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The cleared site of Gaslight Square has been totally redeveloped with new housing. Many buildings are complete; construction is ongoing as of early 2006.

I probably am not supposed to like this new development. I'm not supposed to like that there are cheap aspects to the construction. I'm not supposed to like the faux historical forms, like the quasi-Italianate tower on one of the houses. I'm not supposed to like that the new housing will bring yuppies into town. I'm not supposed to like that this new construction replaces the last remnants of an enormously historical block of St. Louis. And I should be outraged that they put up a memorial to the old Square. A memorial! How dare they mock what they've torn down!

But frankly, I don't feel any of that.

I do regret that the street facades of the surviving buildings weren't preserved in place and used as the front of new construction. That would have been the optimal solution.

But putting aside that caveat -- I am most impressed by the urbanity and variety of forms of the new housing. There are single family houses, twins, townhouses, generous front porches, intimate sunken gardens, and a corner apartment building. Some pay a degree homage to St. Louis vernacular, some are entirely contemporary. And, to be sure, some are suburban in style, though not in siting; some bear the dreaded vinyl siding. But the important factor here is the visual variety they create. This block of Olive -- once thriving, once a wasteland -- is a delight to walk down once again.

Even more important, this construction has made a connection with other recent development to the south. Standing at the intersection of Olive and Whittier, I actually felt that most basic of urban conditions -- that of enclosure, of being in a defined space, in one of a series of interconnected outdoor "rooms". It is a condition that has become all too rare in Midtown, and I welcome the new construction that has brought it back.

And finally, the new development is dense. Dense enough to match the city of 50 years ago? No, but that's not a necessity. From my short visit, I would equate the new Gaslight Square neighborhood to the density of a traditional 1890s streetcar neighborhood -- enough to support active street life and a wide variety of retail if it is replicated widely enough.

As for the original Gaslight Square, it is memorialized at the intersection that was once its heart. A stone tablet lists performers, venues, and personalities, adjacent to some of the building ornaments salvaged from the last surviving buildings. It is a sad sight on the one hand; on the other, it was clear that the Square was never coming back. The urban and social conditions that brought it about have long vanished. It was a spontaneous occurrance; no amount of planning could reproduce it. Better to have an honest memorial than some kind of weak attempt at replication.

Some may lament the loss of the last historical connections or of spectacular ruins. But St. Louis is a living city, not an architectural graveyard or a memorial to a bygone past. A city with as much vacant land as St. Louis needs to regenerate and rebuild, or it will whither and die. In a town where demolition so often represents wasted opportunity, I think I can say that this time, it's given rise to something better.

Gallery: December 23, 2005

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