by Michael R. Allen
Curtis Eller came up with a song title and phrase so haunting to those of us who live in north St. Louis. “After the Soil Fails” is really a song about a vivid dream inhabited by historical figures like William Tecumseh Sherman, but its references to the imagined deaths of New Orleans and Philadelphia invoke the condition of emptying sections of St. Louis.
“One of these days the soil is going to give out,” warns Eller. While the causes of much of the loss of the built environment of north city is more economic, the landscapes left behind are devoid of any clues. To the innocent wanderer, perhaps it seems that the very land on which the city is built is dead. Just as bad soil kills crops, bad land could kill blocks or neighborhoods. The difference is that the infection of farm soil is real, while the infection of our city soil comes from within us, legitimate brown fields notwithstanding. City land is as good for city life as ever. Trouble is, city land’s healthful properties come not from its physical content but from how it’s labeled on maps and valued by builders. An ounce of soil from a lot in St. Louis Place could be as nutrient rich as any found in Clayton, but that has nothing to do with the value of the land it composes.
Hence, the best soil for farming in the region may be in places like the floodplains of St. Charles County, while the better soil for building could be the bedrock-pinned land of north city. We don’t seem to mind this absurdity as continue to build out irresponsibly. If soil affected our settlement patterns as it does planted crops, our soil would have failed awhile ago. Maybe it still will.