Friday, November 12, 2010

Old North Saint Louis

MANY OF MY readers, who look at the pictures on this web page, may have the notion that Saint Louis is a beautiful city.

Old North Saint Louis nieghborhood, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - view of downtown
A view of downtown Saint Louis from the old North Saint Louis neighborhood.

It is not.

Certainly it does have its nice spots, and many of them too, but this city is typical of many with its experience of declining industry, long-term poverty, constant migration, neglect, and ill-advised public projects. Many Saint Louisians, when they imagine the part of the city north of downtown, recall views such as this:

Old North Saint Louis nieghborhood, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - abandoned rowhouse
Abandoned rowhouse. This is a typical style of housing found in the remaining older parts of the city. Originally homes for workers, these buildings were modest, yet spacious, and typically were close to employment. After the Great Fire and Cholera Epidemic of 1849, new city regulations prohibited wooden buildings, so Saint Louis became a city made of brick, and also provided the first impetus for suburbanization.

Block after block of the region north of downtown consists of vacant buildings and empty lots. Across the street is this historically important building:

Old North Saint Louis nieghborhood, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - abandoned Mullanphy Emigrant Home

From the time of its construction in 1867 until 1877, this was the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, a charitable dormitory for recent immigrants to the United States. Much of its original detail has been lost due to renovation, and one wing was destroyed by strong winds back in 2006. Despite the building being vacant, and with no new use quite yet on the horizon, a local preservation group rebuilt the damaged wall to prevent the building's demolition by the city.

Carr Square neighborhood, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - abandoned Carr School
Carr School, abandoned. This, like very many of the public schools in Saint Louis, has fine attention to architectural detail, with an Italianate design rather rare in this city.

More than anything, I would like to see a flourishing city, with its distinctive and beautiful buildings used according to their highest and best purpose. But if these buildings cannot be put to their best use, some other use would be acceptable, at least for a time.

Saint Louis Place neighborhood, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - abandoned Saint Liborius Church
The old Saint Liborius Church. Next door in the former convent is a Catholic Worker community. Liborius was a friend of Saint Martin of Tours, and has specific veneration in Paderborn, Germany.

The highest and best purpose for a former and abandoned Catholic church, especially one that was made in one of the many historical and iconographic styles, is as a Catholic church. But this area has few Catholics, and high taxes with a suspicious laity makes the recovery of Saint Liborius rather unlikely, barring a miracle.

I like ruins. Although I would rather see a building flourishing and in use, I would much rather see a ruin than an empty lot. Too many places, especially in this part of north Saint Louis, consist entirely of empty lots: not parks, not public places, not gardens, not forest, and not even a decent lawn, but rather an empty, unused spots on the map, where neither the works of man nor the works of nature are allowed to flourish. A ruin allows us a glimpse of the past and gives us hope for the future, while a gravel lot is ugly, signifies nothing and serves little practical purpose.

Old North Saint Louis nieghborhood, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - Crown Square
The 14th Street Mall, newly redeveloped, located at Crown Square in the Old North Saint Louis neighborhood, and re-opened in July, 2010. A few business have located here; it seems promising.

Destruction of something, be it a building or human being, takes only a moment, and these acts of destruction are typically and often properly called sins. The building up of something, be it a flourishing human being, or a flourishing building or community, takes a lot of hard work, cooperation, understanding of how things work, and intelligence, and can take a lifetime: these we properly call the natural virtues.

There are people who want to make north Saint Louis flourishing again, save what can be saved, and build what can be built, and turn this area once again into a fine place to live rather than what is often a ghost town of many empty lots and ruins. This may be impractical, risky, or even foolish — and this is not without controversy — yet sometimes a failure, if done with noble purpose, can lead to glory. However, I think they are more canny than they are dreamers: this is very close to downtown and to other recently redeveloped residential areas.

Old North Saint Louis neighborhood, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - Rosenbaum building in Crown Square
Available for lease.


  1. I know all too well that St. Louis is very blighted. Yes it has some very beautiful areas and structures. Unfortunately the busiest highways run right through and at elevations higher than residential grade so you look right down into the most decayed areas of the city. If you get into Chicago you will see very similar areas but they tend not to be immmediately along the highways. Additionally there the highways sit well below residential street grade thereby limiting the views into the neighborhoods. Get off the highway and Chicago is no sparkling gem either.

  2. Mark - Thanks for taking the time to visit, reflect upon, and share your observations about the transformation in progress in Old North St. Louis.

    I'm a bit biased, but I believe that the revitalization under way is a visible manifestation of the triumph of hope and determination in the midst of cynicism. As powerful as your photos are, a full appreciation of the remarkable transformation can be seen in the before and after shots of many of the buildings at the former 14th Street Mall and elsewhere in Old North. Some of these can be seen in "Views of Revitalization in Progress" posted at

    Thanks again - and keep coming back to see more of the dynamic, neighborhood-wide rebirth in action.

  3. I drove through St Louis yesterday on my way back to Rust Belt Indiana from Bonne Terre. I now have further evidence as to why the St Louis City/County area is no longer an economic powerhouse....I saw middle aged men picketting in front of a DOLLAR TREE. I am not anti union my grandfather was a proud Missouri-Illinois later Missouri Pacific railroader but the message in this case is so telling of what that movement has been reduced to! Trying to Unionize the employees of a store that sells $1 crap from China! They should be spending their time in a class room learning a new skill!

  4. What skill should they learn? What if they don't have the ability or means to learn a new skill?