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Mill Creek Valley Neighborhood Was Less Important Than An Expressway

February 19, 2020 Featured, Urban Renewal Comments Off on Mill Creek Valley Neighborhood Was Less Important Than An Expressway

Since his arrival in St. Louis in 1915 Harland Bartholomew, a civil engineer by training, wanted cars to be able to move with greater ease. He relentlessly argued in favor of  destroying the city’s rich urban fabric, street grid, in order to save the city from urban decay. He was young and charismatic, convincing generations of St. Louisans his way was the only way.

“Horizontal, black and white photograph showing a row of dilapidated residential buildings in the 3200 block of Lawton in Mill Creek Valley. The buildings appear to be empty and awaiting demolition. Low wooden fences enclose the small front yards. There are several inches of snow on the ground.” February 16, 1960. Missouri Historical Society

Lawton was an east-west street between Pine & Laclede, the above would’ve been just west of Compton Ave.

The chaos created by decades of Bartholomew’s projects created so much instability — far worse than than anything natural decay was creating. Widening streets and building new expressways was part of Bartholomew’s vision. It was costly but necessary, he argued.

North edge of downtown: Franklin Ave being widened, looking East from 9th, 1928. Collection of the Landmarks Association of St Louis

In 1936 the first phase of a new expressway opened between Kingshighway and Skinner, cutting through the south edge of Forest Park. This was two decades before the creation of the Interstate Highway System! A year later another section opened between Vandeventer and Kingshighway. Many could see it reaching downtown eventually.

Highway planners in those days drew lines on map to connect the dots, sometimes meandering a bit here and there to avoid an important business, like Anheuser-Busch brewery in the case of what is now known as I-55. Otherwise their lines indiscriminately cut through neighborhood after neighborhood.

As these highways were going through the oldest parts of the city they were also going through the poorest neighborhoods. Older “slum” areas were viewed as obsolete anyway — two birds, one stone. By the 1959s Mill Creek Valley, bounded by Union Station on the east, railroad tracks on the south, Grand on the west, and Olive on the north, was a dense neighborhood.

“Horizontal, black and white photograph showing a rear view of dilapidated housing in Mill Creek Valley. View was taken from an area across the street that has already been cleared. Bricks and other rubble is strewn throughout the foreground.” Missouri Historical Society

Because of segregation, it was self-contained. Yes, it was deteriorated and most residences lacked running  water and indoor bathrooms.  The buildings were nearly a century old. Numerous generations of new immigrants had begun their lives in America in this neighborhood, the last was southern blacks trying to escape Jim Crow laws while looking for work.

To an outsider it likely seemed like a horrible place, but to residents it was home. They had connections with each other, lasting institutions, etc. Poor neighborhoods all over the city were the same way, they didn’t look like much but it was the ties among the residents that was more important than the street grid or buildings. But take away the buildings and the streets and those strong ties among thousands quickly disappear. It’s an unnatural disaster.

During the 1950s, Saint Louis found itself in a fervor over urban deterioration and renewal. Following Mayor Joseph Darst’s 1953 slum clearance in the Chestnut Valley area, Mayor Raymond Tucker initiated a similar project in the adjacent Mill Creek Valley. This area – bounded by 20th Street, Grand Avenue, Olive Street and Scott Avenue – housed a large African-American population, and was at one time the home to such famous African-Americans as Scott Joplin and Josephine Baker. At the start of the 1950s, the Mill Creek Valley house 20,000 inhabitants (95% African-American) and included over 800 businesses and institutions. Everything the residents needed – from grocery, clothing and hardware stores to restaurants, schools and churches – was within walking distance of their homes. The area was also home to the prominent African-American newspaper, The St. Louis Argus. However, many of these residences and institutions were considered unsanitary and in need of repair.

In 1951, Missouri Governor Forrest Smith signed the Municipal Land Clearance for Redevelopment Law, which brought state aid to the urban renewal efforts of Missouri’s cities. The law also created the St. Louis Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, whose job it was to oversee urban renewal in Saint Louis and manage its funding. Under the 1954 Federal Housing Act – which provided federal aid for renewal projects – and the passage in 1955 of a $110 million bond issue, Mayor Tucker and the City of St. Louis began the clearance and demolition of slums in Mill Creek Valley. The most of the bond revenue went towards construction of new expressways, some of which cut through parts of Mill Creek. Roughly $10 million was utilized for slum clearance. The clearance of the area would involve the relocation of many residents and businesses; most residents would never return and many businesses would cease operations. Acquisition of buildings, like the Pine Street Hotel and the Peoples Finance Building, began in August of 1958, with actual demolition starting the following year. Redevelopment of the area would include new residential, commercial and industrial zones, with the majority of land going towards new industry. Certain industries that met zoning requirements, like Sealtest Foods, would not face demolition and were allowed to stay. Redevelopment of the entire area was scheduled for completion in 1968. (UMSL)

The city systematically created disasters all over the place. The pace must’ve been overwhelming to many at the time. Hundreds of thousands were uprooted. It’s a formula for the population losses that have happened since.

“Horizontal, black and white photograph showing Mayor Raymond Tucker and Sidney Maestre on a rooftop looking over dilapidated buildings slated for clearance in Mill Creek Valley. A note on the back of the print reads: “Mill Creek Valley, 1956 / Mayor Raymond Tucker and Sidney Maestre, Chairman of Citizens Committee which drafted bond issue program, are looking over decaying buildings in blighted area.””

Mill Creek Valley was at the wrong place at the wrong time. By 1950 Bartholomew was in Washington D.C., but his raze & replace attitude continued. Other options weren’t considered, especially when the land is needed for an expressway to connect downtown to affluent western suburbs as the wealthy continued moving westward along the central corridor.

Here are the results of the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll:

Q: Agree or disagree: Mill Creek Valley was a slum (no indoor plumbing, etc); leveling it was the only option

  • Strongly agree: 0 [0%]
  • Agree: 1 [5.56%]
  • Somewhat agree: 1 [5.56%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 0 [0%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 1 [5.56%]
  • Disagree: 4 [22.22%]
  • Strongly disagree: 10 [55.56%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 1 [5.56%]

Again, demolition was the only option considered.  One, this generation didn’t see any value in the narrow & compact street grid or in 19th century flats. The other is they really wanted the land for a highway. As a bonus white folks could now drive on Olive & Market streets between the Central West End and downtown without having to go through a black neighborhood.

With so much uprooting & demolition it is amazing we have any residents or buildings left. The leaders at the time just couldn’t/didn’t see the tremendously negative consequences their actions would have on the city & region for decades to come. After all, everything they were doing was in an effort to save the city from decay.

— Steve Patterson

 

New Book — ‘5 Rules for Tomorrow’s Cities: Design in an Age of Urban Migration, Demographic Change, and a Disappearing Middle Class’

February 17, 2020 Books, Featured Comments Off on New Book — ‘5 Rules for Tomorrow’s Cities: Design in an Age of Urban Migration, Demographic Change, and a Disappearing Middle Class’

The times are changing, how we think about the design of cities also needs to change. The old ways just won’t cut it going forward. Thankfully people like Patrick M. Condon are thinking about the future of cities.

How we design our cities over the next four decades will be critical for our planet. If we continue to spill excessive greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, we will run out of time to keep our global temperature from increasing. Since approximately 80% of greenhouse gases come from cities, it follows that in the design of cities lies the fate of the world.
                                                                                                                                             
As urban designers respond to the critical issue of climate change they must also address three cresting cultural waves: the worldwide rural-to-urban migration; the collapse of global fertility rates; and the disappearance of the middle class. In Five Rules for Tomorrow’s Cities, planning and design expert Patrick Condon explains how urban designers can assimilate these interconnected changes into their work.
 
Condon shows how the very things that constrain cities—climate change, migration, financial stress, population change—could actually enable the emergence of a more equitable and resource-efficient city. He provides five rules for urban designers: (1) See the City as a System; (2) Recognize Patterns in the Urban Environment; (3) Apply Lighter, Greener, Smarter Infrastructure; (4) Strengthen Social and Economic Urban Resilience; and (5) Adapt to Shifts in Jobs, Retail, and Wages.
 
In Five Rules for Tomorrow’s Cities, Condon provides grounded and financially feasible design examples for tomorrow’s sustainable cities, and the design tools needed to achieve them. (Island Press)

I generally like to share the table of contents, but the above publisher description lists the 5 rules, which are the main chapters. Google Books has a preview of selected pages, here. This is a well-sourced academic book, not a coffee table book.

— Steve Patterson

 

Sunday Poll: Was Razing Mill Creek Valley the City’s Only Option?

February 16, 2020 Featured, Sunday Poll, Urban Renewal Comments Off on Sunday Poll: Was Razing Mill Creek Valley the City’s Only Option?
Please vote below

On February 16, 2013 STL250 shared a 1956 photo of Mayor Raymond Tucker looking at Mill Creek Valley, with the following caption:

This Day in St. Louis History, February 16, 1959:
Mill Creek Valley becomes “Hiroshima Flats”

With $7 million from a 1955 St. Louis Civic Progress bond issue and $21 million in federal funds, the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority began clearing the 454 acres of Mill Creek Valley, from Lindell on the north and Scott on the south, and Twentieth on the east and Grand on the west. The historically black area’s homes and dilapidated buildings were razed for 132 acres of industrial sites, 26 acres of commercial, 83 acres of residential, a 22 acre extension of St. Louis University across Grand, and the Ozark Expressway. 1,772 families and 610 individuals were displaced, some of the poorest in the city, and almost all black. Slow redevelopment after the rather quick destruction gained the giant empty fields of land the nickname of “Hiroshima Flats.” The Mill Creek Valley site is now covered by the portion of St. Louis University east of Grand, Harris Stowe State University, and the Wells Fargo Advisors buildings.

Here’s more:

By World War II, Mill Creek’s tenements and faded town houses were home to nearly 20,000 people, many of them poor blacks who had migrated north from the cotton fields. More than half the dwellings lacked running water, and 80 percent didn’t have interior bathrooms.

Tucker proposed knocking over nearly everything and starting over. In 1955, city voters overwhelmingly approved a $10 million bond issue for demolition, on the promise that the federal government would reimburse most of it. The local NAACP endorsed the idea. Work began on Feb. 16, 1959, at 3518 Laclede Avenue, where a headache ball smashed a house that dated to the 1870s. (Post-Dispatch)

From an upcoming book on Mill Creek Valley:

On December 16, 1950, my grandmother purchased a house from her landlords, Richard and Betty Bennett, at 2649 Bernard Street in Mill Creek for $1,400. She had saved the $100 down payment from her meager salary. Twenty years after leaving Earl, Arkansas, for St. Louis, she would finally have a home of her own with her son, his wife, and their eight children. She would be the last in a long line of owners of the hundred-year-old Italianate- style two-story dwelling.

My grandmother was unaware of the city’s plans when she bought her house in the neighborhood where she had lived since leaving the South. However, politicians, realtors, and religious and business leaders knew what the future held for this 450-acre neighborhood. Egged on by a series of derisive articles in the local media, the city was moving to deem the area “blighted.” The designation would pave the way for the eventual erasure of an entire African American community to make way for an interstate highway to the suburbs.

There you have it, an overview of Mill Creek Valley.  It was sixty-one years ago today that demolition began, so that’s the subject of today’s poll.

This poll will close at 8pm tonight.

— Steve Patterson

 

St. Louis Board of Aldermen: New Board Bills Week 32 of 2019-2020 Session

February 14, 2020 Board of Aldermen, Featured Comments Off on St. Louis Board of Aldermen: New Board Bills Week 32 of 2019-2020 Session

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen meet at 10am today, their 32nd meeting of the 2019-2020 session. As previously noted, they have the first two meetings labeled as Week #1, so they list this as week/meeting 31.

Today’s agenda includes seven (7) new bills.

  • B.B.#217 – Roddy – An ordinance authorizing and directing the Mayor and Comptroller of the City of St. Louis to execute, upon receipt of and in consideration of the sum of Two Hundred and Fifty Dollars ($250.00) and other good and valuable consideration, a Quit Claim Deed to remise, release, and forever quit-claim unto Julia D. Lopez and Veronica A. Nold certain City-owned property located in City Block 5114, which property is known and numbered as 4219 Gibson Avenue in the City of St. Louis, Missouri.
  • B.B.#218 – Roddy – An ordinance authorizing and directing the Mayor and Comptroller of the City of St. Louis to execute, upon receipt of and in consideration of the sum of One Thousand Two Hundred Fifty Dollars ($1,250.00) and other good and valuable consideration, a Quit Claim Deed to remise, release, and forever quit-claim unto The Transgender Memorial, LLC certain City-owned property located in City Block 3984, which property is known and numbered as 1485-1487 South Vandeventer Avenue in the City of St. Louis, Missouri.
  • B.B.#219 – Navarro/Coatar/Ingrassia/Guenther/Green/Rice/ Narayan – An ordinance entitled “Building Energy Performance Standards”; the purpose of this ordinance is to establish energy performance standards for certain buildings in the City of St. Louis.
  • B.B.#220 – Clark-Hubbard – An ordinance recommended by the Board of Public Service to conditionally vacate above surface, surface and sub-surface rights for vehicle, equestrian and pedestrian travel in the 15 foot wide north/south alley in City Block 3874-W as bounded by Waterman, Clara, Pershing and DeBaliviere in the City of St. Louis, Missouri, as hereinafter de- scribed, in accordance with Charter authority, and in conformity with Section l4 of Article XXI of the Charter and imposing certain conditions on such vacation.
  • B.B.#221 – Ingrassia/Navarro – An ordinance revising certain sections of the City’s zoning code in order allow Short-Term Rental, as the term is defined in this ordinance, in the Zoning Districts and in accordance with the requirements of this ordinance.
  • B.B.#222 – Ingrassia/Navarro – An ordinance to promote Short- Term Rentals in the City of St. Louis, preserve residential communities, and provide equal opportunity for traditional short-term lodging providers by authorizing the Building Commissioner, along with the advisement of a Short-Term Rental Task Force, and consistent with the Revised Code of the City of St. Louis, and other applicable law to facilitate the regulation of Short-Term Rentals as defined herein, and containing an effective date.
  • B.B.#223 – Ingrassia/Pres. Reed/Navarro/Martin/Rice – An Ordinance establishing a Paid Parental and Caregiver Leave program for the City of St. Louis’ full-time, exempt employees. This program will establish two benefits: Paid Parental Leave and Paid Caregiver Leave. These benefits will complement current leave options such as vacation and sick leave; including an Effective Date.

As we’re nearing the end of the 2019-2020 session these new bills may be the last introduced.

The Board of Aldermen meeting begins at 10am, past meetings and a live broadcast can be watched online here. See list of all board bills for the 2019-2020 session — the new bills listed above may not be online right away.

— Steve Patterson

 

Opinion: Hyperloop Project Impossible Without Eminent Domain

February 12, 2020 Featured, Politics/Policy, Transportation Comments Off on Opinion: Hyperloop Project Impossible Without Eminent Domain

Legislators in Jefferson City have given initial approval to the idea of a Hyperloop connecting St. Louis to Kansas City. However, an amendment bans the use of eminent domain. (Source).

An experimental Hyperloop pod on display in downtown St. Louis in October 2019.

Before going any further, here are some definitions:

  • Hyperloop:  A proposed mode of passenger and freight transportation, first used to describe an open-source vactrain design released by a joint team from Tesla and SpaceX. Hyperloop is a sealed tube or system of tubes through which a pod may travel free of air resistance or friction conveying people or objects at high speed while being very efficient, thereby drastically reducing travel times over medium-range distances. (Wikipedia)
  • Eminent Domain: Eminent domain refers to the power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use. The Fifth Amendment provides that the government may only exercise this power if they provide just compensation to the property owners.  (Wex Law Dictionary)

Although the proposed project would largely follow the existing I-70 right-of-way, there might be bits of land needed here and there over such a long distance. An outright ban on the use of eminent domain will kill the project.

Still trying to decide if that’s a good or bad thing — I’m still not sold on the idea being feasible. If it does get built I’m pretty sure I won’t live to see the ribbon cutting.

Another view of the experimental Hyperloop pod on display in downtown St. Louis in October 2019.

Here are the non-scientific results of the recent Sunday Poll: 

Q: Agree or disagree: A Hyperloop system can be built connecting St. Louis with Kansas City without using eminent domain.

  • Strongly agree: 0 [0%]
  • Agree: 1 [5.26%]
  • Somewhat agree: 0 [0%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 0 [0%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 3 [15.79%]
  • Disagree: 7 [36.84%]
  • Strongly disagree: 8 [42.11%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 0 [0%]

Rather than have a ban they should have limited criteria for the use of eminent domain. Experts could help draft criteria so property owners adjacent to I-70 ROW could be reassured that huge swaths of their land won’t be taken away.

Otherwise the project is impossible, we shouldn’t even fund a test section.

— Steve Patterson

 

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