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Neglected Castle Ballroom to be Razed

In June 2011 I posted about the Castle Ballroom on Olive in Midtown. I’d hoped to spark the interest of someone to buy and renovate the building.  Here’s how the building looked at the time, followed by how it looks now:

Castle Ballroom, 2011
Castle Ballroom, 2011; click to view map
And the Castle Ballroom yesterday
The Castle Ballroom yesterday
Close up of the west facade
Close up of the west facade

Here’s the story:

In November, severe weather caused one of those walls to collapse. Building inspectors have since concluded that the vacant structure at 2839 Olive Street, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and considered one of the city’s last remaining buildings with a deep connection to the black community in Midtown St. Louis, is a public safety hazard and must be demolished. (stltoday)

Another important part of history will soon be gone. The front facade could be stabilized, but I don’t know who’d pay for that. Plus the bricks have been painted so I’m not sure it’s worth saving. If the St. Louis Streetcar moves forward we may see a new building go up on this site. I just hope something like a drive-through restaurant or a one-story retail store like a Dollar General doesn’t get built on this site.

— Steve Patterson


Not All African-American’s Worship(ed) a Deity

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is agnostic
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is agnostic. Photo by David Gamble, 2008.

I couldn’t let February go by without one post on Black History. I know you’re thinking, “what can a white guy have to add to a dialog about black history?”  Well, I can address one aspect of black history that’s often either ignored or deliberately hidden: African-American atheists/agnostics. They don’t fit the accepted narrative of African-Americans as all religious.  Still, the nonreligious is a small percentage:

Slightly more than one-in-ten African-Americans (12%) report being unaffiliated with any particular religion. Although the unaffiliated make up a smaller proportion of the African-American community (12%) than of the adult population overall (16%), the unaffiliated still constitute the third largest “religious” tradition within the black community. However, very few African-Americans (1%) describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. Instead, most unaffiliated African-Americans (11% of African-Americans overall) simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Indeed, among the African-American unaffiliated population, a significant majority (72%) says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. (A Religious Portrait of African-Americans — recommended)

One of the current top freethinkers is the brilliant astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium:

Tyson is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to a non-government citizen. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid 13123 Tyson. On the lighter side, Tyson was voted Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive by People Magazine in 2000.

In February 2012, Tyson released his tenth book, containing every thought he has ever had on the past, present, and future of space exploration: Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Currently, Tyson is working on a 21st century reboot of Carl Sagan’s landmark television series COSMOS, to air in 13 episodes on the FOX network in the spring of 2014. (bio)

He’s one of the leading defenders of science, working to keep creationism out of science classrooms, here’s a few quotes:  

I don’t have an issue with what you do in the church, but I’m going to be up in your face if you’re going to knock on my science classroom and tell me they’ve got to teach what you’re teaching in your Sunday school. Because that’s when we’re going to fight.

Whenever people have used religious documents to make accurate predictions about our base knowledge of the physical world, they have been famously wrong.

Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes…. The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms.

If all that you see, do, measure and discover is the will of a deity, then ideas can never be proven wrong, you have no predictive power, and you are at a loss to understand the principles behind most of the fundamental interconnections of nature.

There’s no tradition of scientists knocking down the Sunday school door, telling the preacher, That might not necessarily be true. That’s never happened. There’re no scientists picketing outside of churches.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a popular celebrity, appearing on shows like Moyers & Company and The Daily Show, for example. Yes, a scientist as a celebrity!

In 2012 USA Today did a story on some 20th Century African-Americans who rejected a deity, here’s their list:

James Baldwin (1924-1987), poet, playwright, civil rights activist

Once a Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, describes how “being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion worked.” Baldwin never publicly declared his atheism, but he was critical of religion. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use,” he wrote, “it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.”

W.E.B DuBois (1868-1963), co-founder of the NAACP

Columbia University professor Manning Marable wrote that DuBois’ 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, “helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the 20th century.” DuBois described himself as a freethinker and was sometimes critical of the black church, which he said was too slow in supporting or promoting racial equality.

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), playwright and journalist

Hansberry’s partly autobiographical play A Raisin in the Sun, shocked Broadway audiences when a black character declared, “God is just one idea I don’t accept. … It’s just that I get so tired of him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no God! There is only man, and it’s he who makes miracles!” She worked with W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson on an African-American progressive newspaper, but her life was cut short at age 34 by cancer.

Hubert Henry Harrison (1883-1927), activist, educator, writer

Harrison promoted positive racial consciousness among African-Americans and is credited with influencing A. Philip Randolph and the godfather of black nationalism, Marcus Garvey. Harrison proudly declared his atheism and wrote, “Show me a population that is deeply religious and I will show you a servile population, content with whips and chains, … content to eat the bread of sorrow and drink the waters of affliction.”

A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), labor organizer

Randolph was the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black union. He helped convince President Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate military production factories during World War II, and organized the 1963 March on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1973, Randolph signed the Humanist Manifesto II, a public declaration of Humanist principles. He is reported to have said of prayer: “Our aim is to appeal to reason. … Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.”

Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), journalist and historian

In 1926, Woodson proposed “Negro History Week,” which later evolved into Black History Month. In 1933, he wrote in The Mis-Education of the Negro that “the ritualistic churches into which these Negroes have gone do not touch the masses, and they show no promising future for racial development. Such institutions are controlled by those who offer the Negroes only limited opportunity and then sometimes on the condition that they be segregated in the court of the gentiles outside of the temple of Jehovah.”

Richard Wright (1908-1960), novelist and author

In his memoir Black Boy, Wright wrote, “Before I had been made to go to church, I had given God’s existence a sort of tacit assent, but after having seen his creatures serve him at first hand, I had had my doubts. My faith, as it was, was welded to the common realities of life, anchored in the sensations of my body and in what my mind could grasp, and nothing could ever shake this faith, and surely not my fear of an invisible power.” (USAToday — Blacks say atheists were unseen civil rights heroes)

Another is Langston Hughes

Hughes associated religious authority with other oppressive forces in contemporary America. As one of America’s forgotten black atheists, he was easily an expert on prejudice. (And if being black, allegedly communist, and atheist didn’t subject him to enough prejudice, there were always the rumors that he was gay.) (5 Famous Americans You Never Knew Were Atheists)

Today there’s organizations like African Americans for Humanism to alter the narrative:

African Americans may be the nation’s most religious minority, but the churches and religious leaders don’t speak for many of us.

Today as in the past, many African Americans question religion and religious institutions. More and more of us stand for reason over faith. Freethought over authority. Critical thinking in place of superstition. Many of us are nonreligious; some are nontheistic.

African Americans for Humanism supports skeptics, doubters, humanists, and atheists in the African American community, provides forums for communication and education, and facilitates coordinated action to achieve shared objectives.

The nearest chapter is Kansas City.

Hopefully this post provided a bit of history you weren’t aware of before.

— Steve Patterson


St. Mary’s Razed Original St. Mary’s Hospital Building

Over my years in St. Louis I’ve visited St. Mary’s Hospital on Clayton Road a few times, always to visit others. However, six years ago today I arrived at St. Mary’s Hospital from Saint Louis University Hospital to begin physical rehab following my stroke. I don’t remember arriving, but I do remember leaving a month later.

I took this photo of the original hospital building the day I left, March 21, 2008
I took this photo of the original hospital building the day I left, March 21, 2008
When I returned for a visit 4 years ago today I took this pic of the original hospital building
When I returned for a visit 4 years ago today I took this pic of the original hospital building
By October 2010 the building had been razed.
By October 2010 the building had been razed.

The original building was likely poorly suited for modern medicine but it had much more going for it: quality materials, great proportions, etc. Not every great old building can or should be saved. The problem is I think too many decision makers assume the old must go away without exploring options for reuse. Assumptions can cloud what should be a non-biased analysis.

What replaces the old is usually a disappointment.

— Steve Patterson


Happy 250th Anniversary Saint Louis!

February 14, 2014 Events/Meetings, Featured, History/Preservation Comments Off on Happy 250th Anniversary Saint Louis!

Depending upon how you interpret Auguste Chouteau’s handwriting, today or tomorrow marks 250 years since St. Louis was founded. The recent half hour special Chouteau’s Journal: In His Own Words touched on this and other debated facts surrounding the origins of our city. For most everyone it means two days of celebrating.

There are many events this weekend and throughout the coming year. The Missouri History Museum includes a whole weekend of activities, starting with the opening of the 250 in 250 exhibit:

St. Louis turns 250 in 2014! How do you tell 250 years of St. Louis history in one exhibit? The Missouri History Museum does it through the stories of 50 People, 50 Places, 50 Images, 50 Moments, and 50 Objects. We can’t give you a complete picture of St. Louis’ 250 years of history, but through these 250 snapshots, we will give you an engaging look at the richness, diversity, and complexity of the place you call home.

The 250 in 250 exhibition is part of the yearlong celebration marking the founding of St. Louis in 1764. 

250in250Happy 250th Anniversary Saint Louis!

— Steve Patterson





Each Generation Builds on the Previous

The August day my college friend Mary Ann and I drove into St. Louis is permanently etched in my memory like it was last year, but it was 23+ years ago! The plan: be roommates in Washington DC. We were young and ready to conquer the world. Unemployment was also high and after seeing her mom’s townhouse in Benton Park, touring St. Louis with her and her friends the next day, I decided St. Louis would be my new home — there was just so much untapped potential.

I thought I was part of a first wave of 20-somethings to discover the urban core but as I met people 10-20 years older they quickly reminded me when they were my age places I thought were cool like the Central West End (CWE), Lafayette Square, and Soulard were the unrealized potential they saw the 1970s/80s.

Let’s start much earlier with young folks who moved to a booming city:

  • Henry Shaw (1800-1889) came to St. Louis two months before his 19th birthday had a huge impact on the development of his new city.
  • Adolphus Busch (1839-1913) moved to St. Louis at age 18. At 21 he married the daughter of candle maker and brewery investor Eberhard Anheuser. Anheuser was 37 when he moved to St. Louis.
  • Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) came to St. Louis by boxcar at around age 20, completely broke. By age 32 he bought bought two newspapers which he combined to form the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
  • Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) grew up in Texas but moved to Sedalia after attending the Chicago World’s Fair (1893) and in his early 30s moved to St. Louis.  Around age 40 Joplin moved on to NYC to further his musical career.
  • Luther Ely Smith (1873-1951) moved to St. Louis at age 21 to attend Washington University’s School of Law. Later Smith was the driving force behind the effort to rebuild our riverfront. In his early 40s Smith recruited a 20-something to come to St. Louis to be the first full-time municipal city planner in the nation.
  • Harland Bartholomew (1889-1989), St. Louis’ first planner (roughly from 1915-1950), sought to reorder the older areas through large-scale demolition, he was 25-26 when he arrived in St. Louis from the east coast.

And some who moved to, stayed in, or returned to a now-aging city:

  • Stan Musial (1920-2013) was just 17 years old when he came to St. Louis from his home state of Pennsylvania to play baseball. Except during WWII Musial called St. Louis home the rest of his life. He was 42 when he retired from playing baseball. He had money and fame but stayed. Musial was a VP of the Cardinals when the team moved from North Grand to a new stadium downtown in 1966.
  • Gyo Obata (1923-) was born in San Francisco but moved to St. Louis around age 18-19 to attend Washington University, and to avoid being internment during WWII. Obata got his masters at Cranbrook, served a year in the Army and worked for SOM in Chicago for 4 years, returning to St. Louis at age 28.  At 32 he joined “he joined architects George Hellmuth and George Kassabaum in establishing the St. Louis-based architecture firm Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum.”
  • Jack C. Taylor (1923-) returned to St. Louis after serving in World War II. At 25 he started working at Lindberg Cadillac, located within the city, and by 34 started Executive Leasing with seven cars. Later the name was changed to Enterprise, after the USS Enterprise.
  • Tina Turner (1939-) moved to St. Louis at 16, where she and husband Ike were discovered.

A quiet bohemian area of the 1950s became Gaslight Square after a 1959 tornado brought new attention:

By summer 1960, it was the place to be for beats, preppies, well-dressed adults, street troubadours and tourists. Olive pulsed with a happy cacophony wafting from places called the Crystal Palace, Left Bank, Laughing Buddha, and Dark Side. Jack Carl dished pastrami and genial abuse at 2 Cents Plain. A row of columns outside Smokey Joe’s Grecian Terrace anchored the landscape.

On March 24, 1961, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen anointed the obvious by renaming two blocks of Olive as Gaslight Square. Laclede Gas Co. later installed 121 gas streetlights, adding flicker to the buzz.

By summer 1961, Gaslight was noisier with more restaurants, taverns, nightclubs and shops. Some of the antiques dealers were squeezed out by rising rents. “The old gang doesn’t come around anymore, but perhaps it is a necessary evil of growing,” Massucci said as cash registers jingled.

Big and future names in show biz played the square. An 18-year-old singer named Barbra Streisand was warm-up for the Smothers Brothers. Allen Ginsberg recited poetry to mellow jazz. Miles Davis and Singleton Palmer were regulars. Earnest ministers opened the Exit, a coffee shop promising meaningful discussion and “jazz liturgy.” (A Look Back • Gaslight Square in St. Louis burned brightly but briefly in the 1960s)

The popular show Route 66

The familiar Corvette from the Route 66 television series  parked on Olive in Gaslight Square, Click image for IMDB page on this episode
The familiar Corvette from the Route 66 television series parked on Olive in Gaslight Square, Click image for IMDB page on this episode

The two handsome young stars are walking in Gaslight Square at night:

Tod: “Buz if you still don’t like it here we can always move into the country and get a little closer to the quarry.”

 Buz: I didn’t say that, I said living in Gaslight Square was like living inside a drum, I haven’t had a good nights sleep since we got here. It’s not that I don’t like  it, it’s I just don’t know how long I can last.”

They were working at the Rock Hill Quarry.

After I first moved to St. Louis the neighbor across the street from my parents in Oklahoma told me about visiting Gaslight Square in the 60s — he would’ve been in his 20s or 30s at the time.  By 1972 O’Connells Pub was the last business to leave Gaslight Square.

That same year a 42-year old Herbie Balaban opened Cafe Balaban on Euclid Ave. Duff’s opened as well in 1972. Left Bank Books had already been open 3 years. Rothschild Antiques also opened in 1969.  If you were a 20/30-something Euclid Ave was the in place to be.

I have numerous friends who saw a future is the area around Lafayette Park, rehabbing run down mansions that had been chopped up into rooming houses. Others began renovating buildings in the Soulard neighborhood, designed as an urban renewal clearance area just 25+ years earlier.

Plate Number 16 is a plan for the reconstruction of the Soulard Neighborhood. Some of the more important features of the plan are: the extension of Gravois Avenue from Twelfth Street to the proposed Third Street Interstate Highway, providing a direct route to the central business district; the widening of 18th Street, the widening and extension of 14th Street, the widening of Park and Lafayette Avenues; underground garages in the multi-storied apartment area between 12th and 14th; a neighborhood part of 10 acres or more complete with spray pool, community facilities and game courts; the extension of Lafayette Park to serve this as well as other neighborhoods; landscaped areas throughout the community for passive recreation; enlargement of the City Hospital area; grouping of commercial areas into orderly shopping centers and the complete reconstruction of the neighborhood into super residential blocks with a new street pattern to serve these blocks and to discourage through traffic. (1947 Comprehensive Plan)

In the late 1970s a group of idealistic 20/30-somethings moved to the declining Murphy-Blair neighborhood, buying buildings to rehab.  Never heard of Murphy-Blair? That’s because they changed the name to Old North St. Louis.  Some from that original group remain.

There are many more examples but hopefully you get the drift. We’ve had no trouble attracting the 20/30-sometyhing crowd over the years. Our problem has been one of retention. On that topic I’ve had friends, fellow Gen Xers, move out to the suburbs once they had kids, but I know one family that returned to the city  and another to Clayton,  both within 5 years of leaving. Neighbors in my loft building moved to the suburbs with their young daughter but they kept the loft for when they move back. Other neighbors are Baby Boomers visited by their grandkids.

Yes, millennials are moving to the core — just like every generation prior. But…but…the numbers, it’s bigger now! Well, sorta:

THE MILLENNIALS — sometimes called Generation Y, and defined by many demographers as ranging from ages 18 to 37 — make up the largest population cohort the U.S. has ever seen. Eighty-six million strong, it is 7% larger than the baby-boom generation, which came of age in the 1970s and ’80s. And the Millennial population could keep growing to 88.5 million people by 2020, owing to immigration, says demographer Peter Francese, an analyst at the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

This echo-boom generation totals 27% of the U.S. population, less than the 35% the boomers represented at their peak in 1980. When the baby-boom generation drove the economy in the 1990s, growth in gross domestic product averaged 3.4% a year. As the Millennials hit their stride, they could help lift GDP growth to 3% or more, at least a percentage point higher than current levels.

The Millennials already account for an annual $1.3 trillion of consumer spending, or 21% of the total, says Christine Barton, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group, which defines this cohort as ages 18 to 34. As the economy pulls out of an extended period of sluggish growth, helped in part by this rising generation, annual growth in consumer spending is likely to revert to its long-term average of 3.5% to 4% from about 2% now. Likewise, consumer spending on durable goods could rise sharply. (Barron’s)

It’s not that Millennials are moving to the city in greater percentages, there’s just so many of them. Because of the efforts of prior generations, they get to build upon and expand the opportunities for the next generations. It’s a cycle I don’t see stopping. When kids born today are 20 they’ll do the same.

In a few week I’ll turn 47 and I’ll have spent half my life in St. Louis, I’m very glad I stuck around. Now I get to see all the exciting things the Millennials are doing. I’ll enjoy them with my finance, a member of the Millennial generation.

— Steve Patterson