St. Louisans in Portland

by Michael R. Allen

While visiting Portland at the moment, I have had the fortune of running into St. Louis’ expat colony there. Drawn to this amazing city by academic opportunities, the young St. Louisans here are thriving. And who would not? Portland seems to keep every one of its much-touted promises for fulfilling urban life.

I am reminded of a certain winter day at the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation‘s old steel foundry, when a group of us wide-eyed young St. Louisans gathered to explore. In that group were artist Emily Hemeyer, who remains a St. Louisan as well as RJ Koscielniak and Annie Sparkle, now wide-eyed and energized in Portland. I captured this short video of a spontaneous moment that day that comes to mind now.

Whether my friends return depends on a future course of events unknowable at the moment. All I can write now is that St. Louis’ loss is Portland’s gain, for years to come.


Participating in the Next American Vanguard

by Michael R. Allen

One of last year’s highlights for me was participating in the Next American Vanguard conference organized by Next American City magazine. The event was not a typical conference — participants applied and were selected by the magazine, with only 32 selections. While the two-day event in May had an agenda, it was more like a high-charged advanced seminar in urban revitalization than a session-by-session conference.  I was honored to follow our own Jeff and Randy Vines, 2009 alums, as the next St. Louisan to participate.

From Next American City's website.

Here is a description from Next American City:

Each year Next American City chooses more than 30 outstanding young leaders from around the country to join together for a two-day conference. Called Next American Vanguard, the group and the conference are dedicated to understanding American cities and strategizing ways of improving them. The class of 2010 represents fields ranging from arts to transportation to climate change and historic preservation.

What this summary cannot include is the off-the-wall levels of passion, knowledge and sharing that participants brought. All of us participants no doubt spend much time at events with practitioners in our fields, but rarely do we have access to a range of peers from diverse fields working in urban policy from an equally diverse range of cities.

Group conversations on those two days combined insights from people working in public design with those of educational reform advocates, and those from Chicago and Detroit with those from Fargo and Portland, Maine. (Aside: You’d be surprised at how many participants already had a St. Louis connection!) This perspective-building will make us all better at what we do in the loci of both practice and place. We should strive to keep this connection to the ideas and practices of other cities going, because we don’t necessarily get that on a regular basis in smaller cities.

I had just enough time to start getting to know my amazing fellow participants, but since meeting everyone I have continued conversations by phone, email and in person. While we may never all meet up again like we did in May, we have intertwined 32 networks of ideas, people and places — and the world is a better place for that. In just a few months in Detroit, the 2011 Next American Vanguard “class” will do the same. The circle of committed young people working for renewing America’s cities is widening right now, and it is exciting to be a part of it!

The current Next American City is now available online and includes profiles of six of the 2010 class members, including myself. Check it out: “Better Cities? They’re On It”. I encourage young St. Louisans to put in for the 2011 conference to represent our city and to feel the joy and inspiration of being connected to the larger national movement for smart urban policy.

Historic Preservation People

Welcome, New Cultural Resources Office Director Betsy Bradley

by Michael R. Allen

At the start of the new year, we will have a strong new ally for historic preservation in St. Louis: incoming Cultural Resources Office Director Betsy Bradley. Betsy comes to St. Louis from the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, but her urban credentials include seven years as a staffer to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Most importantly, Betsy gives the city a professional with extensive experience in cultural resources management, education and even publication. I have no doubt that Betsy will be a shot in the arm for city preservation efforts.

While not a native, Betsy already has some roots here: her husband is Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Superintendent Tom Bradley.  I have had the chance to get to know Betsy in the last year and know her to be calm, thoughtful and inquisitive.  Of course I was ecstatic when I learned that the Planning and Urban Design Agency chose Betsy for the Cultural Resources Office directorship.  (That job most recently was held by the unflappable Kate Shea from 1989 through this July.)

A key strength that Betsy brings is having been a member of citizen preservation review boards like our Preservation Board. Betsy has served on the commissions in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Taylors Falls, Minnesota. She understands the deliberative aspect to CRO’s decision making, often the source of conflict. Furthermore, Betsy has connected her cultural resources work to academic communities through teaching. Currently, she is an adjunct professor at Baltimore’s Goucher College, which offers a renowned distance-learning master’s degree in historic preservation. Formerly, Betsy taught at the University of St. Thomas, Ursuline College and Youngstown State University. Betsy will be able to connect work in St. Louis to a larger community of cultural resources professionals and aspiring professionals.

In addition to her impressive resume of service, Betsy is the author of The Works: The Industrial Architecture of the United States (Oxford University Press, 1999). Preservation of industrial resources is a big and unresolved challenge in St. Louis and its Rust Belt brethren, so we should be pleased that our city’s top cultural resources officer has done extensive study of the issue.

Betsy Bradley starts in January. Fellow preservationists, a lot of good lies ahead.

Media People

A Hub is Born: UrbanSTL

by Michael R. Allen

With today’s publication of Toby Weiss’ excellent essay “Crying Over Spilt Milk: The Suburbs Happened, Get Over It!”, urbanSTL now has become the web hub for St. Louis region built environment news and commentary. Okay, this guest article goes along with regular blogging by Alex Ihnen, a blog aggregate feed, a rejuvenated Urban St. Louis Forum, a local urban Wiki, videos and many other features. The weaving, not the strands, make urbanSTL a central source.

Alex is the real spark behind this effort, and his dedication is such that he ceased publishing his own excellent St. Louis Urban Workshop to provide steady content for a new hub site. Last year, Alex sent out a call to bloggers for creating a portal into the ever-expanding sea of online content on development and architecture in the region. This blogger was too time-strapped to join the cause, but Toby and others have helped Alex bring the project to life. Bravo!

Midtown People

Stanley Jones, Midtown Rehabber

by Michael R. Allen

Stanley Jones, owner of the Frederick Newton Judson House at 3733 Washington across the street from the Pulitzer, is quite a character. Currently serving as construction manager for the St. Louis Equity Fund and formerly owner of his own rehab company, Stan has worked on rehabbing buildings big and small all over the city. His own house has been his life’s work for the past decade and a half, as if his day job was not enough to put him at the heart of renewing his city. Stan is a local treasure, so I was delighted to find this video on the Pulitzer’s website, and wanted to share it immediately.

STAN from The Pulitzer on Vimeo.

Media People

Untitled Saint Louis Brick Film

Detail of entrance to the Mullanphy Tenement, 2118 Mullanphy Street in St. Louis Place.

Bill Streeter, the video genius behind Lo-Fi St. Louis, is working on a documentary about St. Louis brick known for now as the “Untitled Saint Louis Brick Film”. The documentary is funded by the Commission for Access and Local Original Programming (CALOP), local funder of many worthwhile projects. According to the production notes blog, the crew includes Bill Streeter (Director/Producer/Editor), Jeannette Hoss (Managing Producer), Virginia Lee Hunter (Director of Photography) and Greer Lange (Assistant Editor).

North St. Louis Northside Regeneration People

Future, Past: Meet the Present

by Michael R. Allen

With tomorrow’s aldermanic hearing on the NorthSide bills, I think back to September 23. This was the date of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Commission’s meeting in which that body unanimously approved the TIF for the first two phases of the NorthSide project. I think of that meeting as the “Night of Dichotomy” because just a few block away at Left Bank Books’ downtown store was another gathering: a panel discussion sponsored by Next American City called Urbanexus.

I missed most of the Urbanexus panel unsuccessfully trying to get a seat at the TIF Commission, but I know that the panel featured some of our town’s best and brightest minds, including moderator Chris King, editorial director for the St. Louis American, Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) and Cherokee Street gadabout Galen Gondolfi. The crowd was as interesting as the panel. The store was jam-packed, with many faces that I had never seen before. Something magical is afoot when the Jeremiah, the Amish hobo of the north riverfront, is one of the most familiar faces in sight!

I don’t really recall much from the panel discussion, save Antonio French’s rousing call to change the city’s zoning code. What I can’t stop thinking about was how there was this ideas-focused, future-oriented convergence taking place at the same time and in the same radius as a public meting fraught with the predictable tensions and turmoil of the city’s past sixty years. The old scene was mired in age-old divisions and rife with anger, while the new scene was full of ideas but a little disconnected from the harsh reality of civic heavy-lifting.

I was able to plug into the Urbanexus events earlier in the day. My day started with a driving tour of the city that I led with Jeff and Randy Vines. In attendance were Diana Lind and Pooja Shah of Next American City, Sarah Szurpicki of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange, Sharon Carney from the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and Payton Chung of Chicago. The tour was a mad dash starting downtown and winding through everywhere from Old North to Clayton.

Steven Smith, Pooja Shah, Diana Lind, Sharon Carney and Jeff Vines discuss St. Louis at The Royale.

The tour was a hit! Our out of town guests loved the city and its neighborhoods. One comment that came up again and again was how the city neighborhoods have strong identities and how even the most distressed areas retain street life and commercial cores. The tour-goers were very impressed by the north side, which they had read about in relation to the NorthSide project. No one saw the wasteland they had suspected might be there. In fact, the Detroit contingent was a little jealous!

Sarah Szurpicki and the Vines brothers outside of Urban Eats in Dutchtown.

After the tour, there was a lunch meeting called the Vanguard Regional Roundup. Next American City has kindly posted a recap here. That meeting was held at Urban Eats in Dutchtown, the brainchild of John Chen and Caya Aufiero. I left in a mood unwilling to deal with the TIF Commission hearing later that day. We had a great discussion about St. Louis that included not only some usual-suspects locals but people from Chicago, Philadelphia, Asheville and Detroit — and it was refreshing, insightful, realistic and productive. Then it was back to work. However, work imbued with such deliberation and connection to the outside world felt a little more purposeful.

You know that future we are all talking about? We’re building it now.

People St. Louis County

RFT Throws Spotlight on Esley Hamilton, Preservationist

by Michael R. Allen

Esley Hamilton discussed Greek Revival architecture in America at the Chatillon-DeMenil House on September 27.

This week’s issue of the Riverfront Times carries a feature article by Aimee Levitt on the inimitable Esley Hamilton, Historian for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation. The article, entitled “To Preserve and Protect: Esley Hamilton has a boundless passion for St. Louis’ architectural past”, provides a good overview of Esley’s career and contributions to preservation efforts in St. Louis. Esley probably would rather see a feature article on an endangered building, but he’s earned the attention.

Architects Historic Preservation People

W. Philip Cotton, Jr. (1932-2009)

by Michael R. Allen

Today’s passing of W. Philip Cotton, Jr. marks the end of an era. Phil — born in Columbia, Missouri as William Philip Cotton, Jr. — was one of St. Louis’ early preservation pioneers. An architect by training, Phil became a tireless advocate for historic architecture out of the necessity of his times. After graduating from Princeton in 1954, Phil moved back to St. Louis in time for the urban renewal years.

In 1966, Phil wrote the National Historic Landmark nomination for the Wainwright Building. He also was active in efforts to get Lafayette Square designated as a Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. The 1969 listing of the Square helped prevent plans for a highway that would have destroyed the eastern end of the neighborhood. In this time, Phil was also an outspoken advocate for the reform of city tax laws that rewarded owner inaction in maintenance and discouraged investment.

Also in 1969, Phil was part of a group of architects, historians and planners that created Heritage/St. Louis. Heritage/St. Louis is one of the early advocates’ greatest gifts to future preservationists: a citywide architectural survey conducted by volunteers between 1969 and 1976. Although documentation was simply a photograph, address and short assessment of buildings, the survey allowed for thousands of buildings to be documented — many for the last time. Heritage/St. Louis’ inventory of images from north St. Louis grows more valuable every day. Sponsored by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis (on whose board Phil once served) and the City Plan Commission, Heritage St. Louis’ daily operations were oversaw by Executive Director Cotton.

The aim of the project, a 500-page book on the city’s architecture to be published in the bicentennial year, was never realized. However, the survey sheets — now in the archives of Landmarks Association — are a civic treasure. Alongside this work, Phil also saw that architectural drawings for many major St. Louis buildings were microfilmed. One of Phil’s greatest contributions to preservation was his understanding of the value of thorough documentation.

Alongside this work in the city, Phil also was active in the county (producing the survey 100 Historic Buildings in St. Louis County in 1970) and the state of Missouri. In the mid 1970s, Phil Cotton drafted the outline of the statewide preservation organization later to become Missouri Preservation. He remain a counselor to that organization until his death.

Phil also championed the city’s official landmark program, and nominated the first 35 sites, structures and buildings to receive that designation. The city landmark program granted more than symbolic value or financial aid for preservation, but legal safeguards. Knowing Phil, I am not surprised that he sought the highest protection for the landmarks he valued the most.

Of course, throughout his service to the city and state as an advocate, Phil was an active preservation architect. Among his many restoration projects are the Piper Palm House in Tower Grove Park, the Mark Twain boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, the Collins House in Collinsville, Illinois, the Gittemeier House in Florissant, the Saline County Courthouse in Missouri and others. Not surprising, also, that Phil Cotton was an organist and aficionado of classical music whose knowledge was revered by his friends. Phil’s interest in architecture seemed to stem from a larger concern about the legacy of culture we all share and must steward.

In recent years, Phil remained as persistent as ever — even in the face of illness. He continued his service as a trustee of the Steedman Architectural Library of the St. Louis Public Library. He was named to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 2002. When I first met Phil a few years ago, he was hard at work on editing a reprint of John Albury Bryan’s Lafayette Square, published in 2007. Dogged and principled, opinionated and generous, articulate and fastidious, Phil Cotton left us a legacy to admire and emulate.

(A copy of Phil’s 1978 essay “Architectural Space of St. Louis” is online here.)

Clearance Events Historic Preservation McRee Town People South St. Louis Urbanism

Talking About McRee Town

by Michael R. Allen

Jackie Jones introduces her presentation.

Yesterday afternoon St. Louis University doctoral student Jackie Jones presented her dissertation thesis, “Picturing a Neighborhood: McRee Town in Saint Louis, Missouri,” to a crowd at the Royale, 3132 S. Kingshighway. The interesting venue for Jones’ presentation and resulting discussion offered a relaxed setting for what remains a controversial topic: the wholesale clearance of six blocks of an urban neighborhood by the Garden District Commision and resulting replacement by new housing. Jones disavowed any stance on the clearance, instead focusing on how images were used to justify the clearance in the press — and how other images contradict the story told by the Commission’s carefully-selected images.

Here’s Jones’ own description of her presentation:

In 2003, the Garden District Commission demolished more than two hundred buildings on the eastern half of the McRee Town neighborhood in Saint Louis. The Commission, a private coalition headed by officials from the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden, demolished six blocks of historic brick homes and apartment buildings that housed primarily low-income renters and homeowners, relocated hundreds of residents, erected twenty-five acres of market-rate, single-family, suburban-style housing on the cleared land, and ceremoniously renamed the area Botanical Heights. This presentation explores how visual representations of McRee Town between 1998-2003 helped legitimize this urban renewal project and the dislocations it caused in the lives of McRee Town residents. It engages viewers with the photographs of burned-out, boarded-up, weed-infested buildings that populated newspaper reports and public relations documents during these five years, and juxtaposes them with photographs taken by Genevelyn Peters, a McRee Town resident prior to the neighborhood’s destruction. These images – of family, homelife, play, and community – complicate and challenge the dominant understanding of this neighborhood and its residents as criminal and atomized by presenting images that depict a vibrant neighborhood community.

People listen to Jones’ making a point.

The people present included someone involved in the decision to clear the six blocks, residents of Botanical Heights (the new housing development), the area’s Neighborhood Stabilization Officer Luke Reven and others. While I had to leave before discussion was over, discussion touched on the damaging impact of I-44 construction in the early 1970s, the way in which similar images as those taken in McRee Town galvanized Lafayette Square and Soulard residents to pursue preservation instead of clearance, the deceptive nature of photographs and whether or not the term “suburban” applies to Botanical Heights.

Looking west down McRee Avenue from 39th Street.

On another note, if Royale proprietor Steven Fitzpatrick Smith is attempting to revive the tradition of the discussion salon, count me in!