Saturday, October 22, 2016

Employee Time

I went into Randall's on a weekday to buy some beer. It was outside of my normal routine, during the day-ish, maybe 3:00 or so. The vibe was different. The employees were running the show, I mean the music in the place.

The tunes were decidedly not what I usually hear in this place on a Friday or Saturday night. They were employee-selected. The volume was meant to be heard. It sounded great to me, the place was empty of customers, but rocking.

Everyone was singing in somewhat was together. Enough to be noticeable.

Let the neighborhood be the neighborhood. Let the employees listen to what they want. Let them call the shots and you suddenly have a neighborhood place in the true sense of the word.

Happy people.

Never have I learned more about the word community than I have working as a lawn mower, glass cutter, delivery driver, fast food hack, newspaper salesman, bus boy, dishwasher.  When you work these jobs, you realize how simple community can be.

Our strength in St. Louis is our people living real lives, working real right here.

Let the soundtrack reflect that and we'll all be happier and realer...a place that isn't canned and presented to consumers.

The little things make me happy living here.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

De Tonty Street - An Historic Transformation South of Interstate 44

There is a sea change underway on one of St. Louis' most visible streets just south of the well-traveled Interstate 44.  I'm talking about De Tonty Street, a one mile, seven block, east-west street that goes from South Grand Boulevard to Vandeventer Avenue in the Shaw and Southwest Garden Neighborhoods.

While De Tonty is a relatively small street that most probably don't recognize by name, the stakes are high due to its visibility from I-44. To many passersby and suburban commuters, traveling down the Interstates that cut through St. Louis are the only views into city life and city neighborhoods.

I've heard many people talk about the "eyesores" along this stretch of I-44 since I moved to St. Louis ~22 years ago. From the 1990's to now, this area has drastically changed first north and now south of the Interstate that butchered this part of the city.

While the focus of this blog post is De Tonty Street, I'll also briefly discuss the north view from the Interstate along Lafayette Avenue in the Botanical Height Neighborhood.

Looking north from this stretch you have the "Botanical Heights" new homes built on the former McRee Town. Now, McRee Town had seen better days by the time I moved to St. Louis in the 1990s and it was well known for crime and dealing. I personally experienced some crazy stuff here. It was out of control.

But don't just take my word for it, the poor state of McRee town in the early 21st Century is well documented in multiple places. Here's an excerpt from a story by Shelley Smithson published in the Riverfront Times in 2003:
The smell of trash hangs as thick as the humidity. The buildings, most of them boarded and burned, are broken-down monuments to a neighborhood that lost hope long ago. Yet behind the shadows of neglect are arched doorways, stately turrets, brick front porches -- simple architectural reminders of a place that once was beautiful and elegant.

McRee Town is still waking up. In a few hours, drug dealers will be waving their arms and yelling at passing motorists, especially those who are white, hoping to make a sale. Cops say most buyers tool down Interstate 44 from the suburbs, take the Vandeventer exit and score some crack in McRee Town, then pop back on the freeway.
Photos of McRee Town's final days can be found on the invaluable Built St. Louis blog.

Sadly, we lost many of those brick buildings right around 2003, and by 2007 it was done, the reset button was pushed and the urban renewal clearance mindset was in full swing...the Garden District Commission formed in 1998, including the Missouri Botanical Garden and neighbors from the area...and this is what they wanted:
The Garden District Commission (GDC) is a non-profit, community-based organization formed in 1998 to promote neighborhood revitalization in Botanical Heights (formerly McRee Town), Shaw, Tiffany, and Southwest Garden. The GDC is governed by a board of directors made up of a diverse cross section of these communities and includes institutional and neighborhood leaders.

As its first order of business the GDC spearheaded an extensive community-based planning process in which residents from all four GDC neighborhoods participated. The major goal that resulted from this process was for the GDC to initiate a redevelopment plan in the McRee Town neighborhood. With the support from the GDC neighborhoods and the alderman and Mayor’s Office, in September 2001 the City of St. Louis adopted the McRee Town Redevelopment Plan. McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation, an affiliate of the Garden District Commission, was granted redevelopment rights to implement the plan. (source)
The mostly detached single family homes with contemporary suburban design and setbacks are in full effect north of I-44. 
To the casual observer, the area probably looks a lot better flying by at 65 mph, especially those who think new is good and always better than old. I'm not one of those, but I accept I'm in the minority. So, the north view from I-44 between Grand and Vandeventer looks quite different today than it did in the late 1980's through the early 2000's.

There are still plenty of places that harken back to the tougher times for McRee Town; hopefully these will see investment soon, the skeletons are strong:
But, the southern view along that same stretch of I-44 is the focus of this post. Sweeping changes and investment are underway...and by my untrained eye, we are starting to witness a better fit for the neighborhood and a better example of modern construction. Whatever your opinion, it's good to see infill, investment, property tax dollars a eventually the most important thing...more people who call St. Louis home.

I'll show a few examples of why I'm optimistic for the future of De Tonty Street, but first a quick look the history of this short east-west street.

Per the St. Louis Public Library Street Name Index, the street was named in honor of Henri de Tonty, the Italian-born lieutenant of Rene Robert Cavelier Sieur de la Salle, the Frenchman who explored the Mississippi Valley in the late-17th century. Among the Indians of the valley, De Tonty was known as "Iron Hand" because his right hand was blown off in battle and replaced with one made of metal. An alternate spelling is Henri de Tonti; but the city went with De Tonty.
Henri De Tonty

The street is a nice blend of mostly two story multi-family and single family homes construction between 1911 and 1922...all brick and stone St. Louis classics. By my estimation, there are only two examples of three story buildings along De Tonty.
Lawrence and De Tonty
3800 block

The other homes are a nice mix of single, two and four family properties.
A walk down the street will show signs of investment and maintenance required for dignified living conditions. From a curb appeal standpoint, this stretch is looking better than it has in my ~22 years here.

Sure there are still a couple properties that are condemned, but there are signs of renewal.
Many of the recent rehabs are taking four families to two and two families to single family homes, effectively right-sizing the housing stock to the much lower St. Louis population in current times vs. the 1910's when these were built to meet the demands of a city of ~687,029 (source).
Empty lots are seeing infill, an example being 4056-4058 De Tonty, just east of Thurman Avenue. This former city-owned LRA lot was vacant for years and per city records, was purchased for back taxes by a suburban St. Louis development firm who is building a single family home. Density. Re-established street wall and a better tax base...optimism all around.
By my estimation, there are only two remaining empty lots flanked by homes. One in the 4100 block and one in the 4300 block, the latter assumed as a private yard to the adjacent property.

Speaking of the 4300 block, the small stretch of De Tonty that is west of Tower Grove Avenue is part of the Southwest Garden Neighborhood and has a completely different feel than the Shaw blocks.

It has a lot of street trees and the property abutting I-44 is planted, providing a more private, quiet setting. There are curb bump-outs that provide traffic calming at Tower Grove Avenue.
While there are only a couple empty lots flanked by homes, there are plenty-o empty lots at the corner properties at Thurman, Lawrence and 39th Street. 
But there is reason for optimism. Per an October, 2015 story by nextSTL,  a food production, nutrition and science education center is planned at Lawrence and De Tonty. The Greenhouse Venture is the team behind this project. Here's their mission:
To create a nationally visible demonstration facility for year-round, sustainable, urban agriculture that instills an appreciation of the cycles and processes of nature and health, that broadens the education experience of elementary school students in the Urban Education Alliance District, that optimizes technology to remotely share its program with other interested elementary schools throughout the region, and that offers nutritious fresh produce to the community's needy. 
The Project is Founded on a collaboration between Saint Louis University and four schools: St. Margaret of Scotland, Mullanphy-Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Christian, and the Saint Louis Language Immersion schools.
Exciting elements of this design are tiered plantings along the Interstate embankments:

Per an October, 2015 story by KMOX, the center is slated to open in 2019. Hopefully another empty lot seeing a higher use.

But the real attention grabber is the massive housing construction project going on in the vast stretch of empty lots from Thurman Avenue to Klemm Street in the 4100 block. Formerly a massive field cleared of homes for years:

Unfortunately, these homes were demolished in the late 1990's and early 2000's as routine maintenance and upkeep was abandoned, the homes fell into disrepair. Instead of opportunities for rehabilitation, the homes were cleared en masse. Eventually the lots were absorbed by the city's LRA and eventually changed hands to a couple developers that were unable to execute construction projects due to economics and/or other factors....until now.

Another long vacant lot in the City of St. Louis will soon see 72 new housing units as urban developer UIC plans a December groundbreaking. The vision, which includes three-story apartment buildings mixed with for-sale townhomes, is the third major proposal in recent years for the site on the 4100 block of Detonty Street facing Interstate 44 in the quickly developing Shaw neighborhood. 
The site totals 84,000sf with more than 600 feet of street frontage. Phase 1 will include the renovation of the existing building at the east end of the site and a 36-unit adjacent building. A model townhome will be built, with additional units construction as sold. Phase 2 will include a 24-unit apartment building and is scheduled to break ground summer 2016.
It's really good to see this level of investment, taking vacant lots and bringing dignified homes and much needed tax dollars back to the people of the city....remember, a large part of the school budgets come from property taxes.

I like the three story design, breaking up the largely two story street.
Click play to view the 4300 block as of publishing

Street trees are drastically needed in the Shaw section of De Tonty. Here's an example:
The north side of De Tonty's embankments leading to I-44 could use some attention. A buffer is clearly needed, the 4300 block is an example of what this can provide.

Back in 2013, I spoke to Shaw resident Monte Abbott, one of the folks behind native plantings flanking the Thurman underpass. These areas are maturing as a wild, native landscape and form a brief respite from the mowed weeds that extend in each direction. Monarchs were onsite on my recent advertised.
Slay balls blocking access to Botanical Heights

As I discussed in the previous blog linked above, there was once a design competition to enhance the pedestrian experience and look of the Thurman underpass, but that appears stalled or dead.

So lots of action on De Tonty Street to take in, and keep your eyes out for the Greenhouse Venture project and activity on other remaining empty lots. 

Momentum is building and this part of St. Louis is looking better than it has in years.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Three Quick Things To Like About Fox Park

1. I opened up the latest version of St. Louis Magazine with the cover "101 Best Restaurants" issue to find the first page listing Lona's Lil Eats and Milque Toast Bar. I will add the Purple Martin to the mix with these two and say just how important a business and a place can be to help make a neighborhood livable.
Lona's activated a sleepy corner of the neighborhood in the best of ways. I live three doors down and can say it has likely been one of the best thing to happen to Fox Park in the five years I've lived here.  The smells, the crowds, the employees, the food, the outdoor seating...but most of all the good vibe and the kindness of the owners and employees. I mean, they let my kids walk over there after school and just hangout and drink soda's. So kind. And that's what St. Louis Magazine said too:
"Vibe: the embodiment of a feel-good neighborhood establishment." 
True. Add to that, the tiniest of spaces just across Jefferson, Milque Toast  Bar. This place is a gem and adds to a strip of businesses including a barber shop, Fritanga Nicaraguan restaurant, Peat Wollaeger's Gallery & PopShop and South Jefferson Mid Century Modern all adding original, walkable places in the 2200 block of South Jefferson, which is a tough street to take a chance's like a highway and people drive that way due to the overly wide road. But walking across the street to the McKinley Heights neighborhood to visit these places just makes me happy.

2. There's reasons to be hopeful for our aging/abandoned building stock. There are a few brick beauties I feared would succumb to the elements and squatters; but they are seeing new life.

Here are a few:
 2800 block of Magnolia Avenue
 2800 block of Magnolia Avenue
 2800 block of Magnolia Avenue
2100 block of Oregon Avenue

There are even some recent examples of new construction that are far better than previous attempts:
2800 block of Magnolia Avenue

Dumpsters and building permits are on display on a few others that make me hopeful that there will be more investment in the neighborhood:
 2100 block of Oregon Avenue
2600 block of California Avenue

3. The largest of several community gardens in our neighborhood is at Russell and California. It's called "Fox Park Farm" and it's one of those spaces that you can't appreciate by just driving by. For the neighbors that garden here, the space is a serene, pastoral kind of place. You can kind of escape here. It's strange. But, I'm not alone in this thought, Gateway Greening recently wrote about this garden which is one of the oldest in St. Louis:
"It is a green oasis nestled in the urban landscape."
Thing is, the place looks better than it has in the five years I've lived here. Cheers to the current group of hard workers. And apparently the bounty is plentiful:
Feels good to watch this neighborhood evolve. Here's to more positivity and investment in this important part of our fair city.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Former Firehouses - Reused, Renovated, Awaiting New Life

I received the following list from a friend in the St. Louis Fire Department that includes 11 retired firehouses that are still standing as of publishing:

No. 1 - 2411 McNair Avenue, 63104, Benton Park neighborhood (Built 1872)
No. 3 - 3648 S. Broadway, 63118, Marine Villa neighborhood (Built 1919)
No. 7 - 1304 S. 18th Street, 63104 Lafayette Square neighborhood (Built 1897)
No. 26 - 2100 N. 2nd Street, 63102, Near North Riverfront neighborhood (Built 1887)
No. 28 - 3934 Enright Avenue, 63108, Vandeventer neighborhood (Built 1961)
No. 29 - 1219 S. Vandeventer Avenue, 63110, Forest Park Southeast neighborhood (Built 1888)
No. 32 - 2000 Washington Avenue, 63103, Downtown West neighborhood (Built 1892)
No. 32 - 503 N. 20th Street, 63103, Downtown West neighborhood (Built 1919)
No. 36 - 1719 N. Union Boulevard, 63113, Wells Goodfellow neighborhood (Built 1911)
No. 40/41 - 707 N. 11th Street, 63101, Downtown neighborhood (Built 1904)
No. 45 - 914 Allen Avenue, 63104, Soulard neighborhood (Built 1906)

Now keep in mind, this may not be a fully comprehensive list, but it was a place to start and have some fun learning about these amazing St. Louis places with a long history.

In fact, I've discovered several inconsistencies in the ages of the buildings if you use the official St. Louis records as your guide. Furthermore, some of our firehouses have been lost throughout the years to natural catastrophes like cyclones. 

But, when I'm tooling around the older parts of North City I sometimes come across buildings and wonder if they were firehouses at some point, but have no proof. Some just look the part, like this one at 3901-3907 North Vandeventer Avenue. Built in 1890, it has had several lives, including most recently a business called "282 Firehouse". Prior to that it was a car wash:
Google Streetview image (2007)

Anyhow, here's a look at how the remaining retired firehouses look in late summer, 2016:

No. 1 at 2411 McNair Avenue in the Benton Park Neighborhood is a straight up gem. It sits on the recognizable stretch of McNair between the popular Blues City Deli and Hodak's. It was built in 1890 well before a motorized fleet with large hook and ladders existed. This one dates back to when horses were used and likely became obsolete due to its location on a tight intra-neighborhood street that would not allow direct means of egress for the large trucks. Check out the 360 degree video to see how tight a turn would be coming out of the very narrow garage doors.
City records indicate that the building changed hands in 1979 from the city to a private entity. It has been residential for awhile.
No. 3 at 3648 South Broadway in the Marine Villa Neighborhood is another Bavarian pearl. This one is likely familiar to most people in St. Louis who will recognize it just south of the Anheuser-Busch/InBev and Lemp breweries or near Off Broadway. City records actually list this one at 3555 Salena Street and list the owner as the City of St. Louis.
Per a plaque, the building was in use by the STLFD from 1914 to 1968. The list above says it was built in 1919. The city records are not updated, so nothing to set the record straight.
Anyhow, per the signage, the exterior renovation was completed around 2001 and was made possible by the 10th Ward taxpayers through a Capital Improvement Tax when Alderman Craig Schmid was in office. The inscription says:
"The land on which this Bavarian-Style structure stands was conveyed to the City of St. Louis with certain restrictions on its use for specific purposes. The interior first floor walls are constructed of white bakery brick left over from construction of the Anheuser-Busch brewery."
Per a brief twitter exchange, it was brought to my attention that there's a group of folks considering the space for a FD museum. I'd love to see that. And, there is a vast empty lot at Miami and Salena directly south of the firehouse that would make a perfect area to park a few retired firetrucks and other equipment to show the technology throughout the years.

No. 7 at 1304 South 18th Street is in the Lafayette Square Neighborhood. Per the list above, it was built in 1897 whereas the official city record lists it at 1900. This is another one that likely became obsolete due to the narrow city street. Either way, it's an oldie but a goodie now zoned commercial as a photography studio.
No. 26 at 2100 North 2nd Street is located on the Near North Riverfront Neighborhood. City records indicate that is was built in 1887, not 1919 per the above list and has been in private hands since the city started posting their data online in 1997.
No. 28 at 3934 Enright Avenue was built in 1900 and renovated around 1960. Again, the list above appears to be incorrect. Per city records, it changed hands from the City of St. Louis to the private sector in 2001 and is now a residence. 

This one has to be the most amazingly transformed space of them all. The current owners have done something truly amazing here, and with their permission, I've linked to their blog "A Fire Pole in the Dining Room" and am including an interior photo. I am in awe of high design and creativity at this level. You have to click around the photos to take in the amazing work. Take special note of the firehose lights. I can image sitting in this place listening and spieling to this.

The property was featured on the popular HGTV show "House Hunters".
The 2007 Google Streetview image shows the home to the east prior to investment and no fence to the west. Today, there is a cool metal fence on the west side of the property.
No. 29 is another one most St. Louisan's will likely recognize as it sits on the west side of the well-travelled Vandeventer Avenue in the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood. City records say it was built in 1887, not 1888 per the list. City records also indicated it switched hands to the private sector in 1982. It is currently for sale. Man, the font on this one is so cool.
No. 32 at 2000 Washington Avenue is in the Downtown West Neighborhood. As reported by nextSTL in July, 2015, its owners are seeking a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for tax credits that will assist with a mixed-use renovation to 2nd floor residential and 1st floor retail/commercial. Godspeed good people; opening up those bricked-in windows and front bays would make a world of difference.
No. 36 is listed at 1719 North Union in the Wells/Goodfellow Neighborhood, but the official city record lists it at 1717 North Union Boulevard, indicating ownership by a Florrissant, Missouri guy. The official record also indicates it was built in 1904, not 1911 as per the list I was provided. This one is in pretty rough shape and needs some love.
No. 40/41 is at 707 North 11th Street in the Downtown Neighborhood. It is currently home to a couple legal firms. The city records list the building date at 1887. The information from the list I was provided says it was built in 1904. This one is most recognizable by the firehouse lights above one of the bays.
No. 45 is at 914 Allen Avenue in Soulard, right next to the Smile/Cheer-Up Building. It is currently in use as a personal residence on a great city street. One of the nice touches on this one is the owners retained the brick entryway leading up to the former front entry. They cleared a couple small areas for two small tree planters, forming a charming courtyard in front of the building.
So there you go. Here's to hoping the firehouse on North Union can find some investment and care before it falls further into disrepair and neglect.