A long time ago, perhaps 3,000 posts ago, I realized that if I wasn’t careful, I could make a really nice neighborhood look like a complete disaster, or conversely, with just a few strategic photographs, make a totally desolate street with only a couple of houses left look like it was completely intact. As an art historian, particularly with a specialization in early modern paintings, sculpture and architecture (Renaissance through the 18th Century) I fully know that paintings and sculpture from those four centuries are highly contrived depictions of concepts of beauty. They are not “realistic,” and I was always careful to correct my students when they used that word to describe works by Michelangelo or Raphael. They’re not realistic at all! They can still be beautiful, of course. A camera, with the right compositions, can present an image that is likewise far from realistic.
So as we reach my 4,500th post, I have been doing a lot of thinking about personal responsibility and how I portray other people’s neighborhoods and homes. I have in particular been thinking of that as I have been spending a little more time in the Walnut Park neighborhood (recognized officially by the City of St. Louis as three neighborhoods: Walnut Park West, Walnut Park East, and Mark Twain). No one pretends that this large area, left north of the rest of the City by the construction of the Mark Twain Expressway (which annihilated the beautiful tree-lined Bircher Boulevard) is not struggling; there are a huge number of abandoned lots and homes owned by the LRA, a huge number of murders, and a huge number of abandoned cars lining the streets. Just eight hours before this post went live at 7:00 AM, reports came in that four people were killed in Walnut Park. If I wanted to be a jerk and use my camera for pure negativity, I could make Walnut Park look horrible. I also know how I could make the Central West End, St. Louis Hills or Lafayette Square look horrible, too, if I wanted to.
But I refuse to do that. There are real human beings living there, and I won’t throw them under the bus with my camera or my keyboard. I went back with a friend Mark (who writes his own blog on St. Louis), to take some more pictures of Walbridge Elementary School, and we struck up a conversation with a woman who had come out to drink her coffee on the front porch of her house across the street. It turns out she had lived in her house for over forty years, had driven a BiState Bus for thirty years before retiring, and had sent her children, grandchildren and some of her great-grandchildren to the school across the street. She is blessed with 56 great-grandchildren. She was reading about Seventeenth Century history recently, she told us, though it was a little hard to hear because planes kept flying over on their way to the airport. She seemed surprised at how interested we were in the architecture of the school, but due to her experience driving buses all over the metropolitan area, was able to give us tips on other schools we needed to check out with similar architecture. It was a great experience talking to her.
Walnut Park, if I were to portray it honestly, is certainly the neighborhood you see in the photograph above where there are whole streets of abandoned houses, but it is also the photograph below, where there are streets where most of the houses are still occupied. I’ve always had good experiences talking to people in these neighborhoods. Despite what I read in many newspaper articles, I receive no hostility, though certainly some surprise from some people at my interest in the architecture of their houses. I usually find people in North St. Louis excited to talk to me about our common interest in historic architecture.
So as I push forward past the halfway point to 9,000 posts, I am going to continue to focus more on the positive, which I’ve already been trying to do with The Beauty of Dutchtown and Discovering Shaw series, but I’m still going to give an honest appraisal of what is happening to the built environment, and the people who need it, in St. Louis.
I’m also always interested to hear stories from readers about where they grew up, or places they used to go in the past. That is just as valid as what happens today.