Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Sunflower Project in Old North St. Louis

Some parts of town just seem to have it together.  Whenever I visit Old North St. Louis, I seem to notice something new and positive each time.  A couple weeks ago I was up in ONSL exploring Jackson Park and drove west and noticed some beautiful new homes filling in vacant lots.

I also noticed some public art that reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags.

note the Stan Span in the distance

I stopped and walked around with my curiosity piqued.  I new I could research what was going on here, but I also wanted to talk to some locals about what was going on.

What better place than a coffee shop to get info, right?  I stopped in at La Mancha Coffeehouse at 14th Street and St. Louis Avenue.  I spoke to the barista while she served up a great cup of joe.  Turns out this empty lot on the 1300 block of Warren Avenue was tilled and planted with sunflowers to provide some interest in an otherwise dead space.  The flags were an addition to beautify the lot after harvest of the sunflowers.

If you have empty lots, why not make the best of them while they are in their transitional state...or fallow period?

I love stuff like this.  Empty lots don't tend to make people turn their heads and stop and get out of the car to investigate what's going on.  The Sunflower Project did just that.

Here's the story from Washington University's Sustainable Cities Land Lab Conference:
The Sunflower+ Project: StL proposes turning previously developed urban lots into a community asset through the planting of sunflowers. With a goal of eventually spurring redevelopment of these vacant parcels, the project will serve as an appropriate, scalable, and productive transitional solution. An experiment in the realms of phytoremediation, public art, public health, education and sustainability, the project will beautify the neighborhood and enhance the usability of the land in a low impact, low cost, and entrepreneurial manner. Using Lot #4, we propose planting a field of sunflowers with a repurposed rubble wall intervention marking the historic foundation line that would serve as a didactic tool for learning about history and sustainability. In addition to brightening the neighborhood, the sunflowers will serve the practical task of phytoremediation of the soil, while offering the potential for development of food or fuel products that could provide a source of local income. Alternative plantings will also be used to promote the remediation process year round. The Sunflower+ Project: StL is led by a multidisciplinary team with expertise in urban redevelopment, sustainability, horticulture, soils analysis, environmental air quality analysis, masonry, graphic design and communications, civil engineering and organic farming. (source)

The mix of agriculture and brick buildings is a thing of beauty to me.  I can't wait to come back and get some photos of the sunflowers in bloom.

Congrats to those working hard in Old North, your neighborhood is an example for the other 78 in St. Louis.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Jackson Park

Jackson Place Park is 1 of 108 parks in St. Louis.  This 0.71 acre park was placed into ordinance in 1816 and is the second oldest in the city.

According to the book, “From Village to Neighborhood: A History of Old North St. Louis” by Miranda Rabus Rectenwald and Andrew Hurley, “Jackson Place, dedicated as a recreational park, is the second oldest park in all of St. Louis.” (source)
Jackson Place at Eleventh and North Market Streets was a "circular piece of ground" set aside for Park use for the subdivisions of North St. Louis in 1816. After its site was included with the new St. Louis City Limits of 1841, it was accepted by the City as a gift from the original owners. (source)
The City website claims Jackson Place Park is in the Columbus Square neighborhood, but per their own published boundaries, the park is actually in the Old North St. Louis Neighborhood.

The park is located at North Market and Hadley Street.  As seen in the bird's eye view below, there are a demoed homes leaving a lot of holes for infill.

And, indeed, infill is taking place as evidenced by some newer homes right by the park.  With the momentum in this part of the city, hopefully more will come.

This park has undergone a recent rebirth.  In 2009, the park got some much needed ward money and TLC.  Here's a post from the ONSL blog from June, 2009:
The work under way right now reflects the ideas and suggestions put forth by ONSL residents at community meetings coordinated by Old North St. Louis Restoration Group in April of 2008.  The neighborhood comments and reactions were collected by architect and Old North resident John Burse who drew up a plan and submitted it to the Alderwoman and the City’s Parks Department.  To their credit, these city officials took the community input seriously and made changes to the original plans. (source

You can't do much without a plan, a wish list, a goal.  Congrats to ONSL for putting the volunteer effort and passion into this park.  Without the actions of the residents, positive changes will never be realized.  It takes gumption, hard work and dedication and of course connections to get things done.

As a result, the park looks really nice.  They left the mature trees and planted many new ones creating a "private" place shielded from the nearby stretch of Interstate 70.  There is landscaping and new sidewalks.

The circle part of the park has a new pavilion and a softball field with home plate on the southwest side of the field.

Just south of the circle, there is a playground and half-court basketball goal.

Conifers were planted around the court to "shield" it from the street and the crumbling building just to the east.

I'm told that the part of the park, south of the circle, was recently added after a fire in the 1990's destroyed the building that was once here.  That building was a Peter's Brothers Dry Goods manufacturing facility. Peter's Brothers was an early department store that had a location nearby at 2600 14th Street (now

part of Crown Square). That building was later the first JC Penney in the St. 

Louis area.

The property that currently exists on the southeast side needs immediate stabilization, it is falling and blocks the sidewalk and street.  Luckily, much of this property is within the Murphy-Blair National Register Historic District and is eligible for Historic Tax Credits.  That and the fact that the property is being offered at a very reasonable price, gives hope that the building will be saved.

Meanwhile, the city's answer to public safety is a single rope of string tied at neck line from utility pole to utility pole...and toss a few cones in the holes...problem solved.

Congrats to Old North for taking control of their neighborhood and working hard to turn things around.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lucas Gardens Park

Lucas Gardens Park is a 1.07 acre park in the Downtown West Neighborhood.  The park was gifted to St. Louis in 1857 by James H. and Marie E. Lucas in memory of Honorable John B. C. Lucas (source).

John Baptiste Charles Lucas (August 14, 1758 – August 17, 1842) was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania.
John B. C. Lucas was born in Pont-AudemerNormandyFrance. He attended the Honfleur and Paris Law Schools, and graduated from the law department of the University of Caenin 1782. He practiced law in France until 1784, when he immigrated to the United States, settled near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He engaged in agricultural pursuits. 
Lucas was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1792 to 1798. He served as judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1794.
Lucas was elected as a Republican to the Eighth and Ninth Congresses and served until his resignation in 1805, before the assembling of the Ninth Congress. He moved to St. Louis(then part of the Louisiana Territory), having been appointed district judge for the District of Louisiana (which became Missouri Territory in 1812), and served from 1805 until 1820, when he resigned. He also served as commissioner of land claims of northern Louisiana from 1805 to 1812. He resumed agricultural pursuits and died near St. Louis in 1842. He was buried at 
Calvary Cemetery. 
While in Missouri he donated land in downtown St. Louis in 1816 for a courthouse that is now part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. When courthouse was abandoned in 1930 as the court functions relocated to larger quarters, his descendants fought unsuccessfully to get the courthouse back. The Gateway Arch arches over the courthouse. Five of Lucas' sons were to die violently, including Charles Lucas, who was killed in a duel with Senator Thomas Hart Benton. (sources)
The park is located in the shadow of some of St. Louis' most beautiful buildings, the Shell Building and the Central Library that recently underwent a $70M renovation.

You just can't talk about the Downtown and surrounding neighborhood parks without addressing the homeless issues.  I'd not be telling an honest story if I avoided this sensitive subject.  Sadly, the city has chosen to concentrate its homeless services right in the heart of the fastest growing neighborhood and central business district.  This concentration of homeless takes its toll on the city's front door step reputation.  I get that St. Louis is the leader in addressing homelessness for the REGION.  But, why shouldn't the County (where many, many of these homeless are shuttled in from) step up and help dilute the issue as opposed to concentrate it in one area?

Unfortunately, Lucas Park is in the shadow of one of the worst properties in the entire city...Larry Rice's NLEC.  Herein lies a problem...decent, tax paying, caring citizens now living amongst a mess of a homeless shelter with an exploitative and irresponsible landlord. Now we have a group standing up and opposing the poor property conditions and lack of respect for the neighbors and neighborhood that is widely known at NLEC.  This is a sea change for the area...a group finally caring and trying to uplift a place instead of dragging it down and treating the city like a toilet and campground.  

And the haters are going to hate and try to fight the evidenced on my visit as someone cut the wires on the lights.

This park is a prime case of the word gentrification.  For years this park didn't have middle class residents around it.  It was trashed.  The fountain was used by the NLEC folks as a toilet/bathtub.  This story was told to me a resident upon my visit.  The fountain has since been filled with dirt to put and end to this.

We can't have nice things just yet, I guess.  Too bad, because the fountain was a beautiful complement to the park before it was allowed to go to pot.

But it's on its way back.  We're not there yet...but, the park looks better than it has in decades largely due to the residents in DTW who give a damn and want a decent, positive place that adds to the neighborhood as opposed to detracting from it.

The Friends of Lucas Park have organized and are being good stewards of the park...remember, the city and park's dept. is not interested in improving the parks, they simply maintain and do the bare minimum.  If you want a nice park, the people have to advocate and volunteer and work hard.

The fruits of the Friends of Lucas Park's labor are showing.

Handsome landscaping is evident.

 If you like Thai food, go to Sen Thai (in the background)...among the best in town

A dog park for members exists.

Playgrounds and an outdoor exercise area exist.

Signage point out the fact that you have to act decent to be in the park.  And you have to be/have kids to be on the playground.

The people I spoke to said there is a small charter school, Lafayette Preparatory Academy, that uses the park for an outdoor rec/classroom area for their kids.  I love it, so big city!  They said they are great partners for respectful use of the park and positivity in the area.
In 2010 several like minded St. Louis city residents started dreaming of a school that would serve their children and the city.  Today that dream is becoming a reality:
Lafayette Preparatory Academy opened in August 2013 as a K-2 charter school. We will expand to K-5 and eventually add a partnering middle school and high school.  The schools will serve two populations.   The first are often referred to as the “at-risk” population, who have historically received inadequate public education and have never had the resources to consider moving to areas with better schooling or pay for private education.  The second consists of young, middle- to upper-middle class families who have recently regained an interest in living in downtown St. Louis but refuse to stay without good schooling.  If downtown St. Louis is going to thrive, both populations must be provided with a great education.  In doing just that, Lafayette Preparatory Academy honors people from all spectrums and unites them under a common purpose.  Lafayette Preparatory Academy believes strongly that together we can build something that would be unattainable by any one group by itself.  And our students will reflect that vision.  Not only will they be inclusively reflective of our world, together our students will become harbingers of positive change. (source)
The fountain has been filled with dirt and turf was laid.  Hopefully that will change and we'll be back to the park's original splendor in the years to come.

The park hasn't looked this good in years.  And it is a complement to the area as opposed to a place you want to avoid.

Congrats to Friends of Lucas Park, keep up the good fight, your work does not go unnoticed.  Thank you.  I love eating at Sen Thai and looking out the windows at a diverse set up people hanging out with strollers and dogs and kids running around.  Never thought I'd see that at Lucas Park.

Follow Friends of Lucas Park on Facebook and visit their blog to learn more.