Built St. Louis
The North Side: Wandering the city

A frank reflection written in 2003, with additional thoughts from four years later below.

The first time I travelled into northern St. Louis was in 1993. I was a freshman at Wash U; it was spring break; I was on a bike and by myself. I had looked at a city map, seen the gigantic Bellefountaine cemetary, and figured it would be a cool place to visit. Toting my little 35mm point-and-shoot camera, I wandered up Skinker and Kingshighway, all the way up to the cemetaries, then west to O'Fallon Park, where I stopped to photograph the view from the bluffs, toward the distant Mississippi River.

By the standards of the suburban mindset I came from, I clearly had no clue what I was doing.

I did quickly figure out, however, that these were probably not places I wanted to be, alone and on a bike. For several hours, I simply followed one quiet mantra: just keep moving. Just keep moving. I barely took half a dozen photographs, if that many; I stopped only at Bellefountaine Cemetary and at the park. I was immensely relieved to see the Continental Building on the horizon as I headed south along Grand -- reaching Midtown would mean I was 'safe'.

My second visit, during my junior year of college, was equally stark and affecting. An introductory-level architecture class I was taking included a bus tour of the city; the forty or so of us were loaded into a massive charter bus, the kind with the plush seats that whisk people to places like Florida and Atlantic City. After showing us downtown and a bit of south city, the we headed northward, and eventually took a deliberate turn west along Martin Luther King Boulevard. I'd known what to expect, and the professor leading the tour told us as well, but it was still startling to see again. But more startling were the looks our vehicle got. Today people might glance my way as I drive around in my beat up old car, but that's just a normal reaction to a vehicle going past. These were overt stares, however, stares that pretty clearly said "What the f**** are you doing here?" One guy standing on the sidewalk expressed his feelings quite simply with an upraised middle finger.

I don't know who or what they all thought we were, but I can't really fault them for being irritated by people rich enough to rent a charter bus driving around and gawking at their neighborhood. (To this day, I've always thought we should have taken a modest, unobtrusive yellow school bus.)

I didn't revisit the north side till after graduation, when I finally got a car. I'd pass through on my way to various points in the city. I used Page Boulevard as a commuter route to the suburbs for a while. Eventually I started photographing some of the landmark buildings: Homer Phillips Hospital, the Page Boulevard Police Station; the water towers. I moved away in 1997, but when I came back to visit at the end of 1998 I was set on documenting some of the handsome but decrepit houses I'd seen in the past.

That first exploration, even with the car, was a bit frightening. I followed the same mantra as my first trip: Don't linger. Keep moving. Don't stick around long enough to become a target for... well, for whatever bad things might happen to a white boy from the suburbs, wandering the mean streets with a fairly expensive camera. After a few hours I had to head back south, just to relieve the mental pressure I felt.

Five years later, I've explored enough cities and been in enough nasty-looking neighborhoods that wandering north St. Louis is now rarely more than "a bit worrisome". But even today, that's a false impression -- most of the time, I shoot my photographs out the car window. If nothing else, it's a lot faster and easier than parking and getting out over and over, since I'll often photograph dozens of houses in a single day. But it also leaves me feeling a lot more secure . If anyone whose looks I don't like heads toward me, I just hit the gas and I'm gone. If they try anything to me while I'm in the car, ideally I grab their wrist or hand, then hit the gas. I've never had to do either of those, fortunately (I probably wouldn't have the guts or gumption to do the latter anyway -- it's taken me years just to get to the point where I can really lay down on the horn when I get pissed off at another driver.)

I feel pretty safe in the car, but I still take precautions -- always leave a few yards between me and the car in front of me at red lights. Keep checking the mirrors when I'm stopped to take a picture; pay attention to any pedestrians who are around. Perk up if there's a crowd of people in the street in front of me -- occasionally I see groups that could potentially give me trouble as I pass by, but so far none ever has. Monitor what's going on around me if I'm out of the car, and don't stray too far from my vehicle. Stuff like that. Probably my oddest and most far-fetched paranoia is that on the rare occasions when I tramp through a vacant lot to get a better angle for a photograph, I'm going to step on some druggie's needle and it'll go through my shoe and I'll get HIV or something.

Shooting from the car leads, inevitably, to what in Neighborhood Watch parlance is known as "suspicious behavior". I'll cruise slowly down a street, craning my neck and leaning forward to scan the houses. I'll slow down, stop, back up or pull U-turns or pull to the curb at an angle to get a better shot, lean out the window for a shot or two, scribble some notes, and drive away. Sometimes I'll jump out of the car for a few seconds if it's easier than turning the car around. I'll circle blocks a couple of times, especially when there's one-way streets involved. But I'm usually in and out before anyone knows I was there. It's a somewhat schitzoid way to take pictures, I admit. I rarely talk to people in the neighborhoods I photograph, which is too bad. I'd have more time to invest in that if I did this for a living, perhaps. I'm sure there's a thousand stories for every city block.

Avoiding human contact altogether is impossible, of course, and I woundn't want to if I could. I'm generally pretty trusting of those who approach me to ask the inevitable "Why are you taking pictures?" Often as not it's some nice old lady poking her head out of her house. Answering that has become a lot easier in the last couple of years, with the Web and the Internet being household terms now. It's a lot simpler to say "I run a web site about St. Louis architecture" than explain that I go around photographing old wrecked houses because... well, because why? Like I said -- tough to explain.

I get a lot of stares as I travel the side streets. Usually I'll stare right back, not confrontationally, but just enough to say "Yeah, I do have business here, thankyouverymuch." Some of these stares are normal, I'm sure. These are pretty tight neighborhoods -- I see people on the street talking or just waving to their friends passing by in cars all the time. Sometimes it's.... I don't know what to call it. Like this one guy who'd just had a short meeting with another fellow in the street at Ridge and Granville, who as I drove slowly past called out repeatedly "Hey buddy!" in the same laid back tone as those "whazzzap" beer commercials.

I'm pretty sure people think I'm a cop or a Fed or something, despite the old wreck of a car I drive, and despite the fact that I sure don't look like a cop. I revisited my former home of Philadelphia -- a city whose north side has problems similar to those of north St. Louis -- in January 2003; some guy, must've been about 18 or so, was pointing at me and laughing and laughing as I shot some pictures of a row of abandoned houses, like that was the funniest thing he'd ever seen. Finally he came over to my window and asked what I was taking pictures for. He seemed kind of deflated when I told him I'm an architecture student -- whatever he thought I was doing, that wasn't it. In a different Philadelphia neighborhood, which I documented as a possible site for my upcoming thesis project, a woman came out and gave me a hug when she realized that "Oh, it was you out there taking pictures the other day." I asked what she thought the alternative might be. "I don't even want to say," she replied. Hrm. I almost never get overt hostility, though I assume that's partially because I'm usually on the way out by the time anyone figures out what I'm doing.

I really don't know what to make of all the guys who are just standing around on corners, doing... nothing. These aren't bus stops as far as I can tell. These are guys just sitting on a stoop or leaning on a wall or standing on the corner, not going anywhere, not visibly occupied with any particular activity, not even hanging out with friends or whatnot (I see a lot of that, too, even on a freezing cold January day.) I assume some of these people are selling drugs. That's just an assumption, of course, and I wouldn't really know the difference. They can't all be pushing, of course, but it seems hard to believe that none of them are, either. I wish I knew what all these guys are doing. I'm moderately convinced I once delayed or aborted a drug deal on Cook Avenue merely by my presence. A guy was sitting by the sidewalk as I drove past; I ended up driving back around the block to get a better angle on some houses, and put the car in idle at the end of the block. The guy was talking to someone in a car by that point, leaning in the window; he stood up, looked pointedly in my direction, kind of shook his head or waved or something, and the car drove off. (Overt prostitution, by contrast, is pretty rare. I've only seen one unmistakable hooker in the St. Louis area and that was over in Illinois, right down the road from the area's "Sin City" in Brooklyn. As for gang activity, I wouldn't know it if it hit me with a stray bullet.)

It's been terribly sad watch these neighborhoods physically fall apart. I've been tracking some of the houses in north St. Louis for over four years now. I've spent a good portion of my last couple of trips tracking down the sites of pictures from earlier trips and recording their locations (I now write down an address for every photograph I take, but this is a habit only recently acquired.) The crop of houses I shot back in 1998 is largely demolished now; I've had to find many sites by recognizing the corner of a house or garage in the background of an old photograph. It is disheartening to find that one after the next of my favorite houses from that first batch has been destroyed.

And then I think about what it would be like to live there. I don't feel safe just walking the streets in these areas. Some of that is my skin color, admittedly -- I stick out like a raisin in the pudding. I'm always shocked to see a white person out of their car in these areas -- I almost immediately feel "safer", like I'm in some kind of insular racially integrated part of the city; then I wonder if this constitutes some racism on my part. And then I'm carrying around a camera that, while not particularly fancy or pricey, looks pretty expensive compared to the point-and-shoots that most people own. So I worry about these things, especially since I have had guys come up to me and ask, first thing, "how much's that camera worth?" What possible reason could you have for such a question?

But still. There are kids all over the place in these neighborhoods, children who've grown up there, live their whole lives there. They take crumbling, abandoned houses and weed-filled vacant lots for granted.... and who knows what else as well. This is their world; this is what they know as home.

I wonder if the residents here can see these areas as I see them -- as places with potential to be grand and dignified and beautiful and full of life. They're full of life already, actually... but it's often a ragged, harsh, isolated life, cut off from the rest of the city, from much of society, in fact. It could be a lot more than it is. It likely never will be.... but somebody's got to try, don't they? Whatever does become of these neighborhoods, the world needs to see that it is happening, that beautiful houses are going to waste, that entire neighborhoods are crumbling to bits, that a social and physical fabric has unravelled.

And that's what this tour is for.

White Boy Revisited
March 2007:
I get a steady stream of email about the site, almost all of it positive and approving of the site's content. Only three or four emails have ever been angry or hostile, and they were all because of this essay.

I think about this one a lot. I wonder if I'm doing more damage than good by blatantly acknowledging my own racially-centered fears. I wonder if I'm over-simplifying a complex issue, a complex community, for "north St. Louis" encompasses such a diversity of people and neighborhoods that it's almost meaningless. How is Cabanne like Old North or Riverview? Hardly at all.

One thing is for certain: familiarity breeds comfort. A few months ago, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I woke early, grabbed my camera, and spent three happy hours wandering all around Old North St. Louis on foot. I doubt I would have done that five years ago; back then, to me, it was just a place with some burnt-out buildings. But now I know this neighborhood as the home of some of my friends, as a place where hard-working people are putting lots of work and pride into their homes.

I wonder, if I had friends in Kingsway, in Hyde Park, on western Page Boulevard, would I come to feel the same way about those neighborhoods?

And yet. I made a trip to the Wellston Loop shopping district on western King Drive about the same time. In about ten minutes of walking and photographing, two separate guys came up and asked me for money. One, convinced that I must be lost, tried giving me directions back out to the suburbs and downtown. How else could a white guy have wound up out on King Drive?

To pretend that there is not a racial divide in our cities, in our society, is to close your eyes to the blindingly obvious. Many of our poorest neighborhoods are black. The reasons are many. The fact itself is reprehensible.

I don't endorse it; I hate it. I hate that my reactions to an unfamiliar place or person might be tempered by the color of their skin. I hate that other people might judge me the same way, that other people might define me as being an outsider by the color of my skin. But these reactions do exist, and whether you choose to label them as "racist" or not, the unfortunate fact remains that many of them are born out of experience, not merely blind prejudice. Again, I don't endorse it. I just acknowledge it, and do my best to stamp out such tendencies in my own mind.

I've had the occasional

< < < Back to the tour map gain, I don't endorse it. I just acknowledge it, and do my best to stamp out such tendencies in my own mind.

I've had the occasional

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