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The Slow Death of 1900 Montgomery Street

The Ravaging of St. Louis || The Potential of St. Louis || The Urban Environment || 1900 Montgomery: House by House || The Redesigned Site

1900 Montgomery Street, 1875: View looking northwest, per Compton & Dry's Pictorial St. Louis, 1875.

1900 Montgomery Street, 2003: The same block, the same view. The shaded houses from above are shown here. Almost nothing else is left.

ABOVE: 1900 Montgomery, circa 1909

BELOW: 1900 Montgomery, circa 2003

Houses in red have been demolished as of March 2007.

The Ravaging of St. Louis
In 1890, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in America. Today it's ranked 48th.

In 1950, there were almost 900,000 people living inside the city limits. Today that same land is home to only 300,000. That's out of two and a half million people in the metro area.

In the 1990s, the metro population increased by 1 percent. The land consumed by that population went up fifty percent.

At any given time there are about 6,000 abandoned buildings in St. Louis. I say approximately because the old ones keep falling down and new ones keep taking their place. An entire industry has built up around the millions of red bricks that come from wrecked houses. They're stacked on pallets and shipped to other cities.

A hundred years ago, fifty, even 30 years ago, the city was full of life, the streets vibrant and bustling, the neighborhoods full of people and activity. But today you can walk around many of the streets in the old city and they're empty. Nobody's there. Four decades of urban decay have left the city of St. Louis, Missouri with some of America's most devastated urban landscapes.

Some people say the city is no longer dying; they say it's dead.

There's much to contradict that claim -- renovation and new construction, movements and organizations, revivals both commercial and grassroots. But I've spent a lot of time driving around and photographing the northern half of St. Louis, where most of the abandonment and decay is. There's a lot up there to substantiate that claim as well. In some areas you can't turn a corner without finding a boarded up old house. Entire neighborhoods have vanished, leaving only scattered survivors of the city's fine vernacular housing stock standing where once there were solid blocks of homes.

A Neighborhood's Fall
The 1900 block of Montgomery Street is a textbook case, an ordinary residential block in the St. Louis Place neighborhood. At upper left, you see how it looked in 1875, its formative years, as captured in Compton and Dry's perspective atlas of the city. It is a burgeoning urban environment: dense, walkable, human-scaled, full of sturdy red brick buildings. The block was alive, the buildings continuous from one corner to the other.

Today, 130 years later, only the shaded ones remain.

The devastation is so widespread that it's hard to grasp how much has been lost. You visit 1900 Montgomery today, and you see 6 buildings, with spacious grass lots between them. You accept it and move on, thinking no further of it. And when another one succumbs to fire or wind or gravity or the bulldozer, you shrug. "It's just one building," they always say. Yes, one building.... one after another, and another, and another, and another, and another... thousands of anothers.

The first lesson here is: this is not normal. This is not acceptable!

What's happened here is a microcosm of much of St. Louis: the disintegration of urban fabric. Urban design is about creating a series of interconnected outdoor rooms; it is about defined space, spaced scaled for human beings and densely populated with them. Here, the space has lost all cohesion, all definition, all population. The intricate patterns of urbanization are destroyed. The surviving houses sit lost in an amorphous void, their brick party walls standing exposed like raw wounds.

The consequences are far-reaching and many-layered. This is no longer a walkable neighborhood, not in the sense of being able to meet basic necessities without a car; even if the surviving houses were occupied, the retail stores which once served the street (a corner store at each end of the block, with more around the corner) are long gone. This is no longer a self-sufficient neighborhood; tax base vanishes along wih population. This is no longer a community; there are no social networks in place, no neighbors at all. This is no longer a place; there is no definition of space, no boundaries, no sense of enclosure, no meetings between public and private, no interweaving of many functions, no commerce; there is only scattered, leftover objects.

What Once Was Here
The two images at left are figure/ground diagrams -- the black represents buildings; the white, open land. The top image represents the block as it stood around 1909; it gives every indication of being an integral part of a healthy urban neighborhood.

There are dozens of houses; a couple of corner stores stood on the north side of the block. Most of the houses have some kind of alley building: garages, storage, stables (or perhaps outhouses; I don't know when indoor plumbing came to this corner of the city). They are of varying sizes and footprints; their relationship to the street is consistent but not rigid (for example, three houses set back from the south side of the street create a defined space within the wall of houses.) Some houses are nearly touching; others have a comfortable distance between them. The varied nature of the houses make it likely that they were built by numerous owners and small developers; yet in the end they all work together to create urban space.

This is how a city is supposed to look. This is how it must look, if it is to survive and thrive and nurture its residents. This is the density required to support mass transit, to create a vigorous economy, to support small local stores and businesses, to permit choices for transportation beyond the automobile, to accomodate a range of incomes, to provide the opportunity and economic mobility that nurture democracy.

The second diagram shows the same block, a hundred years later. It's a ruin, the barest skeleton of its former self. Less than 10 major structures remain where once there were over 30; the relationships between the survivors have been severed. The sense of defined, controlled space has vanished. This is now an urban desert -- barren open space punctuated by lone survivors.

The vacant lots are not an asset. They are not "green space". They are wasted space. For the city of St. Louis, they are black holes, sucking the life out of the place. Every missing house represents lives gone elsewhere, creativity lost, connections never formed, tax base decreased, vitality dimished. They are a squandered opportunity that the city cannot afford.

But the city is full of such places.

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