The St. Louis Place neighborhood on St. Louis’ north side offers an array of nearly every condition found in the city’s body: elegant Gilded Age architecture, ravaged abandoned buildings (including some struck by brick thieves), vacant lots, infill construction of all kinds, the city’s only mud-walled building and experimental agriculture of all scales. The neighborhood’s core was platted in 1850, when the city limit was still to the east. By 1900, St. Louis Place was a dense mixed-use walking neighborhood, settled mainly by German-Americans.
The postwar era left obscene marks on St. Louis Place. The gigantic Pruitt-Igoe housing project loomed over the south end of the neighborhood after completion in 1956 and until demolition in 1976. The neighborhood was placed in the city’s Model Cities zone, directing resources toward clearance rather than renovation. Abandonment and city policy led to the demolition of some 1,000 housing units between 1970 and 1980. After that, the city floated schemes ranging from industrial park to golf course for parts of the neighborhood. By 2000, some 70% of the neighborhood’s historic building stock was gone.
Somehow resilient St. Louis Place retained several key historic areas. The majestic St. Louis Place Park that anchors the neighborhood was intact, along with an impressive grouping of mansions and institutional buildings that became a National Historic District in 2011. In the southeast, McCormack Baron Salazar converted the abandoned Columbia Brewery into housing in the early 1980s, and followed up twenty years later with a multi-block mix of rehabilitation and infill.
Yet the neighborhood presented so much vacant land in its southwest quandrant that locals call it the “urban prairie.” This area is adjacent to the 33 forested acres where Pruitt-Igoe once stood, and the combined land masses – less than two miles from the Gateway Arch — are candy to the glazing eyes of planners and developers. In 2009, the city assigned redevelopment rights to that land and a larger 1,500-acre area to a development company headed by local builder and developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. McKee’s “Northside Regeneration” plan has strangely concurrent aims and boundaries as the failed Model Cities plot, but is supposedly based on private risk. To date McKee has built nothing, while residents note lack of engagement.
Still, this summer, seemingly from nowhere came the hopefully bizarre sight of rows of tall corn stalks and soybean plants in the St. Louis Place agraria. Block after block of land near Pruitt-Igoe sport the signs of intensive, deliberate cultivation. While there has been no publicity, the cultivation is supported by the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation and through leases on land owned by McKee’s company. Now juxtaposed against isolated vernacular brick buildings from the late 19th century are fresh stalks of food – all framing some of the most sublime views of the Gateway Arch to emerge in recent years.
Having been involved in historic preservation work in St. Louis Place for over five years, including in the painstaking creation of the St. Louis Place Historic District in 2011, I am never disappointed with the alchemy of urban regeneration there. Despite building loss and the possible menace of “Northside Regeneration,” the neighborhood seems to perpetuate itself against all odds. This Saturday, I will be guiding a tour that shows St. Louis Place in its beguiling reality.
That Summer Fields Grew High: A North City Walking Tour
Saturday, August 24
Meet across from Crown Candy Kitchen, 1401 St. Louis Avenue
$5 per person (cash please)
Sponsored by the Preservation Research Office
–Michael Allen, Director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis