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8th Anniversary of Saint Louis Patina: You Call This Gentrification?

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It’s been almost a decade since I moved from Washington, DC, where I’d been living for six years, back to St. Louis, where I hadn’t lived in a full decade. I’m grateful for the time I spent there, but having visited again in December of 2012 (yes, these are some old photos), I realized that I no longer fit in with what my former home had become. 14th Street NW, devastated by the MLK riots in 1968, was a bombed out wasteland when I first moved to Washington. Blackened walls on surviving neighbors memorialized the buildings destroyed over 40 years ago on that fading commercial strip ravaged by arsonists. It took forty years to recover from that destruction.

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In those vacant lots left by the rioters, “luxury condominiums” have sprung up, with prices so high that even Ladue residents would sweat if they saw the price tags. Yes, 14th Street is being “gentrified,” however you want to define that term, and while I don’t advocate leaving vacant lots empty forever, something about what Washington, DC has become since I moved makes me sad. I watched with a heavy heart as a homeless African-American man, clearly suffering from emotional problems, sought to attract the attention of the well-dressed people rushing up and down 14th Street. He almost seemed to be saying,

“This has been my street for decades; would you please just acknowledge that I exist?”

And likewise, and I know this is cynical, but I know some of those passersby were thinking,

“Why isn’t he gone yet? I paid a lot for my condo and don’t want him around.”

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The old places I used to go to, like El Paraiso, a Salvadoran restaurant where I’d eat late at night, is long gone, priced out of existence along the once empty blocks of 14th Street around U Street NW, where the riots began in 1868.

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And something now bothers me about the row after row of brightly painted houses, which were never for the most part painted when originally built. I suppose not everyone can have beautiful St. Louis brick. But I remember the lower income people, mostly African-American, that once walked these streets back when I lived here. U Street and 14th Street were considered “sketchy” which I can assure you is simply enlightened East Coast code for “black.” Luckily for the people paying $500,000 for a 1500 square foot rowhouse, “those people” are being run out. Oh and yes, I assure you that people on the East Coast are just as racist as us redneck Midwesterners: just read this recent article.

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And in their place: a tame, expensive, suburban-chain purgatory of a city with rapidly diminishing local character. I hate seeing all of the vacant buildings in St. Louis, but I hate a city that is only reserved for high-paid government employees even more.

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I remember riding the bus up Florida Avenue, which was abandoned and “sketchy” back when I lived off of North Capitol. I distinctly remember the unique building below on the left sitting empty with boarded up and broken windows. It was painted black the last time I saw it, and now has mellowed a bit. It was a rich red brick color when I knew it back in 2002-3.

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Even the formerly forgotten neighborhood of LeDroit Park, the stately area of Second Empire mansions that once held the most wealthy African-American residents of the District, has been found; seen below.

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Below, this stretch of Northwest Washington close to Northeast, is even being taken over as well. I used to walk these streets and most of the houses would be cinder-blocked up and abandoned, trashed and forlorn.

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Around the corner on the 500-600 block of M Street NW, I remember walking by this apartment building below back in 2002-3, and it was a burned out wreck. It was chopped up into a bunch of condos, which I’m sure go for at least $200,000. I’m serious. I remember the day the women showed up to paint the ornate detail still present. You can’t see daylight through the front door anymore.

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Further down M Street, at least a little patina survives in the marking of an Italianate worker’s cottage that once stood here.

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But my God, the church finally got its stinking parking lot. I spoke at the meeting where the mostly suburban congregation demanded off street parking. They talked about how they wanted to make the neighborhood “like Georgetown,” in other words white and wealthy. I guess they won. They tore down the historic buildings that stood here. Out of the 168 hours in a week, I bet it gets used for at most 4 hours.

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But thank God for Chinese-Americans; at least they still know how to hold on against the inexorable rise in property values.

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I was pleased to see that very little had changed in Chinatown, an area that has now shrunk to about three blocks worth of houses, most dating to before the Civil War. Gentrification certainly hasn’t arrived here.

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The luxury condos rise in the background, but the grit and patina, and fully occupied buildings with everyday people living in them, are holding on.

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And why is that good? Because places like Burma, a Burmese restaurant that introduced me to some of the most unique food in the world, can still survive, even as chain restaurants destroy the vitality and diversity of the District.

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The building is a dump, but the food is amazing. Isn’t that the way it always is?

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The man still makes noodles in the window below.

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But campy corporate BS is creeping in a little; along 7th Street, all corporations have to translate their signs into Mandarin. Hooters became “Owl Restaurant.”

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And oh yes, last but not least the German Cultural Center, in a building that sat empty and bombed out for the entire time I lived in DC. It’s become this ridiculously bourgeois, sanitized outpost of Germany, in what has become a ridiculously bourgeois, sanitized American City.

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I wandered in while a reception was going on. I suppose I look German enough not to look out of place in this setting. I was pleased to see that the curators had knelt down low enough to let a proletarian beer brewer from St. Louis to be accepted on the “Staircase of Notable Germans,” right next to such inoffensive heavyweights such as Wernher von Braun and Albert Einstein.

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I found myself growing increasingly annoyed at the smiling faces and polite, inane conversation. I am a decades-long student of German language, culture and history, and love my German heritage and friends. But this cultural center, like Washington, DC in general, offends me philosophically. The world has never been, and will never be, free from suffering, poverty and injustice. I condemn those who seek to pretend it doesn’t exist, to force it across a river, or hide behind “revitalization” in order to justify the removal of “undesirables.” I wanted to walk up to the hostess and ask her why such historically complex German figures such as Frederick the Great, Otto von Bismarck or Kaiser Wilhelm II were not included, and watch as her face blanched,

“Oh heavens, we don’t recognize that kind of German around here!”

And now that I think about it, why is Wernher von Braun included on a staircase in the company of Bach and Beethoven? Didn’t he design the first cruise missiles that killed hundreds of innocent English civilians in World War II, not to speak of using slave labor? What the hell are the standards of that staircase anyway? Why isn’t there a display case at the German Cultural Center dedicated to Prussian militarism? Pretending the bad part of German history doesn’t exist is insulting to the good part. And the same is true for St. Louis.

So let’s learn from the mistakes of others, and remember that our city, as it seeks to be reborn, must include everyone, including “those people.” Anything less is an injustice, and the kind of city I don’t want to call home.

21 Comments

  1. You have summed it up quite accurately. I lived in neighboring Baltimore for many years and worked every other weekend in DC for a time when the U Street corridor was in transition. DC is the most superficial place I have ever seen. Its glorious architecture has become a charicature of itself in the gentrified areas (which is just about all of the city at this point). Friends who lived there were even aware of the problem back then; they would come to visit me in Baltimore saying that they wanted to get out of DC and visit a “real city”.
    I doubt that I will ever go back – not even to visit.

  2. Congratulations, Chris! The photos are great, as usual, but I appreciated the words.
    I’ve not been in D.C. since 1952 (big family trip to the East Coast), and we stayed in WWI housing put up by the Navy, then administered by (I think) the National Park Service – cheap for a family.
    Mentioning von Braun – there was a 1960 film of his life up until that point titled “I Aim At The Stars.” The best line of the movie was spoken by actor James Daly, commenting on vB’s famous claim, which was repeated as the movie’s title, which I’ve never forgotten: “But sometimes I hit London.”

  3. Chris,

    THIS is the reason I subscribe to your blog. It’s well written, passionate, and you’re willing to say the things that others are too afraid to. I hope St. Louis never becomes another D.C. Even if that means we keep our “dangerous” reputation. I love this city.

    Ray

  4. Wouldja believe they ripped the whole Modernist facade off the Burma building last month? Not sure what’s going on there, but the building’s been stripped.

  5. I lived in DC for 16 plus years. It is a magnificent city, but has quickly become a facade. It no longer engages me and was relieved when a corporate relocation moved me along. I don’t want to knock DC, it is still magnificent, but I need a little more crunch when I take a bite and I like a city that bites back.

  6. you certainly captured a lot about DC (and took me back in time a bit)

    maybe I never felt DC was a real city, but rather an intellectual construct. there really never was any manufacturing outside of information, policy and law. it can’t be compared to other centers.

    but the relatively intact center core neighborhoods can perhaps be attributed to benign neglect and the lack of divisive freeways (it’s long been supposed the urban planning is designed to make entrance difficult and evacuation easier. I could almost see it)

    • While I would agree that DC is not presently a real city, that has not always been the case. I assure you that in much of the 19th century it functioned as any other American city… with manufacturing and the works. It was only in the 20th century that it became so grotesque… and in direct correlation with the insane expansion of the federal government. It is indeed comparable to other cities, and is an object lesson as to why the constant, ever expanding, production of federal laws, rules and regulations (so numerous now that it is impossible for any living person to be aware of them all – or get through a day without somehow violating one of them) needs to be reigned in. DC is also tangible evidence of how disconnected our “representatives” are from their constituents; those living inside the Beltway are truly isolated from the rest of the country, and it shows. The nation’s Capital should reflect the American people rather than the lobbyists who infest it.

      • The preceding comment calls out for a partisan response – but I bit my tongue, as harangues of either stripe are inappropriate here…

        • It was not my intent to harangue; as a preservationist and observer of American history, the subject is one that I feel quite strongly about. Political correctness has failed, in my opinion, to do anything more than stifle freedom of speech – a once cherished and oft-execised right in this country. It may be safer to be politically correct, but it does little to promote any sort of reflection or meaningful dialogue.

      • I totally agree; part of the interesting aspects of exploring Washington, DC was finding the old “real” American city, a place that had its own brewery, Heurigs, ethnic neighborhoods, etc.

  7. So I’m confused. You would rather the city still be a burned out shell caused by people who *could* make something of themselves but chose instead to destroy where they live? I mean really! There is a mentality of people that seems to carry from generation to generation and that is that ‘the man’ is holding them down and they can’t ever get a break and blah, blah, blah. So what do they do? Look at Detroit, Ferguson, Baltimore. *That’s* what they do. To rebuild a city after poor-me mentality has destroyed it and them give it back to the poor-me folks doesn’t make any sense at all. Go place the blame where it belongs! Not on the bougeois, sanitized’ Americans who desire a nice, clean, safe place to live .

    • The point of this whole essay is that a safe, clean city is only being given to the wealthy in DC. The poor are blamed, yet again, with the same tired arguments about being lazy, “responsible” for the blight.

      And then we act surprised when a tiny portion of poor people react with rioting.

  8. I think it’s worth saying again, since some people don’t get it. This website is NOT some sort of reactionary “good old days” paean that longs for some fake idealized past. This website is about beautiful architecture, but it’s also about racism, failed government policies (almost redundant) and how we have ALL have destroyed our urban cores.

  9. But the lazy *are* responsible for the blight. That’s not racism. The lazy poor can’t keep a city safe and clean. They destroy anything they are given. And that’s the point. People who don’t have to earn what they have but are given it for nothing have no respect for what they have. I know what your blog is about, but I can turn your ‘tired arguments’ right back at you and say that the wealthy are yet again being blamed for the lazy poor being too lazy to get up off their keisters and make something of themselves. Instead they ‘riot’ (read loot to get yet more stuff for free) and cry poor-me yet again.

  10. Chris and Sue: you are both correct!

    My personal feeling is that blame for the problems we’ve been discussing (both urban blight and architectural sterility/decadence) can not be pegged to just one source; as Chris notes, “we ALL have destroyed our urban cores.”

    Sue is also correct in her observation that “people who don’t have to earn what they have but are given it for nothing have no respect for what they have.” She’s just stating the obvious, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us. Examples abound of failed housing projects (Pruitt-Igoe being perhaps the most spectacular and best-known example).

    The negative effects of hand-outs are not limited to minorities; we can all think of examples of white heirs and heiresses who have squandered their lives because of their entitled situations. Having a strong work ethic is a good thing!

    Recognition of this reality is what prompted Habitat for Humanity to require the participation of beneficiaries in the building process; they recognized that an investment of time and labor in a home by its owner would increase the likelihood that the house would be maintained in the future.

    Decades of failed government policies and programs have not only helped to foster an entitlement culture and undermine racial relations, but have also needlessly destroyed an incalculable amount of historic American buildings in the name of urban “renewal”.

    When these facts are more widely recognized and understood we can move on toward doing something about it. The amount of money wasted at home and abroad by the government on counter-productive activities is astounding, yet we keep re-electing the same people (or same kind of people) over and over again. Ultimately, nothing will change unless we as a nation insist on a government which is more responsible and more ethical.
    Sadly, I don’t see any game-changing prospects on the horizon.

  11. Sue, you sound a little crazy. This whole blaming the poor for being poor and lazy is so old and tired I thought most people knew it was a total crock at this point.

    And Newel, Pruitt-Igoe didn’t fail because the residents were too poor or lazy or destructive to take care of the facilities — that’s a fiction so notorious and wrongheaded that there’s a great documentary that pretty much destroys it. (‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’)

  12. As someone who recently visited DC and every major city in the USA it is the same profile. An urban area starts with outstanding with primary and secondary middle class areas wonderful architecture neighborhoods etc. Cycles through from it’s wonderful beginnings into decay then it is revitalized. The pattern and demographic shifts are almost identical and the public response at large seems very consistent lamenting what has been lost or embracing the new opportunities,

    Personally when I see old fine buildings in disrepair my first visceral response is to start rebuilding so there you go,

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