Monday, March 15, 2010

Columbus Square Neighborhood

Columbus Square is a north east St. Louis neighborhood bound by Cole street to the south, Cass Avenue to the north, N. Tucker/13th Street to the west and N. Broadway/I-70 to the east:

The 2000 census data counted 1,949 residents, a 17% decline from the 1990 count.  92% of Columbus Square residents are black, 6% white, 1% Hispanic/Latino.  1,236 housing units were counted of which 63% are occupied 7% by owners, 93% by renters.  2000-2010 census data showed another decline of ~4% (changed from 10% to 4% 2/24/13) with a fairly unchanged racial breakdown of 93% black, 4% white, 1% Asian and 1% Hispanic/Latino.

The neighborhood website is pretty strong, with lots of good info:
Columbus Square was settled by successive waves of immigrants. The first wave, a group of German Catholics, settled in the vicinity of 11th and Biddle Streets. Later, the first Irish immigrants colonized the land around 6th and Biddle, an area that subsequently became St. Patrick's parish. After 1840, the area from the river west to 12th Street was built up with high-density tenement quarters, row houses of two and three stories high, for the newly arriving immigrant laborers. Many of these structures fell before the wave of commercial and industrial development that began after the Civil War. Regardless, of those that remained, most had deteriorated into decrepit, overcrowded slums as early as 1870.
These tenement communities tightly built around roads and alleyways became known for their poor living conditions and crime, with nicknames such as "Castle Thunder," "Crabber Alley," and "Wild Cat Chute." An Italian community began to emerge near 7th and Carr Streets after the turn of the century. By 1920 the whole area north and west of downtown assumed a polyglot character of mixed nationalities, including immigrants from Russia and the Balkan countries. During the same period, in the portion that we now call Columbus Square, truck terminals and industries replaced many of these tenement homes. Housing staged a comeback in the area with the erection of the Neighborhood Gardens apartments in 1936 and Cochran Gardens public housing in 1952. Later projects included the Columbus Square Townhomes and the Castles. Both projects were constructed between 1985-1987.

With the renaissance of downtown St. Louis in full swing, the future of Columbus Square is brighter than ever. The restoration of the historic Shrine of St. Joseph has created a renewed awareness of the neighborhood's centerpiece. Additionally, as one of the most anticipated projects in the entire St. Louis region, the Bottle District is poised to redefine the future of Columbus Square.
Wow, that was an excellent summary.  Yet, no mention of the transition of the polyglot character of the neighborhood to the now uni-culture that is nearly 100% African-American.  It would be good to see some racially diverse neighborhoods in north St. Louis in years to come.  Almost across the board, the current day stats indicate that the north city neighborhoods have very little to no racial diversity to speak of.

Anyhow, this neighborhood is unique in that it's current housing stock was almost entirely built up in the 1980's.  There are some older relics, but most of the apartments, condos and townhomes were built the last 30 or so years.  Here's the city's rundown of the various developments within the neighborhood.  It's always strange to me that each of these developments need to be branded like it's something special:  the Castles, Courtyards at Cityside, Cambridge Heights....very strange.  Is that supposed to evoke some kind of exclusivity?  I don't get it.

An exception to the 1980's buildings is Cochran Gardens, the last remaining 1950's era federally funded public housing high rise.  There are some excellent photos and background of this complex here and here.

And here's what it looks like today:
Another of the older developments is the Neighborhood Gardens section built in 1935:
The other developments are vintage 1980's stock.
^The Columbus Square Townhouses
^The Castles development.

These are generally uninspired modern housing complexes, but they at least don't have the typical suburban trappings of huge street setbacks, attached multi-car garages and large front lawns.
Are these structures built to last?  I guess only time will tell.  Maybe I'm too short sighted, but I just don't see these buildings ever being worthy of preservation through the historic registry.  These kind of places seem like ones that get bulldozed every 40 or 50 years for something newer.

Regarding the business landscape in Columbus Square:  there are very few businesses here that are not fast food joints (Domino's, McDonalds, Chinese food).  There was a Schnucks that served the area, but it closed in 2000.  The abandoned Schnucks property has an ENORMOUS surface parking lot at 10th and Cass.  As per the link, it seems this parking lot was home to lots of illicit activities.  I didn't see any homeless on this property todaye and it was actually fairly clear of debris, etc; but, there is a homeless tent city on the rail road property between the Schnucks and the Cass National Bank and Trust.

Cass National Bank and Trust operated from 1926-1970.

I believe this portion of Columbus Square is within the phase B boundaries of the McKee NorthSide plan; see the circled area in the map below:
This area of Columbus Square is arguably the ugliest with the fast food joints along Tucker and the abandoned Schnucks property, I think this area could use some love.  And hopefully the NorthSide development would be a major improvement over what is there today.

There are some great views of Downtown from Columbus Square:
There are some older warehouses and reminders of an industrialized America:
 Part of Columbus Square is in the plans for the stalled/moth balled Bottle District entertainment development.
Another familiar sight in Columbus Square is the huge ABC channel 30 tower which can be seen from many parts of the city, especially heading over the river from the east side:
There are also some older handsome structures including the city health department's rat and mosquito control division:
They must be doing a pretty good job on the rat front, as I've only seen rats on a handful of occasions in my nearly 20 years living here.

And arguably the most significant structures in the neighborhood, the Shrine of St. Joseph and the Patrick Henry Downtown Academy:
As I mentioned above, there aren't many non-fast food businesses, but there are a couple exceptions:
Frankly, this is not a neighborhood that overly inspires me, nor one I would take someone from out of town to showcase the city.  I'm just not into 1980's architecture.  However, if you are interested in the history of public housing and government subsidized housing, check out Columbus Square.  It has a long history of being home to slums and crime; but, it's a long way from a slum today.  Maybe Columbus Square will actually be a nice doorstep for north city and the site of more positivity and investment for the near north side in the coming years.


  1. I agree with your assessment, mostly. It's not a showpiece historic neighborhood, nor is the infill particularly striking.

    However, it has a great tree cover and, despite the E.J. Dome, provides the only low-rise walkable neighborhood feeling right on the periphery of downtown. Your pictures express that completely--the one with the twin church spires facing downtown is a beautiful photograph.

    Perhaps the Bottle District development (already underway, as the McGuire Moving and Storage building is to be converted to artists' lofts) can provide a sense of coherence to this neighborhood. Plus Neighborhood Gardens is an absolute GEM; I'd take any visitor interested in architectural history to Neighborhood Gardens. And you're's also a great neighborhood to point out the undulations in federal housing policy.

    As always, wonderful work!

  2. ^Didn't know the McGuire Moving building was being converted for new use. That's cool. I can get behind that.

  3. The Quoted Summary Needs Corrections-
    Okay, who do I need to hunt down to get the website with that summary of Columbus Square's history corrected? Someone did not do their research! I say this from the P.O.V. of someone working with the archaeological site once known as Cochran Gardens (between 7th and 9th, O'Fallon & Cass - since 2006 it's been built up in to a set of single-family homes).

    No Really the Germans Didn't Come First-
    I'll spare you the rant, but in short, the area started being built up in the 1840's, and at first it was primarily Irish, as well as some Germans (the Germans did not come first). It's "Clabber Alley" not "Crabber Alley" and the idea that it was all squalid horror is thanks to the elitists, who never lived there, writing about the place.

    Kerry Patch-
    The big thing that just sticks in my craw that people have forgotten for the most part, Kerry Patch - the precursor to "Dogtown" as far as an Irish community. Subsequent historians over a hundred years past events (and not paying close attention) put Kerry Patch as between Biddle and Mullanphy, 17th and 20th (yeah, after the turn of the century, maybe, William and Marcella Magnan). In reality, Kerry Patch started farther east, and at a far earlier period (check census records). Bounded between Mullanphy in the north, Biddle in the south, it started at Seventh and moved westwards over time.

    Would be glad to elaborate if you ever wish.

  4. ^don't shoot the messenger :)
    Is revisionist history better than no history at all? Just kidding, if you are legit and so inclined, feel free to set the story straight and I'll update this piece to include your factual evidence of the history of Columbus Square. Thanks for reading.

  5. No shots fired, it's not your fault at all, just the author of the source material. :-)

    And don't worry, I get onto historian's too for jumping to assumptions, and not acknowledging that there sources could be biased and/or flawed. Or worse, that they piggy back on someone else's research when they could very well should go confirm on their own. See, that's the advantage of historical archaeology, having physical evidence to look at and compare with what's written.

    I should have noted how biased I am towards and for Kerry Patch. I got raised with some of the legends, and had ancestors that lived, met, and married there.

    I would be more than thrilled to do a write-up on Kerry Patch from an historical archaeology major's perspective. I've been working with the "Cochran Garden's" site (between 7th and 9th, O'Fallon and Cass for about the last year, though I wouldn't call myself an expert; actually, my research focuses on the children of Kerry Patch, and the 283 marbles excavated at "Cochran Garden." I'm not sure when I would have the write-up complete, since my own research is a work in progress.


  6. ^fascinating! Keep on digging and let me know if you want to provide an content to make this post more accurate. Cheers!

  7. Per the St. Louis city census website columbus square declined by 4%, not 10%. Just don't want the decline to look any worse than it has to be.

  8. ^anon Feb 24, you are correct. I will update to reflect the change. Thanks, Mark