The Great Reconnection

Author: Nate Forst of EcoUrban

The key is that the city must find an inspirational vision for itself rooted in what it is and its own essential character. A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir.
–Aaron Renn, The Urbanophile

Perhaps the Hardest Part Has Been Accomplished

Old Post Office Plaza

It is a tired story most of us would prefer not to hear again: Over the past half-century plus, the city of St. Louis has literally lost significantly more population than currently resides within city limits. From a peak of nearly 860,000 residents in 1950, the city shrunk to a low of roughly 350,000 in 2000. During this period the city systematically attempted to destroy its past. Through large scale demolition of historic structures, construction of roads and highways specifically engineered to divide communities, and damaging urban renewal policies, the region was nearly successful in doing so.

Fast-forward to 2010 and much has changed. As many of the remaining commercial buildings from St. Louis’ gilded age were converted into lofts, a once-dead downtown core has been revitalized, drawing many back to the city. As of last summer, downtown now has an excellent grocery and world-class public art. And, for the first time in 60 years, St. Louis saw its first growth, estimated in 2008.

There is now significant energy being devoted towards reconnecting downtown to our region’s most impressive natural amenity, via out area’s most iconic monument. The City+Arch+River 2015 design competition comes at a pivotal time. If the reconnection between downtown and the riverfront is properly completed, there is every reason to believe the positive results could be even more profound than the project’s most ardent supporters realize.

Currently, a group of concerned citizens, calling themselves City to River, is committed to realizing that the dream of a reconnected St. Louis be achieved to the highest capacity. Their main goal is to see the disruptive section of highway 70 that severs our community from its original settlement be removed. When citizens’ initiatives engage the public process in a focused way like this, great things happen. City to River deserves your most ardent support to achieve this Great Reconnection.

With the larger machinations heading in a positive direction, what else can we do to aid the momentum and foster the Great Reconnection?  One thing is clear: after years of removal, neglect and whitewashing, downtown currently lacks an identity.  And as the city will be reconnected to the river, the city must also be reconnected to its origins as a confluence of ideas, culture and civilization. Simply put, we must spotlight the heritage of this grand old Mississippi River Town while moving downtown forward as a unique, walkable, city village –a place with a distinct character like nowhere else in the area. Of course, we can be content to leave it to the region’s elites and entrenched developers. They will be more than happy to create a stale collage of chain restaurants and soulless redevelopment characteristic of Anytown, USA.

The past is not dead.  In fact, it’s not even past.
– William Faulkner

St. Louis, because of its rich history and dense, old world-esque street grid, deserves much more. We believe this can be accomplished by developing a mix of heritage destinations supported by urban village amenities. Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling:

Heritage Destinations

Confluence Blues Museum & Peetie Wheatstraw’s Saloon

Detail: Imagine a small-scale museum full of R&B relics and information blended with a throwback saloon built on the scholarship of Devil at the Confluence by Kevin Belford and the notion that the cradle of blues music may have actually been the levee at St. Louis.

Vision: Two levels featuring a small interactive museum detailing local contributions/bluesmen, art and old school photography/video footage highlighting STL blues influentials/history and STL’s primacy in the development of Blues/Rock history. A saloon with small venue (basement) featuring traditional acts like Big George Brock, and Bluesmen of the future like Marquise Knox.  Museum will build on current exhibit @ the Sheldon that a needs permanent home and additional artifacts.

Potential Offshoots: Blues Heritage Trail — a short tour that provides info markers connected by trailsto famous sites in blues history (example: 11th/Morgan – location of the incident that inspired one of the
most famous songs in blues history “Stagger Lee”). The trail would be a great way to pick up additional
funding partners.

Mound City Memorial

Cahokia Mounds

Detail: A small, pedestrian-friendly store-front museum/interactive/retail operation on Washington devoted to the builders of the earthen mounds that gave the city an early nickname (Mound City) and the largest pre-historical city in North America (Cahokia). We have a World Heritage Site in our backyard, let’s capitalize on it!

Vision: Work with National Parks or UNESCO to create this small “satellite museum” in downtown that will be both a draw in St. Louis and a primer for Cahokia Mounds. Create visuals that show the mounds on the Missouri side of the river prior to destruction. Track sustainability with what caused decline of Cahokia (most experts agree resource depletion). Map out routes to current and former mounds on the St. Louis side of river.

Future Potential: Restore marker at Big Mound and partner with the  Osage Tribe, owners of the mound off of Interstate 55. Include maps and images of what area looked like before settlement up through current period. This may be another good prospect for the arch grounds project or a possible tie-in at least.

Sustainability Substation

Detail: A small retail venture that sells locally made biking gear (708 Cycling), green gadgets, perhaps even local bio-fuel (Kelley Green).

Vision: Imagine a store similar to Brookstone or Sharper Image but with an emphasis on sustainability gadgets and local products. It would make sense to team up with Bike Loft to achieve this.

Future Potential: An excellent possible branding/franchising opportunity for other parts of the region
and beyond.

Moving forward sustainable cities and successful commerce will be interdependent.

Urban Village Amenities

Locavore Crossing & Peer-to-Peer Farmer’s Market

Urban Garden

Detail: A reliable accessible drop-off station where local farms would deliver fresh products directly to the consumer. This venture is built on the premise that there is a significant market desire for opportunities that allow individuals to personalize their relationship to food – a place where you can meet and interact with the people who produce your food.

Vision: Work with Fair Shares CSA and nearby healthy farming operations such as Patchwork Farms, Greenwood Farms, and Earthdance Farm to create this urban “food hub.”

Future Potential: Consumers could utilize a web based Peer-to-Peer network that links directly to local farmers. Better choice for the consumer plus the Farmer can better anticipate demand via requests on the interface. Think online Farmers Market, but you meet the actual farmers on drop off/pick-up day. Also the market could offer pre-made packages for those who don’t have
time to pick up during the market hours (this could be seasonal).

Street Vendor Food Carts

Street Vendors

Detail: Initially 3-4 “Portland Style” semi-permanent cart options serving well-priced “street food.”  High quality food in a pedestrian friendly cart tradition.

Vision: Located in a highly visible, public gathering place  such as Old Post Office Plaza, City Garden) diners would enjoy a diverse food experience that helps establish a foodie scene downtown drawing on local favorites.

Future Potential: More carts/options could be opened if the first round is successful.

Taken as whole, these proposed developments work together to continue to establish a new urban tone for Downtown St. Louis.  Rather than a generalist approach to development, we see the proposed endeavors as part of a unified thread that can tie together the uniqueness of St. Louis’ historical narrative while establishing a new, authentic, and smart growth-oriented “Front Porch” for the region.

2 Responses to “The Great Reconnection”

  1. John Cannon says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. I think most residents of the area would support the overall idea of what you’re proposing – but might differ on the details.

    A weekly(?) arts/crafts market (similar to what one, as you indicated, might see in Portland; smaller version of Laumeier Sculpture Park Mother’s Day event) would be a natural hit; similar activities) – but a ‘Confluence Blues Museum & Peetie Wheatstraw’s Saloon’ would draw a decidedly urban singles crowd – which I’d view as too narrow for what you’re proposing. Familes, young and old, simply wouldn’t attend.

    Our daughter is attending college near Chattanooga, Tennessee where she is a freshman. When dropping her off at the end of spring break last month, we spent a few days in downtown Chattanooga which is a lovely area and has much to offer. The place was FILLED with people on a Saturday and Sunday.

    What stunned me, after talking with people, was that the entire downtown area was an eyesore and a complete disaster just twenty years ago. I was shocked – because what had been accomplished in the intervening years was nothing short of a miracle – and one of the secrets was private money and private investment. If one waited for government to provide the impetus, they’d be waiting an eternity. There’s too much inherent lethargy – and hopelessness.

    Bless you as you push forward!

  2. Some really great ideas there. I’m particularly excited by the idea of a Blues heritage museum/bar/venue. In one of my posts ['The Mississippi (1.2) Mile - Part 1'] over at YAStLBlog, I talked about the direction and future of Chouteau’s Landing, and a place like this would be perfect for what I was describing! Make it happen, St. Louis.

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