Tuesday, March 24, 2015

St. Louis Zoo Expansion Presents Huge Opportunity for Dogtown

I am fascinated with the Dogtown area of St. Louis. This part of town is a gamisch of three neighborhoods including Clayton/Tamm, Franz Park and Hi-Pointe...maybe more depending on who's talking.  Whatever the boundaries, I find this to be one of the more compelling, densely populated and "real" parts of town.  It has soul and it is kind of like the city's version of Maplewood, MO, a popular and gentrifying suburb of St. Louis directly to the west of this area. Dogtown boasts a diverse housing stock and a rich connection with Irish ancestry and identity.  Dogtown helps give St. Louis a sense of place and the intersection of Clayton and Tamm Avenues feels like the heart of this part of the city.

It would make a great place to live...and with its many locally owned and operated bars, restaurants and businesses, it's certainly a great place to visit as well...hence the point of this blog post.

When I walk the streets of Dogtown, I see a hilly, dense, urban neighborhood with rich traditions and pride.  The diverse housing stock is largely prideful and well cared for:

                                                 Looking west over the dense grid in Dogtown

Dogtown's architecture is a real mix best appreciated by a walk up and down the streets.  Slow down and take a look at how these humble particulars make a handsome sum and you can't help but love it:

At no time is the charm of Dogtown more apparent than around the break of Spring and St. Patrick's Day, an important day for people of Irish and Catholic descent, and Dogtown is the center of a parade and street party to honor the day.

A nod to the Emerald Isle

This part of town has remained stable and strong over the years and I think the future will be even brighter for the western edge of our city.

Try to see Dogtown through the optimistic lens that I do:

There has been much investment and development in the last five or so years around the fringes nearest Hampton and Oakland Avenues.

The Cortona at Forest Park was recently ranked as a "Top Five New Residential Development" by St. Louis Magazine.  This development brings much needed density and vibrancy to the former Checkerdome/Arena site.  The building is mod, bright and cool.

Photo Source: www.cortonaforestpark.com

The Tri-Star Mercedes dealership is nothing short of a sleek, modern and as urban as an automotive dealership can be.  Nice building, nice German cars!

Tri-Star Mercedes Benz at Hampton and Berthold Avenues

And then you have the promise of the St. Louis Zoo expansion.  This future addition is exciting and holds much promise as the Zoo does most things top shelf and classy.

From the Zoo website:

Unlike the existing Zoo campus in Forest Park, the expansion site is next to a residential neighborhood and retail corridor.
Plan recommendations include:
  • Using the expansion site to create a new entrance to the Zoo, anchored by a major attraction—an orientation point for visitors that would serve as a welcome center and be a hub of activity providing a unique experience and iconic architecture.
  • Moving parking facilities — from the existing campus and congested Forest Park roads to surface lots and a structured parking facility at the expansion site (This facility would capitalize on existing topography and provide both above-ground and underground spaces.)
  • Linking the expansion site to the existing Zoo campus with an iconic bridge, a gondola, wheeled trolleys or trams.
  • Placing not only parking but Zoo administrative/service/distribution operations at the expansion site, allowing room on the existing campus for new animal habitats and expansion of the Zoo's veterinary hospital.
  • Developing Zoo-themed retail, dining and lodging (an animal-themed hotel, for example).
  • Enhancing public space (creating a dog park, farmers' market or an outdoor event area)
While it was sad to see the former Forest Park/Deaconess Hospital go the way of the wrecking ball, it is hard not to see the St. Louis Zoo's expansion as a great replacement and even an upgrade for the western edge of our fine city.

image source:  cardcow.com

site as of March 14, 2015

While typically it's hard to get excited about a field and pending parking lots, this is an exception.  There is very real opportunity here.  The St. Louis Zoo is a destination locally, regionally, nationally and globally. Approximately three million people visit the zoo each year (source).

Encouraging these visitors to park on the south side of I-64 affords Dogtown with a massive opportunity.  Thousands of hungry, curious, meandering families, friends and tourists (each with a wallet) will descend on Dogtown without the physical barrier of the massive I-64 highway.  Many of these visitors know that a hotdog, pretzel and cold Busch will be available at the zoo, but they also need to know that there are a vast assortment of neighborhood restaurants and drinking establishments within walking distance...all with a lot of soul and local flavor.

But, many visitors don't like to take chances...they want safety and security.   With little ones usually in tow, I can understand. They need to be led.  Many suburbanites and tourists would not be characterized as "adventurous" or "urban explorers".  That's why we need to spoon feed them; we need to hold their hand and guide them on an extension of their St. Louis Zoo adventure, right into the heart of Dogtown.

Turn right to the zoo, turn left for Historic Dogtown...

So what's it gonna take?

Well, when I visited Boston, MA I walked a 2.5 mile "Freedom Trail" which led you on a self-guided tour of some of America's most historic places.  It was fun, but most of all, it was easy.  It is a fantastic way to take in the history and of course the city itself.  There are red stripes and bricks that mark the way.  You never get "lost" because the map is right there beneath your feet.

Dogtown needs something like this leading from the new parking lots of the Zoo to the many AWESOME spots in the heart of Dogtown nearest the zoo expansion site.  Heck, the stripes and bricks could even be green to honor the Irish history:

The "Walking the Dog(town)" tour could lead visitors down Graham Street to Clayton Avenue and circle around Tamm Avenue, which feels like the heart of Dogtown.  A simple cell phone application and signage could lead people to the dining, drinking and other stops.  It could easily be updated to include businesses as they come and go.  Ten restaurants within ten minutes...you get my idea.

Want to experience a truly local treat, the Slinger?  Walk to the Courtesy Diner through the streets of Dogtown and belly up to the counter for a slinger with onions and peppers.

photo source:  the13blog

Want to have a cold, rich beer brewed on site?  Walk to Heavy Riff Brewing Company.

How about pizza and a local microbrew from 4-hands, Civil Life, Modern Brewery, Urban Chestnut, Schlafly, etc at Felix's?  The building itself has windows that open up onto the street to give it that al fresco feel.

How about a delicious hamburger and a side of fried mushrooms at Seamus McDaniel's?

The smoked on-site chicken salad at Nora's is off the charts and nestled among a nice row of small businesses built right up to the street.

That's not it, there is much, much more.

All, locally owned, all neighborhood, all St. Louis.  The REAL St. Louis, the one with the soul.

Demolition is now complete on the parcel of land between Hampton, Graham, Berthold and Oakland.

The future is bright, the slate has been wiped clean and is now ready to be reset.  Even if/when the Zoo decides to build it's own restaurants, etc, it won't simply compete with the existing neighborhood, it will attract more to the area.  It can only build critical mass, it can only add to Dogtown.  I dream of visitors leaving St. Louis and saying "the Zoo was awesome (and free) and the sandwich and beer we had at lunch in that charming neighborhood was good too."

Improving connections to the zoo on both sides of I-64 is important.  Connecting the zoo visitors to the heart of Dogtown is equally as important if we are ever to turn people on to the great neighborhoods we have in the city.

Getting people to walk neighborhoods is important toward having them connect with them.  You have to interact with people who live there, you have to look inside homes as you pass, watch kids playing in the alley, pass by people porch sitting/drinking and observe the connected-ness of urban lifestyles. You don't get to know your city until you slow down, park the car and walk it. You won't "get" many subtle parts of St. Louis by blowing by at 35 MPH plus on Hampton or Clayton.  Park the car and walk around.

Dogtown is a treasure, now the visitors and tourists need to experience and see what we, the locals, already do.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

The old Chain of Rocks Bridge is located near the northern tip of St. Louis.  It's span of the Mississippi River measures just over one mile and it connects the Riverview Neighborhood of St. Louis to the manmade Chouteau Island, part of the city of Madison in Illinois.

The bridge was built by a private venture for ~$2.5M and opened to vehicular traffic in 1929 (source).  The bridge company relied on tolls to operate the bridge which once carried the legendary Route 66, bypassing the Mother Road from its former route directly through the southern part of downtown St. Louis south on the MacArthur Bridge. A federal mandate stripped the company of the ability to charge tolls and the butt-ugly, boring, staid, New Chain of Rocks bridge (opened to traffic in 1966) immediately to the north.  This was the death-knell for the old Chain of Rocks bridge, closing in 1968.

Thankfully, kismet was on the side of the bridge and my favorite city's history. The bridge was nearly destroyed by the Feds but was spared due to luck and circumstance:
"The bridge deteriorated, and during the 1970s, Army demolition teams considered blowing it up just for practice.  In 1975, demolition seemed eminent.  Fortunately for the bridge, a bad market saved the day.  The value of scrap steel plummeted, making demolition no longer profitable.  At that point, the Chain of Rocks Bridge entered 20 years of bridge limbo--too expensive to tear down, too narrow and outdated to carry modern vehicles." (source)
This is one of three bridges you can walk across in St. Louis, the majestic Eads bridge downtown and the McKinley Bridge are the other ones.  Sure, they have better views of Downtown St. Louis, but the Chain of Rocks is my favorite for walking because it is pedestrian only, whereas Eads carries vehicles and Metrolink and McKinley carries cars.  It gives the bridge a peaceful experience like no other and it is unique for other reasons.

First, a walk across this bridge affords the best views of the Mississippi River itself with muddy water rushing over a shoal of limestone rocks for which the bridge takes its name just to the south.  This forms raging rapids that can easily be seen and heard from the bridge's deck.  It is a lesson in the power of the river and a reminder of why recreational boats and yachts are limited on this stretch of the Mississippi and why locks were engineered for barge passage.

Secondly, there are distant views of downtown St. Louis and the Gateway Arch reminding you that no matter whether you are in the northernmost, southernmost or westernmost edge of the city, you can still find a view of the of cities greatest mid-century modern sculpture.  And then of course, you have unbeatable views of the two majestic mini-castle water intakes.  These are still a functioning part of the St. Louis waterworks.  The site was selected in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.  The water plant commenced operations in 1895 and when a filtration system was added in 1915 it was the largest water filtration water plant in the world.  St. Louis was built to be great.

Intake Tower #1 (1894)

Intake Tower #2 (1915)

Thirdly, this bridge was featured (among many other St. Louis spots) in the 1981 movie Escape from New York starring Kurt Russell and featuring one of my favorites, Harry Dean Stanton.  It is storied that director John Carpenter purchased the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St Louis for $1 from the government and then returned it to them for the same amount after filming was completed (source).  What do you do when an American city doesn't look post-apocalyptic enough and it's the early 1980s?  Well, you come to St. Louis.  And for that I love the Chain of Rocks even more for documenting the dirty history of abandonment we have in St. Louis. 

Fourth, the bridge mirrors the history of the entire city of St. Louis especially that of the near south up through all of north St. Louis.  The worst days, the 1970s-1990s were ripe with disinvestment, abandonment, suburban pressures, school closures, violence, decay, racial upheaval and finally near collapse on the verge of erasure.  Gladly, the bridge was spared despite some pretty terrible behavior in the 1970s - 1990s.  There was an amusement park at the foot of the bridge from 1927 to 1977 called the Chain of Rocks Fun Fair Park.

Thanks to the time and efforts of YouTube user "TheMrMac45", photos of the Chain of Rocks Fun Fair Park are displayed in his brief video below...click on the frame and take in that sweet Falstaff concession stand:

Also watch this video to see footage and reporting of the auction of the rides and other assets at the shuttering of the park in 1977:

As stated in that video by the late park owners, 1971 was really the last good year the park had. Six Flags opening in the suburbs and rowdy vandals took the park down.

The negativity reached its most horrifying conclusion in 1991 with the gruesome rape and double murder of sisters Robin and Julie Kerry at the hands of Marlin Gray who was quoted by witnesses and the prosecution as saying "he felt like hurting somebody".  He was convicted and executed by the state of Missouri in 2005.

This mixture of personal emotions and understanding and dreaming of a past I was not around to see fill my head every time I walk across this bridge.

Walking up the approach on the Missouri side, it is hard to image, with a mere width of 24 feet, that there were two lanes of traffic.  You don't really get how dangerous that must have been unless you remember driving the bridge yourself, or until you walk it and imaging that tight squeeze between cars and of course the 22 degree band in the middle of the bridge.  I've never driven a bridge in the U.S. with a bend like that.  Walking it helps you relive the past.

Slow down!!! Turn left!!!

Your eyes are easily trained to look up and take in the rusty girders or down at the powerful, swirling river below:

There are momentos of the Route 66 era to catch your attention, as well:

photo credit: Built St. Louis

But the part of the bridge's history that is right beneath your feet is the one that I am most fascinated by. It is that of the gritty, dirty, fun and dangerous days of the 1970s-1980s when Chain of Rocks was closed to all but those willing to walk it...the amusement park was still there and shuttered and like a Scooby Doo set.  The bridge was hulking and dark and you could climb down its manholes to the pier.

It is obvious that when the bridge closed, it became a spot for kids to hangout and party, drink, smoke and listen to music a la 1970s/1980s fashion.  The remnants of this era of the bridge are still there, but are fading fast as time marches on and the elements and repairs take their toll on the signs of the times.

I'm not so naive as to think this was all just good ole teenage fun a la Richard Linklater's version of the 1970s in 1993's Dazed and Confused.

But if you read the fading grafitti you can get a sense of the times.  I don't think the 1970's and 1980's teenage grafitti will be as cherished by those in charge and responsible for the bridge's future, nor the general population, as it is by me, a child of the 1970s and a former K-SHE real rocker...but it is this history that sparks my interest and what I want to capture and add for future generations to see.  This is the part of the historic timeline of the bridge that will likely be lost...but at least there will be photos and memories.  Here's my tribute to the fading momentos of wasted days and wasted nights on the bridge:

 Head For The Mountains

 Just Say Yes

 Bet I can throw a rock and...

 Simple and Plain

 Satan Pentagram (later "sucks" was added below SATAN)

 Curt and Linda 4-Life

  Volkswagon symbol with "Bad Bug"

 Remnants of Monty Python

 Yo Adrian

There was a time when K-SHE 95 was insanely cool.  It has since been neutered but it used to mean something.

For those that like the weird, 1970s/80s St. Louis as much as I, watch the late, legendary Pete Parisi on his World Wide Magazine show strolling across the bridge.  You can see some of the exact graffiti that still exists, but Trailnet and Madison have cleaned and painted over most of it (with the best of intentions).

The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and Trailnet has had a most positive hand in its future and maintenance.  It is currently owned by the city of Madison, Illinois and they are good and kind owners, as they help host "eagle days" and other events inviting the public to enjoy the bald eagle populations that are in great numbers on the Mississippi.

I have hope that as the bridge ages and improves over the years it will be maintained by Trailnet and historical societies such as 'Route 66'.  The Old Chain of Rocks, unlike the New Chain of Rocks bridge is a constant reminder of American history good and bad and St. Louis' place as a great American city.

Walk it, ride it, enjoy it and most of all, take in the fading past of when Moxy, April Wine and Molly Hatchet were on the airwaves.