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The Corner Bakery

September 2, 2009 Books, Metro East, Retail 26 Comments

Few things are more urban than walking down the street to the corner bakery to buy a loaf of bread that came out of the oven just an hour before. Sadly, few of us live in places where doing so is still possible.  This post is, at the same time, a discussion of urbanity and a book review.  Not a book on urban life, but a cook book on baking bread.  The subjects are related.

Jeff Hertzberg, co-author of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, wrote the following in the introduction:

I could finish half a loaf of very fresh, very crisp rye bread by myself.  The right stuff came from a little bakery on Horace Harding Boulevard in Queens.  The shop itself was nondescript, but the breads were Eastern European masterpieces.  The crust of the rye bread was crisp, thin, and caramelized brown.  The interior crumb was moist and dense, chewy but never gummy, and bursting with tangy yeast, rye, and wheat flavors.

The handmade bread was available all over New York City, and it wasn’t a rarefied delicacy.  Everyone knew what it was and took it for granted.  It was not a stylish addition to affluent lifestyles; it was a simple comfort food brought here by immigrants.

I left New York in the late 1980s, and assumed that the corner bread shops would always be there, waiting for me, whenever I came back to visit.  But I was wrong.  As people lost interest in making a second stop after the supermarket just for bread, the shops gradually faded away.  By 1990, the ubiquitous corner shops turning out great eastern, central and southern European breads with crackling crusts were no longer so ubiquitous.

Great European breads, handmade by artisans, were still available, but they’d become part of the serious (and seriously expensive) food phenomenon that had swept the country.  The bread bakery was no longer on every corner — now it was a destination.  And nobody’s grandmother would ever have paid six dollars for a loaf of bread.

St. Louis, like Queens NY, once had bakeries on corner after corner.  Today our choices are very limited.

Vitale’s Bakery, pictured above, is one of the few places left in our region where you can buy bread made on site.  Sure we have St. Louis Bread Co. (known to Panera Bread to readers outside the St. Louis region) but a publicly traded franchise company, even if local, is not what I have in mind.  Of course Vitale’s bread is trucked to our supermarkets as well.  Companion used to have retail sales at their bakery on Gustine before they opened high-end shops in Clayton and the Central West End.

Three years ago today I visited one of the few small bakeries built in the image of those from decades earlier:

222 Artisan Bakery, Edwardsville, IL on 9/2/2006

222 Artisan Bakery on Main Street in Edwardsville, IL is the corner bakery reborn.  Here is how they describe their bread:

Our fresh baked breads are crafted in the style of the French masters. We use a levain to create long fermented sourdough and rustic culinary masterpieces. Our breads are started days before they go into the oven using natural stone ground flour and the finest ingredients.

Most breads are ready by 9 am but there are no rules when dealing with naturally leavened bread-some days the dough wants to rest and some days it’s ready to roll. If you are having a party and would like to order something special,be sure to let us know 72 hours in advance so we can get started early.

Sounds good, but I’m not going to drive to Edwardsville IL for fresh bread.  Those in Edwardsville are fortunate.

For the last month I’ve been trying my hand at baking my own fresh bread, following the simple process described in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

I learned of baking bread this way after my friend Dustin Bopp posted a link to an article from Mother Earth News on his Facebook wall. Note, if you follow the recipe and use yeast in packets you need to use two packs to get the required 1-1/2 tablespoons.

I’ve emailed with the other author, Zoe Francois.  My plan is to make the Mennonite Zweiback rolls like my grandmother used to make.

Image source: Wikipedia (click image to view source)

These were the bread I loved as a child.  The last time I tried was 20 years ago. Way too time consuming.   I recall my Mom saying how, as a child of the depression, store bought bread was a luxury they couldn’t afford.  Today home baked bread is a luxury we all have time to afford.  If you live close to one,  please support your local bakery.

– 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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Book Review; Retrofitting Suburbia, Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs

April 28, 2009 Books, Suburban Sprawl 2 Comments

I love books.  I have hundreds of them.  Many are great resources.  But none have proved as valuable as the recently published Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson ($75, Wiley).

The PR piece that came with my review copy describes the book a as a “comprehensive guidebook for architects, planners, urban designers, and developers….”  So true.  Dunham-Jones & Williamson have concisely identified the problems of suburbia and illustrated numerous real-world solutions.

The introduction does a wonderful job of explaining “urban versus suburban form.”  One example from the bullet point list:

Suburban form is characterized by buildings designed “in the round” to be viewed as objects set in a landscape they dominate; in urban form, a clear focus is on the fronts of buildings and how they line up to meet the sidewalk and shape the public space of the street.

Very straightforward, here is one more:

Suburban form tends to be lower-density and evenly spread out, while urban form tends to have a higher net density as well as a greater range of localized densities.  This is true for densities measured by population and by building area.

The book doesn’t try to convince anyone that all of suburbia can & should be turned into Manhattan.  It is about creating place and connections. The book is not so technical or academic that a lay person wouldn’t appreciate or understand the material presented.  Every elected official in every local of government needs to read this book cover to cover.

As the US population increases we need to find alternatives to just building on the edge.  As the authors show, we can infill existing suburbia effectively. Low-density single use corridors can get mixed use structures while leaving the existing single family subdivisions behind them alone.  Of course, zoning codes that created the mess we have today will need to be completely revamped.

From a recent review in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“Retrofitting Suburbia,” a timely book co-written by Atlantan Ellen Dunham-Jones, proposes a way to turn dead malls —- as well as ailing office parks, older subdivisions and strip-center-lined arterial roads —- into lively places. Dunham-Jones, director of Georgia Tech’s architecture program, is a proponent of New Urbanism. The movement champions walkable streets, urban blocks, public spaces, mixed-use and density as keys to enduring and sustainable communities.

She and co-author June Williamson have adapted those principles to mint what you might call New Suburbanism.

The economic downturn has undoubtedly sparked some of the buzz surrounding the book. But, as the authors argue in their book, the old suburbanism is obsolete, recession or no, and for reasons that go beyond energy consumption.

Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in their cities and suburbs.

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Remembering Jane

It has now been three years since the world lost the most well-known urbanist, Jane Jacobs.  On the 1-year anniversary of her passing in 2007 I wrote:

Jacobs was not a professional planner, most likely a good thing in my view.  She authored the classic 1961 book, Death & Life of Great American Cities, as well as a number of other books on urban economics and planning.  Again, not a planner by training but by instinct and observation.  For much of her life she worked against the urban experiments being tested by the professional planners and traffic engineers.

Jacobs was born in Scranton PA but lived in NYC for several decades before moving to Toronto. Two months after her passing I was walking the streets of her Toronto neighborhood.  Though not perfect, I can see why she was drawn there.  Beautiful dense urban city with active sidewalks.

I’ve been working on my Masters in Urban Planning & Real Estate Development (UPRED) from Saint Louis University since the Fall of 2006 (I’ll graduate in December ’09).  In my studies I’ve read a lot of books and academic articles.  Some of the reading has been by Jacobs and some has been about Jacobs.  At least her theories.  Much has been critical too.

Keep in mind it has been nearly 50 years since Death & Life was first published.  Much of what she advocated doesn’t apply because cities ignored her warnings and razed large swaths of land for Urban Renewal.

Today’s cities are vastly different than the cities she studied in the 1950s for her book.  Of course her observations not longer apply — we’ve long destroyed the very qualities she spoke so highly of.

The next year St. Louis lost our own urban advocate, Marti Frumhoff.  Before Frumhoff died in 2007 she gave me copies of four additional books by Jacobs.  I’ve yet to read these.  To honor Jacobs I’m going to pick one to read this weekend.  Her Death & Life book should be required reading for elected officials and, well, everyone else.  May 4th marks her 93rd Birthday.

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Book Review; ‘Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch’ by NiNi Harris

I recently received a review copy of a new book that should interest many of you: Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch by NiNi Harris.  The hardcover book features 199 photographs ranging from images of the area before being razed to today.

The book is well organized into sections on the riverfront from the 1840s – 1940s, 1947 (when the monument competition was held), 1948-1959 when various obstacles delayed construction, 1960-1967 for the construction and finally 1968 to present.  I’ve had a hard time getting past 1940.

I should disclose that I’ve been friends with author NiNi Harris for nearly 15 years now.  This book is her eight and biggest work (200+ pages) to date.  In August of 2007 I reviewed her book, ‘Unyielding Spirit, the History of the Polish People in St. Louis.’  Here is her official bio:

NiNi Harris’ ancestors settled in St. Louis, near the site of the Gateway Arch, before the Civil War. As a grade school student, Harris was awed by construction of the Arch. Her father, an engineer, had impressed upon her the challenges in building the towering monument. Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch is Harris’ eighth book about the history, architecture, and heritage of St. Louis. Harris lectures at local colleges, universities, and continuing education programs.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

St. Louis’ Gateway Arch rivals the monuments of the world in its simplicity, scale, elegance, and symbolism. The shimmering, stainless-steel
ribbon forms a catenary arch 630 feet tall and 630 feet across at its base. Its design amazed the civic leaders determined to construct a great monument on the St. Louis riverfront. When it was completed, it wowed not just St. Louisans, not just Americans, but also visitors from around the world. Its sleek geometric design and engineering was a creation of the Space Age, but the Arch was a monument to America’s frontier heritage. The Gateway Arch commemorated St. Louis’ riverfront as the Gateway to the West.

Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch chronicles the St. Louis riverfront from its days as a fur-trading post, to the creation of the Arch. From clearing the site to welding the first section into place, to the breathtaking moment of inserting the keystone—the photos tell the story.

If you love old photos this is a volume you will want to get.  The AIA Bookstore at 911 Washington Ave has the book in stock.