Botanical Heights was formerly known as McRee Town. And it became in the 1980s and 1990s a hotbed for crack dealing/use and other un-dignified ways of life and the Shaw Neighborhood did anything it could to keep that lifestyle out of their neighborhood which they were trying to protect against many negative forces in the 1980s and 1990s.
Part of this strategy led to the infamous Schoemehl pots which were installed at Thurman Avenue to block the formerly through street. This was done in 1985.
The Shaw Neighborhood extends from Grand to Tower Grove Avenue. The internal streets of Thurman, Lawrence, S. 39th and Spring once connected the city. In the aftermath of I-44, Spring was lost as a thoroughfare due to the on/off ramps for Grand. Lawrence too was lost as it was simply dead-ended at DeTonty Street. Thurman was closed due to neighbor demands in Shaw. Schoemehl pots were installed years ago. I'm not exactly sure when they decided to shut Thurman down, but it was awhile as trees were planted in the pots and matured to form a wall of trees that were nearly unrecognizable from the trees and fence lines that border the north side of DeTonty.
The shutting off of the Thurman underpass had some unintended consequences. One, it became a hangout for the knuckleheads to gather en masse. Broken glass and trash piled up and it became an eye sore and intimidating for the average person to traverse. Two, it separated communities.
However, this part of Shaw/Botanical Heights is prepping for a major transformation. In 2012 the Garden District Commission put together a design competition for improvement in the area. UIC was eventually chosen as the winning design and this will include repaving the street, installing new lighting and a bike path and pedestrian trail.
Enter Monte Abbott, a paleoethnobontanist and teacher. He has lived on DeTonty Street for 13 years and served on the board of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association for much of that time. Monte currently serves as SNIA's Chair of Beautification and Historic Preservation. While he has seen Shaw improve greatly in his time here, Interstate 44 continues to present some significant challenges to the quality of life on the north side of the neighborhood.
Monte sees the value in environmental and social sustainability and saw an opportunity to extend that philosophy to his neck of the woods when designs for rehabilitating the underpass were being discussed by the Shaw and Botanical Heights Neighborhoods. To read Monte Abbott's articulate original thoughts on the project, click HERE.
Monte was kind enough to meet me at the Thurman underpass to tell me more about his ideas for the surrounding area and describe the work that is going toward the creation of the Thurman Gateway Park.
The land surrounding the underpass has been minimally maintained by the State of Missouri and features mowed turf grass and a smattering of non-native trees. The landscaping for this new pocket park will feature a prairie restoration project along both sides of Thurman and will connect the two neighborhoods and create a welcoming space for pedestrians and cyclists. In my maybe one hour meeting with Monte, we saw many cyclists coming home from work using the Thurman underpass. It was then that I really appreciated the impact that this will have on the lives of people living around the project.
At the heart of this project is Mayor Slay's new Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative. Jeanette McDermott, SNIA's 1st Vice President, brought the Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative to Monte's attention and together, they wrote a grant proposal. I the process, they engaged with a number of partners and organized a committee of divers volunteers from the neighborhood. This summer the Mayor's Office announced that SNIA would receive one of seven grants awarded trough the Mayor's Sustainable Neighborhood Small Grant competition.
The project is officially described as per the following entry from the winning Sustainability Grant from the Mayor's Office in the category of urban character, vitality and ecology:
This project will reintroduce native prairie grasses and flowering perennials along each side of Thurman Avenue between DeTonty and Lafayette to create the new Thurman Gateway Park in an area that is currently blighted. The prairie anchors the transformation of this decayed portion of both neighborhoods into a vibrant multiple use public area through beautification and environmentally sensitive improvements.The Sustainable Neighborhood Small Grant Competition is part of a larger Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative that is designed to help implement aspects of the City's newly adopted Sustainability Plan and Mayor Slay's Sustainability Action Agenda. Read more about the plan and the other winners of the first round of grants here.
As funded by the Mayor’s Office, the prairie restoration project will
reclaim 30’ of highway right of way in each direction east and west from
Thurman on the DeTonty and Lafayette sides, and will be completed on
Oct 31, 2013.
Recently, Monte and Jeanette won additional finding from Operation Brightside and the prairie restoration project has continued to grow from there. The SNIA Beautification Committee includes a local artist, Chuk Byington, who has designed a series of brilliant posters to publicize the project. Brian Rain is building an informational website that will be accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists passing through the Truman Gateway Park via a QR code on the park’s sign. Other committee members, Elaine Kidwell, Emmett Coleman and Laura Arend are working on a number of additional tasks from organizing volunteers to building butterfly and bat houses to be installed in the park.
Given the momentum in the neighborhood, Monte and Jeanette decided to create a new non-profit, Sustainable in St. Louis (SiSL), to expand and maintain the project into the future. Phase 2 will extend the Thurman Gateway Park prairie restoration an additional 200' in each direction (east and west) along DeTonty only. Monte and Jeanette are working on additional grant opportunities to execute this phase. An ambitious 3rd phase would extend the prairie restoration from Tower Grove Avenue to Grand Boulevard, creating a one-mile stretch of native prairie through the heart of south city.
Many successes in the project have already been realized with help and support from many parties. Aldermen Marlene Davis and Stephen Conway are contributing funds to street and sidewalk repairs and lighting installation. The Botanical Heights and Shaw neighborhood associations are providing funds for street paint.
In September, the Urban Forestry Department removed the weed trees from the Schoemehl pots and the corners of the properties.
Herbicide has been applied to kill the weeds/grass.
Volunteers from The Word at Shaw volunteered to remove litter, debris and tall weeds from the project site.
The non-native, dying trees will be removed.
Nearly 900 native perennial prairie grasses and wildflowers will be planted in October with the help of volunteers from both neighborhoods, St. Louis University, Faith in Action, the Stream Team and other local non-profit environmental and social organizations.
A series of controlled mow-downs will help manage the native species and prevent re-colonization of the area by non-native weeds. Prairie restoration is an ongoing process and the site will continue to evolve for several years.
In addition to beautifying the area, the prairie project will also serve some important educational goals. SiSL is working with local non-profits, including the St. Louis chapters of the North American Butterfly Association and the Audubon Society to set up annual counts of songbirds and butterflies visiting the area. These counts will be recorded and published on the website and will document the environmental sustainability of the project.
Bat houses will be installed to control insects at night.
This whole landscape plan was designed to complement the amazing work UIC and others are working on to light and spruce up the actual underpass.
Currently a sparse, dark, unwelcoming expanse, the Thurman underpass will be creatively brought to life:
Jan + Dave
Billy Sissler "The Great"
Both Botanical Heights and Shaw have made a decision not to re-open the street to traffic; rather, they will replace the Schoemehl pots with round bollards a la Forest Park Southeast.
A mural of St. Louis and the Mississippi River flowing to the east of the grand city. This signifies the bridging of two neighborhoods and also is a historic nod to the creek that once flowed through this part of St. Louis.
Here is a link to the Thurman Underpass Design Competition FB page and some photos that came out of that effort:
Once a battleground for gangs and thugs running the game in this part of South City vs. preservationists and home owners trying to protect their neighborhood, DeTonty and Lafayette are burgeoning areas thanks in part to developers such as UIC which are considering major projects for long vacant swaths of land that are now viable options for infill. NextSTL has run 2 stories on the proposal. Read all about it HERE and HERE. Here are a few images from the current plans:
DeTonty Street looking south
The space between Thurman and Klemm only have 6 buildings remaining on DeTonty. As a comparison, Shaw avenue, to the immediate south is completely intact and has 20 separate buildings. This project would provide the necessary infill to bring density and value back to this part of Shaw that's been battered over the years. It is one of the key remaining pieces of the puzzle that make Shaw a complete, intact, whole neighborhood.
The Thurman Gateway Park will provide a beautiful, eye-catching frame on the north side of Shaw and a welcoming sign of nature spilling north to Botanical Heights...a welcome back of sorts, an olive branch between the neighborhoods. We've come a long way in this part of town and things are looking quite bright. Neighbors have worked hard to bring dignity back to this area and now it's time to make it sustainable for future generations to continue to build upon the positivity. Investment and pride will follow.
Congrats Monte and others working so hard in their spare time to make our city a beacon of change and sustainability. Remember, it is not the BallParking Villages with its cowboy bars and In-Bev troughs, the NorthSides, the Arch Ground Redux...the "magic bullets" that keep St. Louis growing and more livable, it is projects like these that organically develop and draw people into an area. This makes our city a city that bows to nature and its natural surroundings. This adds real aesthetic value on many levels. It seeks to reconnect us.
If you would like to get involved in this amazing project, here are some opportunities:
Next steps: We need volunteers for three activity dates:
October 10th - general clean-up of the Gateway area
October 19th - planting the prairie with live plants
October 26th - finish planting the prairie with live plants and a "Seed and Stomp"
Cheers to Monte and others not willing quit and run for the burbs. The future is ours to form!