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Neighborhood Retrofitting: Making Place Matter [guest post]

Here is another gem from my dear friend Alex, about her experience in St. Louis.  Enjoy!

In my first post I extolled the City Museum, a hyper expression of St. Louis’s past and its potential. The city itself is likewise defined, at least in part, by what it was and what it could be.  Old North St. Louis, an historical neighborhood north of downtown, is steadily overcoming the severe disinvestment it experienced in the past. There, the devoted and competent Old North St. Louis Restoration Group has been orchestrating the transition. I had the opportunity to intern at the Restoration Group this past summer, and I wanted to introduce this impressive CDC and share a few of my thoughts. To set the scene, here are some before and after photos for your ogling pleasure. These photos show Crown Square, the Restoration Group’s stunning, recently completed $35 million rehabilitation of 27 buildings on what was formerly the 14th Street Pedestrian Mall.

All of the photos in this post are courtesy of the Restoration Group. You can see more before-and-afters of Crown Square here and here.


The redevelopment provides 80 units of rental housing, 42 of which are affordable. The units in this apartment were leased almost immediately.


The street has now been paved.

Headhunters Salon (right) moved from this building to one of the two Crown Square buildings not owned by the Restoration Group. I believe it has been open since the heyday of the 14th Street Mall, and it stayed open throughout the construction.

ONSLRG also just started a co-operatively owned grocery store this past July, using Empowerment Zone funding. I helped out with the Co-op in the months before it opened, which included finding distributors (I discovered that distributors for small, independent grocery stores are
few and far between), designing some of the store’s signs, and attending to various other store-opening details. My pet idea that I contributed was to have a lending library with cookbooks, nutrition books, food history books, etc., right in the store. Sean Thomas, the executive director
of the Restoration Group, seemed to like the idea quite a bit and even identified an area in the store where some bookshelves and a little sitting area for the library could go. I wish I could have stuck around longer to help them see this through. Given all the challenges of opening a
grocery co-op, I don’t know that the library will be realized in the immediate future, but maybe some day…

Opening day at the Old North Grocery Co-op on July 17, 2010. (Okay, maybe not every old building in Old North is gorgeous.)

Inside the store on opening day. The St. Louis Beacon was there.

my signs! I mean, uh, as you see the store offers local produce.

The 13th Street Community Garden is right next to the Co-op and will provide produce. You can’t see it here, but it also has a chicken coop.

The store didn’t have a door or a floor until just a few weeks before opening! So it’s a humble start, but this is a remarkable turn for a neighborhood whose only food options for a long time were a convenience store and some fast food restaurants.

Meanwhile, the Restoration Group is also steadfastly dedicated to saving old buildings, an abundant resource in Old North (and much of St. Louis). They buy whatever buildings they can afford and rehabilitate them, or at least stabilize them until they are able to do more.

I was so pleased to see how they prioritize the historic character of the neighborhood while still pursuing affordable housing goals. Of course, historic character and affordable housing shouldn’t be at odds, but the cost associated with preserving and restoring old buildings lead some to believe that they often are. (In fact, the monetary cost of saving old buildings can lead people to all kinds of crazy conclusions, like demolition, or sprawl.) In any case, I feel assured of the Restoration Group’s total and sincere commitment to social justice—a virtue that may be lost on the organization’s occasional critics because of its nuanced, multifarious agenda.

Coming from a bit of an environmental background, I kept an eye out for the Restoration Group’s own environmental orientation. It seems they are only beginning to make environmental sustainability (as we’ve come to understand this term) a more central and explicit thread of
their work. Still, they have long been indirectly pursuing this goal by helping to establish the neighborhood’s permanence.* In certain contexts—like plastic, or brownfields—permanence might suggest the very opposite of sustainability. But in places like Old North St. Louis,
reinforcing the already-built environment and drawing people to it (and away from greenfield development!) is ideal. Making a place something people care to save is a critical part of making it environmentally sustainable—perhaps as much so as tricking it out with green building technology. Think of it as neighborhood retrofitting.

Given the inevitable shortage of resources, it’s vital to retrofit neighborhoods in selective ways that truly, holistically benefit the residents, not just a developer’s vanity project or something.  Best practices would be sensitive to the social ecology of the place, promote locally owned businesses and general economic viability, foster neighborhood self-sufficiency, and encourage a stronger sense community. The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group is trying to fairly do all of this, and succeeding at a lot of it. Their various programming efforts, like community meetings, film screenings, and a farmers’ market, are an important part of their contribution.  Still, Sean Thomas is wary of “mission creep” and doesn’t want to spread the organization too thin. It seemed to me that the Restoration Group would prefer only to prime Old North St. Louis for revitalization (mostly via restoring the built environment), not to be the lone revitalizer.  Luckily, there are some other organizations and countless individuals doing great things for the neighborhood as well. I don’t want to gloss over that fact that Old North still faces many
challenges, but there is the feeling that a good thing is catching on.

Staging a revitalization isn’t a seamless task, and I was impressed by the Restoration Group’s balance of ambition and pragmatism. I hope that their work, particularly the completion of Crown Square and the opening of the grocery co-op, advances the social and economic autonomy of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. It’s possible, and it would be so heartening.  Meanwhile, the Restoration Group can carry on saving those old, beautiful buildings.


*Incidentally, only a few miles away was the disastrous Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, an icon of impermanence (with a lasting legacy of failure). Today, it looks like a fenced-off forest. I would love to see something happen with this—a leafy city park with a commemorative


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