Among residents of greater St. Louis, the north side has a pretty awful reputation. It's supposedly a place where you just don't go if you're of Caucasian extraction. But a lot of the stereotypes you'll hear are exaggerations, distortions, gross simplifications, or just plain not true. They're based on the incidents reported on the nightly news, on what someone heard from someone who heard it from someone else, on fear, misinformation, popular perception and bias. They're rarely based on actual experience.
Of course, most stereotypes have a kernel of truth somewhere, and to be sure, the north side has more than its share of urban and social problems. Drugs, gangs, violence, abandonment, burnouts, deterioration - all of these can be found here in abundance. The notions of segregation are certainly true - if you're black and live in the City of St. Louis, there's a good chance you live on the north side; if you're white, it's a fair bet that you don't.
But the north side is neither the homogenious ghetto that many outsiders assume, nor is it some crime-culture dystopia where instant death awaits the unwitting visitor. Its neighborhoods are not all the same - Baden is nothing like Old North, which is nothing like Cabanne, which is nothing like Fairgrounds.
And yes, white people can and do go north of Delmar. Speaking personally, I have driven and walked many of the north side's streets. I have had conversations with residents. I have visited their churches, toured their homes. No one has ever mugged me, or shot at me, or given me much more than a sparing glance. Yes, there are some gangbangers on the street. There are also children, families, mothers, fathers, churchgoers, workers, businesspeople, students, ordinary folks just going about their ordinary lives in the place that is their home.
Cause and effect
This site is about architecture. It's what fascinates and motivates me, and it's what I spend my time looking for and photographing. It's the one and only reason this site exists. I am an architect and photographer, not a sociographer or a social worker. I can tell you how to build a nice place. I can't really tell you how to populate it with nice people and a working economy and a functional society. I know how to photograph buildings, and I'm pretty good at it. People, not so much. (And I run this site solely in my spare time, which is extremely limited. If I conducted the sort of in-depth sociographic research that commenters sometimes demand, most of Built St. Louis simply wouldn't exist.)
However, many neighborhoods on the north side have clearly suffered a long decline. One can't explore a deteriorating neighborhood without wondering how it got that way; despite my focus on the architecture, I am anything but blind to the human tragedies that linger in many inner cities. I've explored many such areas, and read and absorbed a few things about them over the years. And one thing I can say with certainty is this: any urban problem you see or hear about has causes that are complex, with roots that run deep and wide.
There are plenty of people who like to simply point a finger at the current residents and blame them for all their own troubles (to see this in action, just visit the comments section of any St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the city.) This is a foolishly simplistic attitude, however, that shows a profound lack of understanding of the complex web of social, governmental, and economic forces that brought about the current array of problems. More bluntly, such accusations are often grounded in flagrant racism, something I have little use or tolerance for.
A detailed list of reasons for urban deterioration - both in St. Louis and in general - is given on the How Did This Happen? page.
Why post these photos?
It's a delimna I've never fully reconciled: by posting images of decline, am I shining a needed light on the morally outrageous decline of American cities, or am I just making the problem worst by spreading negative perceptions of these neighborhoods?
In the end, I've always gone with the shining-light approach. Others may see danger and decay in a collapsing house; I see raw potency, architectural beauty and craftsmanship, and the imprint of history, often slipping away before our very eyes. All these things must be recorded before they are lost.
This tour is meant to show an honest portrait of these neighborhoods, to raise awareness of what's happening to them, to demonstrate their untapped potential, and perhaps to dispell some myths about them. It is meant to illustrate the high quality of the historic housing stock in the city of St. Louis, to showcase just how amazing and beautiful the city can be. And it is meant to illustrate examples of the urban street in St. Louis, and show how the streetscape can influence the visual quality of a neighborhood -- how it can make the difference between a dreary neighborhood and a delightful one -- as well as the way that poorly-considered infill can damage it.
Many of the photographs here are bleak, harsh, even depressing. If I focus disproportionately on the abandoned and the decayed, then I apologize, but these are the buildings most likely to soon vanish. Their short remaining lifespan as well as their extraordinary condition both demand the most urgent attention and documentation.
RP - May 2010