by Michael R. Allen
Built St. Louis documents a slow crime that residents of the near north side have watched unfold in the last several weeks: the destruction on five buildings on the 1900 block of Montgomery by brick rustlers. Need I add that these are the only five buildings on this block?
Apathy breeds neglect, and neglect of whole areas of a city is fatal. When our cultural leaders have had the chance to safeguard St. Louis Place and other near north side neighborhoods, they have chosen otherwise. When our leaders have seen dozens of buildings fall, they have offered apologies or ignored the destruction. When they have watched residents loose their sense of place…well, they haven’t. Apparently a “sense of place” is germane only to the central corridor and the south side. North St. Louis gets fucked.
North St. Louis the region’s shameful embarrassment, and the “Blairmont” solution will help us forget about some of it without having to do any real work for change. While we can’t preserve a building whose walls have fallen to thieves and their eager fences, we can look back and see decades where we had the chance to prevent this tragedy from unfolding and instead we silently let it happen.
Of course, the reality is very disconcerting east of Grand: blocks with much vacancy also contain well-kept homes and apartments, smiling children and strong churches. Middle-class mythology renders the people who live here politically and culturally nonexistent, and that helps us to cope with our end of the problem. The harsh reality is that there is enough social fabric left to rebuild this area without wholesale clearance or mass relocation.
But the myths are easier: Oh, they don’t care. Most of those buildings are past saving. Parts of that areas have places where you can’t see a building for blocks around. Old North St. Louis is the only part of that area worth saving. No one wants to live there.
The reality is that despite fifty years of degradation and neglect the near north side retains its character and its sense of place. Thoughtful public policy for this area was impossible in the urban renewal age, but in our historic-tax-credit era seems equally impossible. The brick rustlers are committing a small crime with their own hands. Other more powerful parties have committed larger crimes with those of others. Sadly, it seems that the near north side will not fend off either assault, which seems likely to spread west of Grand after the “Blairmont” model is proven and embraced politically.
What then becomes of the character of the rest of the city? Are our self-serving myths worth the loss of a large part of the city’s culture?