimately had little impact. Certainly, critical voices have been accused of tampering with all three of these projects, yet in the end the slow pace is only the fault of the projects’ own designers — and the forces of the real estate market. Perhaps people just don’t want these projects in the same way they want rehabbed houses on tree-lined streets, or restaurants in imaginatively adapted spaces, or small-scale public spaces like Citygarden that are based on delightful experience. Why do officials keep chasing the urbanist magic bullets in the name of economic growth, when these projects aren’t truly growing the city?

Gratz points out that New York’s meteoric spreading gentrification, which transformed a late mid-century SoHo loft trickle into a multi-borough flood, balanced and slow development has made the city more liveable and the values of buildings higher. The same dynamic, ever-slower, operates in St. Louis. The city’s evident comeback has little relation to mega-projects. Neighborhood revitalization has had few subsidies and little in the way of political favors. That’s why it makes so much economic sense — it is demand-driven and has an output greater than its cost.

Sudden urban change’s worst case scenario in St. Louis looks like Ballpark Village.

While city leaders decimated row houses in Mill Creek Valley for short-lived low-density urban “renewal” in the 1950s and 1960s, rehabbers set into motion long-term, sustainable reclamation of Soulard, Lafayette Square and the Central West End. Decades later, that momentum is evident in the spread of stabilized fabric, and in the amount of infill construction taking aim at the empty spaces in the early rehab neighborhoods. Earlier rehabber protections in the form of historic district ordinances are accommodating of change, too. I live in Shaw, where we have a local historic district with fairly strict standards. Two blocks away, in a few months some very different contemporary housing will rise as DeTonty Commons — and the Preservation Board approved the project after some careful review against our local historic district standards.

Today, from Cherokee Street to Old North to Fountain Park to Bevo, people are still doing the same thing: rehabbing houses, opening small businesses, and rebuilding the density of activity the neighborhoods’ architectural frameworks still can support. The litany of hot-shot big-ticket projects, from St. Louis Centre to Chouteau’s Lake, have either failed to survive despite high subsidy or have never materialized at all. The supposed game-changing projects of today languish, and force their success stories through mediocre over-priced “development” that likely removes more tax dollars than it ever returns.

Drastic change, represented by Northside Regeneration’s computer model. Where are the people?

The city’s only new high-rise built during the market boom, downtown’s Roberts Tower, was completed only to sit empty before going to foreclosure. Meanwhile, the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market grows and thrives amid the influx of families to the area around Tower Grove Park in south city. The McRee Town neighborhood, just twelve years ago considered one of the city’s most dangerous parts, now boasts a patisserie across the street from a wine bar in a converted gas station. Picnic tables and benches in O’Fallon Park are hard to come by following major park improvements in the last years, and that is not even when the annual summer concerts are going. All over the city, incremental change has built community, while high-cost development has either floundered or simply supported changes already underway.

Citizens who are skeptical of big fixes for their cities, in St. Louis or New York, aren’t naysayers. They are stewards of the gradual transformation of legacy cities that is ground-level, economic and communitarian. They embrace change. These are people who say yes to continuing to develop cities in ways that are responsive to their users, so that the profits of development are socially distributed rather than individually concentrated. Development is not inherently a threat to smart urban growth, but when it ignores actual economic demand and social needs, it can be everyone’s worst enemy.

New Yorkers may see tall towers as a threat. In St. Louis, the biggest threat to sustainable change is more likely embodied in the Ballpark Village parking lot. If the vernacular red brick building has become the symbol of what St. Louis adores, it’s not so much because of nostalgia or fanaticism — it’s because that building represents a bona fide economic and visual asset built at a human scale (not an ethereal promise based on a profit motive or an inflated sense of civic identity). The alternative often is too ugly to love. As Gratz writes, “Change worth celebrating values the distinguished and ever functional old and shuns the new for the sake of what’s new, too often banal and surely big.”

Slow change, as represented by the intersection of Euclid and Maryland in the Central West End. Streets for people, and even new buildings.

Architect and friend Ann Wimsatt often talks about the “four corners” urbanism that St. Louisans like, embodied best perhaps by the intersection of Euclid and Maryland avenues. There, the intersection is held by four historic buildings, none higher than four stories and three of which are brick. All have wide ground-level storefronts, which are full of activity into the night. Here, the buildings are supporting human activity — buying, selling, shopping, dining, conversing — in approachable forms. Anything new that could be as functional, attractive, storied and beloved as that intersection would be a hit in St. Louis. Perhaps city officials hear the voices at public meetings as growls, but I hear them as odes to the urbanism that works — and that we already have.

Cherokee Street Gravois Park South St. Louis

Foreclosures and Demolition in Gravois Park

by Michael R. Allen

Vacant lots silently are starting to multiply on the city’s “state streets,” especially in parts of Gravois Park and Dutchtown between promising business districts on Cherokee Street and Meramec Avenue. Even worse are the innumerable signs of future trauma: bleached-red plywood, windows gasping through shards of broken glass, front doors hung ajar, downspouts and gutter pans already smelted in blast furnaces outside Beijing and weeds that cannot be cut enough to stay low. While much attention has been shed on vacancy’s impact on the north side, the south side is showing the signs of a future crisis.

Foreclosure has been a huge factor making neglect more difficult to sustain. As waves of investors abandoned underwater multi-family buildings, the vacancy rates soared in Benton Park West, Gravois Park, Dutchtown and other neighborhoods. In 2008, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city a $5.6 million grant to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed homes. Under the direction of then-Deputy Mayor for Development Barbara Geisman, the city’s Community Development Administration targeted those funds in Gravois Park, Benton Park West and Dutchtown. At the time, the city projected the purchase of 87 homes and an application to receive $10 million toward purchasing 231 more.

3006-8 Cherokee Street in 2003. Image from Geo St. Louis.
Benton Park West Cherokee Street Gravois Park PRO Collection South St. Louis

Cherokee Street Decorated for the Holidays, 1940s

by Michael R. Allen

Undated photograph showing the view down Cherokee Street east from Iowa Avenue. Preservation Research Office Collection.

These two photographs from our collection show two eastward views from the late 1940s down Cherokee Street around Christmas time. Amid the wreaths decorating street lights are an array of shoppers and so many projecting store signs that a count seems impossible. These photographs really make clear how much signs and marquees are visually interesting and worthy parts of the historic built environment, unfortunately now discouraged or effectively outlawed in commercial districts by zoning and local historic district ordinances. (Apparently turning on a stopped historic clock on Cherokee Street is even controversial to the city government, despite the clock’s clear role in the physical fabric.) An exact date for these two photographs, taken on the same roll of film, has not been determined but visual information likely set the year between 1945 and 1950.

Also present is the tension between modes of transportation. The streetcar, whose sign reads “Jefferson Line” in the photograph above, is dominant in the center of the street, but parked automobiles outnumber the streetcars and their rider capacity. Soon they would be the only motor vehicles on Cherokee Street.

Above, we see the Casa Loma Ballroom at left in its present appearance, which dates to reconstruction following a fire in 1940. The Dau Furniture Company marquee at left projects from a lavishly-detailed terra cotta front on the building at 2720 Cherokee (1926, Wedemeyer & Nelson). To its right is part of the former Cherokee Brewery. Almost every building in this scene still remains.

Undated photograph showing the view down Cherokee Street east from Ohio Avenue. Preservation Research Office Collection.

To the east at Ohio Avenue, the view is even more abundant with blade signs touting various stores and companies on Cherokee Street. The northeast corner building, now home to Los Caminos gallery, was the the home of the South Side Journal. Frank X. Bick founded the newspaper in 1932, and it is now part of the Suburban Journals with an office in West County. Other signs include those for Fairchild’s and Stone Bros. attached the a now-vacant building once operated by Anheuser-Busch as the Kaiserhoff, and one in the far background for Ziegenhein Bros. Livery & Undertaking Company. Visible diagonally across the street from Ziegehein Bros.’ building is the sign of 905 Liquors, housed at Cherokee and Texas in what became the home of Globe Drugs. At the time this photograph was taken, murals by artist J.B. Turnbull adorned the walls of that particular location of 905.

Benton Park Carondelet Cherokee Street Marine Villa North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe South St. Louis

St. Louis Mythory Tour

Emily Hemeyer helps two people assemble their zines at the Mythory Tour.

On Friday, as part of the epic Southern Graphics Council (SGC) Convention night on Cherokee Street, the St. Louis Mythory Tour made its debut. An expanded version will return soon, as will a new edition of the ‘zine guidebook, printed in a limited edition of 70 for Friday.

St Louis Mythory Tour
a collaborative tour and zine making workshop
by Emily Hemeyer & Michael R. Allen
May 12th, 2011. 6-9pm. Cherokee ReAL Garden. Cherokee Street. St Louis, MO

“[M]yth is speech stolen and restored.”
-Roland Barthes, Mythologies


The built environment of St. Louis reveals itself through our observations, often clouded by nostalgia, ideology and comparison. We look around us and see inscriptions of what we imagine St. Louis to be, be that a “red brick mama”, an emergent Rust Belt powerhouse, a faded imperial capital or simply our home. St. Louis offers back its own narrative mythologies, presented through chains of linked sites with collective meanings. We quickly find that the city’s own presentation of itself is as veiled as our own observation. There is no one St. Louis, but there is no one archetypal St. Louisan.

The Mythtory Tour imagines a landscape of accrued building that has been neglected, in physical form and human consciousness. This tour presents one possible mythology of place centered on traditions of construction converging across disparate neighborhoods and many generations in order to show us St. Louis. Whether you can find this city out there is irrelevant, because using this map you will find some city worth your love and respect.

View St. Louis Mythory Tour in a larger map


Sugarloaf Mound, 4420 Ohio Street

Stone House, 124 E. Steins Street

Lemp Brewery, southeast corner of Cherokee & Lemp streets

Pruitt-Igoe Site, Southeast Corner of Cass and Jefferson Avenues

Kingshighway Viaduct, Kingshighway Boulevard Between Vandeventer and Shaw

Cherokee Cave, Under Cherokee Street at DeMenil Place

U.S.S. Inaugural, Foot of Rutger Street

(Full descriptions and photographs of each location are available in the guidebook. Those interested in ordering a copy can contact Michael Allen at

Benton Park West Cherokee Street Gravois Park PRO Collection South St. Louis

1950s Parade Scene, Cherokee at Compton

by Michael R. Allen

In November, we acquired a collection of 209 black and white amateur photographs taken in and around St. Louis between 1930 and 1980. Most of the photographs are from the 1950s and a large number feature parade scenes. Today we post two taken by the same photographer on the same date showing the intersection of Cherokee and Compton streets in south St. Louis.

A parade heading west on Cherokee Street near Compton Avenue in the 1950s. Photographs from the Preservation Research Office Collection.
The same view today.

The view in the first photograph shows the north side of the 3100 block of Cherokee Street toward the west end.  At right are the buildings now housing Tower Tacos (3149 Cherokee) and Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts (3151).  At left is the larger corner building where Peridot and the StyleHouse, housing clothing purveyors and St. Louis patriots STL Style and Lighthouse Design.  Kuhn Upholstering Company is long gone.  The Fort Gondo and Tower Taco buildings have lost their shaped front parapets.  Overall, however, the view remains remarkably the same.

The parade turned south onto Compton Avenue from Cherokee Street.
The same view today.

The second view looks north on Compton Avenue. Again, little has changed in the fifty-odd years since the parade passed by — just the removal of awnings. Even parades still pass by on Cherokee Street, at least around every Cinco de Mayo.

Cherokee Street Events

People’s Joy Parade

by Michael R. Allen

I missed much of the People’s Joy Parade on Saturday by driving in the Cinco de Volvo contingent. Yet finding myself on a Monday morning wanting the parade to be never-ending, I am going to share a few photographs that I managed to take during the amazing event.

One of the best things about the People’s Joy Parade was the route. We started on Cherokee, but with two blocks closed for the Cinco de Mayo program, we had to head north on Nebraska to Utah and then came back down Iowa. That means we went straight in front of the houses of many people who simply came out to the front porch with neighbors and friends to watch the madness. If only thsi could happen every weekend, all over the city!

There are more photographs here and I am sure more will be posted. But if all you have are photographs to show you what happened, you need to find a stoop or a curb next year and see the People’s Joy Parade for yourself.

Cherokee Street Media South St. Louis

Cherokee Street Chronicles

by Michael R. Allen

Lindsey Scott and Jason Deem sent out news that there are two new websites chronicling the vibrant life of Cherokee Street, the city’s most diverse and lively neighborhood commercial district:

Cherokee Street News, a blog.

Cherokee Street Photos, already featuring hundreds of photographs, including historic images.

Cherokee Street South St. Louis

An Obituary

by Jason Wallace Triefenbach, Special to Ecology of Absence

Last night was the final one for Radio Cherokee.

How was it?

Short answer:

After Bill Ward, Galen may be my favorite drummer.

Long answer:

I only stayed for five minutes.

I stay in a lot. I don’t go to shows much, even the ones that feature great inspirational bands I clung to in the abyss of youth, when life and death, joy and agony seemed to hang precariously between the second and third chord of any number of crunchy, mysanthropic punk songs. My friends later berate me for missing these and other shows, but lately I prefer a few bottles of beer or wine in the quietude of my own home to the hipster parade of rock clubs and dance halls. No matter.

The point is, my wife and I were on our way home from a small gathering of friends when I got a phone message from Galen, informing me of Radio Cherokee’s impending implosion. So we swung the car around and headed back the way we had come- back towards the tree littered darkness of Cherokee Street.

The music was good- inspired even- but I couldn’t help but concentrate more on my other senses. The smell of the room and the people around me- the sweat dripping down my leg… the whir of antique fans given a renewed lease by the proprietors of the establishment. The room was awash in memory. So I had my moment of reflection, repeated to myself a few words some might call a poem or a prayer, and departed.

I’ve missed, I’m sure, many great shows there. But I’m grateful for the many I attended, and even the mediocre or horrible ones.

You see, what is at stake here, what has for the time being fallen on the field of ongoing battle, is much more than just a hole in the wall hangout for lovers of obscure musical genres and weird pop. There is an invisible divide in American culture; one that runs much deeper than politics or religion. Whether or not you, friend reader, enjoyed the bands and performers you may have seen there, you were given, every time you stepped through the door, an opportunity much too rarified of late: moments of participation in what was once upon a time called The Underground. Radio Cherokee was a place where you would never see a Camel rep scanning your friends’ IDs. There were no beer baron logos flashing into the night, no Jagermeister Girls hawking plastic trash-trinkets through chemical tans; hell, there wasn’t even a sign above the door telling you where you were. And there were no restrictions on what could happen on that tiny stage. Just the music- some amazing, some horrible, some just numbingly mediocre- created not in pursuit of Making It Big or the hope of Cashing In, but for the sake of the creation alone- for the love of the creative exchange. Here was a place where Art was more than just a tool of Commerce.

There will be other places for this to happen- the landscape of Pop is subject to many temporary ruptures. Caves and ravines open for a while, attract a few dwellers and spelunkers, then return to rubble. Perhaps this is a good thing. Innovation and change rather than stasis.

May there be one thousand times one thousand permutations to come in the new night.

Until then, Thank You Dave, Galen, Bevin, Matt Gehlert, and all the rest…

-jason wallace triefenbach