by Michael R. Allen
Sometimes I wish that I had been around in the 1950s to found a historic rehabilitation business. Or better yet, doing the same in the 1930s. Still better would to have been a United States Senator in 1934 when Congress passed the bill that established the Federal Housing Administration. (According to an article by Sam Smith, “91% of the homes insured by the agency in metropolitan St. Louis between 1935 and 1939 were in the suburbs.”)
Perhaps being a St. Louis alderman at the start of the clearance of the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood for Pruitt-Igoe would have made a big difference. There definitely were better times to intervene on behalf of preserving north St. Louis. But what demographic narratives were playing out? Those of decline. These were narratives built on the struggle of every great American city to stay alive, to survive the onslaught of the automobile so forcefully enshrined in the Interstate Highway Program (oh, to have been in Congress to vote against that!) and countless deadly urban renewal projects. What truly could have made a difference was national resistance to the destruction of cities.
Sadly, that came later when countless intellectuals, designers, politicians and others arose to find the overwhelming evidence of the realized destruction to be the most persuasive argument to mend their ways. In some ways, now is a better time to make the argument for categorical preservation. I’m not one of those people who argue that the thousands of St. Louis buildings that came down had to, because there was no other way for St. Louis to renew itself save through some blight, population loss and decrease of density. That’s not true. I think that a variety of forces that conspired to destroy urban areas could have been stopped, but the warning signs were too unclear and the faith in technological progress too strong for the people who were on the front lines. Today we simply know more, can do more, and see the lines of defense so much more clearly.