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Downtown to Downtown

The plan was to ride a little around downtown East St. Louis and then over the Eads Bridge into downtown St. Louis. That happened but not everything went as planned and overall it was sort of a terrible ride.

First of all I am getting over a bad cold and on top of it I had a migraine. My headache was literally making me feel nauseated. I was going to soldier on though. I started at the Metrolink station and made my way through the cold, barren streets and noticing a lot of bulldozed rubble and dirt in many lots. Piles of broken concrete, stone, brick, and giant holes in the ground. There has been a lot of demolition in the downtown area. I couldn’t think of what was there. I don’t know what the plans are to replace what used to be there. I do know where the old Murphy Building was and I was very sad when that was torn down. To say that East St. Louis has suffered some tough times is an understatement.

12718068_10209017774663841_8441347364081797652_nThere are two fantastically spectacular ornamented structures downtown that I really like. One is the Ainad Temple and other is the Majestic Theater. Both were built in the 1920s and feature colorful decorative tiles but are very different. The Ainad Temple’s decoration is more Arabic looking with some trim that looks like Arabic calligraphy. The entrance features rounded arches and Arabic columns. The Majestic Theater is grand and vertical with colorful tiles and intricate patterns and ornament. It is said to be the style of Spanish Gothic and designed by the Boller Brothers – known for their theater designs in the early 20th century. The theater is very unique looking but it was also special in that it was the first building in East St. Louis with a modern air conditioning system and it was the first theater in Southern Illinois to show “talkies”. The theater closed in the 1960. It’s crazy that it has sat abandoned for more than 56 years! It still stand but peppered with graffiti and weeds growing out of the facade.

I was also interested in the Spivey Building – the only real skyscraper in the city. It is 12 stories and is abandoned too. In fact you can see straight through the building at certain angles as most of the windows are broken out and the building looks gutted. It is also peppered with graffiti and is mostly in shambles. It still retains it architectural beauty though. It was built in 1927. It seems like the 1920s were good times for the city. Like neighboring St. Louis, it hit it’s peak in the 1950s and the decline since has been sharp. It was designed by Albert B. Frankel and features terra cotta spandrels that vertically separate it’s windows. It has an asymmetrical entrance and The top of the building features a two-story parapet with terra cotta decoration that surrounds the windows and seven capitals at its peak. The building was named after A.T. Spivey, who was editor of East St. Louis’s newspaper the Journal. The building next door must have been where the actual newspaper was located – it features a vertical sign that says Journal.

From there I headed over to the Eads Bridge to cross into St. Louis. I don’t have to stress how important the Eads Bridge is and I won’t. Right now there is a lot of construction on the bridge. There is a pedestrian walkway and it’s absolutely not made for bicycle traffic. It is narrow and riding across was treacherous with broken glass everywhere. I stopped for some pictures. The view of the Gateway Arch and the riverfront areas on both sides is great. This is where my bike ride was ruined.

stl-eadsI was approached by a guy who proceeded to creep me out and I really had no chance to get away. I don’t like being in a position where I can’t ride away if being approached. He tried to give me money and solicit sex from me. I wasn’t having it and just kept on talking and trying to get me to “hang out” with him. My idea is to try to get away by politely turning him down and just nudging my way out and saying I have to go and I’m on a time limit and have somewhere to be. It was annoying and frankly could have been dangerous. I didn’t feel particularly scared at that moment but after I got out and rode away thats where my mind starts going over the situation and I realize that I could have been in a dangerous situation. The more I thought the more I was really not enjoying myself. I was thinking that I have to cross that bridge again and he could be waiting for me. In fact when I got off the bridge I stopped for a min and I noticed he had turned around and was coming in my direction. I sped off and weaved through he downtown canyon. From there I just wanted to go home. I did make it over and back to my car without seeing him which was relieving.

The big thing I took from the ride mostly was maybe I should carry some mace.

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Campsite Conversation

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.

stbridgetoferinI 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.

st-leoI 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?

tumsSomberly 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.

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Welcome to the Velodrome

Today’s trip was to take me to the Penrose Park Velodrome. If you are not familiar with this place it is pretty special. It is an outdoor velodrome – one of 27 velodromes in the United States. It’s just off Kingshighway near I-70 on the city’s north side. Anyone can ride on it – open from dawn to dusk in a public park. That’s pretty cool.

IMG_1893I typically start my rides between 7:30am and 8:00am and today was no different. I really wanted to get my GoPro back out and I broke my helmet clip so I had to figure out how to use my handle bar clips. Actually it worked out pretty good. I wanted to go around the track with the GoPro but I try to record my whole ride – you never know what you may ride up upon in the city. I even debated going since it was a pretty cold morning. I think when I started in was in the 30s. It was sunny and the sky had that orangish-yellow light that was a bit misty. I have really grown to like morning light. It isn’t as warm as the light at sunset but it’s great too. Totally underrated. I’ll also tell you that the morning can yield you some great stuff like low morning fog over the river and just the river. The steam that comes out of the ground on cold mornings with that morning light is great. Mornings on the weekends are great for riding because the streets are just less crowded. There are less people out.

I started off in the Central West End – straight up on Boyle and was caught by the sight of a house being demolished on Enright so I had to take a look at that. Two houses, twins. Painted white with an arched front window. These are houses that are very similar to houses just a few blocks south in the CWE but even as some are great others are empty or are deteriorating. They are rough diamonds while the ones south are polished. At one time they were all middle class neighborhoods in a city that was thriving – high off of the Worlds Fair of 1904.

I head further north, past MLK, past Page and I start meandering. Going west, going north…like a jagged stairstep pattern. The houses get smaller and the density gets lighter. The vacant lots get larger and many old brick houses and buildings are falling down, missing walls, boarded, burnt out. Then pockets of well kept places. I see very few people. I come across a school, Hickey Elementary school. Near Cora and Greer. It is a modern building in which most of the building is raised off the ground by pillars and you can walk under it. There is a central entrance under the building. The pillars are all colorfully painted, the concrete walls are painted. They all look like kids paintings and it brings a lot of color. Maybe it doesn’t follow the sensibilities of Modernism but you see it’s interaction with the children and community. I rode under and looked at the paintings and continued on.

Onward north, I head into Natural Bridge and then into the Penrose neighborhood. I haven’t ever been in the Penrose area. The housing is still dense and has a wide variety of architectural styles but some areas take on more of suburban feel. Neighborhood is still very much intact. I rode past a pretty bad car wreck…two cars banged up on the corner. One of the cars pushed up into a yard. It didn’t look like anyone was hurt bad though. I just flew past. No need to gawk. Police and ambulance was there.

The neighborhood takes it’s name from Clement B. Penrose. He lived on a nearby estate and was appointed land commissioner in 1805 by Thomas Jefferson. Another person that owned land early on in this area was Henry Clay, a shaper of the Missouri Compromise. Most of the early residents were of German heritage and came into the area in the 1880s. From what I read the area saw it’s boom in the 1920s. I know that Rexall Drug Company opened their plant and headquarters nearby in 1922. There was a GM plant and other factories nearby. I think there were ammunition factories that supplied the troops during World War 2 nearby too. I’d say most of the houses probably stem from that era but there are many older styles that say people lived here prior.

That said, I find my way to Penrose Park and have to get over the railroad tracks that separate the Velodrome from the rest of the park. One thing that is striking about the velodrome is how steep the embanked curves are. Once I start riding I find that riding a velodrome is not easy or for the the faint-of-heart. It is hard and I honestly just couldn’t get up on those embankments. I felt like I was going to slide or fall over and it was a feeling I didn’t like. I have total respect for people that can do this. I rode maybe 5-6 laps and had enough. I rather come and watch riders round what they lovingly call “Mr. Bumpy Face”. It is bumpy and has cracks – which adds to the scariness of it.

United Drug Company [United-Rexall Drug Company].  3915 North Kingshighway.  Photograph by Joseph Hampel, 1946.  Joseph Hampel Album. p. 8a. Acc. # 1998.94. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections. NS 23692. Scan © 2007, Missouri Historical Society. {"subject_uri":"http://collections.mohistory.org/resource/18460","local_id":"34610"}From there I head into the industrial area between Kingshighway and Union. I’m unsure of all the old factories but there is the 7-story Rexall Drug Company building. It is white and looks very rough with lots of windows (the ones that looks like grids). Today it is a warehouse for cars and boats and they have car auctions. Basically it’s an auction house for cars. Rexall closed in 1985 and 1,000s lost their jobs. They manufactured drugs, medicines, cosmetics and where one of the largest drug makers in the country and had drug stores all over. I think they got acquired by another company via a hostile takeover. There are a bunch of low rise nondescript buildings, webs of old railroad tracks. You can see old cobblestone under broken asphalt. In the distance looking west you can see the old Chevy/GM plant (which moved it’s operations down south so it wouldn’t have to pay it’s workers union wages or something – it was a closing that made people very upset. North St. Louis was a center of manufacturing in the city and deindustrialization in the late 20th century really hurt the north side a lot. I rode through some lots and took a look and some of the old shuttered factories. I’m not sure what I can say about them cause I just don’t know enough about them.

Then it was time to head back. I zig-zagged through a neighborhood called Kingsway West. It’s a strip of land that is bounded by Natural Bridge on the North, MLK at the south and between Kingshighway and Union. Next time I’m up there I will have to take a look at a mid-century suburban development that is in this neighborhood that I have read about – seems important. What I love about these old neighborhoods are the old signs – ones that are more mid-century to handpainted ones on small stores. One that caught my eye was one of Malcolm X and President Obama on the corner of St. Louis Ave and Norwood. I love seeing the messy human element, stuff from the past most of suburbia will not allow because of ordinances. Nothing is pristine or highly manicured. It looks lived in and you can see the history all around. It doesn’t feel fake.

Headed down Union and then made a right onto Wells-Goodfellow. I just went up a hill for a block and headed south. Mostly I just wanted to get off Union. Then I headed east on MLK and hopped on Academy and headed south. In the Academy neighborhood, the houses get more grand. Similar to ones in the DeBaliviere Place and Central West End. Many are wonderfully kept with stone faces, towers. They are big but not mansions. It’s fun to just ride up and down these streets. I think this was the neighborhood that was the model for the one in Meet Me in St. Louis. Kensignton goes right though it but I think the house that inspired the one that was in the movie was torn down. It’s a really interesting neighborhood. I think Academy got it’s name from an actual academy that was part of a church.

corner-muralFrom there it was surviving riding down Delmar onto Kingshighway. By this time, the world has woken up and people are walking around the Central West End getting coffee, exercising. I ride down roads with houses very similar to what I saw just a few blocks north but the experience and feel is very different. You see two places that have gone down different paths. One has got more affluent with private places that seem so far removed from the reality of just a few blocks north. I see stores, restaurants, mostly white people. Just a few blocks north are nice houses but really no commercial development, pockets of abandonment and houses crumbling and mostly black people. It is impossible NOT to see that divide and wonder why it is like this. However, everywhere I go I see decent people just going about their daily lives. I haven’t experienced the ugliness I see on the news every morning – a person shot in north city, a homicide in north city. I say hello to people. They say hello back. I see people working on their old houses, old cars, sitting on their stoop, going to the corner store, grilling (yes, at 9am in the morning). It’s a place no different than anywhere else.

Sensory Notes: Smell of the morning was marijuana. I just could smell it everywhere. Sound of the morning was of the dinging of a railroad crossing and a locomotive rumbling. I didn’t taste anything except for coffee when I got back home. Touch? I don’t think I touched anything other than my stuff, myself (not in THAT way), the cold air, and my bike. I saw a lot of stuff but I really liked a house on the corner of Academy and Raymond and the Rexall Drug Company Building a lot.

Other notable things: Abusive anti-abortion protestor holding up baby cloths and shouting at some poor woman. A car spewing white smoke on Page, some dude walking on Delmar – in the road – and right in my bike path (which gave me a bad feeling) and toward me but I swerved around him. I thought I would have to give him a bike kick.

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New Direction

IMG_1832Previous posts have all revolved around observational drawings I had been doing of various buildings on the north side of St. Louis. Unfortunately I haven’t been doing these drawings so therefore no blog posts have been posted in a long time.

Over the past year I’ve been biking all over the city of St. Louis on a quest to visit every neighborhood and incorporate structures from each neighborhood into a series of drawings. This has been well underway for about six months or so. In fact, this summer I will be having a show of these at the Third Degree Glass Factory (more details will come later).

I will still continue to add drawings to my portfolio but I want to push the blog into a new direction. I want steer this blog into being more about the bike rides – my experiences, observations, and anything I learn from the ride. These rides typically take me through many neighborhoods and are meandering unplanned journeys. The bike rides inform my art, they inspire me and help me see the city in new ways.

I am not a bike advocate or represent anyone. However, I do believe St. Louis is a great place to see on a bike. It is the best way to explore and see the unique differences of each neighborhood. On the bike I have seen the many architectural styles that this city is blessed with but theres more. I have experienced the varying topography, street grids, interactions with people, the weather, the smells and more. There is no barrier between me and the environment and the communities. Biking is a free, self-propelled physical activity that I find fun and challenging. I also feel a sense of freedom and exploration – no constraints on where I can go. I’m always wondering what is down the road or what is around the corner. This is something that makes me feel like a kid.

I have always loved cycling but haven’t always done it as much as I wanted. When I was a kid, riding my bike up and down the street with my neighborhood friends was fun. Fun fact: My first bike was an E.T. Bike. It was red and had solid wheels and white plastic spokes. See one here. As I got older the boundaries expanded. I’d be allowed to bike around the block, then the whole neighborhood, then to the gas station to get candy, then I would start exploring the countryside. It was the 1980s and my parents were fine with letting me outside until it got dark. I knew to be back when the streetlights came on. When I was in my teens I liked riding in the country to see where the roads would take me. I always wondered how far I could go. Sometimes I ended up in a different town. I would study maps in the phone book and try to memorize as much as I could. Those were the days without mobile/smart phones so I had no map on hand and no way to call for help. I’d just take some water. It was completely self-guided, self-sufficient and sometimes I’d get a little worried but I would always find my way and be fine. It certainly fed my independent spirit. Unfortunately when I finally got a car, job, and started college my bike riding wen’t down the tubes and would only be something I’d do every-once-in-awhile and only done on a marked trail or to and from school. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun but it’s not the same as wandering and exploring. It was more like exercise/transport that was strictly utilitarian.

These rides remind me of when I was younger but instead of exploring a sea of cornfields and soybeans in the Illinois countryside, I explore the brick and concrete urban jungle and it’s history. Now I got some biking to do!