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Walking St. Louis with artists — and making back-home comparisons

hand drawn map of the journey from Minnesota to St. Louis

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

A journey to St. Louis, Mo., can teach a lot about the Twin Cities.

You can learn a lot about your own city by spending some time in another, especially if it’s a city that seems to share some basics in terms of size, history and population. I spent part of the past week in St. Louis, Mo., at an arts conference, and so I thought it would be enjoyable to report some of my findings here in brief — to stroll through parts of St. Louis and find out what relevance they might have to my own regularly scheduled strolls here.

For starters: Visiting St. Louis, one realizes how vague and ultimately meaningless labels like “Midwestern” and “heartland” are. St. Louis, like our two cities, is both a Midwestern and heartland city, but the two metro areas have very little in common. Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis share “heartland,” “Midwestern” similarities only in the same sense that Portland, Maine, and Baltimore, Md., could be said to be practically indistinguishable as “East Coast” cities. We share the Mississippi River with St. Louis, and some overlapping German heritage, but little else.

red brick buildings at an intersectionMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantRed brick, like that at the corner of Minnesota and Cherokee, abounds in St. Louis.

St. Louis is much older, with a denser infrastructure, and with much more red brick everywhere. There is a certain muddy Mississippi River thickness hanging in the air that seems unfamiliar where we are, closer to the headwaters.

Strolling through many parts of the city with a camera is a fascinating exercise in restraint. St. Louis is second only to Detroit in the numerous opportunities it presents for shooting “ruin porn” — that school of early 21st century urban photography that lingers artfully on crumbling, broken 19th and 20th century infrastructure with an almost erotic charge. As haunting as those types of images can be in the right hands, they always seem somehow unfair to me. They never really seem to tell the whole story of a place. 

For my stroll, I have a great pair of guides: two local artists named Juan William Chávez and Kiersten Torrez. The week before my arrival, it had been announced that Chávez has received a Guggenheim creative arts fellowship for his work around St. Louis. For several years, he’d run a gallery space called Boots, and since 2010, has been involved in a project called the Northside Workshop, a community arts initiative that works with educators, urban planners and community residents in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. His latest project sounds like the most exciting yet: creating a bee sanctuary on the site of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing development.

As unpleasant and painful as Minneapolis’ considerable urban-planning debacles of the ‘50s and ‘60s were, they pale in comparison to those of St. Louis. If you’ve taken an intro-level architectural history course, you probably remember the story of Pruitt-Igoe, the modernist fever dream of a public-housing-project complex that was built in 1954 and was so troubled that it had been demolished by 1972. It is remembered today primarily as a highly visible symbol of the failures of modernism and urban renewal.

Several times in the course of our afternoon, Juan called this approach “the big fix,” an idea he believes is rooted in St. Louis’ government and civic institutions’ leadership style. It’s an approach that suggests complex social problems are easily solved with one enormous, expensive, top-down gesture.

Pruitt-Igoe’s architect was the late Minoru Yamasaki, best-known for his work on the World Trade Center's towers 1 and 2. If you were a city planner in the postwar era, and you needed someone to come in and impose a gleaming, orderly modernist vision over a rowdy, idiosyncratic piece of the urban fabric, Yamasaki was your man. He even did it here in Minneapolis: He was the architect behind the ING Building, that soaring, cathedral-like temple to insurance on Washington and Nicollet that was meant to be the high modernist crown jewel in Minneapolis’ slum clearance plan in the old Gateway District.

remains of the pruitt-igoe buildingMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantNothing remains of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

Juan and Kiersten take me to the site, and it’s unreal — it looks like an old-growth forest in the middle of a city, only barely hemmed in by a chain-link fence. Occasionally, an original lamppost from the housing project will peek out over the trees. (You can see the scene from above in satellite view on Google Maps for an idea of the extent of this inadvertent urban forest.) Chávez visited the site in 2010, and instead of ruin porn, saw something much more interesting: “What was once an unnatural environment for one had become a natural habitat for another. I saw bees.”

There certainly is a parallel in the decline of American inner cities and the recent decimation of bee populations related to colony collapse disorder: how complex social systems can fall apart quickly and completely. The Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary will be a one-of-a-kind interdisciplinary urban agricultural project that will bring together artists with students, neighborhood families, educators, kids, farmers, restaurateurs and food activists on this historic site.

After seeing Pruitt-Igoe, Juan and Kirstein take me down to Cherokee Street, in the southern part of the city, where their studio is located. The neighborhood is home to a large brewery complex, very reminiscent of the old Hamms’ Brewery in the East Side of St. Paul. Artists’ studios now occupy the warehouses. Down the street from the complex, Cherokee Street is lined with small storefront spaces, pop-up galleries, and hastily labeled doorways leading up to second-story apartment galleries; there are music venues and print shops, with names like PhD, Pig Slop, Fort Gondo, and Firecracker Press. Many of them are less than a few years old.

white brick buildingMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantFirecracker Press on Cherokee Street

What’s so striking about St. Louis is how impossibly gorgeous the physical infrastructure of the city is — each of these spaces is located inside a gem of a building, with ornamental flourishes, terracotta facades and stunning brickwork. Even the best-preserved commercial districts in St. Paul don’t come close to matching the sheer density. As in other parts of the Rust Belt, these spaces were built with great confidence. That confidence reflected the energy and optimism of a metropolis that, in the late 1800s, seemed well on its way to taking its place among the great global cities. It’s the knowledge from where we stand now of what happened next that drives people to shoot a hard drive’s worth of ruin porn and call it a day.

Whenever I travel to another major American city, I am often overcome with what you might call “Situational Urban Projection Derangement Disorder.” Regular readers will know I am generally a pretty excitable person, particularly where artist-led projects and urban spaces are concerned. So upon encountering artist-led projects and pleasing urban spaces elsewhere, my first thoughts tend to be, “This is wonderful! Why aren’t we doing something like this back in Minneapolis? We should do something like this back in Minneapolis!”

The fact is, there are numerous interesting artist-led projects happening all over the Twin Cities, addressing our own past and future. Juan, Kiersten and I bid farewell, promising to make plans to start up some inter-regional MSP-STL initiatives in the future. What I like most about St. Louis is many of the artists’ careful attention to history, and the sense that they are stewards of a legacy — whether that legacy is the memory of some of the most notorious failures in American urban history, or the inheritance of some of the most beautiful urban architecture in the world. They are stewards of that legacy, whatever it might be, and it’s a job they take seriously.

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Comments (7)

Wish there was more...

I always wished that we had more density and older brick buildings in Minneapolis. I think I'm really drawn to older cities of the midwest and east coast for that reason. Here, it seems that anything south of Franklin Ave is primarily bungalows, except for a few nodes like Uptown - and all the other dense neighborhoods are within walking distance from downtown.

Of course, cities are products of their time, and as such its obvious that St. Louis has an older housing stock as it was founded in 1764 and incorporated in 1822, whereas Minneapolis was incorporated decades later in 1867. Even St. Paul is just a tad older than Minneapolis - being incorporated n 1854.

Housing Stock

Of course there are a lot of bungalows in south Minneapolis. It was the popular style at the time those neighborhoods were built. However, those houses today are real gems, especially if the owners have restored them to their historic appearance. The color schemes alone are fascinating.

That said, there are many houses south of Franklin that are not bungalows. Most of the south and north Minneapolis housing stock is so-called "spec" housing, built not for a particular family but speculatively assuming it would be sold fairly quickly. This is quite the norm for how we do housing today but I gather that back at the turn of the 20th century it was kind of a new idea. Individual home ownership for the masses was a new idea.

In any event, "spec" housing is by its nature vernacular. No need to get all fancy and up the price when you don't know who will be living there. Still, some of those houses are gorgeous today and many of the rest could be if owners would invest in restoration. Whittier and Lowry Hill East have some beautiful Queen Annes, Foursquares and early Craftsman examples. There are some truly brilliant Eastlake houses on 2nd Ave. S. just south of 31st St as well as more general Queen Annes. Cathedral Hill in St. Paul has many such houses.

Of course the big houses on Portland/Park and around Lake of the Isles were designed for the wealthy and the architecture shows it. The houses have a wide variety of styles and are breathtaking. Still, even in relatively modest neighborhoods such as Lowry Hill East you can find diamonds like the Gluek house with its absolutely enormous carriage house in the back.

Northeast and especially the north side have fabulous houses. There are great old churches and storefronts up there too. Many of the commercial buildings have been improperly renovated but again with a little TLC they could really shine.

There's a lot of stock plan housing in Minneapolis but much of it is really quite beautiful. And even then you can find many examples of individually-designed homes which are just a treat to enjoy. It just takes a little hunting and close attention.

the brewery

The brewery you mentioned must be the Lemp brewery, huh? That family's story is pretty interesting...

It is indeed the former Lemp

It is indeed the former Lemp Brewery, which once competed handily with Anheuser Busch, and is now a mish-mash of studios, office space, warehouse space, and other motley whatever-pays-the-rents.

Although, not the ONLY stilled brewery in the vicinity, as there are also the old Cherokee Brewery and Griesedieck Brewery too.
http://stlouispatina.blogspot.com/2011/12/cherokee-brewery.html
http://a-falstaff-collector.com/Breweries/falstaffplant10,.html

One of these smaller breweries still has a sub-basement that actually extends beneath the street and the basement of the building across the street. It's only navigable by raft now, being nominally filled with water.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Thanks for the brief tour of St Louis. Regarding Pruitt-Igoe, I highly recommend the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. It tells the story of the project mostly through the reminiscences of former inhabitants. While design was certainly a cause for the complex's failures, personally I think Pruitt-Igoe was one of the better designed of the superblock public housing of the 50s. Of course, the main goal of public housing was never to provide housing to families with low incomes, it was to provide construction jobs and clear slums. Hence housing authorities like St Louis had self-destructive rules like not allowing adult males and requiring rents to cover all operating costs. So while the failure of superblocks may have been more likely in midsize cities like St Louis that didn't have the resources to maintain them, it was far from inevitable. This isn't meant to disagree with Chavez's statement, which I agree with, but to augment it and add nuance.

References for local color..

Here are links to organizations / owners of the 2 buildings pictured above on Cherokee St. in St. Louis:

CAMP (at Minnesota & Cherokee)
http://campstl.org/

Firecracker Press
http://www.firecrackerpress.com/

Also, here is more info about recent, informal design competition about potential uses for the Priut Igoe site.
http://www.pruittigoenow.org/

Thanks!

Thanks for the background on these and the Lemp Brewery, Benjamin!