Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Updated the old Other Cities link page this evening, a page I've hardly touched in years. It just warms my heart to see how many of the sites have gone legit, migrating from the likes of AOL and Geocities to their own custom addresses.

At the same time, I wonder how I ever even found Victorian Secrets of Washington, a like-minded DC-based site. I tried searching for it on Google with some common terms (Washington DC abandoned, buildings, architecture) and didn't find it.

That could mean there's some site out there about Philadelphia, something I'd just kill to see. If any reader knows of such a thing, please let me know!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Farewell to West Milwaukee

I passed by West Milwaukee today, the industrial-based inner-ring suburb attached to Milwaukee's western flank. The road running south from Miller Park stadium has long been a fascinating vista of towering grain elevators -- almost a hundred of them -- and mighty factories. It was a land of heroic architecture, concrete mountains that stood pure and powerful and enormous in the slanting light of a late afternoon sun.

But, no more.

Last summer, with the 2003 closure of the Froedtert Malt Corporation's West Milwaukee operation and a corn milling plant run by Archer Daniels Midland company a year later, a series of the grain elevators began coming down; this month, most of the remaining ones are coming down, as I discovered this evening. Layers of building have already fallen, revealing a second layer behind them. Generic big box retail will replace them all, as Miller Park Way (still known as 43rd Street elsewhere in the city) evolves into another version of S. 27th Street.

How depressing. One can already surmise what's going to go into this place, how dreadfully dull and boring it's going to look, how placeless and forgettable.

Even if I'd had my camera, the light was already too dim for photographs. I don't know when I'm going to be able to get out there in daylight -- maybe Friday. The old axiom proves true yet again: photograph now, for it'll be gone next time you're there. Only the southernmost stand of Froedtert elevators remain untouched, and I'm sure their time is coming up quickly.

Photographs from January, 2004:

I've always loved the bizarre juxtaposition of the lightweight Italianate office/research building with the massive, purely functional behemoths directly behind it. The office is gone now, reduced to a few chunks of concrete foundation. The elevator won't be far behind.

Photographs from October, 2004:

The old Hotpoint Appliance factory across the street, with its stout smokestack and multiple rail spurs curving into its grounds, is now stripped of facade and in mid-demolition.

Demolition photographs from July 2005:

Up the street, new suburban-style strip malls are sprouting faster than the weeds growing between the railroad ties. The very character of this part of town is transforming before our eyes, a tidal wave shift from industrial to residential and retail. I can't fathom what recyclable use such a gigantic collection of industrial structures might have, but I still feel keen regret at the change: when it's over, I won't really have any reason to stop along this stretch of road again. Everything that made it unique, everything that gave it such a commanding presence, will be gone.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Built St. Louis: The *shudder* Blog

Welcome to my new Web Log**. I don't have a firm plan for this item yet, but for now it's intended to do several things:

- replace the Guest Book as a place for readers to leave general comments on the site. The existing Guest Book is obnoxious to look at and is constantly bombarded with spam, which I must waste my time removing one post at a time.

- provide a forum for the occasional urbanist/architectural rant that crosses my mind, about St. Louis as well as the other cities I visit (and live in, in the case of Milwaukee.)

- provide a forum where the site's readers may respond to each other (and I directly to them as well.)

It's not likely to stay up on all the latest news in the city; I point you to my recently-added blog list for several fine writers who do that better than I can. Somewhat from necessity since I live 6 hours away, I tend to look at broader strokes within the city of St. Louis, seeing the big picture from afar rather than zooming in on the intimate details.

With this web site, I feel my first imparative is to provide images of the city, high in both quantity and quality, for in making the case for the wonderous cityscape that is St. Louis, a photograph has a value beyond the capability of any words. I am a compulsive documenter, and have long been moved to record and spread the word of what's happened to the city in my time there, especially the outrageous abandonment and destruction of the city's wonderful architecture.

Concurrent with that is a second agenda: to push for urbanistic growth. I adore cities: not just their architecture, but their vibe, their pulse and vitality, their sense of community, the feeling they give me that I am somewhere! Three years of living in Philadelphia absolutely sold me on big-city urban life -- on having a hoagie shop 30 seconds from your front door; on being a 10-minute trolley ride from downtown; on having endless miles of neighborhoods to explore; on always having a place nearby where people are gathered, where there's always a crowd (I don't know how a city can really thrive if it doesn't have some version of Philly's South Street.) I want other cities to have that sort of pulse and vigor. I want to be able to live in places where people walk and bike and take the bus to get where they're going (and it's not a pain in the ass to do so.) I want it because I think it's more sustainable, better for the environment, the community and civilization at large, and because I'm selfish that way.

But to grow and thrive, cities need people. The political boundaries of St. Louis hold about 40% of the population they had 50 years ago. It's not enough to sustain vigorous urban life -- not nearly enough; the city today is riddled with dead zones, large voids that disconnect the few functioning urban spaces from one another. And those people have to be densely concentrated -- a phrase that probably conjurs up horrific images of tenement conditions (or at least a terrifying lack of quarter acre lots) in the American psyche, when it should bring to mind luxurious condos and handsome townhouses.

I hear from unfortunately large numbers of site visitors who moved away decades ago, and are skimming through the site reminiscing; they write to comment what a shame it is that so many buildings are falling apart, that so much history is being lost. The city needs those people back!! St. Louis fell apart because people left it. The reasons are innumerable, but it all boils down to lots of good, honest citizens taking off for greener pastures.

So my second mission is to sell the city -- to show the beautiful architecture that forms St. Louis's greatest inherent asset, in the faint hope that maybe it will help nudge people back towards urban living, both in St. Louis and elsewhere -- another pebble rolling down the hill, trying to start an avalanche.

I get occasional emails requesting that this building or that neighborhood be added to the site. Sometimes they're in the works; sometimes I've never heard of them, and I go track them down when I'm in town (reader requests are responsible for one of the Modernist hospital chapels, the 2300 block of Dodier, St. Cecilia Catholic Church, and various others); sometimes it's a building long-demolished and there's not much I can do.

I have lots of big plans for the site, plans that will take years to bring to fruition; furthermore, as the site grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with all the changes to places and buildings I've previously documented. My backlog of photographs waiting to go up is enormous. My whirlwind weekend visits to St. Louis rarely last more than two days, never enough time to revisit all the places I've documented. Heck, I can barely find time to answer email these days. I ache to start a site about Philadelphia's architecture; I have hundreds of amazing photographs from my time there -- but I just don't have the time to scan them, organize them, figure out where they were taken, and put up pages.

Heh. If anybody knows how I can quit my job and make my living doing this, let me know.

** "Blog" = "weB LOG" -- except that "web log" is a fine and tasty phrase, whereas "blog" is one of the most hideous and misbegotten words to enter the English lexicon in my lifetime. It rolls off the tongue like a Panzer tank going over a cliff at 4 miles per hour. I despise it and utterly rebuke it, and renounce its use henceforth and forthwith. Bleh!