My last bike ride was to kill time. This one was to kill time too. It was Memorial Day weekend and I was going to do a walking tour of St. Louis place later in the afternoon. I figured what the heck and decided to take a short ride around Old North St. Louis and Hyde Park. It was near high noon and the sun way bright and the sky was an intense blue. I typically ride in the morning or evening but today was a bit different. I fit my rides around work and spending time with my boyfriend, making art, getting ready for shows, and being lazy. This particular Saturday my boyfriend had to work in the afternoon and we were going to a concert later that night. Perfect! I’ll do a bike ride and the tour.
For me the interesting part of my rides through Old North St. Louis is that I sometimes run into people. Basically I get noticed now. I was riding by Wingman Park which is a small pocket park that is in a triangular slice of land bounded by three streets. I noticed someone and stopped for a short chat. There are these new red abstract metal shapes underneath the shaded park to sit on. Plus if you bang on them they each make different sounds. It’s a nice place to sit but it looks like a sculpture that doubles as a musical instrument. There is a Tiny Library there too. A person can get a book and then sit in the tiny park and read in the shade. After chatting for a few minutes, it was time to get rolling. I have a limited amount of time before the tour starts.
I head north on Blair, past the corner of Blair and Branch where recently some long abandoned row houses and an old corner bar were recently demolished. I call it the Purple Turtle corner because back in the early 1980s there was a bar on the corner called The Purple Turtle. It was just some piles of dirt, debris and stone, and a huge gash in the ground. Note: since then it has been filled in and is just a nondescript vacant lot. There are no traces of what was there and it will be forgotten about. Maybe one day something else will be built there but it won’t be anything like the brick structures that were there. I pause to contemplate but I must continue north as I’m on a time limit. This would be a swift check-up. What has changed since last time?
Honestly not much. There was a bit of activity in the park and people sitting outside on their stoops or porches. I can’t remember my exact route as it was meandering and unpredictable. The same places that were crumbling before still are. If anything has been demolished I haven’t noticed because the thing about demolition is if you haven’t seen a place in a long time and you go back and notice vacant lots it’s hard to remember what was there unless it was a place of importance in your life. For me, I’m a visitor and don’t see these places everyday, so to me it’s easily forgotten.
I noticed some painted boarded up windows with positive messages and cartoon characters that would appeal to children. Though Mickey Mouse does seem to appeal to adults too. I love the mural at the intersection of Breman and 14th street. It features colorful alphabet blocks on a brick wall that might have been part of a building that was demolished. In the same vicinity there is a small community garden with a gazebo and Clay Elementary School across the street. There are also hand painted planters in on Bremen Road. My guess painted by school children. Little pieces of community art are recognizable and memorable for the most part because they are unique. All the red brick can become banal or normal. Easily ignored but the hand painted bright colored words and images stand out. Each are different as they are made my different hands. They are made my individuals or small groups that live nearby and are looking to brighten a place that may have some negativity in the form of blight, vacancy, and crime. I see it as a statement of, “we, who are of value, live here and we love our home”. Some will stick it out in “home” through the good and the bad because it’s home.
I love the architecture in Hyde Park. In my opinion it has some of the best 19th century architecture but it is showing it’s age. It’s a neighborhood that could be as beautiful as Lafayette Square or Soulard. It’s beauty is rough, not idealized and sanitized. It could use some sprucing up and if it was, it would be a jewel. There blocks that are wonderfully intact, some tree lined with big houses. Not quite mansions but houses that would have been large for it’s time. Actually, they still are large. Park Place is a delight. Penrose is a mix but has a mansion on a hill with a stone retaining wall and long staircase that goes up the hill to the home. Today is painted bright pink with an aqua front door under a simple portico. The house has been heavily modified in that the pink color is original and the brackets are too simple and stylized. It was built in 1905. It’s owner was Louis Nolte. He was a real estate dealer and was elected as Sheriff in 1906. What is more sad is that right next to this house is an abandoned complex of apartment building that were built in the 1970s or 1980s. Ugly, boarded up, tall weeds, and covered in graffiti.
One thing I wish I would have done was ride down Randall Place. The house on Penrose is at the Corner of Randall Pl and Penrose. Randall Place at one time would have been a road on top of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Randall Place is also the home of the Bissell Mansion – said to the the oldest house in St. Louis as it was built in the mid 1820s. It was the home to Captain Lewis Bissell. When the house was built it was at the top of a hill (still is) but looked down toward 1500 acres of land and the Mississippi River. Today it looks down upon I-70 and the industrial riverfront. Surely not the view Bissell would have liked when he was alive. The Bissell Mansion is a success story of preservation. It was slated to be demolished for I-70 in the 1950s but was spared. Today it hosts dinner parties and mystery dinner theater events. I would think that at some point this street was populated by wealthy people. Some of the houses near the Bissell Mansion are as handsome as some of the houses in the Central West End. Not sure if it was truly a private place but I suspect it may have been.
Eventually I had to head back down to the Old North. It’s lovely riding back because it is all a slight downward slope. On top of it, the view of the Arch as I glide down 20th Street is simply one of the best views of the Arch in the city. I will also say the best views of the Arch in the city are from the 14th Street Mall, Blair, 20th Street and West Florissant. It never gets old.
I get back to the Old North neighborhood with still time to spare so I take a spin around the southern section of the neighborhood. It seems depressing in that some houses have gone into further ruin and some are gone. A corner bar recently was a victim of fire. I wish and I hope that something happens soon to this part of the neighborhood because it seems to be disappearing. It’s sad.
One thing I learned about a high noon ride is that I should have worn some sunscreen. Ended up with a nice burn. Worth it.