Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bellefontaine Cemetery

Staring at a map of St. Louis' 79 neighborhoods, you can't help but notice the large park/cemetery areas throughout the city that in some cases exceeds the area of many of the neighborhoods.  Seven of these in particular are among the largest and ones I hope to explore and blog about.

I'm starting with Bellefontaine Cemetery (BFC), a 314 acre property that dates back to 1816; the oldest graves of the Hempsted family existed here when their former farmland was purchased by a group of prominent men in the city, led by banker and former mayor William McPherson and established in 1849.  The first burial was in 1850.  BFC was clearly a revolutionary place in its day.  Up to the early 19th Century, burials were typically on church and private properties.  Paris, France was the 1st city to design a cemetery utilizing the "rural garden" concept which was meant to be a beautiful place of solace and natural beauty open to the public.

BFC was created with the same vision and the timing couldn't have been more appropriately aligned with St. Louis history.  The on-going 19th Century building and population boom in St. Louis coincided with a fire on May 17, 1849 that destroyed 15 city blocks and 23 riverboats.  Then of course, the cholera epidemic of 1849 that swept the city killing ~6% of the population.  The timing was right and Bellefontaine was St. Louis' forward looking answer to dignified burials for the next generations of citizens.

The founders had the foresight to hire Almerin Hotchkiss as landscape architect from Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to design and maintain the grounds. He designed most of the roadways and landscaping, and led cemetery operations as Superintendent for many years.

The Bellefontaine Cemetery (officially non-denominational, but largely Protestant) at 4947 W Florissant is flanked by the Mark Twain neighborhood to the south and west and the North Riverfront neighborhood to the north and east.  Calvary Cemetery (Roman Catholic) is to the north and west and O'Fallon Park is to the south and east. 

The property is atop very high ground that slopes down, overlooking the Mississippi River to the east; while the North Riverfront neighborhood today is largely unsightly trucking operations and contemporary metal warehouses, you can imagine what the view must have been when the property was established.  But let me tell you, this does not mean that BFC is not a beautiful setting.  It is.  The perimeter is lined with ornate fencing and entry gates.  

For my first visit to BFC, I was able to connect with the current Landscape Architect for the property, Earen Hummel.  She is a professional landscape architect of 13 years and hails from Colorado.  She is highly qualified, having worked in various National Parks and ranches around the country, in addition to a WWII battle site in the South Pacific where the Enola Gay took off for its bombing over Japan.  Prior to joining BFC, she was part of a consultant team that helped to prepare a 100-year master plan for the cemetery.  At the completion of the master plan, the cemetery hired her to become the in-house landscape architect.  Some key elements of the plan are increased native plantings and habitat, sustainability and the reduction of storm-water runoff, mowing and chemical treatments in the landscape, all while complementing the original Hotchkiss design.  This is a very fitting and sensitive approach as it intelligently adds new trees, planting and other elements to naturally enhance to property for the next 100 years while preserving the historic character and updating the natural landscape and seeking to meet the changing needs of the times including more burial space between two lakes that exist on the property.  Ms. Hummel is working to develop gardens to draw together the two lakes, and to enhance the space that exists in this part of the cemetery.  This is part of a 10-year goal and in underway now.  Sustainability is certainly a catch word of our era, sometimes more often spoken than seen; however, this plan completely embraces the idea and you can SEE the low energy, low maintenance, natural planting concepts that I view as the renaissance of landscape design in play here.  This is not just talk, this is action.  Drive through the park and witness the massive amounts of grading and tree planting that is underway as you read this.  Very are some drawings of the design:

Additionally, BFC has become a certified arboretum.  Sassafras, persimmon, oaks, black gum, hawthorn and river birch are among the trees being planted.  Out are the sweet gums and yews!

My favorite part of our discussion was knowing the property is in good, caring hands.  And, the cemetery is loved and protected.  The care that Hotchkiss put in is living on in Ms. Hummel's and the cemetery Board's vision.  It will continue to be open to the public and will function as an active burial site for years to come.

Of course, this cemetery is the final resting place of hundreds of American notables and figures including William S. Burroughs, Adolphus Busch, Susan Elizabeth Blow, Thomas Hart Benton, William Clark, Phoebe Wilson Couzins, James Eads, Sara Teasdale and many, many more.  You can still purchase a plot here.  In fact, there is a newer section with Bosnian, Croatian and Roma citizens that recently immigrated to the region as well as an area for under-privileged children whose parents could not afford a plot.

I was lucky enough to be treated to a showing of the famed Wainwright Tomb which is on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places and is one of only two tombs that can be opened to the public.  Every square inch of this monument is a work of art.  I was lucky enough to hold the key in my hand and enter this important place on a cold and wintry St. Louis day.

Exterior of the tomb:


Is St. Louis great or what?  BFC has a large endowment to care for the grounds & landscape and plans to be here for the long run.  They are going nowhere and only seek to enhance the area.  They are partners in the Mark Twain and Walnut Park neighborhoods.  They are a fixture and the cemetery is a full-on landmark.

Bellefontaine Cemetery does tours and if you are interested in history at all, please "like" them on Facebook.  They routinely do bios filled with stories and photos of notable citizens buried there.  Total fodder for history lovers, and very well done.  The website is phenomenal and includes an awesome interactive timeline to play with.  Go there to check out the full list of famous people buried there.  They have conducted Beer Baron, Civil War and other notable tours, both by bus and walking.  BFC is in good hands and will continue to improve and be a National Treasure for years to come.  Drive up Salisbury Avenue from Downtown to get a good view of the north side and go check out BFC for yourself and let me know what you think! Even if you've been here before, please visit again and witness the landscape as it morphs into a more native, sustainable environment.

On to Calvary!  Stay tuned friends and readers...

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Word Of The Day: Gentrification

My latest spiel on words commonly considered as provocative or misunderstood or at a minimum, ambiguous in St. Louis is on the word "gentrification".

I've touched on the word hoosier and ghetto so far, two words most in the region use with a strong local meaning.  Even though these words may carry negatives, they are highly descriptive and continue to be used whether we like it or not.  There's no doubt in my mind that those two words are pretty universally understood and used with accuracy.

Gentrification on the other hand, not so much.  First of all, it is a relatively modern word that was added to the dictionary a mere 48 years ago.  What the word means, especially in the context of St. Louis, is fascinating to me.  Some see gentrification as a good thing, others not.

Let's start with a dictionary definition:
the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents (source)
Simple, right.  Yet, I've been in several conversations where the topic simply gets out of hand and fast.  When I hear anyone speak negative of sensitive investment, infrastructure upgrades or renewal in any neighborhood in St. Louis, a city that has seen staggering population losses and destruction of historic property, I am flummoxed.  How can that be bad regardless of what powers are doing the planning, bank rolling and execution?

Another definition:
the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses. (source)
This one describes the potential negatives of gentrification in a little more detail.  It touches on property values raising and pushing out the same people who may have provided the area with much soul and flavor for decades.  Think Cherokee street mom and pop Hispanic/Latino businesses being pushed out by higher rent and changing demographics.  That would be a bummer.

But is that really going to happen here?  I don't know but I doubt it.

Still, with the current state of affairs in St. Louis, investment of any kind seems pretty good to me.  Every neighborhood in the city could use an influx of people with money willing to invest right here in the city, no?  I'd kill for some more of that medicine in my neck of the woods. 

I think the gentrification as a negative argument just doesn't play well in St. Louis.  The city seems inherently built to not push out poor people; it was built for the huddled masses when the country was in a state of massive immigration from Europe and migration from the South.  Sure there are mansions and swanky residences, but the vast majority of homes are of modest size compared to the national average.  In fact the Midwest has the lowest average new single family home sizes compared to the rest of the country:

The average home size in 2010 was 2,265 square feet in 2010, 2,020 in 1992 and 1,445 in 1973.  The vast majority of homes in St. Louis were built prior to 1973.  So, based on these data, you can assume in the heydey of our building boom from the late 19th Century to 1955 or so, the average home was even smaller than 1,445 sq. ft.  The point I'm trying to make is, St. Louis is built smaller and more dense than the new construction areas and trends of bigger is better.  You could argue that our built environment is set up for density and the masses....hence it'll be cheaper to live here based on overall lower square footage and supply & demand keeping costs of living much lower than the national average.

We have rows and rows of houses that are very modest in size from the northern tip to the southern tip of the city.  These are all over, look no further than the concentration of such homes in North Hampton, Walnut Park West and many many other neighborhoods.

 the North Hampton neighborhood

the Walnut Park West neighborhood

Furthermore, there are cheap rents all over the city.  There are so many multi-family and multi-unit properties here, I just don't see rents skyrocketing over the next 10-20 years enough to push people out of St. Louis.  Maybe a street or a block, but not an entire neighborhood or city.

If you think gentrification is a bad word you probably have not been around our fair city.  This word having a negative context in Portland, New York or San Francisco makes sense.

Pushing out people who are from somewhere and give that area a certain vibe, history and feel is not good.  But that doesn't seem to be happening here in St. Louis, we just don't have that kind of demand and masses of wealth elevating property values to a level where the folks living in a neighborhood for decades can no longer afford it.  The rich and poor are dispersed all over the city, especially the diverse southside.  Compton Heights, DeBaliviere Place, Central West End, Downtown and Downtown West have some of our richest and most priviledged residents, yet these places I just mentioned are diverse (economically and racially) and no one is getting pushed out of these areas.

Now let's give some thought to a few neighborhoods that are going through a gentrification phase as we speak.  Why not just pick out Old North St. Louis, Forest Park Southeast and Gravois Park as examples.  If you view the activity in the last 10 years in these areas as negative or exclusionary of any particular race or economic level, than please make your points.  I am genuinely interested in your take; but I only see these areas as exciting, inspiring and improving.

Manchester Avenue in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood between Kingshighway and Vandeventer is gentrifying.  This is St. Louis' most obvious gay nightlife part of town, it has a tattoo shop, a skate shop, R&B-heavy music venue (Gramophone), a reality-TV profiled business and many other restaurants and bars...all of which are affordable and you will see people of all kinds in Sanctuaria, Sweetie Pie's, Gramophone, Atomic Cowboy and Everest (the only places I've been).

If you don't like that kind of stuff, and see it as negative then please tell me why.  Or if you think there was some awesome, positive, local, soulful vibe in these areas that is being replaced by milk toast interests by white people, hipsters, gay people or monied people in general, than please point them out to me.

Gentrification to me means more residents, less vacant property, more business, less vacant storefronts, more jobs, more fun, less abandonment and ghetto B.S.  This ain't New York or Boston where rents are prohibitive and exclusive...this is St. Louis, a city that has lost 500,000 people in 50 years.  Our most swanky/happening neighborhoods like CWE are clearly racially and class diverse, check the census data:
In 2010 the neighborhood's population was 58.0% White, 28.0% Black, 0.2% Native American, 11.1% Asian, 2.2% Two or More Races, and 0.5% Some Other Race. 2.7% of the population was of Hispanic or Latino origin
I think the gentrification debate would  be more appropriate in other cities that have seen even more investment than St. Louis.  Most of St. Louis investment has occured in the midbelt, from Downtown to Downtown West to Midtown to Grand Center to the Central West End.  Outside of CWE, most of those areas were largely unpopulated.  Remember what Washington Avenue looked like in 1994?  Dead.  No one got displaced, there was no one there.

Here is one of my favorite recent articles on gentrification with Washington D.C. as the focal point of the story.  Some quotes from the piece:
“Gentrification” is like the secret word in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse — say it and everyone freaks out.
“It’s possibly the most charged word in the built environment right now,” says Christopher Leinberger, the well-known urbanist and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The image of mustachioed, trust-fund hipsters displacing poor people of color will do that.  And that’s a shame, because gentrification has some undeniable upsides: reduced crime, better services and a more diverse array of businesses — and not just coffee shops.

“As a Detroit native who has seen this place rot from the inside-out, I’d kill for a little gentrification,” Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson recently tweeted.
It's a complicated story, but in a city like St. Louis, I just don't think it applies.  I say bring on the investors and next St. Louis that has prouder streets and neighborhoods than the last generation could muster up.  There is no shame in wanting that.  Bring on the middle and upper class.  Bring on the hipsters.  Bring on money, bring on highly educated residents.  We can all be good neighbors.

My favorite local blog right now is the St. Louis Neighborhood Development Blog.  It highlights homes/businesses under renovation throughout the city and indicates the $ amounts that the building permits are for.  Nothing...NOTHING...makes me more hopeful for the future of St. Louis than money rolling into our brick beauties to bring them back to life for another generation, or modernizing the old systems to serve citizens for another generation.  A home being rehabbed in the Ville or St. Louis Hills is equal to me...investment...and that is all good.  No exceptions.  No one is being pushed out of anywhere in St. Louis.  I just don't see it.  I think negative perceptions of schools and crime displace more people across the income and race spectrum than property values and walkability scores.

Gentrification means uplifting our that wrong?


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Up And Coming Neighborhood Poll

So back in December I shared some thoughts on what an "up and coming" neighborhood means to me.  I posted a reader poll based on personal curiosity to see if my thoughts and gut feeling on the subject compare to the readers of my blog.  Now, I'm fully aware these free polls are entirely subjective and non-scientific and really just for fun.

Here are the results:

We have a winner, Dutchtown by 1 vote over Midtown.  Some thoughts on the responses:

  • there are 79 neighborhoods in St. Louis, you can't include them all.  The 11 I chose were based on my experience and thought they would be good candidates.
  • Marine Villa:  I was shocked it didn't get more love.  If I wanted to live on Cherokee Street, Marine Villa would be the neighborhood I'd choose.  Benton Park West would be a close second.
  • The write in votes
    • Dutchtown and Midtown votes came from a couple URLs, so likely the same person voting over and over.  Dutchtown could have easily been grouped in with Benton Park West, Gravois Park and Fox Park...after giving it some more thought, I think they are comparable when it comes to issues both upside and downside.  
    • Midtown and Midtown Alley are awesome and continue to blow my mind.  Millions have been invested here and there are restaurants, nightclubs, businesses, housing, etc that are simply awesome and lots of fun.  However, it doesn't strike me as a residential neighborhood (yet) and the census data indicate very low owner ocuupied housing units.  But man, the potential is there and the momentum is awe-inspiring.
    • Dogtown in not an official neighborhood, rather a part of town made up of Franz Park, Clayton/Tamm and Hi-Pointe...I love dogtown, but I wouldn't call it up and coming.  I'd call it arrived or "is what it is".  Sure there is a lot going on there, but I don't think of these neighborhoods as up and's more like Clifton Heights or the Hill...very stable.  
    • Cherokee Street is certainly up and coming.  My thoughts exactly, that's why I put the Cherokee neighborhoods of Marine Villa, Benton Park West and Gravois Park up there.  They didn't get many votes, although I don't think most people know what/where those neighborhoods are.  Cherokee Street is exciting and a prime example of grass roots positivity and gentrification. 
    • Skinker-Debaliviere and DeBaliviere Place.  OK, but million dollar homes don't qualify for up and coming to me.   Soulard?  No, it's a top 10 neighborhood.
    • Tower Grove South is a tale of 2 neighborhoods.  The north side and middle are fully functional, vibrant and alive.  For that reason, I didn't include it.  Yet, the south side around Gravois is a mess.  This is one of those areas where drug dealing is so rampant and obvious it blows my mind why the cops and city don't crack down here.  Park your car at Truc Lam and just watch right around 5-8 pm.  Dudes are dealing right in the street plain as day.
My vote was for Forest Park Southeast.  When my family was looking to move from the far southside to the middle belt of the city, we considered this area.  However, we couldn't find a house that met our needs.  I would live here in a heartbeat.  In fact, I'll be doing a follow up post on Forest Park Southeast in the near future.  So stay tuned. 

I was happy to see Fox Park and Benton Park West get 20 votes apiece.  To me, McKinley Heights, Fox Park, Tower Grove East and Benton Park West are the most important swing neighborhoods in the entire city for the next 10 years.  These neighborhoods are among the few areas that are racially and economically integrated and gentrification, safety, urban living, development, etc will be hot topics for the next 10 years or so.  As go these neighborhoods, so goes the entire city of St. Louis.  This part of town is the barometer of where St. Louis is headed.  The battleground for our future.

I have lived in an area that I would wholly consider an up and coming neighborhood for nearly 3 years and I've learned more about my urban sensibilities, needs, wants, fears, etc.  I feel like I know what is great and exciting about St. Louis and what is frustrating and sad and tough as hell.  

Bottom line:  for now, I feel like I am part of something transformational living close to the action.  I am happy to see building permit stickers all over this part of town.  I am happy to see young people moving in.  I am happy to see people who want to be engaged in their surroundings and the future of St. Louis in larger numbers. 

Cheers to the up and coming neighborhoods of St. Louis.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Mark C. Steinberg Ice Rink in Forest Park

The Mark C. Steinberg Ice Rink opened on November 11, 1957 in Forest Park right in the shadow of Barnes-Jewish Washington University Medical campus on Kingshighway.

Mr. Steinberg was a native St. Louisan and a self-made man starting out as an office boy in a brokerage firm, eventually starting his own firm, the largest of its kind in St. Louis at the time.

Mark C. Steinberg (source)

His wife Etta Eiseman Steinberg was a big part of the many charitable organizations and philanthropic donations and leadership by the Steinberg's including Steinberg Hall which houses the Washington University College of Architecture, Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, and the College & Graduate School of Art, the Steinberg wing of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and of course the Ice Rink.

Etta Steinberg was impressed by the Central Park skating rink in New York City, so she gave $600,000 toward the $1 million skating rink in Forest Park in St. Louis, known as Steinberg Skating Rink (source).

Mr. Steinberg (1881-1951) grew up in North St. Louis and was buried in New Mount Sinai Cemetery in Affton, Missouri just south of St. Louis.

The skating rink is the largest outdoor rink in the Midwest at 27,600 square foot of ice.  The rink is fully functional and available for skating lessons and all day passes for public use, private parties and corporate/charity events.  It's a mere $6.00 to skate all day and figure or hockey skate rental is $4.00; or, of course, bring your own.

The rink is typically open from mid-November through February.  There is a zamboni machine on the premises, so the surface is safe and smooth for optimal fun for all ages.  The area is used for sand volleyball May through August.  There are two regulation, lighted sand volleyball courts, again available for leagues, private parties and corporate functions.

The park area surrounding the rink is professionally landscaped and is framed by the Barnes-Jewish Medical Complex in the Central West End neighborhood, providing a  big city vibe right among natural Missouri plants and beauty.  

River Birch, Bald Cypress and other trees flank the outer edges providing a wind break and shade.  The "knees" of the cypress are spiking up in the exposed areas at the base of the trees...I love it!

There are plenty of parking spaces in the adjacent surface lot and an ample supply of bike racks for the many cyclists in Forest Park.

Other outdoor features include a large open fire pit to warm up to, lights strung over the rink providing a great scene for skating after dark and a sound system that was swinging with some classic rock deep cuts on my visit.

There are plenty of benches for spectators both inside and outside with great views of the rink on 2 of the 4 sides.

Speaking as a product of the 1970's, mid-century bowling alleys and skating are part of my formative the interior of the rink is nothing short of retro gold (or in this case aqua) for me...feels like home.  When the facility was recently renovated, they kept most of the original touches (including old school time card clock in machine, bathroom fixtures, etc) and man am I glad they didn't throw up dry wall over the glazed brick. 

Here's some stuff that caught my eye on the interior of Steinberg:

 beveled aqua bricks frame the windows

 even the font and style of the staff jackets look right outta 1975

hey tough guy, don't mess with those lockers

Winter in St. Louis can be lots of fun!