Urban Agriculture in North City

I spend a lot of time in North City riding around taking pictures, talking to people and trying to understand my city in an historical context from the hoi polloi.

I see the destruction of north city, both self inflicted and institutional.  This is a part of town that people have been walking away from for decades and continue to do so as the landscape becomes increasingly hard to live in...to just have dignity, to simply buy an apple and fresh greens, to go to a decent neighborhood school, to be proud.  I speak of these negatives not to point fingers and shake my head, I truly am concerned that entire parts of the city will fall and be unrecognizable and unlivable on its current trajectory.  It is sad and the more you watch it disappear, the sadder it becomes.

You've got to try to understand this part of town as it is.  North City is largely uni-culture, zero diversity, all black these days.  It has been this way for many, many years, and frankly, the Census data from 2000 and 2010 only indicate that added racial and economic diversity is not coming.

Aside from maybe Old North St. Louis, and pockets of Hyde Park, Baden and St. Louis Place, you will be hard pressed to find a white person.  The demographics in the Census data back this observation up.  The all black neighborhoods are emptying out at alarming rates.  People are fed up and are voting with their feet.  As go the residents go the dollars, soul, history and vibrancy.  People are obviously hopeless and are moving to the South Side, Middle-city and even more and more to the suburban cities in North County.

The only reason I buy into the whole North/South thing is, we really are a tale of 2 cities in modern times.  I have lived in STL for 20 years, and the north side has always been uni-culture...all black.  The south side has become increasingly diverse and integrated.  I live in one such integrated neighborhood and it's quite nice for the most part.  In modern times, there is nothing keeping an American from living wherever he/she wants if they have the dollars and gumption to make it happen.  People choose to live wherever they do, they are not forced like in the days of old.

I seek not to perpetuate these trends of population loss and chosen segregation, rather I seek to understand the trends in the context of the modern day.  What is next for this beautiful but stigmatized, neglected, shunned part of the city?  And when I say shunned I mean from within and without.  Residents of the last 20 years are as to blame for the current state of their surroundings as are the institutionally racist ways of the long ago past.

So let's think about the mass exodus from the neighborhoods in North City using the U.S. Census data as our guide.

So like it or not, Delmar Boulevard is widely considered the north/south dividing line in St. Louis. I have a love/hate relationship with this local lore, but it is hard to deny.  Heck, even the British recognized it as such from across the pond.   Read all about it



Neighborhood-wise, there are a total of 79 in St. Louis.  30 of those are entirely north of Delmar. 3 are both above and below Delmar:  Covenant Blu/Grand Center, Downtown and Downtown West.  There are several wards that completely lie north of Delmar.

So let's take a quick look at the U.S. Census data on the massive losses in the past 20 years.  Realizing there are many ways to analyze and summarize data, here are just a couple.

The following shows losses of >/= 15% from 2000 to 2010 by neighborhood (all are considered "North St. Louis"):

The following will give you an idea of those responsible for allocating public and private monies and elected to serve the areas most affected by population loss; their challenges are many, and have much work to do...I don't envy their tough positions:

Wards 1 and 8 include areas south of Delmar, the others are all north.

The point I'm trying to make is people are getting the heck out of Dodge and continue to do so.  The North Side is not a place that is growing a black middle class.  There is little business here in some parts of town, there are few options for walkable healthy food, strong schools, quality homes, growing job bases, etc.  There is not overwhelming evidence of the care it takes to maintain a brick and stone home.  Historic preservation and personal sweat and monetary equity is not something that will likely strike you if you were to visit many, if not most, of the neighborhoods north of Delmar.

I have always dreamed of a reality TV show where the aldermen of these ward in N. STL have to live for an entire year without leaving the boundaries of their fiefdom for food.  Sure, not every neighborhood can have a Target or K-Mart for clothes, furniture, etc, but every neighborhood should have a place to get the bare essentials like cleaning supplies, pharmaceuticals, banks, nourishing/healthy food and drink, etc.  It would be a struggle for some.

Many of these places have none of the above except for junk food corner stores and fast food joints.

So, the point I'm trying to make is that you have to ask yourself what is the best for North City now?  Paul McKee has done nothing good so far relating to the original housing stock that he has purchased and let rot as he assembles land for a grand plan which was explained in great detail at a recent public meeting at Vashon High School.  It is hard to think of him as the good guy for the future when he only has a track record of running properties into the ground to keep prices low to assemble a massive project.  But so far, he's the only one trying to make sweeping changes, so I remain optimistic that he wants to do good.  His plan is most impressive and the presentation he gives hits all the high points and shows beautiful pictures and he talks a good talk.  Whether he can pull it off is yet to be seen, but the efforts of the recent past have clearly failed.  I think his NorthSide plan has the potential to provide employment, new urban scaled development and pride to an otherwise neglected part of town.

The current regimes of aldermen, church leaders, community groups, etc. appear to be out of ideas/energy and can't stem the tide of their own people bolting to get away from the current living conditions.

So what is one to do?  How do you bring dignity back to areas that are spiraling downward toward rock bottom?

When I am photographing and researching the neighborhoods around St. Louis Place and come to the parts of town that folks are trying to do some good with the scads of barren land by planting row crops, I am in awe of the beauty of corn and soybeans...you know, amber waves of grain...mixing in with the aged, crumbling and frankly, abused homes scattered around.

Family Roots International is one such entity trying something new and revolutionary.  They are an urban agriculture foundation started by Jackie Joyner-Kersee who has leased ~62 acres of ground from Paul McKee to grow corn and beans on vacant city lots.  

The Post-Dispatch side handedly dissed these efforts by interviewing a cranky lady who is terrified of plants and opossum and other natural things.  She prefers the empty lots with junk food wrappers and fast food and liquor store debris blowing around like urban tumbleweeds to rows of plants that feed animals that in turn feed humans.  She doesn't want to see crops and doesn't want to live on a farm...she is a city girl.  Read the article



But not everyone is terrified of agriculture and food in its unprocessed forms.  Read an alternate view point


.  Agriculture is not scary, trust me.  It can be foreign to many who are ignorant of how our food chains work, but should not be scary.  And seeing crops growing, maturing and drying is the first step to understanding how we feed a growing global population.

I for one see this endeavor as an amazing agricultural experiment that should be lauded nationally, as opposed to dissed by local media who love to get clicks and page loads from the constant NEGATIVE side of a story...The PD is not the only local media outlet obsessed with the negatives...KMOV joined in the broadcasting of fear and ignorance while glossing over the good that comes from this effort. Family Roots Intl. are the good guys, not the bad guys...but it's easier to bury your head in the sand when it comes to vacant land usage and the consideration of urban agriculture potentials to serve as a stopgap measure between the current state and the hopefully positive future state that NorthSide Inc. will bring.  

I am fascinated by people re-connecting with agriculture both on a mid to large scale and even on the backyard scale.  I am not scared of corn and soybeans and backyard chickens and honey bees and fruit and vegetable gardens.  I find beauty in it.  I am teaching my kids to grow their own foods and show them how fun and hard it is to garden and farm.  Frankly, they love it and they are not scared of it either.

I have been following these fields closely over the course of the year.  I am a novice student of agronomy, biology, agriculture and Midwestern row crops specifically and I couldn't wait to inspect the soy pods and corn ears to see how well the varieties of beans and hybrids selected for the corn did on first-year arable land.  I pulled back some husks and was pleasantly surprised at the decent yield and seed set.

soybean pods naturally drying under the autumn sun

 maize is historic to this area

 a decent seed set for the first crop year

I wish those trying new ideas would get some love and benefit of the doubt.  Change comes hard and slow in this city.  I commend Ms. Kersee and Mr. McKee for trying to open up new possibilities and make some money and food. where others have just chosen abandonment and vacancy.  

I think this is a great use of land in the interim after the people have left...and continue to leave.  We need to educate people who are terrified of agriculture.  We need to get them engaged in understanding how crops are grown and where food comes from and what nourishes you and what doesn't.  This to me is a step in the right direction.  Out of sight, out of mind is no way to treat the food chain.  We need to embrace the fact that we need to feed each other and this city was once farm land, just ask the Cahokians.