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15th Annual What is a City? Conference

October 5, 2009 Education, Events/Meetings Comments Off on 15th Annual What is a City? Conference

Later this month the Center for the Humanities at the University of Missouri is holding an interesting a 2-day conference:

The Center for the Humanities invites you to the 15th annual What Is a City? conference. Join speakers from around the country and St. Louis in examining city infrastructure concerns through the lenses of the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We will discuss such cities as New York, Portland, Ore., New Orleans, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and St. Louis. Conference presenters include architects, urban planners, environmentalists, journalists, transportation experts, and legislators. Engaging in discussion that crosses many disciplines, the presenters and audience will explore ways we can understand and improve urban infrastructure and community life.

The 15th annual conference on 10/29-30 is free and open to the public.  To view the schedule and to pre-register click here.  A canned food donation is requested.  The campus is served by MetroLink, a parking permit is $6.

– Steve Patterson


Pruitt-Igoe’s Foundations Have Not Prevented Development

For less than 20 years 33 towers stood on 57 acres on the city’s near-north side (map).  Pruitt-Igoe was a failure of massive proportions. The reasons are numerous and complex.  The towers were razed over a two-year period starting in 1972.  Since then the site remained (mostly) vacant.

I continually hear people make the false claim the site has remained vacant because of the old foundations that were left in place.  To debunk this often repeated myth I turned to the person that would know best: Martin Braeske.

Braeske, a planner formerly with St. Louis County, was working in the planning office for the St. Louis Public Schools in February 1994 when they broke ground on the Gateway Middle School for Science and Technology to be built on a portion of the former Pruitt-Igoe site.  Braeske, now retired, is an Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University.  So I emailed my one-time instructor and asked him his thoughts on the foundations preventing site development:

Each tower had a partial basement for boiler and mechanical systems equipment. The ones we found were intact and simple filled in with dirt. We dug them out, punched holes in the bottom to equalize the water table and demolished the walls to about eight feet below the finished ground level. While this did cost a bit, it is not a major deterrent to redevelopment of the site.

The old foundations are not a big deal.  If anything has prevented development of the Pruitt-Igoe site it has been the city’s fragmented politics over the decades.  Late December 1992:

The federal judge overseeing the area’s school desegregation program is giving the St. Louis Housing Authority two weeks to hand over part of the old Pruitt-Igoe tract as the site for a $30 million magnet school.

U.S. District Judge George F. Gunn Jr. noted in his order that the federal court last year had approved the Pruitt-Igoe location as the site for the Gateway School.

In May, the St. Louis School Board filed an application with the Housing Authority to acquire 18 acres at Pruitt-Igoe, a public housing complex demolished in the 1970s.

The authority owns the property and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a lien on the tract.

The Tenant Affairs Board, which represents public housing tenants, opposed the deal. It contended that under federal law it has the “first right of refusal” in land transactions that affect public housing tenants.

Gunn disagreed, at least regarding the Gateway case. In an order late Wednesday, he said the tenants’ board cannot block the Pruitt-Igoe deal. He pointed out that the site is a “vacant debris-strewn area” that has had no residents for more than 15 years.

He ordered the Housing Authority to disregard the tenant board’s intent to develop the site the School Board wants for Gateway School.
(Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch 12/25/1992)

The remaining 39 acres are still vacant 15 years after the school opened, becoming an urban forest.  Interest in Pruitt-Igoe remains as strong as ever.  Local filmmakers are hard at work on a documentary on the project.  See their site at Pruitt-Igoe.com (under construction) or follow them on Twitter @PruittIgoe.

Pruitt-Igoe is known around the world.  I recently received this email:

My name is Phil Bosch. I’m an artist based in Holland who is coming this Oktober and November to St. Louis to work on a special video documentary project.  I would like to investigate the memories of former residents of the now defunct Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. For the citizens of St. Louis this place is still an open space in the city, like an inverted monument of a history that seems to be forgotten.

Slowly this housing complex seems to have taken on a mythological status.   My film will be a study on its mythological status on the one side and the realm of experiences of the former residents on the other. The goal of my project is to enter, imaginatively, this huge building complex, even though its physical appearance is no longer there to be seen. While the Pruitt-Igoe no longer exists physically, it still exists in the memory of the former residents. It appears that despite the negative aura of the complex (the death of Modernism, the site’s history of crime and vandalism), there is still a coherent social group in the area who meet regularly. Thus, my goal would be to search for memories of a place where many lives were connected by this architecture that no longer exists.

I would like to document these memories. First of all, I would like to video the site of Pruitt-Igoe, which now has been taken back by nature. Next, I would like to contact people who had lived there or who otherwise have memories of the buildings.

If you can help Mr. Bosch email him.

– Steve Patterson


No Child Left Inside

I’ve never been a woodsy type or a parent.  But I have a message out there for parents, get your kids outdoors for free play.   You may tell me they are outside all the time: soccer, little league, etc.  Sorry, that doesn’t count.  I’m talking about time outside to just explore, on their own.

The above book was among one of a couple of books from one of my three Urban Planning courses at Saint Louis University this semester. It was an eye opener!  “Nature-Deficit Disorder” is not some new disorder requiring medicine to cure.  In fact, author Richard Louv suggests that free play outdoors may be the solution to the many issues children face today.

I recall growing up in the 70s, I’d spend hours away from home with friends riding our bikes on dirt trails along creeks near our homes.  I’d come home so dirty my clothes went right into the hamper — my mom not allowing me to walk through the house with them because I’d get red Oklahoma mud everywhere.   Other times I’d go riding off by myself exploring other neighborhoods or riding to the mall to buy something. I’d be miles away from home.

It was a different, more innocent time.  Parents just can’t let their kids do that these days.  But the question is if parents can afford to not let their children have free times outdoors?  Which brings us back to little league and such.  Yes, kids are not all couch potatoes playing Wii (though many are).  Yet organized events such as sports is different in a child’s development from free play.

In my pre-teen years I often walked or rode my bike to elementary & middle school. Most kids are chauffeured to school these days.  I didn’t have a full schedule of play dates and structured events.  The lives of kids today are very different.  An amazing number are diagnosed with ADHD and are medicated.  While Louv has no scientific proof that outdoor free play would reduce ADHD the prospect is interesting to explore.

A decade ago author James Howard Kunstler wrote about the connection between growing up in suburbia and the shootings at Columbine.  The theory goes that youth today do not develop any sense of independence — that suburba is so automobile independent this is compounded.  So while some may think suburbia is the best place to raise a child the fact is the driving lifestyle may prove worse than in more walkable areas. Please don’t confuse ‘suburbia’ with a ‘suburb.’  Suburbia is the worse of auto centric sprawl.  Many older suburbs are as walkable as the core city in regions.

Regardless of where a child is raised it is critical to have free play outside.  You’ll need to read the book for all the reasons.  Clicking on the cover image will take you to the author’s website.

With our education policy so focused on test scores (No Child Left Behind), recess often gets omitted.   Big mistake say some.  A connection to outdoors & nature helps the learning process of young minds.  The counter movement is No Child Left Inside.

As I said at the beginning I’m not a parent.  Odds are high that I never will be.  But as part of society I have an interest in making sure today’s kids grow up in such a way they are well adjusted.

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Five Candidates Seek Three Positions on School Board

April 6, 2009 Education 3 Comments

Tuesday voters in the city will vote for their Alderman (a few contested odd-numbered wards, Mayor and select three members for the school board.  Remember the elected school board as opposed to the board appointed in 2007 to run our school system?  We still must elect a school board.

Seven candidates had filed but two, including Bill Haas, withdrew in February.  The terms are for four years so it is possible the three we elect tomorrow will be part of the governing board once the state turns the schools back over to local control.

I must admit I’ve paid little attention to the schools these last two years.  List of school board candidates here.


And if it is “Broke”, Fix It!

March 7, 2008 Education, Guest 55 Comments

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist

SLPS has a budget in excess of $350,000,000 (http://www.slps.org/budget/SummaryofFY07BUDG.htm). The school system is considering closing four more schools because “enrollment has dropped from about 44,000 to about 28,000 in six years.” (3-6-08 P-D, “SLPS board to consider closing four schools”) Let’s do the math – we’re now spending $12,500 per student per year to provide an inferior education! St. Louis is also home to ±64,200 children between the ages of 5 and 18 (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/29/29510.html). Let’s do the math again – we have ±36,000 children, or 56%, who are not utilizing the St. Louis Public School System.

School vouchers are the darling of many free-market conservatives. They believe that the public schools aren’t accountable, that they’re bloated bureaucracies, and that the only way to “right the ship” is to make them compete in a free-market environment. School vouchers are also a goal of many parochial school parents, as they face ever-increasing tuition costs. Until recently, I’ve believed that the public’s tax dollars should be used exclusively to fund public schools. I’ve also supported the concept of charter schools, where parents potentially have (the ability to have) more control over the education their children receive. But with the combination of a rapidly-shrinking enrollment, continuing upheaval in the governing structure, a loss of accreditation, no improvement in test scores and a continuing movement out of the city by families with school-age children, I’ve come to the conclusion that vouchers may be the only solution for public education in the city.

I know all the arguments about why many (but not all) SLPS students do not succeed – poverty, a lack of parental involvement, a lack of preschool, frequent moves, teen pregnancy, “school ain’t cool”, a lack of respect toward teachers/an inability to maintain order in the classroom, the impacts of main-streaming special-needs students, the impacts of busing, the closure of neighborhood schools, etc., etc., etc. . . . The reality is that many “solutions” have been tried, yet the results continue to speak for themselves. Yes, a minority of students are successful in this environment (graduating and going onto college and/or meaningful careers), but, on average, SLPS simply continues to “not meet expectations”. Combine all this with no reduction in spending, and we voters need to think seriously about some other options.

Bottom line, our spending, per student, has increased by 8%-10% per year, on average, for the last six years. At the same time, the number of students in the SLPS system is dropping by roughly 10% per year. At this rate, in ten years, SLPS will have fewer than 1,000 students! Assuming that, for better or worse, ¼ of the current budget is committed, more or less in perpetuity, to funding existing obligations (long-term debt, pensions, etc.), that still leaves in excess of $260,000,000 in annual revenues that, in theory, could be devoted to a 100% voucher program. If true, that could mean an annual payment of slightly more than $4,000 per student to every school-age child in the city.

Milwaukee has been on the forefront of pushing the use of vouchers. Much like St. Louis, they’re a rust belt city that wants to reinvent themselves. They also struggle with many of the same “challenges” SLPS struggles with. Their results appear to be mixed (see resources cited below), and, as with everything political and statistical, published results can and do get “spun” to reinforce one’s preconceptions. Personally, I fall into the camp of the non-parental taxpayer. I don’t have kids in the SLPS, never had and never will. My concerns fall into two distinct, fairly unemotional, areas – what am I paying and what am I receiving? Taxes are a necessary evil – they’re always more than I want to pay, but I realize that government can’t function without them, that they need revenues to deliver the services I use. Performance can, is, and has been measured. The results appear to be unacceptable, and as a result, the SLPS has become an increasing disincentive for any “resurgence” the city may attempt. I would prefer that we had a viable public educational system. We apparently don’t. So if vouchers can improve things, if for no other reason they enable families to migrate to the existing parochial schools and stay in the city, I say let’s give ’em a try – it can’t be much worse than what’s happening now and it would be a much more fair distribution of resources, especially when compared to the results delivered . . .