Most rides are typical in the fact that I ride around and find things I want to see, take photographs, think and enjoy myself. Today, I thought that would be the case. In fact, I was planning on today’s ride to be short. I had a couple things on my mental itinerary: to check out the demolition progress of St. Bridget of Erin and to check out the Tums building near the baseball stadium. Anything in between would be gravy. Well, I got a lot of gravy.
I first made my way north of the City Museum going up 18th street to Carr. Today, none of this area is very interesting. Theres a lot of uninspiring housing projects, open fields, some suburban-type sprawling warehouses. There just not much there of interest to me. However it’s past is more interesting. It’s roughly the area that was called Kerry Patch. It was an area in which most of the early Irish immigrants to St. Louis settled. It was called Kerry Patch because the earliest settlers were from Kerry County in Ireland and patch was a place that was home. My guess is that they started coming over in the 1840s or so and the immigrants were very poor. The homes built were clapboard frame houses and were built at the sidewalk/road edge which by the 1900s were replaced with tenement style structures. There were many homeless and very crowded. The streets were muddy and it was known as a slum with crime, gangs and hardship. In short it was a rough place to live. Riding down the asphalt streets and open spaces, low slung buildings, the urban forest of Pruitt-Igoe, it’s hard to imagine that past.
That takes me to the demolition of St. Bridget of Erin. This was an Irish Catholic church that would have been on the far west edge of Kerry Patch. This is one of many Catholic churches in the area. St. Bridget was built in 1859 and that makes it one of or if not the last structure left from Kerry Patch. I really just don’t know if anything is left at this point. The church was one of the five oldest in the city. Architecturally speaking it’s a big loss. Many may ask how could this happen? First there is not “preservation review” in that ward. If one wants to tear down a building, it doesn’t matter what it’s historical significance is, it can be demolished without question.
It’s sad but this would have never have happened if the surrounding communities were not destroyed. If it was still a thriving area, that church may still be operating. To the west it is a neighborhood that has suffered mass populations loss and in turn there are many horribly deteriorating houses, vacant lots and an environment that is severely depressed. To the north, it isn’t much better. The former site of Pruitt-Igoe haunts the area as a big urban forest – still empty since the demolition in the 1970s. The area immediately north of P-I is a vast grid of empty lots except for a few spots. To the east and south are not empty or crumbling but its newer housing projects, open fields, and suburban style developments like large sprawling warehouses and I know of a strip-mall. I pedal my way around checking up on some buildings I have drawn and seeing what is still around. Buildings disappear fast. As for buildings disappearing, St. Bridget is close to gone. I was there Friday evening and much of the nave was still up – opened up to expose it’s rib-cage. All that is gone. Metal flapped in the wind amongst piles of bricks.
I then rode into the mostly empty grid of St. Louis Place, an area directly north of the old Pruitt-Igoe site. currently it is a proposed site for the National Geospatial Agency which is currently in south St. Louis but needs to move. The city is trying to keep it and they believe this spot is the best for it in the city. There are still families that live in this area and many aren’t too happy about it. I rode past the old Buster Brown Shoe factory and over through a patch of houses. On the corner of 23rd and Mullanphy (named after a prominent Irish family in St. Louis) were a group of men, a campfire, some signs and an tent. Another things about this corner is that it was the site of a church – St. Leo (an Irish Catholic church built in 1888 that was closed in 1963 and razed in 1978). There are a few houses nearby that probably date back to the 1870s-80s. I rode past and I knew why they were there and I got the gumption to turn around and maybe talk to them. I was curious about what they had to say. I’m not a very socially outgoing person so this was a big deal for me. I met 4 men (one left midway through so I didn’t get his name) who are camping out in protest of the NGA.
The men I talked to were Gustavo Rendon, Larry Chapman and Terry (didn’t give a last name). They were very friendly and willing to give me their time to answer my questions about the neighborhood and what is happening. I was curious about their take. These are men in which have lived in the neighborhood for a long time, some since the 1960s or so. They explained that many these houses go back generations in ownership and there is a lot of pride in having these old brick homes.
I was curious to what brought the neighborhood to where it is now and it was explained. These are people that saw the neighborhood go from dense community to slowly over time losing buildings until it is where it is today. It wasn’t a massive land clearing like I thought it may have been. At first it was white flight and just over time as people left there was abandonment, many rentals were managed by bad landlords and then in turn the tenants were bad. This leads to more people leaving. Then as more people leave there are less city services and more people leave. I think what frustrates them the most is that it seems as though the city didn’t care and wanted it this way.
Anything that was put forth from a grassroots standpoint was shot down. I was handed a two-inch thick development plan put together in the 1990s. I gathered it didn’t matter what the residents there wanted. They wanted to make the community better, to build it back up but no one was having it. The city wanted to push out people they considered undesirable and make a land grab for developers. Then there came Paul McKee and was buying up land, getting houses by eminent domain and pushing families out of their homes – only for the houses to rot as nothing happened. Right now Gustavo is waiting in limbo not knowing if the city is going to take his house or not. They may take his house and the NGA may not even move in! He wants an answer so his family can know if they can stay or move on. It’s very stressful to be going through something like this. They can’t sell their house on the moment cause of the threat of eminent domain. He is camping on that corner lot and is fasting until he gets an answer. Larry was telling me about how the cost of service and taxes go up while services get cut. On top of it he sees that tax money going straight into developers pockets and the city not listening to their concerns. To me it sounds like taking from the poor and giving to the rich. It comes down to citizens in the United States NOT having a voice in what happens in their communities and leadership catering to the rich and getting pet projects leadership wants without regard to the people in which they serve.
I pedaled away on the brick street past the old Mullanphy Tenement building feeling sad, a little angry and just frustrated. It was very moving for me to hear people affected by this speak to me personally about what is happening in their community. These are stories you can’t really understand by just reading a newspaper or watching the local news. There is not that human element, that connection that gives a person empathy. It’s easy to take the side of the city cause as an outsider I may just see brick, buildings, empty land and say that the NGA is a good thing that will spur redevelopment and make things better. There is no other choice and it’s better than nothing. Then I think after hearing all that is that this is not the best we can do. We can do better. Why can’t we do better?
Somberly pedaling toward downtown again, I just try to enjoy the warm weather, the sights. I speed down Locust and into the canyon of downtown. I look at the Laclede Gas Building, The Railroad Exchange, the spiraling ramp of a parking garage and make my way toward the Gateway Arch. I think of the mass land clearance for that, the city going against people’s wishes to build this memorial. It just goes on and on. By the way the cap over I-70 is great and the view of the Arch and the Old Courthouse are great. It was just great to take in the sunshine and look that the beautiful structure.
Then to the other reason I went bike riding – to see the Tums building. I really love the signage on it and the sleek modern look. There are Art Deco aspects to it at the ground level but overall it’s an International Style building. It was built in 1933 and designed by the Widmer Engineering Company. I really like that building in it’s simplicity.
This ride turned out to be like nothing I was expecting. It was still as long as my ride yesterday. It was emotionally exhausting but completely worthwhile. It was a great learning experience and one of those rides I won’t forget in a while. It hit me hard.