This nice thing about blogging is that sometimes, people say exactly what you have been thinking, only they say it much more beautifully than you ever could.
So I have to thank Dotage St. Louis for writing this sorrowful and balanced post on demolition–or more specifically one Rust Belt city’s complicated relationship with destruction.
The author, Matt M., starts with a comparison of Baltimore and St. Louis:
I got to thinking: how has Baltimore not torn out more of these rows and created park space or built new housing or just left them fallow, waiting for a time when investment would bring something new? Do whole abandoned blocks not cause issues with surrounding occupied blocks? Do they not pull the image of the city down? This, mind you, was my gut reaction, even as an avowed preservationist. Of course, I was happy to see them remain—thus the hope that later kicked in—but even I was wondering how they could have been spared the wrecking ball.
Then I remembered that I’m a St. Louisan; an automatic member of the cult of destruction.
My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse. Often the replacement is meant to serve the purpose of moving or storing automobiles. This is the city’s greatest power because it is the simplest task at its disposal. Vacant buildings and lots provide convenient opportunities for combining narrow urban lots to form parking lots and garages. A 1920s-era bond issue already widened most roads to an extent likely even then excessive; certainly this was so by the time the region’s vast interstate network was introduced. So a declined city that wants to better move automobiles through itself need only maintain its roads and ensure every new development has ample parking.
New Orleans has endured decades of decline, like St. Louis, and, recently, one of the nation’s worst natural disasters ever recorded, unlike St. Louis. It is said that 33 percent of New Orleans’ structures are officially “blighted” circa 2009. Certainly blight in either city is formidable and a problem that needs to be addressed sensitively. The answer, however, is not to simply tear out buildings right as they become vacant. No New Orleans neighborhood–not even the most-storm damaged–is as empty as St. Louis Place. New Orleans did replace old neighborhoods with a series of low-rise public housing complexes, but their surroundings did not become the urban blank slates witnessed in St. Louis.
Youngstown, Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis and Detroit are all tearing down buildings as fast as budgets will allow. I hope we don’t wake up in 5 years and realize we’ve made a big mistake. We will never be able to replace the quality of what was lost.
Thanks to The Urbanophile for bringing this to my attention.