by RJ Koscielniak
They were discarded like lepers, and then collected for bureaucratic internment. They make up an archipelago of crumbling concrete, contaminated plain, and overgrown fields; many have been forgotten, while some have passed on from a famine of purpose. As the city population leaned at the edge, abandoned buildings became grave markers — lots devolved into cemetery stillness. In this unfortunate tale of urban decline, the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority emerged to play the role of Charon — carrying those lost souls of the built environment away from the world of the living. St. Louis vacancy — then and now – rivals Detroit; total population decline has found easy parallel with Cleveland. As a city, we have escaped very little of the Rust Belt strife – factories scheduled fewer and fewer shifts, schools graduated less students, and work became history. Yet, while the pulse of the city slowed, many lepers lived silently on.
The LRA-owned house at 3244 Iowa Street in Benton Park West.
In its current iteration, no one wants to manage the Land Reutilization Authority, it functions as a symptom of inconsolable civic grief – the mark of a city consigned to an unenviable fate, a place wholly dumped to its own disastrous designs. Decisions spanning the spectrum of society contributed to the collapse, pervasive prejudice and fear, an orthodox us vs. them worldview that was exhibited in every wasted opportunity to recognize similarity between residents. LRA is, therefore, an agent of memory, a parcel-by-parcel chronicle of unwanted and undesired people and property. Until now, LRA has been purgatory while we wait out doubts of urban investment, a social balm until creeping economic development can mete out salvation for eroded husks of industrial, commercial, and residential space. Yet, with the right guts and guile, LRA can be a generator of community change. It has the potential to be an activator of expansive urban progress.
Reimagining its charge as an agency for the common good remains the linchpin to repurposing LRA. Traditional patience for and reliance on savvy real estate development has exhibited inconsistent results, corollary is an honor system of community engagement and grassroots contribution that has proven careless of and unjust to the needs of residents. The agency has often been divorced from community development, marshaled as a tool for groups and projects that exhibit the civic transparency of the Mississippi River. As an unfortunate symptom of our contemporary urban reality, LRA oscillates between failed-project pariah and easy-deal opportunist. However, the agency can find a new reason for existence, and revitalize St. Louis, by changing the standard and tone of future redevelopment — while beginning to realize the transformative potential of its holdings.
Our problems require that we introduce the beginnings of an Ecology of Innovation in St. Louis, an ecosystem of organizations, ideas and action that supports the generation, activation, acceleration, and funding of local socially-beneficial creativity and innovation. We can begin immediately by replicating initiatives in New York City that connect artists and craftsmen with empty storefronts, using these spaces as workshops and neighborhood-defining galleries. Then, reaching beyond that traditional terminus of innovation, we can start leasing empty buildings to young lawyers, rookie nurses and doctors, and budding carpenters, electricians and tradesmen — those individuals and groups that are driven by entrepreneurship and commitment to place. The agency can also incorporate larger farming and growing strategies, creating pilot plots for agriculture, bioremediation studies, and biodiesel production. Ultimately, LRA has a chance to be one of the most important players in the Ecology of Innovation — by providing the space for ingenuity to live and work after leaving the confines of an established acceleration entity. With low rents and moderate renovation of structurally sound buildings, LRA can facilitate ambition and innovation in city neighborhoods. By providing real opportunities for the next makers and menders to take a powerful step in developing their own capacity, LRA can change St. Louis into a city that takes risks on cultivating individuals and communities.
LRA-owned building at 4202 Lee Avenue in the O’Fallon neighborhood.
The process will not be easy, and it cannot be expedited, but it could well create a city that is a leader in community-based social innovation. Every step we take requires more steps; it means we will need new leaders, new ideas, and energy to succeed at each point in the idea ecosystem. While members of the creative and stochastic milieus could enter into these spaces on the weight of their credentials, a system of talented business and innovation accelerators needs be formed to support entrepreneurs before they can enter into their own space. A lasting Ecology of Innovation is far from being fully realized, but it is a long-term possibility for vindicating the potential of empty urban space and ambitious individuals. In the meantime, LRA can encourage renovation and construction that embraces green building strategy and techniques, while also taking an honest appraisal of which structures have the physical integrity to become serviceable under new direction. Ultimately, the Land Reutilization Authority can re-imagine its role in St. Louis by creating a model that advocates for community development over economic growth, one that celebrates the capacities, skills and abilities of city residents. By remaking itself as an organ of social innovation, LRA can abandon its post as Charon of the urban past, and become a champion of local innovation and interdependence.
RJ Koscielniak believes that good ideas can save communities. He is a graduate student at Washington University, where he concentrates on vacant land use, urban ecology, and social innovation. He is on the leadership staff at Flood Wall Creative and Whats Up Magazine, and attempts to generate and activate new subjectivities at various local organizations. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Also, he thinks you should support City to River (www.citytoriver.org).