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Poll: Have you read ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ by Jane Jacobs?

April 24, 2011 Books, Sunday Poll 8 Comments
ABOVE: Jane Jacobs on the cover of Death & Life of Great American Cities

Fifty years ago Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a harsh criticism of the state of urban planning at the time.  Jacobs was 45 when Death and Life was first published. Tomorrow marks five years since her death at age 89.

A direct and fundamentally optimistic indictment of the short-sightedness and intellectual arrogance that has characterized much of urban planning in this century, The Death and Life of Great American Cities has, since its first publication in 1961, become the standard against which all endeavors in that field are measured. In prose of outstanding immediacy, Jane Jacobs writes about what makes streets safe or unsafe; about what constitutes a neighborhood, and what function it serves within the larger organism of the city; about why some neighborhoods remain impoverished while others regenerate themselves. She writes about the salutary role of funeral parlors and tenement windows, the dangers of too much development money and too little diversity. Compassionate, bracingly indignant, and always keenly detailed, Jane Jacobs’s monumental work provides an essential framework for assessing the vitality of all cities. (description via Left Bank Books)

I can think of no other book on urban planning and cities that continues to be debated decades later or have their own Facebook page.

The mistake made by Jacobs’s detractors and acolytes alike is to regard her as a champion of stasis—to believe she was advocating the world’s cities be built as simulacra of the West Village circa 1960. Admirers and opponents have routinely taken her arguments for complexity and turned them into formulas. But the book I just read was an inspiration to move forward without losing sight that cities are powerful, dynamic, ever-changing entities made up of myriad gestures big and small. The real notion is to build in a way that honors and nurtures complexity. And that’s an idea impossible to outgrow. (Metropolis)

The poll this week asks if you have read this book and your thoughts on it.  The poll is in the upper right corner of the site.

– Steve Patterson


From Death & Life to Retrofitting Suburbia

February 8, 2011 Books, Planning & Design 3 Comments

Fifty years ago Jane Jacobs published her now-classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Her book was a criticism of the Urban Renewal policies she observed in the 1950s.  Unfortunately too few paid any attention to her observations until it was too late.  Inner cities were gutted and suburban sprawl has leapfrogged way beyond anything sustainable.  Jacobs’ book offers little t0 help us  in the 21st century.

In the last 50 years we’ve had various planning trends & terms:

“There’s a 15- to 20-year cycle on urban planning terms,” says Robert Lang, urban sociologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “Remember ‘urban renewal’? Smart growth is near the end of its shelf life.” (USA Today : Will ‘intelligent cities’ put an end to suburban sprawl?)

I’m betting on “retrofitting suburbia” as a lasting planning process for the next 25-40 years.  In April 2009 I did a book review on a new volume: Book Review: Retrofitting Suburbia, Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. The book is $75  and worth every penny (Left Bank Books).  Unfortunately neither the St. Louis or St. Louis County library systems have this excellent book.

In January 2010 co-author Ellen Dunham-Jones presented an excellent TED Talk on the subject.  In 20 minutes you can get, for free, the basic concepts presented in the book.  Please take time to watch all 20 minutes.


I’m excited about gradually building on parking lots, densifying corridors, daylighting creeks, and restoring wetland areas.  This retrofitting should be applied to the suburbanized parts of the City of St. Louis as well the rings of suburbs around the city.

Dunham-Jones says:

“The growing number of empty and under-performing, especially retail sites, throughout suburbia gives us actually a tremendous opportunity to take our least sustainable landscapes right now and convert them into more sustainable places.”

Agreed!  The St. Louis region must begin planning for the future now, if we wait our jobs and economy will suffer.  I have a framed picture of the cover of Death & Life next to my desk because it is such an important book.  I may need to frame the cover of Retrofitting Suburbia as well.

– Steve Patterson


American City: St. Louis Architecture Three Centuries of Classic Design

ABOVE: Cover of American City: St. Louis Architecture.  Text by Robert Sharoff & photographs by William Zbaren
ABOVE: Cover of American City: St. Louis Architecture. Text by Robert Sharoff & photographs by William Zbaren

Two days ago my post contrasted St. Louis natives & newbies.  That day a beautiful large-format book arrived at my door.  American City: St. Louis Architecture, with text by Robert Sharoff and 140 color photographs by William Zbaren, is stunning.  They affirm my point from Tuesday, that outsiders see what we often overlook.  Sharoff & Zbaren, both from Chicago, came to St. Louis in 2007 working for the New York Times. In the cover letter with the book they say they “wound up being knocked out by some of the greatest architecture in the country.”

ABOVE: One of several photographs of the Carl Milles fountain in Aloe Plaza. Photo by William Zbaren

St. Louis can and does impress persons from Chicago, New York, San Francisco, etc.  Books like this new volume will hopefully open they eyes of people who’ve never once visited St. Louis.  This book is the second in their American City series, the first was Detroit. Upcoming volumes will look at Chicago and Savannah.

Sure St. Louis, and Detroit, have issues but the gems presented in this book are part of the reason why St. Louis is home for me.  This book will be available for purchase in March 2011.

– Steve Patterson


Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side

October 15, 2010 Books, South City 5 Comments

ABOVE: Jim Merkel signs his new book
ABOVE: Jim Merkel signs his new book "Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis's South Side"

Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side is the title of a enthralling new book by Jim Merkel.  The publisher’s description:

In St. Louis’s South Side, people stand in line for frozen treats named for building material, and women used to scrub their concrete steps every Friday. In the South Side, a stop sign means “tap the brakes quick,” and a restaurant masquerades as a windmill. In the South Side, a dentist once moonlighted as a murderer, and a bloody bank heist became the basis for an early Steve McQueen movie. And in the South Side, prepare to run if you use a particular local slur. Suburban Journals reporter Jim Merkel brings nearly ten years’ experience in covering the South Side. Herein are some of the people, places, and events that made the South Side a place like nowhere else. “South Siders are down-to-earth, good people,” this South Sider writes. “I’m staying until they drag me away for good.”

Merkel’s beat as a reporter for the Suburban Journals has been covering south St. Louis for years. This book enables him to share interesting stories about the people, places & events of the south side.

ABOVE: The Asylum on Arsenal Street

The following is one such story from page 70-71 of the book:

The Asylum on Arsenal Street

In August 1911, the area was shocked to learn how forty-year-old Eva Jarvoubek, a patient at the City Sanitarium, was choked to death by a straitjacket she was wearing. The outcry was loud about what happened at the city’s institution for the mentally ill. Dr. C. G. Chaddock, a member of the City Hospital Visiting Staff, told the State House Special Investigations Committee that the use of mechanical contrivances for quieting violent patients was wrong. Attendants too often used straitjackets and similar restraints when they should use humane care, he said. It was a brief moment of light for the institution inside a tall red brick domed building on a hill at 5400 Arsenal Street. After this incident, things went back to normal. The asylum once again became that looming building visible on the horizon throughout the South Side, where people wondered what went on inside. The asylum’s history was a mix of mistreatment and sincere efforts to help mentally ill people, always limited by a lack of funding. Instances of mistreatment have declined in recent years as effective medical treatments for mental illness have become known, but increasing limits in state funding have harmed efforts to improve the lives of mentally ill people at what is now known as the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center.

The institution first opened as the St. Louis County Lunatic Asylum on April 23, 1869. The building went up in the country, full of fresh air thought to help mental illness, said Barbara Anderson, who was volunteer director of the hospital from 1988 to 2006. The building itself was designed to bring that air inside. But in fact, treatment of any sort was wanting. “It was basically warehousing people with mental illnesses,” Anderson said. “There was no clinical criteria by which someone measured another as being psychologically disoriented,” she said. Sometimes women were brought in suffering from postpartum depression and often ended up institutionalized for years. “It was a way to get rid of your wife and run around with some young girl,” Anderson said. Patients also could have been alcoholics or suffering from syphilitic dementia, or just plain poor.

Treatment was cruel at worst and misguided at best. In the basement, some patients were placed in six-to-eight-foot-wide cubicles with straw on the floors. “People would defecate on the floor, and they would sweep it out every day,” Anderson said. “It was cold and damp down there, and people slept on the floors.” Those patients were usually African-American, or whites who were out of control. Upstairs, patients would be treated to all the amenities of the Victorian household, including reading rooms and pool rooms. These rooms also were thought to improve patients’ mental health. To shock them into sanity, people were placed in vats of ice cold water. “They did the best they could, based on the incredible ignorance they had,” Anderson said.

As time went on, the institution’s name changed to the St. Louis City Insane Asylum and then the City Sanitarium. When the city sold it to the state for one dollar in 1948, it became the St. Louis State Hospital. In 1997, it moved to new quarters on the same property at 5300 Arsenal Street and became the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center. The domed building at 5400 Arsenal became an office building for the Missouri Institute of Mental Health and the State Department of Mental Health.

Through the years, as the building’s name changed, one ineffective therapy replaced another. Patients danced, were given beauty treatments, and sang operettas. A newspaper ran a feature story about how straps, straitjackets, and manacles were replaced by outdoor recreation and occupational therapy, but other articles told of cramped and unsanitary conditions. Nothing really helped, though, until the discovery of medications that treated mental illness. However, here and elsewhere, their promise was limited when patients were released without enough of a structure to treat them in the community. Today, people continue to see the big building with the green dome on Arsenal Street wherever they go on the South Side. What they may not see is how budget cuts are still hurting patients.

This book is a must for any student of St. Louis history.

– Steve Patterson



Public plazas part one: people sit where there are places to sit

June 26, 2010 Books, Plazas 6 Comments

I’ve been a huge fan of the late William H. Whyte since I bought his book City: Rediscovering the Center when it was published in 1988.  It would be many years later before I would read his 1980 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces or see the companion film of the same name.  I had hoped to show you the film but the six YouTube videos that someone had posted have been removed due to copyright infringement.

The book and film are brilliant.  New York City had passed zoning changes that allowed developers to build taller buildings if they provided public plazas.  A decade later Whyte and his team meticulously studied numerous public plazas to determine why some were heavily used and others stood vacant. In the coming weeks and months I’m going to take a closer look plaza spaces here in St. Louis and use Whyte’s findings to see if they apply and how our plaza spaces might be improved.

One important finding was that “people sit where there are places to sit.”  Sounds obvious right? People would sit on steps and any place they could and not necessarily where the designers wanted them to sit.  “People attracted people” was also a finding, people watching is better when there are others to watch.

– Steve Patterson