JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North St. Louis Place

The Sisyphean Footsteps of Northside Regeneration

by Michael R. Allen

Recently I read a newspaper article about a major urban development project that included these two sentences: “He received hundreds of millions of dollars in public cash and incentives. But after a long public review process, the developer was buffeted by a recession, community opposition and a weak market.”

Here “he” is Bruce Ratner, the project is that foam-finger to Brooklyn called Atlantic Yards, and the article appeared in the New York Times on August 21. St. Louis reporters got the chance this week to avoid plagiarizing that depiction, because it could have applied to coverage of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration project in wake of its hearing at the Tax Increment Financing Commission on August 28. (The Commission will vote on whether to recommend a $390 million TIF to the Board of Aldermen at a separate meeting on September 11.) The parallels are dramatically similar despite very different physical settings: these two projects took aim at vacant public land, were subsidized by state governments after local governments started scrutinizing them, have involved ridiculous amounts of campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats, have been pitched as solutions to urban unemployment and have withered in implementation as the economy has changed.

This poster can be found on an empty billboard at Madison Street and North Florissant Avenue.

In New York, Ratner is selling as much as 80% of Atlantic Yards. That outcome should catch attention here, because those locals who think that Northside Regeneration will always have one face – one target for activist scorn – should be ready for the dozens of developers who will end up eventually working in the project area. While McKee’s name has a tarnish that brings scrutiny to every action of his company, the new names may not – and may have a lot more to do with actual decisions about condemnation of private property. Mayor Francis Slay, Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard and other cheerleaders for the project will not be around either, rendering their promises of the good life for north siders fairly innocuous at best, blind at worst.

A home once occupied, now vacant under the ownership of Northside Regeneration. The house stands on Magazine Street in JeffVanderLou.

As we deliberate on “activating” tax increment financing for Northside Regeneration, familiar repetitious cycles emerge. McKee on Wednesday presented a rather amorphous Powerpoint show whose oldest slides are now five years old, and reiterated even older claims about the jobs he could create and the $8 billion in “development” (unspecified as to specific activity) that the project would complete. The exact completion date has pushed forward, but the timeline and promises seem very much like those advanced in 2009.

The project itself remains very much the urban renewal behemoth McKee admits to hatching over a decade ago – when lending was liberal and palpable small-scale development on the near north side was less obvious to the untrained eye. McKee has been quick with excuses for his project’s lethargic pace. First there was the need for a state tax credit, then tax increment financing, then overcoming Judge Dierker’s ruling, then waiting for the pending Supreme Court decision, then extending the state tax credit (which did not happen), and now the need for a tax increment financing ordinance again. What shall be next?

People wonder why it takes Northside Regeneration so long to demolish brick-rustled buildings, like this one on Sullivan Avenue in St. Louis Place.

As usual, McKee’s company posits Northside Regeneration as a social reform mission that will transform lives as much as land. McKee’s wife Midge McKee spoke on the Demetrious Johnson radio show recently about how she had a dream about the project, and how it would serve residents. Her dream was replete with churches, a sign that existing residents were staying and thriving.

That dream should not be dismissed, but it runs counter to the entire program of the development and its current operational practice. Clearly, for the last decade the McKees’ dream has cost the near north side hundreds of residents who have moved out of houses and apartments sold to their shell holding companies. Who knows how many people fled as they saw the Northside Regeneration properties torched, brick rustled and otherwise left to rot. Blockbusting need not be intentional, after all. Myself and others have counted how many irreplaceable architectural treasures have been lost to the scheme.

This Northside Regeration-owned historic building stands on Blair Avenue near Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North, abutting a $37 million community-led renewal project. The building is one of 62 properties in Old North still owned by the company, even though it removed most of the neighborhood from the project boundary.

Still, the McKees espouse very sincere intentions about uplifting the north side. Unfortunately they have chosen to do so through real estate development, mass demolition and land assemblage. These tools have only been used to disintegrate the near north side, and not for one day have they ever created permanent jobs for poor African-Americans, or stabilized a community of humans, or benefited anyone except government agencies and politicians, real estate developers, construction companies and trade unions, and others who either realized profits or power from destroying historic neighborhoods. Today, the profits and power look anemic in comparison; Northside Regeneration’s first retail “deal” may be a Dollar General store. If the developers are reeling in such small fish to stay afloat, what will residents get to catch?

The north side half of St. Louis’ Model Cities area, from the city’s 1973 interim comprehensive plan.

Little discussion of Northside Regeneration has examined the similarity of its program and boundary to the city’s north side Model Cities zone. Created by the Johnson administration, the federal Model Cities program provided funds for urban “reconstruction” of older neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. In St. Louis, the city’s Model Cities Agency designated a wide swath of the inner city for the program in 1966, and maintained activities there until the program’s dissolution after 1974. The north side area included Old North, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou – almost identically to McKee’s original footprint (Old North is largely carved out now).

This map of the Northside Regeneration boundary appeared in Development Strategies’ 2009 blighting study of the project area.

Model Cities was supposed to regenerate the near north side. The program gave city officials funds for demolishing nearly 1,100 housing units in St. Louis Place, converting the 14th Street shopping district in Old North into a pedestrian mall, and building new housing. In the end, the “too big to fail” approach led to embarrassingly haphazard implementation of the city’s programmatic master plan.

Most of what Model Cities achieved was housing demolition, with funding for new construction delayed or non-existent. Clearance depleted vitality and disrupted social life, causing a downward spiral. When McKee shows slides of conditions in the area, he never mentions that the federally-funded version of his project helped create them — and that its aims were very similar.

The “Blighted and Obsolete Districts” map included in the city’s 1947 comprehensive plan.

Supporters of Northside Regeneration’s aims are fast to join in the chorus proclaiming “McKee did not create the blight he is trying to fix.” Despite some truth to the contrary with conditions of his company’s properties, that chorus sings a true tune. Yet the song bends the ear with the refrain “other large scale projects did this.” Model Cities followed the city’s implementation of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan, drafted under the direction of Harland Bartholomew. That plan infamously included a map with a black zone showing “obsolete” housing — the oldest neighborhoods, which were also the poorest.

Bartholomew’s concentric zone approach led to the city’s using the bulk of its federal funds from the 1949 Housing Act to demolish swaths of the near north and near south sides, while trying to take on more. Today’s urbanists are proud that they dwell in places like Old North and Lafayette Square, both inked black in the 1947 plan. Yet they might not see how the plan’s implementation is ongoing on the north side.

The results of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan's implementation: the Pruitt-Igoe (left) and George L. Vaughn (right) housing projects, both completed by 1958, ad lots of clearance. View toward the northwest.
The results of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan’s implementation: the Pruitt-Igoe (left) and George L. Vaughn (right) housing projects, both completed by 1958, ad lots of clearance. View toward the northwest.

The near north’s most frightening large-scale redevelopment project was the combined Pruitt and Igoe housing projects, completed between 1954 and 1956. The Pruitt Igoe-Myth renewed a generation’s awareness of not only the projects’ histories but the social and political context in which it happened. That film makes painfully clear that architecture – essentially development of land – cannot solve social problems, no matter what its design intent, how high its construction cost, how great its architect or how blind its political supports are to what they are doing.

Pruitt-Igoe, unlike Northside Regeneration, was built by an accountable federal government and managed by an accountable local government. Pruitt-Igoe was built to house poor people — directly serving them. The project failed to do anything completely save clear 25 blocks of African-American residents and businesses, and scatter them across the region.

What we cleared last time: DeSoto-Carr residents await their relocation for the Pruitt and Igoe projects in the early 1950s. Source: State Historical Society of Missouri.

Today, Northside Regeneration is not dealing with the same density. There are no 25-block areas housing over ten thousand people within the project footprint. In fact, St. Louis Place has a mere 2,900 residents. Total. The dispersal of people reached its peak, and the population is very small. Yet the near north side is showing population growth for the first time in sixty years, according to the 2010 Census. Since Northside Regeneration has yet to develop any housing, we know it is not through that project but through other people’s hard work. Residents who remain are more likely to enjoy the area and hope for its growth than ever before. There is exactly the sort of community that Midge McKee sees, but it is more likely to be negatively altered by a giant project than not.

Northside Regeneration owns the historic Christian Niedringahaus Residence at 19th and Warren Streets in St. Louis Place. The home is a contributing resource to the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District.

As the TIF Commission stares at the same giant project, unchanged, and as the Board of Aldermen looks at needed legislation this fall, perhaps some member of one of these bodies will examine Northside Regeneration against historic precedent, against its invented promises (jobs, $8 billion) and against the needs of the people who inhabit the soil the project aims to reorder. Any one of those factors renders the current project a cousin to the wrong way of thinking about community and redevelopment – ways rightfully slammed, in light of another local clearance project, by Tracy Campbell in his new book The Gateway Arch: A Biography. All of us should look instead at Northside Regeneration’s lease of vacant lots to neighborhood urban farmers — an unheralded good deed by the company — as the sort of synthesis of microdevelopment and existing community that actually could create wealth for people in the neighborhood.

Agriculture on a large scale, planted around people’s homes, thanks to Northside Regeneration’s land leases.

St. Louis, like many peer cities, chose to assume the stance of Sisyphus to the stone of urban renewal. Once that stone was a near-match for the public good, and now it resembles private interest. Either way, tax funds pay for its construction – and it never rests where it is supposed to (rebuilt neighborhoods, job creation, increased tax revenues, poverty alleviation, sustainable new urbanism). Intentionally or not, Northside Regeneration has inured itself to forces that have perpetuated failed approaches to rebuilding the city.

Chasing large-scale projects has drained the city of over a half-million people, making the 2,900 people in St. Louis Place more consequential than ever. Dollar Generals hastily built to create development cash flow are not going to change the city’s fortunes, but will follow in the foot steps of redevelopment projects that already have drained the same area of the city of historic character, residents, jobs and wealth. McKee and city officials could work on “Plan B,” or they could perpetuate the heavily-subsidized forces of urban disruption.

Architects JeffVanderLou Metro East Mid-Century Modern Missouri North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe South St. Louis Southwest Garden Wellston

The Mid-Century Modernism of Marcel Boulicault

by Michael R. Allen

St. Louis architect Marcel Boulicault’s name probably is unfamiliar to you, but a few of his works will draw an “ah ha!” or two. Boulicault is a designer whose contributions to Modern architecture in St. Louis are largely unheralded, but that needs to change. Boulicault (1896 – 1961) is best known for an obtrusive and despised addition to the St. Louis State Hospital, the Louis H. Kohler Building, which stood directly in front of William Rumbold’s domed 1869 County Asylum building. Boulicault also designed the building that became St. Louis Fire Department Headquarters, a major state office building on Jefferson City and other prominent works. Then, there is his patented electric tooth brush — which we will discuss in a moment. Boulicault’s buildings were creative, colorful (and a bit jazzy) but also purposeful — the best mid-century combination.

Highly-idealized rendering of the Kohler Building at St. Louis State Hospital — the flip side of what would happen. Source: Missouri State Archives.
Housing JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

As Long As Someone Wants to Live in It

by Michael R. Allen

In The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden champions the study and preservation of common urban vernacular housing as the best way to record the lives of most Americans. “Most can be learned from urban building types that the represent the conditions of thousands or millions of people,” Hayden writes. Yet Hayden finds that scholars are more interested in simpler rural and exotic urban types (the mythic flounder house is our local intrigue-builder). To some scholars, Hayden observes, “the best vernacular building will always be the purest, the best preserved or the most elaborate example of its physical type.”

Hayden’s observations can be counterbalanced by emergent material culture studies that widen the architectural history of cities beyond the showiest (prettiest?) vernacular buildings and those whose owners seek official landmark or National Register status (regulatory vehicles that enhance but do not replace cultural appreciation). Objectification of domestic architecture is far simpler using pure examples — we who practice architectural history can then shift the focus onto style, form and material so as to avoid messier discussions of class, race, use, power and alteration. Yet much housing production historically in St. Louis and other cities came through mass building practice. One of those practices was alteration by later, lower-income owners often strapped for cash and in search of a cheap fix.

The building at 1426-28 N. Grand Boulevard in 2007.
Collapse JeffVanderLou National Register

Preserving Tillie’s Corner in JeffVanderLou

by Emily Kozlowski

Tillie's Corner in 2008.

The three brick townhouses of 1349-1353 N. Garrison Ave. were once a staple of the neighborhood, as the community grocery store named Tillie’s Corner. Lillie Pearson, known as “Miss Tillie”, bought the first building in 1948 and operated a successful business there for 40 years. Her long-lived business is a testament to Lillie herself, as a single mother and an African American woman in a severely segregated city. The townhouses are historic links to the migration of African Americans from the south to northern urban centers, to a business owned and operated by an African American woman, and to the community center for which the store is essentially remembered (hours 5:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.).

The Late Victorian style townhouses of Tillie’s Corner were built in 1870 in the residential neighborhood of Jeff-VanderLou. Three stories tall and with three separate store fronts added in the 1920’s, they were built with home and business in mind. Lillie opened shop after the sudden death of her husband left her with the children to support on her own. Her shop was her way of supporting her family and being a part of the community. The confectionery thrived from the neighboring Dunbar Elementary School and local homeowners. Lillie devotedly kept daily hours that were much longer than any large grocer, allowing for those without transportation to stop by after work. Her hours extended to years, and the shop was running for a remarkable four decades. Lillie can be considered an activist in community building, as she stayed at the exact same address through years of increasing crime and urban decline. She offered a stable business to meet the needs of her neighborhood instead of abandoning it. After 40 years, only when she was physically unable to operate the business, did she close Tillie’s Corner.

Tillie's Corner after partial collapse on August 26, 2012.

Carla Pearson and Miguel Alexander, heirs of Tillie’s Corner, have high hopes for the future. Not only do they look to preserve the buildings, but plan on using them as a center for care-giving to the elderly and disabled. Tillie’s Corner is currently in the process of being listed in the National register of Historic Places (thanks to students in Dr. Sonia Lee’s Washington university history courses, with pro bono assistance from Karen Bode Baxter). The problem, now, is restoring the buildings to their history glory. They have deteriorated and weathered over time; recently, a side of the building collapsed due to heavy rain. The buildings can be saved but time is the crucial factor. Help preserve a part of St. Louis and African American history by donating or spreading the story. Carla and Miguel can be contacted at (314) 495-3686 or

Emily Kozlowski, an art history major at Webster University, is currently a Research Intern at Preservation Research Office.

JeffVanderLou North St. Louis

Sportsman’s Park, 1931

Sportsman's Park photograph dated October 1, 1931.

A new arrival in our photographic collection is this 1931 photograph of Sportsman’s Park at 2911 North Grand Avenue (at Dodier Avenue, visible at the bottom of the photograph). The grandstand structure shown here dated to 1909 and was demolished in 1966. Much has been written about Sportsman’s Park itself, but what interests us most about this image is the density of the built environment around the ball park.

The Sportsman's Park site, now occupied by the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club, as it appears on Google maps today.

Here’s a similar view today.

Brick Theft JeffVanderLou North St. Louis

Depletion, Bacon Street

by Michael R. Allen

Two pairs of houses had stood on the east side of Bacon Street just south of North Market Street since before the turn of the last century. Now, three of the four are reduced to ruins by brick thieves in St. Louis’ ongoing brick theft crisis, removing more of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood’s unique architectural character and housing units that were occupied until just three years ago. Some count three buildings lost, and shrug, while others count these among over 100 lost to brick theft across north St. Louis in the last decade, and wonder when it will end.

1920 and 1924 Bacon Street

These unusual houses were both built in 1897 by the same builder.  Unusual for the surrounding area of JeffvanderLou, the houses share a party wall.  However their front elevations show differences in execution of essentially two identical (but flipped) same floorplans.  The northern house, at 1924 Bacon Street, uses flat limestone lintels and a triangular pediment that put it in the Greek Revival.  The other house employs rounded arches with ornamental label courses as well as a cornice of ornamental brick,traits that put it in the Romanesque Revival that was very popular in St. Louis during the 1890s.

The houses at 1920 and 1924 Bacon Street in December 2009.
There is significant damage to 1920 Bacon Street in April 2011.
Abandonment Industrial Buildings JeffVanderLou

EPA: Carter Carburetor Building Will Be Demolished

by Michael R. Allen

On March 31, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an Action Memorandum for the cleanup of the Carter Carburetor plant at St. Louis and Grand avenues in JeffVanderLou. This action surprised residents of surrounding neighborhoods, who had hoped for more time to understand the science behind the cleanup methods. In February, after the close of the public comment period for the action, the EPA provided a citizens’ group with a Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) consultant who is still in the process of getting answers for the citizens.

The western elevation of the Carter Carburetor building on Spring Avenue.

Among the questions is whether the Carter Carburetor building should be demolished. The EPA’s preferred alternative of total demolition has become the action proposed in the action memorandum:

The Carter Building, Inc. (CBI) Building – The action for this area is demolition and off-site disposal. After completing the remediation of asbestos-containing material, the CBI building will be demolished and building materials disposed based on PCB concentrations.

This action uses federal funding and will trigger a Section 106 review under the National Historic Preservation Act, since the Carter Carburetor plant is likely to be eligible for National Register of Historic Places listing. The less-significant Willco Plastics building could be retained, however:

The Willco Building – Because PCB contamination in the Willco Building is relatively low, a thorough cleaning may be sufficient. If the cleaning does not reduce the contamination to below acceptable levels, the first and second floor slabs would be partially removed and replaced.

The owners of the Carter Carburetor building want to retain it and reuse it. At issue is whether heavy PCB contamination can be removed successfully from the building. Concrete floor slabs will have to be replaced, according to the EPA, but that still leaves upright and vertical concrete structural components that cannot be removed and replaced. The EPA states that these would have to be coated with epoxy that would need 5-year maintenance in order to be safe for workday exposure.

One question posed to the TASC consultant is whether such epoxy coating has ever been done on the scale of Carter Carburetor, and whether it can be effective. Also unknown, because PCB contamination usually leads to demolition, is whether there are other methods for remediation than those the EPA has offered. Anyone know of any case studies?

Abandonment Industrial Buildings JeffVanderLou North St. Louis

Public Meeting on Carter Carburetor

Looking southwest at the Carter Carburetor plant from Dodier Street.

WHAT: Presentation on Thermal Desorption Process for Carter Carburetor Site
WHEN: Tuesday, March 29, 2011
TIME: 7:00 p.m.
LOCATION: Urban League, 3701 Grandel Square, St. Louis, Missouri 63108

EPA is following up with leaders from the St. Louis north side community on questions received about the in-situ thermal desorption process, an alternative method for addressing contamination at the Carter Carburetor Site. An expert on the thermal desorption process will be available to meet with community leaders and other interested residents.

West elevation of the Carter Carburetor plant, facing Spring Avenue.
Brick Theft JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Brick Theft Before/After

We recently gave Bill Streeter, director and producer of Brick By Chance and Fortune, some 60 before and after images of north St. Louis buildings struck by brick thieves since 2005. Our photographs illustrate perhaps as little as one third of the buildings in the city destroyed through theft in that period.

Here’s a sample. For the rest, you won’t wait long: Brick by Chance and Fortune will be released this spring.

The building at 3114 Glasgow Avenue in JeffVanderLou, May 2009. Owner: Northside Regeneration LLC.

The building at 3114 Glasgow Avenue, December 2010. The building has collapsed further but the wreckage remains.
Brick Theft JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Brick Thieves Go To Church

by Michael R. Allen

Brick theft is an act that is neither novel nor particularly likely to spur strong response in St. Louis. Malcolm Gay’s excellent recent New York Times article on brick theft in St. Louis reported to the nation what has become a sad backdrop to life in distressed neighborhoods of the city for decades. In the thirty odd years that illegal destruction of brick buildings has hit the city, especially the north side, few efforts have been made to increase legal penalties for the action. There is outrage in the streets, but the dealers who buy stolen brick still sleep peacefully in their own homes when sun sets.

Once when I wrote about brick theft in this blog, I received a thoughtful comment that likened brick thieves to fungi that consume fallen trees in the forest. The commenter suggested that an organic and harmless transaction occurs when a supposed useless old brick building is picked apart by thieves that often set the buildings afire first and leave a dangerous pit behind. Gay’s article let us know that the arson that precedes brick theft has collateral damage that cannot be rationalized under a theory of urban material reclamation. The notion that thieves are recycling neglected material is belied by the fact that their methods are far from systematic, and so much useful material is left to be placed in landfills. Demolition contractors — who lose hours of paid work to the thieves — may be the fungi that tackles the city’s building stock, but brick thieves are more akin to the loggers that rob forests of their most valuable wood, leave behind a damaged ecosystem that others must mend.

I thought about the comment on brick theft when I examined what remains of the North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church at 2940 Montgomery Avenue in JeffVanderLou, now owned by Northside Regeneration LLC. The brick church, built in 1900, recently was cleaned of its side walls by thieves who have systematically worked the surrounding buildings as well. There seems to be no compunction halting the destruction of a historic house of worship.

North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, April 2009

North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, August 2010

There would be many who would argue that this old church was a useless remnant of a lost neighborhood, and that its gruesome demolition mandates no more than a passing word or a Flickr photograph. They are wrong. The church served its function for over 100 years, only going vacant a little over three years ago. While the building had been altered beyond the criteria of architectural integrity required for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, it remained the embodiment of decades of African-American worship and community life. Churches are their people, but church buildings are stores of memory worthy of our care. The North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church building deserved a more dignified end, and the brick thieves and their clients ought to suffer significant penalty. The New York Times article should not be shaken off as “bad press” but taken as a call to action.