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Book Review; ‘Unyielding Spirit, the history of the Polish people in St. Louis’ by NiNi Harris

My longtime personal friend NiNi Harris has written another book looking at a small segment of St. Louis. Her six prior books covered a number of topics including a history of Carondelet and Bohemian Hill. This time her focus is on the history of the Polish in St. Louis.

scan_7867221_1NiNi (pronounced nee-nee) gave me a media copy of the book for review and I immediately got engrossed in the stories told. While the book includes a good dose of discussion about physical place (church cornerstones, streets, etc…) this is really a book about people.

The book is also a good lesson in history covering 19th Century trouble in Poland, WWI and WWI. This is all tied to immigration of people fleeing their homeland as well as Polish immigrants in St. Louis sending money and men to help in Poland.

Throughout the book we learn about how individuals and families played roles in the establishment of churches in the fast developing neighborhoods of St. Louis. Census figures are used minimally to communicate the point that there were brief periods of time where St. Louis’ population was doubling.

We learn about the founding of numerous Polish Catholic churches in the city. All are now closed except St. Stanislaus which is featured on the cover. The land for St. Stans at 20th & Cass on the then edge of the developing city cost $4,864 in 1880 — quite a sum of money. At the time the parishioners met in the basement of a local Irish church until their first structure was dedicated in 1882. Included in the subtle history lesson was an issue in cities to the east between Polish parishes and their Archdiocese over church management, which likely led to an unusual arrangement:

“With the advice and consent of the Archbishop of St. Louis on May 2, 1891, the parish was made a corporation in the State of Missouri.”

Other churches were established on the near north side including St. Casimir. We also learn about a small group from St. Casimir that formed Sts. Cyril and Methodius Polish National Catholic Church — separating themselves from the Roman Catholic church. Archbishop John Glennon, it was discovered, “on March 14, 1908, excommunicated nine Polish St. Louisans and cautioned parishioners of the St. Casimir.” The decree indicated that members of St. Casimir that attend “services at a schismatic or protestant Church are by that act excommunicated.”

The book looks at the three main areas where the Polish resided and worked in St. Louis — the near north side, the near South side (between what is now known as Soulard and the river) and an area further South now called Mt. Pleasant. Interestingly, I lived for a number of years in the Polish area to the North (including the now Old North St. Louis area) and currently live in the Mt. Pleasant area, just a couple of blocks from the closed St. Hedwig church. Oh sorry, make that “consolidated” church. Still, you learn about the people working hard to buy a home or 4-flat and still how much money they raised to fund and build these churches.

My first flat in Old North was downstairs from an old Polish woman who’d live basically her entire life in that 4-family. Like so many immigrants, her parents had bought the building when she was a young girl. Upon getting married she raised her family in that building. Times, however, changed and her children didn’t want to raise their families in small shotgun flats so while she remained she rented other units out to people like me. My rent in 1991 was only $75/month.

Neighbors included the Bratkowski family, mentioned throughout the book. By reading the book I learned about my friend John Bratkowski’s grandfather’s business being taken for construction of I-70 and much about the early childhood of his mother.
You also learn about businesses they opened as well as the overlap these ethnic areas had with German and Irish areas. Reading about Polish persons enslaved in WWII labor camps is tough. The reader is excited to learn about young men and women finally leaving the slave camps and immigrating to America and finding their way to Polish neighborhoods in St. Louis.

Of course it would be hard to go through a history of people and not talk about the Great Depression. You get a good sense of the importance of holding onto a job, no matter how low the pay or backbreaking the work, because you likely had to help support your entire family. Managing to pay the mortgage and keeping food on the table was the important focus for families through the city during lean years. Even during the prosperous 20s, many immigrant families were just getting started and were not awash in cash. Thus, it should be no surprise that given the poverty, the lack of materials during the war and the shortage of labor with men off fighting in Europe that maintenance of homes in older areas (now approaching 60 years old) was not a high priority.

It was a shock to the new immigrants that had seen their European homeland a battleground to begin to put their lives in order in the US only to have their neighborhoods bombed out not by war planes but by government action — the poorly named “Urban Renewal.” The “slums” around St. Stanislaus where Polish families lived and worked were forcibly taken and wiped off the planet. By this point in the book I had become attached to some of the families, learning about their lives and how they relate to their church and work. But, alas, not enough of the homes had indoor plumbing so the government solution was to raze everything in site — including streets, sidewalks and alleys. You see, the logic was these people were living in slum conditions due to the lack of an indoor toilet so therefore we (liberal society) must help them out by removing everything they had built and worked for. Twisted logic!

On a side note, this past week I visited my Dad, now 78, in Oklahoma and I began to inquire about the depression and the dust bowl in rural Western Oklahoma. He recalled thinking things were bad for his family, living in a small 3-room farm house lacking running water and electricity, until at about the age of 8 (roughly 1937) he went to Oklahoma City with his father to sell a few heads of cattle they had raised. It was then that he saw the shanty towns along the river near the stockyards and thinking that while they were not doing well many more people were far worse off than they were. My Dad remembers his family getting a new block outhouse from the WPA back in the late 30s to replace the old wooden one. When he married my mom in August 1949 his family still did not have indoor plumbing (that would come in the 1950s).

Back in St. Louis a bunch of white men decided that because a certain percentage of older buildings had not been updated with modern plumbing that entire neighborhoods must be decimated, a bad use of good statistics (see the 1947 Plan). In the Polish areas around St. Stans up to 70% of the units still relied on outdoor privies, certainly creating a health issue. Still, rather than create a program to assist residents to finally be able to improve their dwellings the planners of the day didn’t consider such a logical solution — they feared the lack deterioration would “continue to expand until the whole city is engulfed.” NiNi’s book takes you through this time as residents struggle with the loss of their homes, businesses and social networks. Sure, St. Stans was not razed — just most of the homes of its parishioners! Again, we have some really messed up logic when we think a church can survive when we destroy everything around it. Of course, the men at the time honestly thought they were going to be creating wonderful new neighborhoods. In short, they didn’t realize they had wonderful neighborhoods that simply needed long-overdue maintenance and toilets.

This book, highly recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of life in St. Louis, can be purchased at the Carondelet Historical Society, the lovely Chatillion-DeMenil Mansion in Benton Park, during rectory hours at St. Stans and throughout the upcoming Polish Festival at the Polish Falcons on St. Louis Ave. The book, published by St. Stans is 143 pages and sells for $20. The ISBN is 978-0-9794985-0-3.


Book Review; “Down Town, True Tales of Trial & Triumph on the Mean Streets” by Robert E. Lipscomb

I’ve never been homeless and hope that is the case throughout my life but one should never assume they will never be in that situation. Author Robert Lipscomb takes the reader through his journey from the good life (penthouse apartment overlooking Forest Park) to, at 51, living homeless living in various shelters downtown.
After talking with a priest at the suburban church where his father was a founding member, Lipscomb prepares to be homeless:

“I’m heading into society’s version of Hell, called poverty and invisibility. The living ghost existence. But I am encouraged. I feel stronger than I have felt in a very long time. As I have virtually nothing, how can this be? Choosing not to examine this too closely right now, I begin selecting which items can fit in my backpack, which will contain the sum total of my earthly possessions for the future to come.”

Lipscomb’s strength turns to fear and anger and back to strength through his “adventure” on the streets. Along the way we learn how the “normal” homeless make fun of the ones who are crazy, the best wearing brand of shoes, and where to get a meal. Lipscomb’s writing was very engrossing, making me want to continue through to the end without a break.

Down Town is preachy only to the extent of the importance of “God” to Lipscomb, a perfectly reasonable expectation given the circumstances. The book’s intent is not to make those of us with homes feel guilty so that we give to charities. Furthermore, the book does not make out the homeless to be a homogeneous society we should all pity. Instead, Lipscomb shares his experiences and mindset as he goes from being new on the streets to being more seasoned.

Lipscomb also talks about What’s Up Magazine, the street newspaper sold by homeless to raise money, and its program director Jay Swoboda. Swoboda, if the name sounds familiar to you, is the main person behind the EcoUrban modular green housing project. Lipscomb was an original writer & vendor for What’s Up when Swoboda started it.

There were many times in the book where I could not keep from getting watery eyes. This book is an emotional roller coaster ride — a ride all of us would just as soon never experience in person.

I don’t want to give away any more information but I do highly recommend this book. You can order the book directly from Lipscomb at Eagle’s View Press, I bought my copy at local independent Left Bank Books. Or if you must, Amazon.


1960’s: Model Cities Not Such a Great Model

In 1966 the federal government enacted the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act, commonly known as model cities.  In large part, the federal program was based on programs being tried in New Haven Connecticut by Mayor Richard “Dick” Lee (1954-1970).  Mayor Lee championed the efforts of urban renewal and creating a model for other cities to follow.  Sadly, many cities did.

A few years ago Yale did a nice look at the era and produced an exhibit and website.  From the site:

The Ideology of Redevelopment

Urban renewal offered a chance for architects, city planners, and other experts to enact their ideal vision of a city. New Haven became a testing group for top-down, Modernist theories of urban design. Instead of neighborhoods in which the people lived, shopped, and worked, planners wanted to separate housing, retail, and industrial uses. Dense, irregular city streets gave way to highways to accommodate the automobile.

Especially in the first years of urban renewal, planners thought that new buildings would make new people: that renewing the city physically would solve the problems of poverty, unemployment, and racial antagonism. As the 1960s progressed, it became clear that these difficulties would not be overcome solely with new construction alone, and the Lee Administration pioneered a number of social programs.

The arguments were pretty much the same from city to city.  To solve problems we must erase the past.  To many the slums were home. One of those interviewed for the exhibit said this, “You could classify Oak Street back then as a slum, but it was a thriving slum…”

This was the part the planners and architects of the era failed to understand.  These slums may not have had hot water or toilets but they had good human interaction, an economy, and local services for residents.  The slums were functional, unlike the projects that replaced them.

The Yale site, in one section, said:

President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Labor called New Haven’s efforts “the greatest success story in the history of the world.” But by the end of his tenure, Lee said regularly, “If New Haven is a model city, God help America’s cities.” 

Indeed.  Mayor Lee realized, by 1970, the failure of the urban renewal programs in New Haven yet they continued throughout the USA.  In the early 1970s, the model cities program was folding into the new CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) program.  Unfortunately, many planners and architects trained in this way of thinking are still in positions of power.  We’ve not fully learned the lessons of the past.

The Yale site called, Life in the Model City: Stories of Urban Renewal from New Haven, is highly recommended.


Lower Manhattan Before the World Trade Center

April 18, 2007 Books 10 Comments

Yes, this is still a St. Louis-focused blog. Just go with me to New York for a bit, we will return to St. Louis I promise.

I’m researching a paper I have to write for one of my classes at Saint Louis University, “Planning the Metropolis.” The subject? The former World Trade Center in New York. The main focus of the paper is on rebuilding the site after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As part of the research I’ve been reading City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center by New York Times reporters James Glanz and Eric Lipton.

What a colorful story of powerful and unaccountable agencies, backroom politics, the small businessman, eminent domain and how deals get done. What started off as a much smaller project on lower Manhattan’s east side (yes, east side) as a way to boost downtown interest as businesses fled to mid-town ballooned into a massive and mostly unnecessary building project.

I’m not even going to attempt to give you the full story and sadly I’ve not found a good online source. I’ll give you a quick run down and suggest you get this book — it is available from the library (except I have the Buder branch copy at this time). As you read this very long history remember the grand opening dedication took place in 1973:

  • 1939: The New York World’s Fair includes an exhibit “dedicated ‘world peace through trade’ and called World Trade Center.” WWII put any immediate plans aside but a committee organizer was Winthrop W. Aldrich, head of the Chase Bank and whose sister was married to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
  • July 28 1945: A B-25 Army bomber plane accidently crashes into the north side of the Empire State Building on the 79th & 80th floors, killing a number of people. Flames erupted from the fuel.
  • 1946: NY Governor Thomas Dewey names Aldrich to be a member of a “new state agency named the World Trade Corporation.” The mission was to build a World Trade Center downtown. The plan was a 10-block area with 21 buildings “loosley modeled on the seven-hundred-year-old Leipzig Fair in Genmany.” Well, except for having underground parking. Estimated cost: $150 million. Critics said it would not work and “The planners themselves determined that an astonishing 80 percent of the country’s six thousand largest companies would have to become tenants to give the trade center a chance at financial survival.” The concept was dead just four months after naming the board.
  • 1946: 32 year-old David Rockefeller joins the family bank, Chase.
  • 1951-54: David Rockefeller takes up the family tradition of shaping New York, by helping raze a large section of an upper west side neighborhood called Morningside Heights, to be rebuilt as a housing project consisting of six high-rise buildings called Morningside Gardens. This would replace 71 apartment buildings, 4 rooming houses and 68 retail stores. The new high-rises would be reserved for the middle-class only. Rockefeller, of course, teamed with the legendary Robert Moses.
  • 1955: David Rockefeller seeks real estate for new HQ building for family’s Chase Bank, still headed by his uncle Aldrich. Upon securing real estate is convinced by others more investment is needed in downtown area to keep others in financial district from heading to midtown (as many had done). Rockefeller formed the Downtown Lower-Manhattan Association in late 1955.
  • October 1958: Rockefeller’s Downtown association releases report suggesting razing entire blocks of lower Manhattan and supports Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway. Combined estimated “investment:” One billion dollars.
  • May 25, 1959: First noted record by Rockefeller’s Downtown association of what they then called the “World Trade and Finance Center.” At this point they were focusing on the “downtown” of Lower-Manhattan which is on the east side of the tip of the island.
  • June 1959: Hired consulting firm McKinsey & Co determined the World Trade Center may not be so wise, from the book authors, the firm indicated the WTC “could be a serious financial bust. Almost nothing about the concept —its mission or its target client base — was assured.” The authors also noted the report suggested that if it were going to be done, it should be in midtown where everyone was moving to anyway. A key note in the report that if the WTC project were to succeed it would need to be very unique to attract tenants.
  • August 11, 1959: The hired consultants, contacted by Rockefeller’s staff prior to the meeting, indicated to the Downtown association executive committee they would back out of the $30,000 consulting contract. It was that or give a glowing report they knew to be false.
  • 1959: Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (aka SOM), designers of Rockefeller’s new Chase Bank building, sketched out an idea for the WTC.
  • 1959: Rockefeller holds private talks with the Port of New York Authority (as it was known at the time). This agency was created by the states of New York and New Jersey, and had huge revenues from tolls on bridges & tunnels. Rockefeller viewed the Port Authority as the only group with the governmental power and financial resources to pull off the project.
  • 1959: David Rockefeller’s older brother, Nelson, becomes Governor of New York. … Continue Reading

Reads on Highways, Pedicabs, High Rises, Parking and Christian Clubs

March 2, 2007 Books 4 Comments

Like many of you, I read so many things each week of interest. I wish I had the time to share & comment on each with you. Because so many are relevant to St. Louis, I may look at doing a weekly post with links of interest sans my comments. Here are a few articles along with quotes from each:
Mega Highway in Phoenix

A plan to widen part of Interstate 10 in metropolitan Phoenix from 14 lanes to 24 is the USA’s latest giant superhighway proposal designed to ease the kind of gridlock that some planners say could stunt economic growth.

For a 2-mile stretch between U.S. 60 in Tempe and State Route 143, the interstate would have six-general purpose lanes, two carpool lanes and four lanes for local traffic in each direction. Work on the first phase, which planners expect to cost about $550 million, could begin by 2011.

NYC Limits Pedicabs

Chad Marlow, who represents the New York City Pedicab Owners Association, said the association agrees with much of the legislation, but plans to file a lawsuit challenging some elements of it. He said it believes that the Council was within its rights to impose a cap as the city does with taxis, but that the restriction on electric motors and the provision giving the police the power to ban pedicabs from Midtown run afoul of the law.

Building Up In Seattle:

Developers should be able to build taller than current zoning allows if they pay for public amenities such as affordable housing, the Seattle Planning Commission said Tuesday.

Mayor Greg Nickels favors such a plan and is working on so-called incentive zoning proposals for the South Lake Union, Interbay and South Downtown areas. Nickels intends to roll out his proposals in the next year. They would be similar to new downtown building rules Nickels and the City Council approved last year.

Less Parking for Brooklyn Whole Foods:

Whole Foods’ corporate machine beat back a neighborhood green dream team this week, denying a petition from a civic group to shrink its parking lots and put an earth-friendly solar roof on its super-store, now under construction on Third Avenue at Third Street.

The Park Slope Neighbors petition asked the grocer to cut 100 of its planned 420 parking spaces, a move that the group believed would discourage driving and reduce traffic.

And for some local flavor…

Christian Club Locating in Failed Mall:

The Exodus, an all ages nightclub promoting Christian values and family entertainment, will likely open to area residents this fall.

Aldermen approved the final development plans for the community center Wednesday, which will be located within the Mall at Wentzville Crossings that owners Cory and Darian Atkinson purchased last March.

The $2.5 million, 100,000 square-foot nightclub is one of two phases of a non-alcoholic, smoke-free environment that will include a bowling alley, rock-climbing wall, video arcade and possible cinema.

Have a great weekend!