by Michael R. Allen
Coming Soon. So proclaims this small plastic sign, affixed by screws and washers to the front wall of a north St. Louis building. There’s a dumpster out back, so the sign definitely is telling it straight.
The building is a sturdy two-family with a lovely pressed-metal cornice. What makes the rehab so remarkable is the building’s location. This building stands at 2417 Cass Avenue, across the street from the untamed site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. There are only three buildings left on this block face, spaced out considerably. This block is one of ten that the city tried to clear completely in the late 1980s as part of the failed Commerce Business Park plan. Much of this pocket of St. Louis Place was removed, leaving just a handful of buildings and so much vacant land the area has been dubbed the “urban prairie.”
Amid these challenges, owner Grace Baptist Church, which occupies another building on the block face, is working to bring the building back to life. One of the incongruities of thinking about shrinking cities is the persistence of neighborhood economy and reuse demand in depleted neighborhoods. Where there’s a long-term store of value — a building — there may well be a will to make it into wealth. Basic market economics seem to be more enduring than cyclical urban planning interventions.