Thursday, January 14, 2010

Wanted: Outsiders and Immigrants

I was at the Missouri History Museum recently and thinking about the lifetime accomplishments of some great St. Louisians to our fine city.

Most of the grand visions and accomplishments happened when St. Louis was booming and people were making fortunes here.  Local philanthropy was alive and well; people were thinking big.  The spirit and desire to make the U.S. similar to dense European cities and foster that culture was apparent.  An example from Henry Shaw's great vision (starting at age 19 mind you):
The Shaw neighborhood began as a clearing the French called Prairie des Noyers. Much of this expansive natural prairie was purchased by Louisville’s Captain William Chambers in 1816. About the same time, the prairie captivated Henry Shaw, a young man of 19 seeking his fortune. He bought his piece in 1840 to the north and west of Chambers and there he built his country home, Tower Grove House. He also began planning and installing his magnificent garden, now known as the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Shaw began dabbling in residential development building Shaw Place, which was a re-creation of a streetscape reminiscent of his childhood in England. The architectural firm of George I. Barnett designed these houses as a model and standard for the homes Shaw wanted to see built around his garden. They also served as rental property, the proceeds benefiting the Garden. When Captain Chambers died, he left his property to his daughter, Mary Tyler, who sold it in the 1890’s to a Kansas City developer. Tyler’s 235 acres became “Tyler Place, a bon ton neighborhood”. Flora Place was the showcase of the area. Its lots sold for $55-65 per front foot.

 The entrance gates to the 1897 Flora Place were built at a cost of $9,500. That was $5,500 more than the first home’s sale price.

 The entrance gates to the 1897 Flora Place were built at a cost of $9,500. That was $5,500 more than the first home’s sale price. Growth spread in all directions, and many styles of architecture flourished over the ensuing 30 years as Shaw became a fully urban neighborhood.
So, with the amazing accomplishments of Susan Elizabeth Blow and Henry Shaw at the front of my mind, I am inspired by the amazing vision these people had to shape our city for the betterment of generations and generations to come.  Bravo!

However, the days of America and especially St. Louis being a place where the wealthy and privileged come to live are over.  Henry Shaw and Susan Elizabeth Blow probably would not have been able to accomplish what they did without their vast family wealth and privilige.  But they were St. Lousians.  They lived in the neighborhoods that they designed/worked in.  They had personal stock in these places.  They wanted to make it a better place for themselves and for generation to come.

Most of the current day wealthy in the region choose to live outside the confines of St. Louis (Ladue, Town and Country, Chesterfield, Frontenac, Creve Coeur, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, etc).   Why would they want to make sweeping, lasting, thoughtful changes and contributions to a place where they don't live or understand or have direct stock in?

Henry Shaw lived in his settlement.  Susan Elizabeth Blow lived near the school she started.  They were part of the neighborhood.  They lived in/with the buildings and settlements they designed.  That is important.  But....

I just don't see St. Louis having the citizens with enough money and power to make radical sweeping changes to this city that is necessary.  By change, I mean transforming streets, neighborhoods, fallow parcels of land to places that will be on the map and in the history books in years to come.  Places that will be considered special and historically significant 50, maybe 100 years from now.
There are obvious exceptions (Bob Cassilly), but I am generalizing here.

Although, with St. Louis' most wealthy and elite living in the suburbs, enjoying their exclusivity and separation from the negatives of St. Louis race politics, poor, homeless, schools, crime, etc.,  maybe the saving grace is outside influence....outside the region.  I certainly think it will take more than the 350,000 we have now. I think we need help, fresh external viewpoints, intellectual and monitary investment from elsewhere.

On more than one occasion I've given "tours" of St. Louis to suburbanites or metro-east denizens.  The usual things are heard.  "Should we lock the doors?"  "Are you sure it's safe here?"  "This could be a nice place."  "What a shame it's been allowed to come to this."

Forget all that.  I'm sick of that kind of talk.  You are either part of the problem or the solution.  That kind of talk is part of the regional problem.  On more than one occasion, my wife and I have given co-workers from out of country or out of state tours of St. Louis.   They are fascinated with the history, the polished neighborhoods, the gritty neighborhoods, the overall feel.  They've commented on how cheap it is to eat good food and the accessibility to amazingly affordable housing options.  They seem to walk away impressed.  It's this fresh, less tainted perspective that I think we need to help guide us toward a brighter future.

We need more outsiders and immigrants to make this place better.  The fresh perspective is needed more now than ever.  Look at how the Bosnian, Croatian, Roma immigrants have not let local politics, fear of opening a business and negativity get in the way of transforming buildings, blocks, neighborhoods for their community and needs.  St. Louis is a better place because of their hard work (and great bakeries).

I'm very hopeful that the solicitation of outsider view points on the Arch Grounds Design Competition jury will inject this sense of optimism and pleasant surprise at how much our city has to offer if it was just reconfigured a little and reconnected with pedestrians in mind.  Many other bloggers are already covering the Arch Grounds Design Competition.  Take a look at the folks selected to be on the jury (from Ecology of Absence):

Robert Campbell, architecture critic at The Boston Globe and contributing editor for Architectural Record;

Gerald Early, Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and Director of the African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis;

Denis P. Galvin, former Deputy Director of the National Park Service;

Alex Krieger, founding principal of Chan Krieger Sieniewicz, architecture and urban design firm and professor at the Harvard School of Design, Cambridge, Mass.;

David C. Leland, an urban strategist and managing director of the Leland Consulting Group, Portland, Ore.;

Cara McCarty, curator of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York City;

Laurie D. Olin, partner and landscape architect of the OLIN Studio, Philadelphia;

Carol Ross Barney, founder and Principal of Ross Barney Architects, Chicago.

 I trust the outsiders and immigrants to be awed by the potential of our city more than the entrenched native and suburbanite intelligencia and money.   St. Louis has had a rough 40 or so years, we're all aware of the negatives.  We see them everyday, yet there are enough people moving here and staying here that think St. Louis matters and can be saved and reconnected.  But these numbers need to increase.  Let's bring on the fresh faces perspectives and viewpoints!  I don't think they're the naysayers...

3 comments:

Joseph said...

We do have some big thinkers here among the local population too, but the more the merrier. We need to overwhelm the status quo loving, backwards thinking, anti-progress, anti-city, auto-centric, pro-sprawl population that has been holding St. Louis back for far too long.

I think the riverfront project might be the sort of project that will really begin to attract the sort of progressive population St. Louis desperately needs. City leaders can use the project as a marketing tool to convince progressives of all ages to come here and be a part of a great urban renewal. That needs to be the message. But I'm not going to wait for the project to be completed to say it because we need more forward thinking people right now.

Anonymous said...

It took 50 years to kill the City, so I advise a little patience in rebuilding. Regardless of the present economic stumbles cities across the country are experiences a reversal of trends.

2 significant changes need to be made. The public schools are atrocious (vouchers, vouchers, vouchers) and the taxes are higher then the suburbs. So I would say Rex Signkfeld (sp) is a guy fitting much of the things your are seeking in your article.

Anonymous said...

I read something today, where I forget, that the streets surrounding TG Park were not only within the French common fields system, but the street correspond to the original "arpents". The arpents roughly were how the common fields were allotted to the individual farmer. Each arpet was something like 180 feet or so.

It just goes to show how much history is under your feet and you don't even know it.