On the occasion of my 2,500th post here at St. Louis Patina, I thought I would address what has been in the news over the last six months. If you haven’t read my recent article at St. Louis Magazine, read it first, and then come back and read the rest of this post.
I don’t get up to North County very much. Most of my experience photographing up there is with my good friend Toby Weiss, who grew up that way and has shared with me the rich history of that area. I have to admit I’m not as enamored with some of the Modernist strip malls as much as some, but I get why people have an emotional attachment.
But I’ll be honest, the real reason I don’t go up that way is the constant threat of speed traps that have now become so famous in the national consciousness. I am NOT asking for your pity; I consider myself very fortunate at what life and my family have given me. But I know one thing: if I couldn’t afford to live anywhere other than North County, and had to put up with the daily threat of getting pulled over for going 36 in a 35 mph zone (whose real speed should be 45 mph), I would be incredibly angry and resentful as well. Even the former police chief of St. Louis County agrees that it’s really about the money, and that “just not breaking the law” is not sufficient to avoid harassment in many North County municipalities. Remember the old Bel-Ridge yellow light trap along Natural Bridge? Don’t be so naïve to think that doesn’t still go on.
Which brings me to my bigger point: St. Louis Patina, I hope my readers realize, is not just some website about pretty architecture. It very much is about addressing social issues. Why do some neighborhoods in the metropolitan region look like Berlin in 1945? Anyone feel a little guilty we’ve let this happen? Those abandoned buildings represent the people our society has abandoned.
Every time I visit Chicago, I see something horrible along Michigan Avenue, the heart of the city. I still have seared into my mind the image my mother and I witnessed last year of a woman huddled with her children in an alcove in subzero weather. I thought nothing could top that in level of sadness, until this Christmas when I was again walking down Michigan Avenue. Sitting on the ground, shivering violently from what I suspect were the early signs of hypothermia, was a developmentally disabled African-American man dressed in sweat pants and green windbreaker. He had plastic shopping bags wrapped around his shoes, presumably because they were no longer watertight. Everyone was just walking by, ignoring him. My ignorance of social services in Chicago is not a good enough excuse to have done nothing; I could have easily looked up on my phone to find an organization that could have helped him. I am still wondering what happened to him. Did he freeze to death later on that night? Did the police just arrest him? Did some caring person finally stop to help him? I still feel guilty about not stopping to help. I hope my readers are compassionate enough to not simply dismiss that man’s plight as Darwinism. We are not lizards.
So as you look at my pictures of devastated, impoverished areas of St. Louis, I hope you realize that my work is about reminding us all about what society is choosing to ignore. We cannot ignore society’s problems in the same way as we have ignored North St. Louis, or that man shivering on the street in Chicago.
By the way, I get very little hate mail, but when I do, 90% deals in some way with these subjects below. Here are my final responses on these matters:
If you don’t like my criticism of Fr. Larry Biondi or Saint Louis University, please don’t read St. Louis Patina.
Fr. Biondi is a public figure, and therefore in a democracy is subject to criticism by others. Yes, during his tenure, the university’s reputation grew. I think SLU is a great university. But I also reject what I call the “great man theory” of history, which is the belief that historic achievement is merely the result of great men’s charisma. SLU is a great university due to the hard work of the thousands of employees and students who work tirelessly to learn, teach and make the world a better place. They would still be, and have been, doing that even without Fr. Biondi. But the fact remains, SLU has landbanked huge amounts of land, particularly south of Highway 40 that sits empty, demolished of well-maintained homes, and refuses to say what it is doing with these many hundreds of acres of empty, weed choked lots. Where is the Ambulatory Care facility they claimed would be complete by now? The citizens of St. Louis have a right to know what SLU plans to do with all of that vacant land.
If you’re racist, please don’t read St. Louis Patina.
I don’t care if you’re convinced that black people ruined your neighborhood. My careful analysis of demographic shifts in the City of St. Louis have revealed to me that black people only moved into many neighborhoods after white flight to the suburbs had already begun. In reality, poor black people move into neighborhoods that white people no longer want, whether it’s the old Mill Creek Valley, The Ville or Pine Lawn. Furthermore, I hope people don’t see my website as some sort of nostalgic longing for “the good old days.” If you look at history, you realize that those beautiful old buildings I celebrate witnessed some pretty horrible things over the years.
If you think the Civil War was about “State’s Rights,” please don’t read St. Louis Patina.
In the last couple of decades, I’ve increasingly heard people claim that the Civil War was not about ending slavery, but about the South protecting itself from the tentacles of “big government.” Yes, I am familiar with this famous letter, which many revisionists use to justify their point of view. But pay attention to the last line of the letter.
As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan supposedly said, you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. The fact remains that the Southern states began to secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln, who ran on a platform hostile to slavery. Likewise, any viewing of the declarations of independence of several Southern states reveals that they openly and pointedly state that the preservation of slavery was one of their motives.
Oh, so your ancestor fought for the Confederacy and you’re offended I’m insulting their memory? I don’t care. Yes, I know most Southerners didn’t own slaves, which honestly makes it even more ridiculous that so many died fighting to preserve the wealth of plantation owners. But isn’t that the point of most wars, making poor people fight and die for the profits of the wealthy and powerful? That was pretty stupid of your ancestor to risk his life to preserve a rich guy’s fortune, wasn’t it?
Whether one likes it or not, the underlying cause and de facto result of the Civil War was the abolition of slavery, the practice of forcing people, under threat of violence or even death, to work without pay for the benefit of others. I encourage you to read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography; the one passage I never forget was his recounting of a slave girl he knew in Baltimore who was so poorly fed that she could barely walk. This was right in the middle of a major American city. How could anyone be proud to fight for the right of slave owners to treat another human being in this way? Have you ever seen this picture?
Yes, yes, I know, Lincoln violated all sorts of laws in his prosecution of the Union war effort. But a close reading of Western philosophy going back to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle reveals that our civilization has always argued that when forced with the choice of enforcing an unjust law or doing the moral action, we are all allowed—no, duty bound–to break that law. I don’t care if slavery was technically constitutional. Slavery violates natural law, as Jean Jacques Rousseau so eloquently argued almost 300 years ago. Fighting to uphold immorality for the sake of following man-made law is neither justified nor courageous. The Confederacy was fighting to uphold a violation of natural law. Every time I drive by that Confederate monument in Forest Park I want to vomit. Got it?
Well then, I hope you’re still going to come back to my website, and I hope you’re still reading 2,500 posts from now. Let’s continue to explore St. Louis, remember those who are forgotten, and work to make this city even better.