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!


Michael R. Allen said...

Welcome to the blogosphere!

No anonymous comments, eh? Good call.

Ian said...

Hi Robert, it's Ian, your old ally at EDM, Built St. Louis's old web host. It's awesome to see the site and your efforts thriving and expanding like they have over the past few years. Keep up the amazing work.

Doug Duckworth said...

Thanks for getting a Blog, look forward to the updates!

Sean said...

great website! I have been coming to it for the last few years. As a native St. Louisan, I am glad to see that somebody has taken the time to do this. Great work and keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Hey..great site eh?
My name's philip and I'm from Vancouver,Canada.I love visiting your site now and again since I love all things urban and urban planning/heritage conservation.
I think your site is one of the best out there..it stands out!
I felt sad for the people of Saint Louis that you lost the Century Building and the Ambassador Building and it's ornate theatre.
I find it shocking such a grand structure was replaced by a parking structure..A PARKING STRUCTURE! CRIMINAL! And the Ambassador was replaced by a drive thru? What is the world coming to?
Moreover,it find it disheartening that Saint Louis lost most of it's downtown heritage in the 1970's for the Gateway Mall project...
and to cap it all off, many neighborhoods of saint Louis became abandonned.Sickening..
Here, on the west coast of Canada,
Vancouver is a much younger town than Saint Louis..it was only incorporated as a city in 1886.
Heritage buildings in Vancouver are very limited here, unlike most big American cities.Even Seattle, which is a 4 hour drive south of the Canadian border, has more heritage than Vancouver does..to many Vancouverites envy.Vancouver is a beautiful city on the Pacific Coast bordered by mountains and sea
but what it lacks is the built historic environmentwhich gives a town it's charm and character...when I think of urban renewal here, I think of the West End of the city which was systematically razed for grey concrete tower blocks in the 1960's and 1970's.Fortunately,Vancouver never built a freeway or expressway back then, so we are one of the rare cities in North America not to have one.Had that happened though,
the historic areas of Gastown,Chinatown and Strathcona would be now history..Luckily, they have survived due to protesting citizens back 35 years ago. Vancouver is lucky that we didn't obliterate all our heritage buildings to live in tract housing in the burbs either.I hope that in the near future,young people in Saint Louis will want to live in
renovated old structures-converted into condominiums-( has that happened already?) And that Detroit follows that same approach in order to save it's historic downtown from extinction.
On a more positive note..I'd like to visit your city one day, and check out the Warehouse district there..it looks hip and happening.
congrats on the awesome website!
philip aerts
vancouver, bc canada

Anonymous said...

I was at Parks College in 1963.
Great memories of Gaslight Square'
Anyone remember The Living Room with phones on each table and a switchboard operator in the front window? Makes me feel good to think of the great times in STL!!!
Norm in DAB.............

Anonymous said...

I love that you love my city and are documenting all the history of this great area. When I was looking through your site though, I noticed that you chose to focus mainly on the areas that are 'wrong' with St. Louis. If one of your goals is to promote the city and encourage people to come back, then why don't you show the great, thriving, often packed neighborhoods that we still have here? You mentioned Soulard, but I found no pics. What about Lafayette Square, the Central West End (where there are endless streets like Westminster), or even St. Louis Hills or the Southside? I live in a beautiful 1918 home on a tree lined street in a quiet, southside neighborhood that would rival the best suburb in the county. People don't realize what's here until they come and see if for themselves. Yes, we do have urban decay, and probably more than we should for a city of our size, but we also have a LOT of good too (and affordable!). Maybe you could show some of these areas too? Even though the buildings may not be crumbling, the architecture is just as stunning.
When people only see what we're losing, they don't get a true picture of what we still have (and with the recent population increase, are gaining).
Anyway, thanks for letting me add my 2 cents. Believe it or not, this is actually my first comment to a blog :-)