The St. Louis Shotgun

You've heard of the American foursquare and the flounder that are quite prevalent throughout St. Louis. But sometimes when I'm tooling around the city I'll run across a long, narrow rectangular home, some of which are colloquially referred to as "shotguns".

Here's a classic example from New Orleans, Louisiana:

Photo credit: PorterBriggs.com, the Voice of the South

I like this term and wanted to share some thoughts on how it first came to me and what it means and how three particular songs creep into my head each time I come across a classic example of a shotgun house:

"I said shotgun, shoot 'em 'fore he run now..."

"Shotgun": Junior Walker

"And you may find yourself in a shotgun shack..."

"Once In A Lifetime": Talking Heads 

"Well you're crazy mama with your ball and chain and your sawn off shotgun blown out brains..."

"Crazy Mama": The Rolling Stones

These are the songs that flood my brain when I see the many shotgun homes in St. Louis. They are interspersed all over town, north to south from Walnut Park West to the Patch. Though you kind of have to train your eye toward them, as most of them are rather nondescript.

I first heard the term from my girlfriend (now wife) when she first moved to St. Louis from Fairview Heights, Illinois. She rented a "shotgun apartment" in South City. It was the first time I'd heard it, but I loved the way it sounded.  So American! A house like a gun! I thought she was so cool for renting "a shotgun apartment in South City". She was hipped to the term from the landlord that showed her the property.

It's just another small piece of the story on how we fell for St. Louis, a mystery around every corner.

A shotgun is defined as a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than ~12 feet wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house.

                        Photo credit: PorterBriggs.com, the Voice of the South

The thing that was curious about her apartment building is that it was a four family with two units at ground level and two units above. Therefore it was really more of a side-by-side shotgun, a double-barreled shotgun!

Actually, some might call it a "camelback" shotgun which is defined as a shotgun floor plan that includes a second floor at the rear of the house or directly atop the ground level floor (source). Probably not, but there are variations on the classic shotgun shack.

Either way, it was a shotgun floor plan, and in my many years traversing around St. Louis, I've come to love these homes even though most of the local examples do not have the ornate Victorian embellishments on the front porches like the ones in the deep South.

A recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee sealed my fondness for the style when I found out Aretha Franklin (among other blues/soul greats) was born in a shotgun shack...cementing my fascination and curiosity with these homes...entangling the home style with some of the most influential American music ever created.

Aretha Franklin's Memphis home through age 2: photo credit: Memphis Flyer

So it seemed like a worthy use of my Thanksgiving morning before the turkey goes in the over and the house is full of family to investigate where this term came from and give it some St. Louis context.

The earliest known use of "shotgun house" as a name for these dwellings appeared in a classified ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on August 30, 1903. (source)

There are three main accounts on the story behind the term "shotgun":

The first is all about the floor plan where the rooms are all lined up in a row with no hallways, usually in the following order: living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. It was an efficient use of space when cities were crowded and densely built and narrow and long lots were simply more affordable.

The second story is the most entertaining. It claims that if you opened the doors from front to back, you could shoot a shotgun clean through the house. This theory, likely more folklore than anything, was popularized by a prominent architect and preservationist in New Orleans, Louisiana named Samuel Wilson Jr.  He also suggested that shotgun-style houses originated in the Creole suburbs of New Orleans in the early 1800s.

Thirdly, it is a design element for hot weather environments, where if you open the front and back doors, a shotgun breeze will flow through all rooms of the house cooling it.

Most historians seem to agree with Samuel Wilson Jr. that the shotgun originated in the Southern U.S., mainly New Orleans with ties to West Africa and Haiti.

Shotgun architecture is now widely recognized as an African American contribution to American architectural styles.

Evidence suggests that this name is actually a corruption of the word “shogon.” In West Africa, “shogon” means “God’s House.” John Michael Vlach, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at The George Washington University in D.C. and director of the university's Folklife Program research backs up the origins of this architectural style came to New Orleans from West Africa via Haiti. 

In Haiti, enslaved Africans took the architectural form common to their homeland and using local materials built narrow buildings with gabled entrances, stucco walls, thatched roofs, and shuttered windows so they could enjoy the only privacy allowed to them. They also wrote African motifs into the exterior framing of their homes.

When Africans in Haiti revolted in 1791, many European plantation owners fled to New Orleans, taking with them enslaved Africans still under their control. Many other free people of color migrated to New Orleans as well. This had a profound effect on the demographics of New Orleans. In 1810, the population of New Orleans was approximately 1/3 white, 1/3 enslaved Africans, and 1/3 free people of color, most of who had come from Haiti.

In New Orleans, free people of color continued to build shotgun houses, replacing their African motifs with gingerbread trimmings. And the porch on the front of these houses was quite distinct from French homes whose outdoor areas were actually interior courtyards. The front porch on shotgun houses supported interconnectedness between people and gave neighbors a strong sense of community.

John H. Lienhard, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston decided they must be a regional invention from the Louisiana bayou country. That's where the older ones seemed to be concentrated. He traces the shotgun house to the early 1800s. Then he finds older shotgun houses in the sugar-growing plantation islands -- in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Finally, he finds that same distinctive design in West Africa. (source)

The folklore of the shotgun being fired through the front door and exiting through the back has been somewhat debunked by at least one researcher. 

The explanation is a quaint one, and would likely have made sense for the Haitian homes upon which the American shotgun house design is based. Once the homes were erected in the U.S., however, doors were usually placed off center, so that a person conducting such an experiment would've probably taken a sizable chunk out of the rear wall of the front room. (Another etymological explanation is that the shotgun house takes its name from that aforementioned West African style of home. (source)

Another interesting note is that some historians claim the shotgun holds another American first:

The shotgun house brought a new home design concept to the United States: the porch. The overhanging roof along the front of the house created a stoop where a family could congregate on a hot evening. The front of a traditional shotgun house would usually encroach upon the sidewalk, and the house's porch gave rise to the longstanding New Orleans custom of visiting outside with neighbors in the evening (source).

As I was reading up this topic and Southern black culture, I couldn't help but think that our culture in St. Louis is exactly what is described in the South, or at least borrowed in some way. I currently live in a majority African American neighborhood and it became apparent pretty quickly that many black people in St. Louis are front porch sitters, this is where the visiting and socializing occurs. White people are more likely to take it to the back yard where fire pits, chairs, etc are set up. Many blacks that ended up in St. Louis came from the South looking for factory jobs, so maybe the many shotguns in the city and the front porch sits have New Orleans, or at least Southern roots. 

However, the shotgun is not exclusive to black families/culture, it eventually spread out of the South to all parts of the U.S.

The influence of the shotgun house would soon extend beyond the African-American community. By the beginning of the 20th century, shotgun house building kits were available on the market for $100. The structures soon began to appear in cities across the United States. Because of their simple design, shotgun houses could be erected quickly, which soon made them a common sight in the boom towns of the West.

But the very nature and design of these homes helped to strengthen the African-American community in the U.S. Because of their close proximity and porches, shotgun houses helped give rise to tight-knit neighborhoods. The shotgun house -- modest, constructed close to other homes, imported from the Caribbean and Africa -- has become somewhat emblematic of the African-American experience. Writes historian Denise Andrews: "The shotgun house represents the slaves' reaction to adversity, making sense of their new environment by modifying familiar living patterns. Cultural contact did not necessitate massive change in architecture; but rather an intelligent modification of culture" (source).

There are both wood-sided and brick shotguns all over St. Louis. I haven't found one with the ornate Victorian porch design, but I'm on the hunt.

Per the St. Louis Cultural Resources Office:

The shotgun house is often found in older St. Louis neighborhoods. Shotgun houses appear in frame with a front-facing gable, or in brick, with a hipped roof. Examples from this period can be found in Carondelet, Hyde Park and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods.

The shotgun house at 8225 Vulcan, in Carondelet, is built of brick on a rubble stone foundation. Constructed about 1860, it is three rooms deep and has a low hipped roof, and simple corbelled cornice. From a low porch, the front door opens directly into the house's front room. The porch is a modern addition, but the remainder of the house is in close to original condition. (source)

But, shotguns are all over the city, not just the oldest parts. Look no further than Tower Grove South where my favorites are located right in a row on Morgan Ford Road just north of Stella Blues.

Here are some examples in the deep south of St. Louis near Carondelet and the Patch, including the one on Vulcan Street mentioned above on the city website.

8225 Vulcan Street

But they are located all over, north to south. St. Louis has shotguns in spades. Enjoy them.

An Exciting Time To Be A St. Louis Booster - St. Louis City Talk's Best of 2016

If you follow NextSTL, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Business Journal, there is plenty to be excited about in our fair city.


I've been paying pretty close attention to development plans, rumors and new construction/rehab projects in St. Louis for over ten years. The last few weeks have brought a barrage of proposals....maybe the most active span of announcements and plans in recent memory.

And this has been going on awhile. I'm seeing projects all over town that I remember reading about and thinking "right, I'll believe it when I see it". But when ground is being broken, cranes are going up and momentum is building you can't deny the fact that positive things are happening.

St. Louis seems pretty hot from an investment standpoint.


Here's a brief rundown of the top 20 projects (some planned, some underway) that resonate with me for different reasons. I will do my best to keep politics and economics out of the commentary and write a separate blog on each sharing my thoughts on why I find these interesting. I'll just keep it simple and talk about the positives.


ONE


The Shell filling station on the northwest corner of Delmar and Skinker in the West End Neighborhood has a substantial mixed-use retail and office plan proposal for the site.


TWO


Just east of Delmar and Skinker is a 14-story mixed-use retail and market-rate apartment building that will bring much needed residents and $ to the area. It is called the Everly.


THREE


Forest Park Southeast has three major developments on the horizon, the first just west of the Commerce Bank at Vandeventer and Manchester where a mixed-use building and parking garage are proposed. It's called Chouteau's Grove.


FOUR


A surface parking lot just west of the above project on that wedge property along Manchester has a proposal for a 7-story mod mixed-use apartment/retail/office building in the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood.


FIVE


Further west near Manchester and Newstead is a proposal for a mixed use 5 story building with office/restaurant and 55-unit apartment building in the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood.


SIX


The cool Laclede Gas Station G building on Chouteau in the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood is being renovated to house a company moving to St. Louis from the suburbs.


SEVEN


The curvy building that hugs the train tracks at Tower Grove and Vandeventer in the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood is one of my favorites in that neighborhood and there is a plan to convert it to loft apartments and retail.


EIGHT


The former YMCA/Pelican building property at South Grand Boulevard and Shenadoah in Compton Heights has a proposal to rehab the Pelican for office/retail and demo the Y for a large apartment building.


NINE


The Jefferson Arms in the Downtown West Neighborhood has a plan for >200 apartments and a Mariott Hotel.


TEN


Chemical Building. This might be my favorite building in the entire city and another plan has been proposed that makes me hopefully for this anchor of downtown.


ELEVEN


The Wabash Great Rivers Greenway extension from Shrewsbury Metrolink station to Slay Park in the Ellendale Neighborhood.


TWELVE


Ballpark Village Phase II Downtown.


THIRTEEN


Brick City, Brew City...beer news just keeps getting bigger and better with Earthbound Brewing renovation in the Gravois Park Neighborhood; Rockwell Brewing coming online in the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood, Center Ice Brewery coming to Midtown and 2nd Shift Brewing coming to the Hill.


FOURTEEN


Better Family Life started a $20M project that is targeting the renovation of 100 homes on Page Avenue.


FIFTEEN


The Foundry in Midtown has a proposal to bring office, high rise, retail and much more to a former industrial complex near SLU, Cortex and IKEA.


SIXTEEN


The former Praxair site in Lafayette Square has a proposal for 64 townhomes.


SEVENTEEN


A 126-unit mixed use apartment building has been proposed at Gravois and Russell at the entrance to the Soulard Neighborhood.


EIGHTEEN


SLU is building two new dorms on Laclede Avenue in the Midtown Neighborhood.


NINETEEN (edit, I swapped SLU/SSM Health med campus/hospital project with One Hundred Kingshighway skyscraper)


SLU medical has a proposal to develop or redevelop ~400 acres in the Tiffany, Botanical Heights and Gate District Neighborhoods. This could be a game changer for this part of town. World-renowned architecture firm Studio Gang released initial designs for a skyscraper on a current surface parking lot on Kingshighway overlooking Forest Park.


TWENTY


MLS expansion team, new 20,000 seat stadium in the Downtown West Neighborhood. This is going to take some time, I have lots of opinions on this one.


Wow.


I didn't even mention the Armory, Union Station upgrades, the Arch grounds, the STLCOP expansion, Barnes/Jewish Hospital, Loop Trolley, Shriner's Hospital conversion to apartments, Citizen Park in the CWE, Bull Moose Tube renovation of Missouri Theater, BMO Harris/Walgreens on the Hill, Cortex additions, the Boyle Metrolink station, $1.75B NGA campus move/upgrade from South to North City, the gorgeous Studio Gang 100 Kingshighway, DeBaliviere Place apartment buildings on surface parking lots, etc.


Also, I didn't mention the equally important rehabbing of homes and new construction of homes on empty lots that will bring in residents, property taxes and added value for neighborhoods. This is taking place all over: Old North St. Louis, the Hill, Fox Park, Tower Grove East, McKinley Heights, Botanical Heights, you name it.


St. Louis appears to be in a boom time. We've had highs and lows before, but there is plenty to be optimistic about these days. Now is the time to consider moving to St. Louis and being part of the excitement. Help us build a tax base that serves everyone, vote for leaders who can modernize government, fight cronyism and nepotism, support city businesses big and small, help elevate the have nots, welcome new people from other parts of the country and immigrants. More than anything we need citizens to ROOT DOWN in St. Louis.


Reverse the flight of people moving from St. Louis to the suburbs. Let's bring it on back home. Those people with St. Louis roots who left for the suburban dream? It might be time to come back and do some homesteading in the greatest city in the region.

Defining Home And Where You're From

A topic I find fascinating is the definition of "home" and where you are "from". Thoughts on these words were spurred by an article I read recently in the Riverfront Times.

I take a lot of stock in these terms as they seem to predict character and experience; at a minimum, the way you define "home" and where you're "from" are good indicators of who you are.  A strong sense of place is something I respect, you just can't lie about these things.

I for one am proud to be from Illinois and call St. Louis...well wait a minute, not so fast. This requires some introspection...what is home?

At times St. Louis feels like home, but for the most part, I feel like Illinois better meets my personal definition...even after living in St. Louis longer than any other place.

But, back to the RFT article that got me once again thinking about this topic.  

I couldn't shake the thoughts on the meaning of "home" after reading an article that touched on the topic through the lens of a couple of my favorite things: music and where you're from.

The article: "Pokey LaFarge Is Looking to a Future That May Not Include St. Louis" was written by Thomas Crone and published in the Riverfront Times on February 3, 2016.

If you don't already know, Pokey LaFarge is a well-known musician who deals in American blues/county/folk/jazz music; but, done in a way that is not overly derivative, it's fresh and original...and steeped in history and executed with soul and style and always reminds me of the Midwest.

A true talent.

Anyhow, the combination of the story's title paired with the caption under the first photo got me. It read: Pokey LaFarge: "It's not my home, it's never been my home. I'm from Illinois."  He was speaking about St. Louis and I couldn't help but think "me too". I'm from Illinois but have lived in St. Louis by choice in my adult years...I knew this was going to be a good read.

Photo credit: Joshua Black Williams

Immediately relating to this guy, I started thinking about my hometown in Illinois. It's one of those moments when you read something and get lost in thoughts and memories and contemplation. I couldn't wait to get back to the article. 

As I read through, several things stuck out. First, when discussing the potential of moving on from St. Louis, LaFarge said:

"I think it's something that people have gotten wind of, and the game of telephone is going on," he says. "Of course I've thought about moving from St. Louis. No offense to it, but there's no industry there. There are not as many musicians to play with there. And when you're at the point that I'm at, looking for a new challenge, certain parts of the music business don't exist in St. Louis. My whole team lives in different cities, like Nashville, New York and LA. The opportunity to write for film... I've thought about that for over a year. I'm not from St. Louis, but it's the only place that's felt like home. Being close to my family up in Illinois is great."

And then again, LaFarge discussed playing

LouFest

and the back and forth of praise/criticism felt in the small St. Louis music scene as a successful artist:

"It's the park that birthed our World's Fair, a historic place," he says. "It's a landmark in our city. So that's not lost on me: the fact that it's a national festival, run by C3, and has our name on it. There's a certain amount of representing you've got to do. Among these other national and international acts, you're there to try to represent St. Louis....I'm sorry, but I've lived there over eight years. I'm not from there — it's not my home, it's never been my home. I'm from Illinois.And as much as I've represented St. Louis, there's a certain amount of people that have made me feel what it is and what it isn't."

There's so much to those statements, even a slight contradiction, if I'm interpreting it correctly. There is what feels like home and the factual home. Regardless LaFarge has lived here and represents the pluses very well...usually the people that I've run into that do this best aren't necessarily from St. Louis.

LaFarge's take was just so honest and refreshing to read, it stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking once again about the definition of home and growing up in Illinois and living in St. Louis and what that means to me. It also got me thinking about how people who live in cities west of St. Louis identify with St. Louis as their home even though they don't live here. I'm going to have to publish more on that topic as I find it one of the most fascinating and frustrating topics in this region. For whatever reason this sticks in my craw and as I get older, I don't want things in my craw. I want a clean craw, grudges only breed negativity.

I like when people are transparent and real when it comes to the city they live in and where they are from and what they consider home. This is how I try to represent myself on this blog.

But back to the definition of home...

I have lived in St. Louis for 22 years. I've lived in six different neighborhoods, three different houses and four different apartments/flats. I'm fascinated with St. Louis and it is my home of choice; it's my adopted hometown. But I'm not from here.

My personal love of St. Louis is well documented on this blog. Even though I am critical at times, I love it more than any U.S. rust belt city and I want the best for it and try hard to help St. Louis become a better place in my small/limited capacity as a citizen. 

That said, I'll be curious to see if St. Louis feels more like home as time marches on. But if I'm being honest as of today, it doesn't. And that is not a diss, it's just a simple fact that I and others in my family who ended up in St. Louis agree with. I'm from Illinois. I live here. My kids are the real St. Louisan's; but I'm a transplant.

I grew up and went to elementary and high school in a city just east of St. Louis called Belleville, Illinois. It is a proud city of ~42,000 and has a rich history and identity all it's own, distinctly separate from St. Louis' by many measures. Although the home I spent most of my formative years in is only 9.7 miles from St. Louis, it is a world apart. To give Missourian's a taste, it would be about equidistant from St. Louis as Town and Country or Florissant, MO. You'll have to just trust me on the differences. St. Louis was simply not part of my world until I moved here...it was a place I occasionally visited and that's it.

But, I gave up all my Belleville privileges long ago. I can't influence or leverage what they do, I'm an outsider from a citizen perspective. I want nothing but the best for Belleville, but only a charlatan would claim I have a stake in that city.

I made the leap across the river and don't regret it for a moment. But one point I'd like to make about this region is...you can't lump these places and these communities together. Belleville is distinctly different from St. Louis, so are Town and Country, Florissant, Ferguson, University City, you name it. I know the distinctions very well when comparing Belleville to St. Louis. I don't, however know the distinctions between the city and the many cities in the suburbs. I'm working hard on trying to understand it by repeat viewings of "Spanish Lake", reading "Mapping Decline" and trying to be a kinder, more open minded listener when County people claim St. Louis as their home, but can be pretty harsh on St. Louis at arm's length from the comfy confines of the burbs.

I can only claim that I'm from Belleville and I live in St. Louis, the definition of home is less factual...but, southern Illinois will always feel like home, way more than the city I've lived in for 22 years. I can't shake the formative years in defining who I am.

Like Pokey LaFarge, I'm not from here. I love it here, and I think he does too and has represented St. Louis very well both here and abroad. But, I can see why you'd want to move. But for me, that move will not be to a small town in the suburbs where you still claim the positives and separate yourself from the negatives of St. Louis...it'll be to an entirely different place.

Own where you are. Love the one you're with.

To most in this region living in St. Louis is subjective. To me, it is not truthful and does not align with facts and reality. The separation damages us as a region and the lack of honesty makes talking about the needs of St. Louis and the 90 or so cities in St. Louis County very tough.

Owning and engaging in your city...claiming it...is the first step to being proud of it and understanding how to make it and the region the best place.

Calling out these geographical, political and real distinctions can quickly be dismissed by detractors who want the best of both worlds (suburban living/STL identity) as provincial or parochial. I say until we are one big happy taxing and voting block...you know...one city, we should be proud of where we live, and proud of where we're from. But most of all, honest and transparent.

I am a small town, suburban, Illinois person at the core. I have learned some urban behaviors, and frankly I'm way more interested in St. Louis than small towns and suburbs these days, but it is good to recognize both.

But bloggers, journalists, politicians, residents...everyone should all say where they're from...own it. And then work for change and unity.

It is not divisive to accurately state where you're from and demand honesty in conversations. It is this level of discourse that is required to establish a baseline understanding of this region so we can move it forward. At some point in time, the many suburban cities in the county as well as the 300,000 or so St. Louisans are going to have the opportunity to vote to merge the region like our Midwestern peer cities of Kansas City, Indianapolis and Louisville.

How can we make that important decision if we are not honest about the realities of the region.

A Discussion On Tax Incentives

I recently did a blog on all the development activity on De Tonty Street in the Shaw Neighborhood. In that post I made the following comment:

"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."

While this is true, it was pointed out to me in a brief Twitter exchange that while there is a little money added to the city coffers in the case of the De Tonty Street town home and apartments, there are significant tax abatements in place for the developers that allow them to pay very little property taxes for many years:

Now, my modus operandi as a St. Louis blogger is not to mimic real journalism where everything I say is fact checked, verified and sourced.

The writing I do here is strictly done as a hobby/no pay and that's what keeps it fun. I try to focus on my optimism and not my cynicism for St. Louis. I try to give a personal perspective on city topics through a typically cup-half-full lens.

That said, I want to gain an understanding of how tax abatements work and what they impact. I want to understand why so many people seem to be upset by this process (except for the developers of course). I've noticed this trend on social media and in some mainstream media outlets.

Basically, I want to know enough to be a critical thinker on the matter...and today, I stand ignorant on the subject.

And if someone takes the time to reply with thoughtful exchanges of ideas or data on social media, I'm open to continuing that conversation. So I reached out to Andrew Arkills through Twitter and a couple days later, we're talking over coffee on the subject.

The purpose of this post is to provide some resources for those who want to learn a little more on this complicated topic and to share some of the things I learned from Andrew and some of the opinions we shared.

So why does Andrew care so much and seem so knowledgeable on tax abatements?

He works in the private sector in the supply chain field where he's tasked with budget and cost of goods savings for his employer. He's a numbers guy and is fiscally conservative by training. Best of all, he's a concerned citizen of St. Louis and is worried about what he considers abuse of tax abatements, the process of how they are awarded to developers and the overall city budget.

Why should we be concerned with tax abatements for developers?

We are told that the city's budget is barely balanced and the the schools don't have enough money and that the city's credit rating has been downgraded.

Tax abatements don't fit the model of paying down debt, providing services and maintaining our infrastructure. 

When you listen to why most people move to the suburbs, they will often cite crime and/or schools as critical factors. Schools receive a significant portion of their budget from property taxes. 

A breakdown of what your property taxes fund can be found on the city's website and below:

~58% of property taxes go to the schools, but the zoo, museums, libraries, junior college, parks and recreation and routine city maintenance and services are funded this way as well. This is important stuff toward making a city livable. 

For instance, the zoo has mentioned the possible need to start charging for admissions due to losses in tax base that are due in part to abatements.

It affects us all.

But there is headway being made toward making some much needed changes to the system.  

A study was commissioned by the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) and completed in May, 2016. It takes a comprehensive look at tax incentives. Here's an excerpt from the executive summary:

As with most major US cities, the City of St. Louis uses a variety of tax and other incentives to foster economic development. These incentives include tax increment financing (TIF), tax abatements and bond financing; they are often coupled with state and federal incentives, such as the state historic tax credit and the federal New Markets Tax Credit. Over a 15 year period, the value of the primary City tax incentives (through TIF and tax abatement) has totaled $709 million.

While economic development incentives are broadly used, there are legitimate questions about their efficacy and administration. To gain a better understanding of past and present use of incentives in the City and across the country, the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) commissioned this study.

The report is nearly 200 pages and is quite thorough, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and NextSTL both wrote very insightful pieces on the report. But, I would start with the full report if you want to know the extent that incentives have been given throughout the city.

Click HERE to download the full report.

I asked Andrew where he got the information included in his tweet on how much taxes the specific De Tonty town homes and apartments project received and he said you can find tax information on a parcel by parcel basis on the city's Geo St. Louis website. This is where you can enter an address and see what property taxes were paid as well as the assessed value. 

For instance, if the developer paid taxes for a year when they owned a lot and paid a small amount of taxes, this is what the value stays at for X number of years after the project is completed. Those terms are negotiated between the developer and the city.

Sometimes this tax information is hard to find. Andrew found that when a property is about to be abated, the history is removed from Geo St. Louis so you can't see the amount the city lost. By his best estimation, the city is not even tracking how much they are removing from the tax base. There is no easy way to track the incentives, and from an audit standpoint, this can be risky and untraceable. 

The city is not sharing the annual amount it is giving away. It is not being tracked. Andrew has tracked it for a year. The SLDC study claimed the number is around $709M over a 15 year period.

We both agreed that we are not anti-development, and there are cases to be made where TIFs and abatements are successful: think of cash cows like IKEA that will likely pay off the municipal bonds earlier than the the agreed upon term, or historic tax credits that help incentivize preservation of our built environment. These make sense. 

But if we're going to move forward we have to do so in a smart, coherent manner. As of now, incentives are managed on a ward by ward basis.

In some wards, a community development corporation (CDC) may be calling the shots; as is the case in the Central West End; but where neighborhoods do not have that resource, it is largely up to the elected alderman to assign these incentives, seemingly on a whim.

Andrew explained that by statute, abatements have to be sponsored by the alderman. A developer can approach the SLDC or the alderman. A bill then gets introduced in the alderman's name, and they have to specifically say "no" if they do not agree with the incentive. Otherwise, it gets introduced to the floor and once it gets to the point, it is hard for it not to pass.

We discussed the lack of process, formula or rubric to fairly qualify and consider incentives and appropriately assign them across the city on a project by project basis. We need a scoring matrix that proves the benefit to the citizens as well as the developer.

It would be much more transparent and palatable to the citizenry if a formula was in place to remove the subjectivity and relationship aspect. That formula could include important variables like a certain percentage of affordable housing units, minority participation in construction, numbers of jobs it will create to offset the property tax loss, etc. 

But it is hard to stomach incentives for a business to pull a musical chairs and move from one part of the city to another, not creating new jobs or services and abandoning another property in another part of town.

We agreed that you don't want to close the door entirely on incentives; clearly there are cases where it is needed, like struggling neighborhoods where there has been no development for years and the infrastructure has rotted or is non-existent.

A compromise seems easy in theory, we just need the political will to make it happen. The great thing is, we both agreed that more people are paying attention to the system. W

e should demand a coherent, streamlined, process-based system. We simply need oversight to help fight cronyism.

We are not alone in this thought, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an excellent editorial piece making a strong case for a plan:

The plan should also encourage ending a quaint political perk known as “aldermanic courtesy,” which means an alderman doesn’t ask too many questions of a colleague requesting a tax abatement in his ward.

There should be healthy debate and lots of scrutiny about the best way to encourage balanced development. If well-connected homeowners or developers are buying property in healthy or upcoming neighborhoods yet still receiving tax abatements for five or 10 years, aldermen need to be asking why.

The formula has to be transparent and used justly and fairly across the city. People will be okay with that. We need an economic development plan to share the rules and look at the city's needs and what needs to be developed, what corridors are being prioritized for development. That would make it easy to see the marching orders and see the goal. Like if the city had a goal to get rid of 25% of their LRA properties by x year, we'd watch it change.  Say for instance if Page Avenue was prioritized as a commercial corridor, we could agree to incentives to bring back some much need services to an underserved population.  Incremental change is accepted if it is transparent and rules are followed.

Hopefully as the mayoral debates come to fruition and the aldermanic numbers decrease, this will be part of the discussion. We share the hope that while social justice, race, crime and poverty are huge issues and are the ones that lend themselves to headlines and attention grabbing quotes, we need to keep the tax base system as part of the discussion.

Hopefully people like Andrew will be the ones to keep the discussion going and convince more people like me to take a harder look, do some reading and try to think critically on this important issue.

Hey, nobody wants to pay taxes, my home has historic tax credits that limited the amount of taxes I pay. That will expire soon and my taxes will go up. I'm not happy about that, but I accept it. 

I'm just not convinced each and every project needs TIF or abatements. We need a smart, transparent, just formula. 

It's hard to believe a ten year tax abatement is necessary in CWE, Shaw or Tower Grove South. The developer needs to fund projects, not the city. The schools need the money. We can't keep giving away the treasury.

I think we'd be a much better city.

I'm hopeful that we can make these much needed changes and we can elect people with the will to execute a plan.

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...by 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 unison...it 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 telephone 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 lives...living 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.

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:

Image source

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.

Per a November, 2015 nextSTL story:

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 visit...as 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.

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 on...it'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.

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.

The Yachts of Carondelet

I moved north from the

Carondelet

area almost six years ago, so whenever I am down there, I rediscover what I loved about that part of town. It is the most architecturally mixed neighborhood...a mishmash of all things South City. And, I'm including

The Patch

when I say Carondelet.

I just can't miss roaming around this part of town and taking in the lifestyles and nuances of this place.

Most recently, these yachts of Carondelet added to the personal intrigue:

dumped or docked?

Corn being grown as sidewalk and front porch border; you can sometimes feel like you are in the deep South.

Ghost signs are everywhere, like most older St. Louis neighborhoods. This one says "Squirrel Food Products". 

Whether you are dropping by

Fanetti P

laza for a summer concert:

Visiting the recently restored

Carondelet Library

:

Or getting a decadent burger at

Stacked

 or dropping in

Ferraro's

for a slice of Jersey-style pizza...you can't go wrong in Carondelet.

St. Louis Firehouses

St. Louis Firehouses

So in a previous blog, I described my intentions to visit and photograph each of St. Louis' active fire houses. There are a total of 30 currently in operation across the city. There are also 11 or so former firehouses that are still standing. I originally thought I'd blog about those first, but when I visited them, I became fascinated with how some of the older houses became obsolete due to their inner-neighborhood locations and how modern technology with the large fire trucks could no longer get in and out of these older city streets.

Grow - The Newest Exhibit At The St. Louis Science Center

Having school age kids, you get your fair share of museums. It feels like part of the responsibility as a parent and luckily I have kids who indulge us and at times enjoy the experience.

We've recently visited "Grow", the newest exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center in the city's Kings Oak Neighborhood.

Now my kids enjoyed it...in 90 plus degree heat, mind you. But it was my wife and I that were smitten.

I will try to contain my excitement and retain some semblance of objectivity as I type this out; but, this is the best damn educational experience in St. Louis per this lifelong Midwesterner who grew up in the great state of Illinois.

So here's the official description from the SLSC:

EXPLORE THE JOURNEY OF FOOD!

Dig Deeper as we take a look at the science of the most important element of our daily lives: Our food. Where does it come from? How does it grow? How far does it travel? And how can each of us make a difference so we can all eat? You'll find the answers to all these questions and so much more at this one-of-a-kind exhibit focusing in on the journey of food.

We all have a role to play in the stewardship of our food supply and right here at the Saint Louis Science Center, we have the opportunity to show you exactly how you can make a difference. Welcome to GROW!

This amazing exhibit combines all my values as a scientist, parent, environmentalist and pragmatic citizen. Most of all, it appeals to my love of plants, gardening, farming and food. Due to my profession, I've had the fortune of visiting farms from Argentina to Canada and I am highly tuned in to crop safety, biotechnology, plant breeding and modern agricultural technology. This exhibit will go a long way in educating the public...whether you have a science or farming background or not, you will learn about ag here in a most engaging fashion.

As a long time city resident I am regularly in awe of the lack of knowledge and naive ignorance many people in urban environments have about gardening and farming. It's nobody's fault people don't understand how things grow and what it takes. I mean I can't begin to tell you how my iPhone works? I don't study it....I don't care. Anyhow, this exhibit targets the highest level of understanding of food and how it makes it's way from the packet of seed to your refrigerator...and I was blown away.

So, I'll share with you what I saw on my visit.

First of all the exhibit is located between the main Science Center building and the Compton Drew Investigative Learning Center on Oakland Avenue. Remember that big inflated white tent just west of the Science Center? That's the space.

But now you'll see this beautiful building:

Make your way from the second floor of the Science Center just past the deck that overlooks the dinosaurs and head through the doors for the outdoor exhibit.

Plant, cultivate, harvest

The first thing you'll notice to your left is an amazing chicken coop.  I know that sounds weird, right? Amazing chicken coop! Well my neighbors have backyard chickens and I've become fascinated with the process and hope to get in the game myself at some point. But this coop takes it to a new level. It was designed by the respected Polish artist/architect Jakub Szczesny. And by my untrained eye seems to be a spaceship take on raising chickens that combines the Flaming Lips movie sets with mid-century modern space-age design.

Keep heading south and you'll hit a series of raised beds and gardens. In the center there is a docent teaching about the importance of earthworms and composting to soil health. 

The invaluable local resource: Gateway Greening has partnered with the SLSC to establish content and maintain beds and learning materials.

The exhibits combine perfect mixtures of plants that will not deplete the soil and co-habitate nicely in a confined space. Or themed food gardens, like a "salsa garden" that has tomatoes, peppers, onion and cilantro all in the same bed. Helpful tips abound, like adding marigolds to deter animals from destructive white flies to backyard rabbits.

There are tools and seeds available for you to dig and get dirty planting green beans in the various soils with variable amounts of compost. They have little biodegradable pots that you can take your plant home.

Now, keep heading north and the place gets STL-real:  Beer garden! In the garden! It's called the "Fermentation Station" and it is housed in a re-purposed shipping container that symbolizes how food is brought to you, via truck, rail, ocean freight and air! Urban Chestnut, et al. and snacks await you! High design everywhere. The borders of the beer garden are grape vines that are being trained on wires to provide a defined green wall. The tables are designed to expand depending on the size of your party.

Head west and the kids can climb around on a modern tractor and walk through a greenhouse that speaks to protected-culture agriculture. Ever wonder how you can get a bell pepper in three beautiful colors, year round for about the same price? Greenhouses.

Then the star of the show (to my grade-schooler) appears: a brand new Case combine with a corn head...you can walk up the stairs and sit in the cab and see how high tech harvests are done.

Looking out the cab windshield, you see one of our best Midwestern friends Zea mays planted in rows just like a farmer would see. 

But those aren't just simulated props, there is an active drought research experiment being conducted by St. Louis University scientists who are collaborating with state and federal government to study the effects of drought on row crops. This high tech research is utilizing high-end thermal and hydrospectral cameras and a field robot that monitors plant growth, soil's ability to retain moisture and ground temperatures. Wow...and there are touch screen monitors to learn more about the research.

Wind around to the animal section and learn about beef cattle and their four stomachs. There is a model dairy cow that you can simulate hand milking or affixing the pressurized milking machines to the udders.

There are little farm implement toys that kids can race around on a small cinder track.

Toward the west side of the exhibit there is a fruit orchard demonstration garden. The fences are planted with grafted pear plants that are designed to grow along a flat surface, creating a green, fruit-producing wall.

There is a pollinator section that speaks to the role of the animals (mostly insects) in helping agriculture. We wouldn't have blueberries at this scale and price without our European honeybees. The seats around the learning stations are sections of trees!

Strolling eastward, we came across some science students who had a mosquito display talking about Zika, et al. They were encouraging visitors to engage and ask questions.

Next to the scientific poster display was a section on water, emphasizing the importance of readily available water. There is data everywhere including the breakdown of water use in the United States:

61% irrigation

16% household

16% cities and factories

 5% aquaculture

 2% livestock

The message of responsible water management is re-enforced in the landscape design where rain gardens and swales are installed around the perimeters.

Finally, you can enter the large centerpiece building right in the middle. Inside are plenty of displays manned by docents and interactive screens that speak to the bi-state (Illinois and Missouri) agricultural offerings and how that grain and food is harvested, processed, sold and distributed.

You can select the county of either state and see what is grown there. My hometown county does it all!

It's hard not to be impressed with this beautifully designed and executed exhibit. If you have visited, I'd like to hear what you think in the comments section.

Cheers-Mark

St. Louis MetroMarket Bus Spotted In The Jeff Vander Lou Neighborhood

When you are tooling around the city and you notice what appears to be a Metro bus parked in a vacant lot, and a guy with a flag ushering you toward said bus, you have to check it out.

That's just what happened to me as I was heading northwest on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive photographing the 30 amazing firehouses in St. Louis on a sunny Saturday morning. 

At a corner wedge in the Jeff Vander Lou Neighborhood, defined by Thomas Street and Wester Avenue, with Dr. Martin Luther King Drive as the hypotenuse, the scene included a big bus, whimsically painted in greens, yellows and reds. 

There were tents set up and the guy flagging traffic toward the bus stood next to an A-frame sign advertising fresh, healthy, affordable food.

I pulled over to sate my curiosity. 

Turns out the eye-catching operation I stumbled upon is the St. Louis MetroMarket. Here's a little background from their website:

The St. Louis MetroMarket is a non-profit mobile farmers' market that will serve all St. Louis area food deserts by providing direct access to fresh and affordable produce, meat, and staple goods and by advocating on the behalf of these communities on issues related to food justice, hunger, and health.

What is a food desert? Per the Economic Research Service of the USDA:

While there are many ways to define a food desert, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group considers a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. To qualify as low income, census tracts must meet the Treasury Department's New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program eligibility criteria. Furthermore, to qualify as a food desert tract, at least 33 percent of the tract's population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. (source)

Simply put, think of areas where there are no grocery stores offering healthy, affordable foods within walking distance from low-income areas. Grocery shopping, especially for a family, is tough without a car.

There are many places in St. Louis that meet the above definition of a food desert, 15 per this source

Now that you're grounded with a little information on this non-profit endeavor, here's what I learned after speaking with executive director, Lucas Signorelli who  showed me around the operations including a cooking demonstration by nutritionists who were sauteing up onions and red peppers (both available on the bus) for some tasty recipes.

Lucas introduced me to Serena Bugett who showed me around the bus/market and answered some of my questions:

Ms. Bugett, a fellow city resident, is the Director of Community Engagement for MetroMarket.  She indicated that the market was created by St. Louis University Medical Student Jeremy Goss as well as co-founders Tej Azad and Colin Downing (both Washington University alumni), all interested in bringing healthy, affordable food to areas that need it the most. As the writing on the bus says: "Food Is Medicine" and "Eat To Live".

The bus itself was donated by Metro. The bus seats were removed and floors and shelves were designed to make an easily accessible market. Re-purposed wood was obtained to give it that farm look. The team cut, sanded and stained the wood that makes the shelves.

The offerings are selected based on both the season as well as feedback from the community. Meetings were held to survey the residents on what items they would like to see available. There is an emphasis on locally farmed fruits, veggies, meats and cheese. There are ready to eat or prepared foods including BBQ sauce, marinades, preserves and apple butter from Amish farms. 

Future plans include acceptance of EBT.

Jeff Vander Lou and Hyde Park

 were selected for the initial launch. The market also sets up shop on North 14th Street near Mallinckrodt Street by the Holy Trinity Catholic Church on the first Saturday of the month. And they are at the JVL location every Saturday from 9:00 - 12:00.

Before the St. Louis MetroMarket selects a spot to serve, they ask for permission from the neighbors. 

The group is researching additional spots it will be welcome. They do not simply identify the food deserts on paper and show up. They work with the community to ask for permission to set up shop in their neighborhood. They wait for an invitation from the community.  This is the best way for the MetroMarket to get an idea of what the people want to purchase. If I've learned one thing about St. Louis' poorer areas, it is that the decent people that live in these areas are tough and proud. Asking for help does not always come easy. Therefore, the conversation and the request to be part of the neighborhood before you just show up is vitally important to establish goodwill and acceptance.

St. Louis MetroMarket gets that.

Simply put, the market is an amazingly transformed space. It is like an aisle in a small city market...not a bus. No seats. No fumes. Instead, brightly lit shelves, meat and dairy cabinets all in air-conditioned coolness. The driver's station is subtly hidden behind a burlap curtain. You walk up the stairs to a market as opposed to a bus. Hook a slight left and you notice a check out station manned by a cashier and then of course the food.

This is a place designed and made to feel real and professional...a place with dignity. It works. There is enough variety to make entire meals, not just a here and there offering of this and that. It is well thought out and sourced.

Don't just take my word for it. 

MetroMarket has been covered well by the local media including KSDK Channel 5, KWMU 90.7 FM, KDHX 88.1 FM, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and many others.

Congratulations to St. Louis MetroMarket, and best of luck. You are good neighbors. The conversation I had and the work you are doing made my day. And seeing nothing but smiles on the faces of your customers makes me hopeful for our future.

You can follow the St. Louis MetroMarket on Facebook and Twitter.

An Interview With The Civilian Oversight Board

I recently had the opportunity to talk about "Community Engagement" at a panel discussion hosted by the St. Louis Public Library. Afterward, a member of the recently-formed City of St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board introduced herself and asked if I'd like to meet the others on the team and learn more about the role of this newly-formed office within the Department of Public Safety.

I decided to take her up on the invitation with the intention of sharing some of the positive actions that are a result of the current events and scrutiny around policing in St. Louis and the region at large.

If you are like me, you watched the events play out after the death of Michael Brown in November, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri and other small towns in the suburbs just north of St. Louis and came to the realization that things have to change. Conversations began on how to make improvements to the "taxation by citation" policing methods employed by many of these small towns in St. Louis County and the use of force in the line of duty to serve and protect across the many police departments in the region. 

One thing that seems obvious after the disputes, higher scrutiny and maybe most of all: cell phone footage of police interactions now available to nearly everyone via social media is that we need additional avenues to help bridge the efforts of the police force with t

he community. In order to ensure trust between law enforcement and the community, we need a process for citizens who feel they've been treated unjustly or unprofessionally by law enforcement officials to seek justice.  I think we can all agree that as citizens we want the best, most respectful, just and equitable relations with the police force that is possible. Respect is a two-way street.

Transparency is a cornerstone of trust in our democracy and we need hon

est channels to air our grievances with the power structures and feel as though due process has been served. Bridges can be built to help citizens and the police hired and trained to protect us to enforce the laws in a manor that fits and respects the community. St. Louis

 took a first step toward this goal in April, 2015 

when the Board of Alderman voted 17-8 in favor of establishing the Civilian Oversight Board (COB) 

to help bridge any gaps of trust and professionalism between citizens and the police force through the establishment of a system to allow citizens an avenue to report alleged misconduct by police, followed by a review of a seven-member appointed board to mediate complaints.

From an 

April, 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article

:

Under the proposed bill, a seven-person St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board would have the authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct; research and assess police policies, operations and procedures; and make findings and recommendations. It could also review evidence and witness statements from investigations by police internal affairs. The board would report its findings to the city’s public safety director and police chief.

So, I sat down with Executive Director, Nicolle Barton and Legal Investigators Aldin Lolic and Louisa Lyles in Room 4029 of the Abram Building at 1520 Market Street in the city's

Downtown West Neighborhood

to get a little more information on this newly-formed office. The staff has an impressive and diverse background including insurance investigation, probation and parole advocacy, Department of Corrections and the Circuit Attorney's Office experience.

left to right: Barton, Lolic and Lyles

As stated above, an ordinance was passed in April, 2015 establishing the office. The office reports to

Richard Gray

, the Director of Public Safety. By May, they were accepting official complaints. To date, the office has received six separate complaints.

So how does this whole process work? What if you have an interaction with the police that you deemed unprofessional or unjust and you would like an independent assessment of the facts and the incident itself?

First, you need to be 18 years of age or older to file a complaint. If a minor was involved, a parent or guardian can file a complaint on the minor's behalf. The complaint must be filed within 90 days from the occurrence of the incident.

Then you fill out an official complaint form. The simple, two-page form is

available online

 or a paper form may be picked up at the Public Safety Department (room 401 at City Hall), the COB office (1520 Market Street room 4209) or at the

North

,

Central

and

South

Police Patrol divisions. You can also contact the COB at (314) 657-1600 to have a form mailed to your home.

The forms are then filled out and mailed to the COB office, or dropped off in person. You cannot file an anonymous complaint; hence no email, an official signature is required to file a complaint. If you have audio or video footage from the incident, it may be provided whether you recorded it on your own device or a neighbor/witness recorded it. This data may be provided in a drop box or downloaded at the office.

Mediation may be pursued. For example, if you feel inappropriate language or unnecessary rudeness was displayed, you may choose to seek remediation with the police. If mediation is preferred, you may indicate it by checking a box on the form; doing so will not disqualify your complaint from COB review.

Once the official complaint if filed, it is logged in the data entry system and assigned a case number so your name will not be used in the on-going proceedings.

The complaint is then turned over to the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police within 48 hours. A verbal statement as well as any recorded footage will be provided.

The IAD then has 90 days to review the complaint and any accompanying data and turn their file over to the COB office. Members of the COB office are present at the IAD meetings and they provide an independent review of the evidence, findings and recommendations. The meetings are taped and the information is available through a

Missouri Sunshine Request

.

The COB and IAD reports then go to the appointed seven-member board for review. The board members are selected through a series of interviews by the aldermen and mayor, with the final appointment being made by the mayor him or herself. The seven members represent one of the seven police districts and four wards across the city. They serve as volunteers for a 2-4 year term and can be extended for additional terms of service. They meet monthly on the third Monday of each month at 4:00 p.m. and are open to the public. The meetings are held in Room 4029 at 1520 Market Street.

The seven appointed members of the board will hear the COB and IAD findings and recommendations and will vote on an outcome. That outcome will be compared to the IAD outcome. If both are in agreement, the investigation is deemed complete. To date, the outcomes for all six complaints are still under investigation. Should there be disagreement between the two parties, the Chief of Police shall hold the final decision.

Once a decision is determined, the COB Executive Director reaches out by letter to the complainant. The communication informs the complainant as to whether action was taken by the police department or if no action was required. In the case that action was taken, the specific disciplinary action against the officer is not communicated to the complainant.

The COB also may serve as independent investigators relating to internal officer misconduct allegations.

So that's a high-level summary of how the process works.

As the COB is in its infancy, out-reach efforts are being extended throughout the community. They are attending neighborhood meetings, school and community events (like the library panel discussion where I met Ms. Lyles). They are visiting

the International Institute of St. Louis

in the coming weeks to reach out to the budding immigrant community in St. Louis. The office is researching COB's across the country, and in the coming weeks will be traveling to Kansas City, Missouri to visit their COB office to compare methods and processes. An open house was hosted last month where ~50 attendees visited the office. Subsequent goals include setting up IT systems to enter, record and track data in a systematic fashion. With policies and procedures underway, the office will work on continuously improving the system as they get more experience along the way.

To-do items for the office include record keeping and file sharing upgrades including on-line posting of COB meeting agendas at least three days prior to the meeting, meeting minutes and annual reports that report metrics and decisions by the COB.

So who pays for this office? Well, the tax payers of course. But specifically, the COB will ask the Board of Alderman to fund the office budget on an annual basis.

A system of checks and balances, teamed with transparent policy, process and communication is the goal of any successful democratic government. These efforts, while in their infancy, seem like a logical and noble first step toward enhancing the relationship between citizens and our respected police department. Kudos to all those seeking positive change, and open communication. We can only do better and I'm hopeful that this office will lead us toward that goal of transparency and due process.

Ms. Barton who has much experience working toward just solutions in Ferguson, Missouri led me to believe that she too is hopeful for the future. Since the 2014 Ferguson events, she sees things changing for the better. The newer academy trainees are evolving their mindsets and becoming more focused on community policing.

We are all evolving. 

In Ms. Lyles' emails back and forth with me, she included a Chinese proverb that states:

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

I couldn't agree more. Thanks to Ms. Lyles, Ms. Malone, Ms. Barton and Mr. Lolic for sharing your story to date and keep up the good work.

St. Louis Population Loss During Modern Mayoral Terms

With Francis Slay

recently announcing

he will not run for re-election as Mayor of St. Louis, his four consecutive terms go down as the longest run in our city's history.

Back in 2010

I gave the office of Mayor some thought and looking back at that post, for the most part, I still feel the same including the need for a new set of ideas and styles. The Democratic Party Mayors have largely failed if you use residency as the measure of success.

Do people want to live here or not? To me, that is the ultimate measure of a city's success. If it's a hopeful, growing, stable or improving place, people will move there. If hope is lost and the future does not look bright, people will leave. And in St. Louis, people have and continue to leave in droves, mostly for the 90 plus suburbs and small towns in St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County.

St. Louis has been losing population at a staggering rate since we ended our growth period in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Here are the numbers summarized on the

St. Louis Wikipedia page

that show the mass exodus of people out of St. Louis:

The reasons are complex and varied on how something like this can happen.  We have a city that was built for one million inhabitants, but we're down to 315,685 and dropping fast (

source

).

Now that Slay is exiting, I'm starting to read some accounts that praise Slay as a Mayor which make me a little skeptical if you use population as your measuring stick.

I'm not here to criticize though; I recognize that public service is a tough job. The professional and personal toll of being a politician must be exhausting. I respect Slay for being in office for so long and running successful campaigns for re-election. That is not easy.  But the fact remains that during the Slay years ~33,489 people up and left St. Louis during his tenure as our top leader; this is a staggering figure that should always be considered when opining on his legacy. It just blows my mind that we are losing this many people year after year. If the 33,489 people who left St. Louis made up its own city, it would be the 19th largest city in the state of Missouri.

Yet, it would be shallow to just point out the numbers of people who vacated during a single Mayor's term(s), without taking a look at the other modern-day Mayor's numbers. This is not intended to be a petty political shot, rather a quest to understand the history and trajectory for St. Louis during my lifetime.

So let's take a look at the data.

An assumption was made from the graph below; my data source was the United States Census Bureau, plotted out annually by Google. Since this graph only went back to 1970, I used the 1960 data and increased the 1960-1969 data in a linear fashion so I could estimate the population when Mayor Alfonso Cervantes took office in 1965. Meaning, those years will not be accurately represented. But you still get the gist of the population losses.

year by year 1970-2013 data plotted by Google

Here's how the numbers shake out for each Mayor from 1965 to 2014, sorted by the largest declines:

Why the massive drop from 2009 to 2010? Either there is an error in the data, or the rules were changed on how Census counts were estimated. But, you get the point...people are not picking up what these guys have been laying down...and this has been going on for over 60 years.

You know despite these negative numbers, I am still bullish on St. Louis. I've lived here for 22 years and, as a whole, quality of life in the city has gotten better. Sure, there are exceptions, but I still firmly believe there is reason for optimism and hope for the future.

But in order to steer the ship away from this exodus it is going to take leaders who can listen, compromise, think large, act independently and...um...lead. You know, inspire. People with an outsider perspective would be wonderful.

Let's hope someone runs that is interested in the entire city, someone that lives in a neighborhood that is racially and economically inclusive, someone that has lived the challenges of navigating the schools, someone who takes ownership of the harm that petty and violent crime have on our business community and our citizens. Someone that loves it here and cares as much as the devoted on the future of the city. It is now or never, right?

No more silver bullet stadium proposals! We need to focus on neighborhood growth. Jobs within the city's borders that hire new and existing people in the city. Make sure we subsidize and incentivize small and medium sized businesses at the same rates as the larger ones (my neighborhood restaurant has done more to raise my quality of life than the Rams ever did). We need someone who can see the big picture that recognizes our faults and makes every decision to get us one step closer to that goal. If you can articulate a vision and repeat it incessantly until all 315,685 of us know your goals, then we can appreciate the decisions that are made to march toward those goals...even if sometimes it feels like a compromise. We need to feel some wins. I'd prefer 1000 little wins vs. 10 big ones.

Best of luck to the next set of candidates for Mayor. It will be fun to watch the field of candidates unfold. We need as many people paying attention, reading, listening and making educated, careful and critical choices at the ballot box. And remember, if you don't live in St. Louis you can't vote in St. Louis. You are either part of the problem or the solution when it comes to things that matter like hiring leaders. Shooting your mouth off from the suburbs just doesn't cut it when it comes to real change. 

Here's to growth on the horizon and a brighter future that lets all these young people doing great things in our city not think they have to move to the burbs to live out their adult lives.

St. Louis City Talk Update

Holy crap, I'm edging toward one million page loads on this blog...never thought that'd happen. Anyhow, I've been pursuing the personal goals of writing for pleasure and promoting St. Louis as a great city to live/explore since 2008. I started making lists of public places and photographing, researching and writing about them one by one.

Neighborhoods, parks, libraries, fire houses, you name it, I like making lists and setting goals and sharing my findings with other like-minded people. The experience has been positive overall and I plan on continuing to write on this blog into the near future. It keeps me learning about my city and I never want to be stagnant when it comes to my opinions on St. Louis stuff.

So with that in mind, it feels like the right time to start updating some of the older blogs starting with the neighborhood posts. For instance, I looked back at my Gate District post from 2010 and think I could've done better. This is a part of the city that confused me when I lived farther away; I've since moved to a neighborhood just south of here about five years ago and have spent a lot more time in these parts. We routinely visit a couple friends who live here, my wife now works here, my kids use the St. Louis University track complex here, I've come to love shopping at Walter Knoll for all my landscaping needs and I didn't know Maya Angelou was born here back then. I guess what I'm trying to say is, my perspective has changed. I know more now and maybe I didn't give the Gate District a fair shake back in 2010. I at least have a more personal perspective.

One of the most fun things about a city is that it is constantly evolving, changing and reinventing itself in many ways. This keeps me curious and excited about a place I feel like I know pretty well, but constantly surprises me.

So while I'll be updating some content, I won't delete photos, because I like capturing the city in a particular time. But, I will update content including revised census data, updated park and library links and content related to new development/major demolitions.

And then I'll work on updating the blog to a proper website. I had scheduled a class at the community college in the suburbs to transfer the Blogger site to a website to give it a more modern feel; but life stuff got in the way and I had to cancel. So at this point, I will be seeking out a website design firm to make this thing look better, and if you have any advice on good web designers (in the city of course) I'd gladly accept them.

Anyhow, as far as updated blogs, I started with the Gate District for reasons previously stated; but, going forward I'll update the neighborhood posts in the order of most read, starting with the top ten:

I'll then follow up with some the neighborhoods that have changed the most (by my estimation) in the past five or ten years.  So thank you all for reading and following along the way. I am so grateful to have a hobby that keeps me intellectually stimulated and has brought new acquaintances and/or friendships into my life.

All the best,

Mark

Union Station 10 Cine' (1988-2003)

When we lose places, be they businesses, homes, or just a building we lose memories, historical touch points to revisit, and worst of all, our identity as a place, as a city.

I gave the many theaters we've lost over the years in St. Louis some consideration here and here. And as of publishing, we have four great movie theaters existing in the city.

Yet, when I moved to St. Louis in the 1990's, there were only two first-run movie theaters in town: the Hi-Pointe and the 10-screen Union Station Cine'. The Avalon at Kingshighway just south of Chippewa (now gone the way of the wrecking ball) was still showing films; but I regret never making it. My wife went there once to see a sing along version of the Wizard of Oz, you know where the little ball jumps around the words on the bottom of the screen. She may have been one of only a handful of women in the seats :)

I did go to the Union Station 10 Cine many times though, so I feel obliged to share my experiences and thoughts on the place since it is the only theater I attended that is now shuttered. It is really hard to find info on the other lost theaters of St. Louis, so I'm compelled to contribute a personal story to the only lost theater I was in.  Sometimes we don't think as kindly of the 1980's as we should, and it might be easy to write these places off. 

The website Cinema Treasures includes many anecdotes from people who attended these lost buildings and I really appreciate their stories and perspectives. So I'll share a couple memories of mine.

I guess even the must mundane spaces have a history and stories tied to the past and Union Station 10 Cine was no exception. It felt like this place needed a proper tribute.

First a little on the building itself.

This theater was just south of the massive Union Station train shed/parking lot near the "Power House". It lasted for only sixteen years, with screenings from 1988 to 2003.  Per "Cinema Treasures":

The theatre opened with a 70mm screen and two auditoriums with THX sound. The theatre itself was a 42,000 square foot free standing building.
The lobby area featured an old fashioned ice cream parlor and a deli so that patrons could either eat before or after the show. There was a mural that was removed from above the old ticket counter in Union Station where passengers would buy their train tickets. The mural depicted line men working on the rails and different types of trains. The mural was restored and put on the wall above the concession stand in the new theatre.
The Union Station Cine' was successful as far as patronage was concerned but the high priced lease hindered the profit. When Wehrenberg went into bankruptcy they tried unsuccessfully to renegotiate the lease but to now avail. They closed the theatre and a short time later Wallace Theatres picked up the lease and operated the theatre until late in 2003. It has been closed ever since. (source)

The mural described above was an important work by artist Louis Grell called "Commerce on the Landing".

Luckily, the history of the mural is well documented by the Louis Grell Foundation:

Grell was commissioned to paint a unique seven foot tall by twenty-eight foot long mural to be mounted above the curved “new ticket counter” as part of the World War II renovation at Union Station in St. Louis in 1942. More than 100,000 passengers used the terminal daily during the height of the war. The St. Louis Union Station terminal was the “busiest passenger rail terminal in the world.” This historic mural titled Commerce on the Landing, depicts the Eades Bridge, Mississippi River front, 2 mighty Steam Boats and an old fashioned steam engine train on the riverfront during the 1880′s. The mural was officially unveiled in June 1942. 
The mural was in place until c 1985, when, during an extensive renovation it was moved to the UNION STATION Cine 10 theatre for a short period until the theatre closed and the mural was lost.
This mural was rediscovered in March 2014 by employees during a $66 million renovation of the hotel and terminal. Please see color pictures of the newly rediscovered mural above. Notice the Impressionist style used by Grell for this particular commission. Versatility by Grell was common. Many news agencies covered the discovery from St. Louis to Indiana, Illinois, many across Missouri, the Washington Times, the New York Post and the San Francisco Gate all ran extensive stories and links to the video covering the great find during a time when great art discoveries are being well represented in Hollywood films such as the “Monuments Men.” 
The mural underwent extensive conservation in St. Louis by artist and conservator Irek Szelag, in preparations to be rehung in the Union Station Grand Hall in mid 2015. St. Louis’s Kodner Gallery owner Jonothan Koder conservatively valued the artwork at $150,000 due to its beauty and relevant historical stature. Union Station owners believe Commerce on the Landing ”is considered one of the most important public artworks ever created for St. Louis.” 
Furthermore, local reporter/producer Ruth Ezell did a wonderful story on the mural and Louis Grell on her "Living St. Louis" segment for local PBS station "Nine Network". Watch the ~11 minute segment below, which aired on Channel 9 in 2015.

So the entry on the mural from Cinema Treasure checks out. Another anecdote on the Cine was from commenter "mmiller" who shared an interesting observation about the building's unique location under the elevated lanes of I-64:

One interesting thing about this theatre was that it was built under a major highway and that the support pillars for the highway were actually in the building without actually touching the building (this was a requirement of the highway department). At one time it was the only building in the US with this bizarre use of space. The construction price of this theatre was very high because of all the extras which also included a full service bar and high end sound systems. The lobby was expansive and very interesting to see. (source)

You can see what the commenter was talking about as the theater is truly tucked under the elevated lanes of the Interstate:

The exterior's coolest feature was the incorporation of the overhang waiting areas for train loading.

The marquee and ticket booth were nothing special compared to the older theaters, but oh how 80's:

The 1980's color schemes were in full force, looking like the early Arizona Diamondbacks uniforms...

 former displays for movie posters

Here you can see t

he deli and ice cream parlor.

Photos of the Union Station 10 Cine' are hard to find on the web; but, thanks to some of the usual STL bloggers, there is

some

content available. The following photo is from Steve Patterson, posted on UrbanReviewSTL and shows the atrium in front of the theater building...again, very 1980's...but still in great shape (and in the shadow of the K-SHE 95 studios). I don't know if it was intentional or just my imagination, but it looks like a train from afar:

Photo credit:   UrbanReviewSTL

Union Station 10 Cine' closed in 2003 but not before my wife and I took in the amazing martial arts film "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" in or about 2001. By that time the movie theater was becoming run down, poorly staffed/managed and pretty sketchy...it felt like it was on it's last leg. 

Two memories stood out. 

First, by that time the patrons at the theater were nearly all black. And of course, anyone who knows anything, can tell you that seeing a martial arts movie with a nearly all-black audience is a true American experience...not unlike the difference in attending a buttoned-up, priest-led Catholic mass vs. a more outwardly spiritual Baptist choir/band-led service...both good, but drastically different. The stereotypes are well known and documented, this is not news. And the Union Station 10 Cine did not disappoint on this particular evening.

This showing of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was a full-on, max-volume crowd participation night and we were likely the only white people in the theater and it burned a memory into both of our brains. 

Sometimes the outbursts and constant talking is annoying, sometimes it is transcendent...depends on the internalized elixir, mood and/or vibe of the night. You just can't make this stuff up. Crouching Tiger was rife with beautiful special effects of flying Qing dynasty warriors and plenty of sword play and sparring. 

The crowd would erupt in hilarious outbursts of commentary related to the bad-ass fight scenes. The in-theater commentary was like standup comedy and this particular night we were into the distraction, embraced it and had fun with it. My wife and I still utter little asides that we heard from the crowd during that movie nearly 14 years later.

It was a great night and a great memory.

Another benign yet not as pleasant memory came on a different night when I went to use the restroom during a show. The lobby and concession area was dark and sparsely staffed and some dude slowly followed me into the restroom. Now I'm not an idiot and I know how to minimize potentially troublesome situations. I thought he wanted to sell me some weed, so I made continuous eye contact and kept conversation going as I stood at the urinal. Turns out his business model was more of a tryst-based one and I was just goobed out. You didn't get this kind of thing in Belleville, Fairview Heights or South County where we grew up watching movies, so I chalked it up to city living and making me stronger and better and wiser to the different things going on in our great society.

So these memories are nothing too special, but my two cents and the stories I can remember from this theater. I'm sure there are better stories and photos out there, so

 please feel free to share them here in the comments section.

Anyhow, these two stories probably don't make up the typical American movie going experience. They are outliers in the huge sample size of millions of people going to the theaters year after year.  But these experiences described above most likely led to why many quit going to the Union Station 10 Cine'.  If you're not up to it, the talking and interruptions during a movie can be considered off putting, rude and/or low brow.  I bet most suburbanites and visitors staying at the hotel in Union Station who wandered over for a movie walked away shell shocked. The older I get, the more I understand that need for peace and quiet.

One thing seemed clear, the theater was on its last leg.

The reports of the theater's demise are fairly well documented and a couple journalists shared the racial component of the story that I suspected.

A 1996 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article by Fred Faust available on Questia.com documented the unfolding drama with Wehrenberg and the struggles of drawing suburbanites to St. Louis.

Ronald P. Krueger, president of Wehrenberg Theatres, is threatening to close the Union Station 10 Cine.
In a letter Aug. 2 to the Powerhouse Partnership, landlord for the theater, Krueger says Powerhouse has breached the lease because of "Union Station's stated policy of preventing access to this center by minors and other young adults, unaccompanied by their parents during the evening hours.
"Due to its geographic location, the overwhelming majority of this class of individuals are minorities. The result, then, of this policy is to make unwelcome at the center a significant portion of the market which the theatre targets and a concomitant decline in theatre traffic and revenue.
"Consequently, present as well as future economic viability of the theatre operation has been eliminated."
Krueger also complains in the letter that parking problems have hurt business at Union Station 10 Cine.
Unless the "access policy" is immediately abandoned and parking problems solved, Krueger writes, the letter is notice that his company will vacate the premises, probably in 60 to 90 days.
A week after Krueger's letter, Powerhouse sued Ronnie's Enterprises Inc., the Wehrenberg entity that signed the lease. The suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court seeks an injunction that would force the theater to remain open.
The key partners in Powerhouse are developer Garrett Balke and builder Ralph Korte. In addition to the theater, they developed the office buildings at the southern end of Union Station.
In the suit, Powerhouse says the buildings were financed by Aetna Casualty and Surety Co., to whom the rents are assigned. If Ronnie's stops paying rent, the suit states, Powerhouse "will be unable to make its mortgage payments to Aetna."
The theater and other buildings would risk foreclosure, according to the suit.
The Ronnie's lease runs from Aug. 1, 1988, through July 31, 2008, plus optional renewals. The current rent on the 40,000-square-foot theater is $610,887 a year, or $50,907 a month.
There are also common-area maintenance charges. A percentage rent clause says Ronnie's will pay 7 percent of annual gross receipts in excess of $4.1 million.
Neither Krueger nor Balke could be reached Friday for comment.
When Union Station 10 Cine opened eight years ago, Post-Dispatch critic Joe Pollack hailed it as the first first-run movie house in the city since the Stadium Cinemas closed in 1984.
But, noting that Krueger's company had had problems with the Stadium Cinemas, Pollack wondered if the Union Station theater would succeed in drawing suburbanites back downtown, past more convenient mall locations. (source)

Then, according to a  November, 2000 St. Louis Business Journal report:

The theater was operated by Des Peres, MO-based Wehrenberg Theatres for nine years (1987-1996). Wehrenberg pulled out in 1996 amid some parking disputes and racially charged controversy between Wehrenberg and the theater owner Powerhouse Partnership over parking and Union Station's policy regarding minors at the time. A letter sent to the Powerhouse Partnership shortly before Wehrenberg pulled out contended that the theater's business had been hurt by "Union Station's stated policy of preventing access to this center by minors and other young adults, unaccompanied by their parents during the evening hours." The policy was tantamount to discrimination, according to Wehrenberg, because its primary audience was minority youth.

Rumor has it that the disputes led Wehrenberg to claim they would never operate another theater in St. Louis and evidence suggests that is true as all their current operations are in the suburbs of St. Louis County and other parts of Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.

Too bad, I have good memories of that Wehernberg jingle playing before many a movie in Fairview Heights, Illinois, and it'd be nice to have them back in St. Louis.

The above policy eventually worked itself out and a new investor came. Wallace Theater Corp., a Portland, OR based firm, acquired the theater from Wehrenberg. They spent $1 million on renovations, and reopened the theater in 1998. Just two years after reopening the Union Station 10 cinemas, Wallace entered into talks with Union Station's owner to end the theater chain's 10-year lease as Union Station was courting Aurora Foods who wanted the extra space to expand their corporate operations (source).

The Aurora Foods deal never came to fruition and the theater was kaput.

With the words ofKurt Vonnegut and Nick Lowe dancing through my head:

"So it goes."

Charles H. Compton

The Compton Library at 1624 Locust Street, accessible by appointment only, was named in honor of Charles Herrick Compton (1880-1966).

A staunch advocate for the library system in St. Louis, and public libraries in general, Compton was employed by the St. Louis Public Library from 1921-1950. He became the Director in 1938 and held that position until 1950 when he retired. The Compton Library was built in 1957.

Online information about Compton's life is fairly limited, so it felt like a little old fashioned research seemed appropriate. Luckily, Compton published a detailed record of his early life and professional career called "Memories of a Librarian" which was published in 1954 by the St. Louis Public Library.

A book about a librarian, I know what some might be thinking...quiet work spaces, books, Dewey Decimal Systems, etc...paint drying. Yet, the recount of his career pulled me in from the start. His life and stories paralleled America's best of times and worst of times. His career coincided with America's involvement in World War I, the Roaring 1920's and the Great Depression of the 1930's where in one of his speeches to the American Library Association in Denver in 1935 he said:

"As I look on the past twenty  years of war, boom, depression, they are painful years. As I look on the world today, it is all too much a ruthless and a senseless world. As I look toward the years to come, there is a foreboding, but my faith in democracy is unweakened, my belief in libraries as essential in a democracy is unshaken. Libraries will be a part in making of the new and better world which we all desire."

Compton chased that desire and spirit throughout his career and his attention to detail and writing style lend insight into his quirkiness as a staunch book lover. He once said of his profession:  

"We librarians are a chosen people, a peculiar people in our own eyes and perhaps peculiar in the eyes of others."

Maybe so, but Compton's successes and accomplishments transcended any bookworm idiosyncrasies or self-imposed limitations; this man took public libraries to a new level in America and St. Louis was lucky to have him.

So the purpose of this post is to highlight his time in St. Louis and the suburbs to the west of the city as well as some of his key accomplishments.

But first a little background on his early life and lead up to his move to St. Louis.

Compton was born in 1880 in Palmyra, Nebraska, and later moved to Lincoln, Nebraska where he attended a two year preparatory school run by the University of Nebraska where you could finish your four year high school degree in two years. 

He went on to attend the University of Nebraska, graduating in June, 1901.

After graduating and working a number of jobs that took him from Minneapolis to Billings, Montana and eventually back to Lincoln, he soon decided, somewhat by chance, that he wanted to be a librarian, inspired by his sister, who was an assistant at the University of Nebraska Library.

He followed his heart and in October, 1905 took a train to Albany, New York where he enrolled in the New York State Library School. According to Compton this was "when life began for me." During his schooling, he became the librarian of the Albany Y.M.C.A. in 1906. He graduated with his degree in June, 1908.

A few months later, he landed a job as librarian at the University of North Dakota and moved to Grand Forks, eventually married in 1908 and started a family in 1910 with the birth of his first son. The library was one of the 2,509 Carnegie libraries built between 1883 and 1929 throughout the United States.

After working for the University of North Dakota for a year and a half, he accepted a reference librarian position with the Seattle Public Library. Here he made a name for himself by focusing on fund raising and publicity for the library system in the Emerald City. As a result of his efforts and diligence, patronage rose 150%, the book collection nearly quadrupled and the periodicals doubled. Seattle is where Compton blossomed professionally. He started receiving invitations to more and more library associations and speaking engagements at regional conferences. His second son was born in 1914 and they bought their first house.

In 1918, Compton was given leave from the Seattle Library to lead an effort by the Library War Service in Washington D.C., who had requested the American Library Association set up a program to provide reading materials to servicemen both domestic and abroad during and immediately following WWI.

Compton met many influential and talented people in his field during his tenure in the Libary War Service in D.C. He managed a budget of $70,000 per month and was buying an average of 2,500 books per day to establish the library for servicemen. He worked hard, seven days a week and his mission was an overwhelming success. Nearly 3.4M books were shipped to outpost camps, hospitals and bases throughout Europe and the United States. His service and the war came to a close and he returned to Seattle in 1918. In six months he assumed the head librarian position at the Seattle Library.

This service during WWI inspired Compton to take what he had learned and apply it to the homeland as well...for the good of the public. He became part of the "Books for Everyone Campaign" and moved to New York City traveling to and from NYC and Chicago to help lead this effort which espoused the tenet that "good books made good citizens". He amassed a staff of up to 30 employees who were "banging away at the campaign with might and main." The group set out to raise $2M to fund the campaign to distribute books to the public libaries across the country, but the efforts failed to raise their target and the group eventually disbanded. Compton and his family did not like NYC or Chicago life and were happy to return to Seattle in 1920.

In the Spring of 1921, Charles H. Compton was offered the position of assistant librarian of the St. Louis Public Library and by June he was working in St. Louis. He was connected with the head librarian at Washington University who took him under his wing and put him up in a room in his home on Cates Avenue in what is now called the city's West End Neighborhood. When he moved his family to the area, they rented a house in the small town of Kirkwood, MO (pop. 4,500) ~ten miles from St. Louis. When settled they looked for their first house, and chose another small town ~eight miles from St. Louis called Webster Groves, MO (pop. 9,500) in 1922. The home is no longer standing as it was demolished for Interstate 44 construction just south of Webster University's main campus.

The family adapted to life in the suburbs of St. Louis quite well. Like most, they became infatuated with baseball and attended many games at Sportsman's Park watching Babe Ruth play against the Browns, but the Cardinals were their favorite team. The Compton's were accepted into St. Louis Society with open arms led by Charles current love for Mark Twain and Carl Sandburg which carried over well with the men's clubs he was part of that included the Dean of Washington University and former St. Louis Browns and Cardinals great Branch Rickey who eventually went on to sign Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers thus breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues.

He had a hand in establishing the Webster Grove Public Library on a tax supported basis in 1927 when he served on that library's board until 1931 when he resigned to move to St. Louis after his kids graduated high school in Webster Groves and went to Washington University. They moved to an apartment at 5888 Cabanne Avenue in the West End Neighborhood.

His respect in the National library community was growing and he became President of the American Library Association in 1934 amid the Great Depression where he was tasked with resetting the charter for the Association during the "perilous and trying times" where he rallied librarians to emerge from the "cheerless years" and lead libraries to a brighter day ahead.

Compton's work and inspiration seemed to draw from his American experience of the Great War and the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression. His no-quit spirit during the Depression led him back to Washington D.C. where he led ALA discussions with the Agricultural Deptartment to collaborate on gaining access to public libraries in America's most rural parts. This was a most noble cause, but an increasingly uphill battle when the Treasury was shrinking. This never came to be, but he continued his pursuits and represented St. Louis well. 

Once again faced with the precipice of the changing times, Compton was assigned as a delegate to the International Library of Congress which took him to a conference in Europe where he was hosted by a fellow librarian of German descent. They spoke of Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany acknowledging Hitler's successful management of banking, currency and general economic conditions while lamenting his hatred for Hitler's views toward Jews.

Throughout his expanding endeavors, he was successful in raising funds and expanding the library system in St. Louis. He was a wonderful advocate and diplomat for free public libraries and books in general.

In 1938, Compton was assigned head librarian of the St. Louis Public Library. And, in 1950 at the age of 70, he chose to retire.  Reflecting on that time in his life he said: "I dislike the word gerontology. The very sound of the word is disagreeable. How to grow old gracefully certainly deserves a more pleasing designation."

Beloved by his peers and associates, a huge party was thrown for him in 1950 where hundreds turned out ranging from library staff to media members to national and international friends and colleagues attended.  At this celebration he stated:  "I feel that we all should be tremendously proud of our profession. Many of us became librarians by what seemed mere chance. Certainly that was true in my own case. Librarians almost universally are happy in their work and would not change to other professions. Librarians have enthusiasm for the work they are doing. Life without enthusiasm is not worth living."

His praises were sung by dignitaries ranging from St. Louis Mayor Joseph M. Darst to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. He was lauded for bringing the St. Louis Public Schools and the Public Libraries together through collaborations. 

Today, where all printed materials are being scanned, digitized and uploaded for full global access via the web/cloud, it is uncertain as to what the future holds for books and libraries in general. One thing for certain is that in Charles Compton's 29 years with the St. Louis Public Library, he was able to take public libraries to a new level in our fair city.

Charles H. Compton lived to the age of 85. He died on March 17, 1966.

Kleb Clothing and Shoe Company

Kleb Clothing and Shoe Company was one of my favorite places in the city's  Patch Neighborhood. For those of us who knew it (probably all men), this was a place to purchase high quality, mostly American-made work-wear, no frills.

So why all the past-tense? Well, I just recently learned the hard way that Kleb's has closed. I needed waffle-patterned thermal underwear and I went to where I knew I had to go to avoid the suburban retail headaches and it hit me...Kleb's was closed, cleaned out and shuttered for good.

Man, I never got to say goodbye.

Nobody told me Kleb's was coming to an end. Maybe no one knew, maybe there was a going away party. I don't know - I just shopped there. If I'd have known, I would have gone in one last time, bought out my favorite Made In U.S.A. denim shirts and shook hands and paid my thanks and respects.

Kleb Clothing and Shoe Company, occupied a storefront at 8529 South Broadway at Catalan Street since  1948 right across the street from the St. Louis Skatium near the city's southernmost tip.

So I thought I'd better share some photos and memories to eulogize one of the last men's clothing stores that hearkened back to the days of American made textiles and work clothes in a retail setting that offered soul over convenience.

Work Clothing our...Specialty (effective use of ellipses)

Kleb's had that heavy door with the finger depressor that didn't really work so you just nudged it open with your shoulder. The first step onto the dusty and worn wood plank floor had been made by many a working man over the years; there was a give of what felt like an inch upon that first step.

Wood racks were stocked with work shirts of flannel, denim, wool and cotton. There were Dickies jumpsuits and Osh Kosh overalls - all non-ironic: function over form, substance over style. No frills shirts that last long with no preference for fads  (Y Chromosome essentials).

You'd usually see a guy sitting in a chair against the back wall, plastic cup filled with (?) who might or might not work there. He keeps the conversation going with the other guys in the store.

When you enter, the guy behind the counter offered a jovial "hello" and/or "welcome" to let you know that "we don't have to talk" or "hey, glad to see a customer, let's talk". Whatever you prefer.

I'm an admirer of pre-NAFTA economies and locally made clothes and goods...that regional spin on culture. St. Louis made a lot of said stuff and I miss it, consumer and otherwise. I fantasize about the old localized supply chain where a farmer harvests cotton in Arkansas or the boot-heel of Missouri, trucks it a couple miles up the road to the gin and bales of cotton lint are sent to a factory in a city. Shirts get made, packaged and distributed to independently owned family storefronts.

Enough with the Gen-X curmudeonry, back to Kleb's.

My memory is a little foggy, but I'm pretty sure the bearded guy behind the counter was a former pro-wrestler. He looked the part and the faded, yellowish newspaper clippings under the sheet of plexiglass that sat on the cash register counter indicated as much.

This was Klebs, a storefront in one of the most working class parts of the city, selling clothes made by working class Americans....all brought to you by a former pro-wrestler.

This is South City at its best.

Places like this made a mark on this St. Louis transplant and made city living fun and urged me to explore other storefront businesses all over the city.

As my last U.S.-made denim shirt from Kleb's fades and frays so will my memories of this great South City place. Kleb Clothing, I'll miss you. But, more than anything, thank you for the memories. I don't take them for granted.