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Growing Up In Sprawl

Our driveway was three cars wide by three deep, plus room for two more in the garage. We didn’t have sidewalks, when I was older I biked to stores — without a helmet. At times I got glimpses of older neighborhoods.  Our family doctor was located in an older commercial district just south of downtown Oklahoma City, known as Capitol Hill.   As a kid the area was likely in transition downward.  There were vacant department stores and storefronts but there was a clear grid of streets — with sidewalks.

ABOVE: Steve Patterson on the big wheel recieved on his 5th birthday
ABOVE: Steve Patterson on the big wheel received on his 5th birthday

My father would occasionally do carpentry work at our doctor’s house.  When he did I always wanted to tag along because our doctor lived in a big old house in the Heritage Hills neighborhood. When I’ve returned to Oklahoma City over the last 20 years I drive through these areas. They weren’t where I spent my childhood, but where I would escape to once I turned 16 and started driving. If a bus system existed I knew nothing of it.

I racked up a lot of miles for a high school kid with a new license, exploring areas that had long been written off or destroyed by Urban Renewal schemes. I preferred the remains of urbanism to the newness where I lived.

I’m curious why I desired a more urban environment? Most of my friends from high school have done as most people did and just locate in newer versions or sprawl further away from the center. Was it the used brick as the veneer on our frame house that got me curious about old brick buildings? The house next door was veneered with a pink brick made of concrete, it looked as bad as it sounds. Was it the fact I’m gay? I hadn’t read any manual on how to be gay.

Why some people have a strong need to break out of suburbia while others are quite happy fascinates me. My two older brothers were about 7 & 16 when they moved into our custom built new home, less than a year before I was born.  They had both experienced older homes before the move to the new home, in the new subdivision, near the new shopping center.  One has traveled the world with the Navy and he appreciates walkable urbanism. My other brother prefers drivable sprawl.

Does the urban gene skip the middle child?

– Steve Patterson


Twenty Years in Saint Louis

It was 20 years ago, August 1990, that I first arrived in St. Louis from Oklahoma City.  I was just out of college, 23 and optimistic about St. Louis’ future.  I drove up I-44 with a friend, she and I were going to be roommates in Washington D.C. Her mom lived in a renovated townhouse on Lemp in Benton Park, a block from Venice Cafe. We arrived on a Saturday and the next day her mom gave us a tour of the city.

ABOVE: Former fountain on Maryland Plaza, August 1990
ABOVE: Former fountain on Maryland Plaza, August 1990

I was immediately sold on St. Louis for my new place of residence, it felt right. Of course, earlier that year the Census had counted over 396,000 residents.  I put my stuff I had in her car and put it in her mom’s basement.  After my first visit to D.C., I took the train & bus back to Oklahoma City to get my car and more stuff.  I stayed with her mom for a week or so until I got a job and an apartment.

My first place was in The President on Lindell, next to Boatman’s Bank (now U.S. Bank).  It was an 8th floor studio with a view of the building to the east. The annual gay pride parade was on Euclid in those years so for me it was the place to be.  But in late 1990 I attended a seminar for developers at the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC).  At the time their offices were in the building bounded by Olive, 15th, Locust and 14th. At this seminar I met a woman living & rehabbing in Murphy-Blair; now known as Old North St. Louis.

At age 24 I moved to Old North from Lindell & Euclid.  My rent went from $425/month for the studio to $75/month.

ABOVE: My 3-room flat in Old North at 1422 Sullivan
ABOVE: My 3-room flat in Old North at 1422 Sullivan

In my first decade I saw the population drop over 48,000 people, my initial optimism was fading.  During the 1990s there were several times I considered moving. Seattle? Portland? East Coast? Sure, all were considered but ruled out for various reasons.  I’ve long stopped considering leaving, I like how St. Louis is shaping up.  Plus, I enjoy playing a role in the future of this city.

I’m sure I’ll see as much change in the coming 20 years as I did in the last 20 years. I’ll let you know in August 2030.

– Steve Patterson


A bike I can ride?

When I moved downtown in November 2007 I brought two bicycles with me: an urban hybrid and my beloved orange Kronan:

I rode this bike once that Winter before my stroke in February 2008, since then it has served as art in my loft.

In May of 2009 I rode a friend’s tricycle:


The ride was very encouraging. I think I can balance a bike once again, but getting on  the trike required someone to help and involved tipping me over onto grass to get off the trike.  My orange bike is a one size fits all and the bar was always a challenge for me.  Sadly, I’ll never again ride that bike.  So I plan to sell it and my hybrid so I can buy this bike:

At first glance you might think this is a woman’s bike, but as more and more active adults seek ways to stay active bikes like this one from Biria’s EZ Boarding Series may help fill a void. Old ideas about what bikes men & women ride are going away.  I’d rather deal with snickers from a few rather than not be able to cycle. The nearest dealer is in Chicago so on my next visit I will take my helmet and schedule a test ride. Hopefully by this time next year you will see me tooling about downtown on this bike.

– Steve Patterson


TO EXIT: depress red button and push door simultaneously

Leaving a parking garage recently I encountered a security measure I hadn’t faced since my stroke.

But there was the sign, just push the button and the door at the same time.   My left hand isn’t too useful and in my right is my cane.  I often hold the cane with the left while I do things with my right hand.  I ended up leaning against the door handle then pressing the red button with my right to exit onto the sidewalk.  So much in society assumes all are able bodied.

– Steve Patterson


Stroke recovery as a model for cities

February 1, 2010 Steve Patterson 6 Comments
ABOVE: Steve Patterson on April 4, 2008.
ABOVE: Steve Patterson on April 4, 2008.

Two years ago today, at a month shy of age 41, my life changed dramatically:  not long after 4pm I had a hemorrhagic stroke – a vein in the right side of my brain burst and began bleeding in my skull.  Within 10 minutes I had to lower myself to my floor so I wouldn’t fall.  I was unable to get to my phone to summon help and my left side was quickly paralyzed.  I wasn’t sure what was happening.  One thing I knew was I was likely to die if I didn’t get help.   Somehow I managed to live and fifteen hours later a worried friend came to my loft and found me curled up in a ball on my floor.

These past two years I’ve had an amazing recovery although I am still disabled and I still have setbacks (such as falling 2 weeks ago).  As I’ve worked to rebuild my left side I have thought how my process can be applied to cities such as St. Louis.

St. Louis, like many older cities, hemorrhaged population for decades. In the last decade (2000-2009) the population bleeding stopped but the total loss has been steep.  Like me, cities could no longer function as they had before.  Time to begin the urban therapy.

Two years ago I was left handed, now I’m right handed.  The portion of my brain that controlled the left side of my body was lost forever.  In therapy I learned I had to rewire my brain so the surviving cells would take on the function of controlling my left side.  At first I awkwardly used my right hand to eat and brush my teeth. Like cities that look back and think “if only” I thought I’d one day get back the full use of my left hand as a left handed person.  I was so wrong.  I do use my left hand now and I push myself to do as much as I can with it as I know that is the only way it will get stronger.

Cities have been in the same situation, a stroke of massive population job losses.  This lost left cities unable to function as they had before.  But our therapy for cities has been hoping they’d regain lost function.  As I know function does return.  I can walk again but I can’t run, skip or ride a bike – yet.

Cities need to start with the basics, one step at a time.  Cities need to examine what no longer works and what can come back first.  In stroke therapy they leg returns before the arm.  Fingers come back very late.  I can barely move my left ankle and I still can’t move my toes on my left foot.  Cities, I think, have been trying to move their big toe rather than get their leg back first.

The therapy I would suggest for cities is to focus on minimal basics needed to function, focus on what makes a city a city.  Walkable.  Parking is on the street or behind buildings. Density higher than the edge.

By design a core city is very different than the ex-urban fringe.  One is old and one is young.  Age does matter.  I’ve met older stroke survivors that have a harder time regaining function.  Another factor is how quickly you get help. Older cities that haven’t had help for a long time are more a challenge.

It has been a long & hard two years — considerable effort on my part as well as many others.  I have years of work remaining and so does St. Louis.

– Steve Patterson