Monks Mound

Chasing Clouds Through Parks

I bike to find the extraordinary that is all around us. The world may seem mundane as we speed past everything in our automobiles. Biking for me is about the act of exploring seemingly normal surroundings and find something about the that is surprising, beautiful, educational and sometimes emotionally moving.

I haven’t biked at all this weekend since the weather has been sort of bad. On this first day of Spring it snowed. Not much but it’s enough to keep me inside and watch Netflix curled up under a warm blanket eating cereal and drinking coffee.

I did go on a bike ride on Tuesday evening because it was really nice out AND because of Daylight Savings it doesn’t get dark so early. I can stay out till around 7:30. It’s awesome. Normally I like to ride in St Louis and explore places but I stayed closer to home. I was just going to get on the MCT Schoolhouse Trail and head toward Horseshoe Lake and ride around the lake and come back. However, in mid-ride and decided on a lark to go down some roads I wasn’t too familiar with. With a brisk headwind, I headed south to another road that took me over I-255 and further south. I had a feeling I may end up in State Park. It was going to be a struggle in the headwinds. It’s very flat so no worries of hills to add to the difficulty. The idea really was to just relax and enjoy the warm weather.

grandpas-enterI passed by some farms and some marshland with ponds. I saw a few turtles and wanted to stop to look at them basking in the sun, they somehow knew I was around even though I wasn’t that close. They scurried into the water. I did hope to get some pictures but that was dashed. So onward. I head over another bridge that goes over I-55 and I can see Fairmount Park (a horse racing track) isn’t too far away and I’m heading into State Park. I see some horses in a small pasture and want to take a look at them. They see me and walk away. They seem to have an eye on me and seem very suspicious about my presence. I snap some photos and just look at them. They get bored of me and I guess think I’m not a threat and go back to eating and ignore me. The horses are not that big. I don’t know much about horses but my guess was they were pretty young. They are also close to the horse track so they are probably used there. I don’t know. It’s a guess.

State Park Place, if you’re not familiar, is a small unincorporated community where it’s western border is Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. It is a rough and tumble looking community – hardscrabble and possibly doesn’t have a great reputation. It’s a community without regulations or zoning and all that stuff incorporated towns and cities do. Some houses look horrible, mixed with trailers, trash and rubbish in yards – this includes cars and boats on cinder blocks, dogs running around (I was chased at one point), chickens running around. It’s not picturesque. Anyway it’s not wealthy and there is a large community of Mexican immigrants. You can see the stores from western wear to Mexican Markets, restaurants and such.

moundpaintingsI find myself being judgmental and have to fight myself from being that way. I know many that say it’s just a trashy place full of “white trash” and Mexicans and whatever. It isn’t well kept and isn’t a beautiful place but it is home. Home is home. Some people prefer to live in places like this to not have to pay for city services and taxes. Though there are many reasons why people live in places and it isn’t that they are bad people. I realize my thoughts have bias and what I am thinking speaks of classist thoughts. It’s the thinking that I am better than them. I am being judgmental and snobbish. Calling someone “white trash” is saying a person has no worth cause of their social economic class – being poor and white is worthless. I bike and I’m aware that I’m making judgements but what I see and interpret may not be the whole picture or may be entirely wrong. Essentially it is best that I not deem a whole population of people as worthless. I’m sure many work hard and ALL people have value in some way. That may sound hippie-ish but everyone, even criminals, can love and have worth.

I head through the deserted old parking lot of Grandpa Pidgeons (an old St. Louis discount store that went out of business decades ago). I remember going there as a child with my parents sometimes. This stretch of Collinsville Rd used to be part of Highway 40 before the interstate highways so it was a main road to get to St. Louis and 40 was highway many people traveled. There were stores such as Kroger, a K-Mart, motels, a Venture and some restaurants. Today most of that is all gone due to I-55 running almost parallel. Travelers no longer had to take 40. The commerce mostly dried up. However it goes right through Cahokia Mounds – a World Heritage site and the site of Cahokia – the largest city in North America at one point. They built huge earth mounds all around. There were some in St. Louis. Their people are all gone but the mounds and artifacts remain. People take side trips to climb the biggest mound, Monks Mound to get a great view of the St. Louis skyline and the surrounding area. Before Cahokia Mounds was deemed a state site, many of the mounds were destroyed. I was told to build the structure for Grandpa Pidgeons, they had to tear down mounds. People just didn’t see the value in them. Grandpa Pidgeons is closed today and is in bad shape with trees growing on the roof. It gets hit by taggers and graffiti. Those painting over the graffiti got clever in painting silhouettes of mounds over the spray paint.

Monks MoundBy the time I get here I am close to magic hour. Plus there are some great cloud formations. The light is just great. People are climbing the mounds, running up the stairs. I have to get some pictures of the sky. I don’t have too much to say about the park other than it was the first time I had ever biked there and it’s didn’t take too long.

What was even better was riding my bike back to my car. The wind was at my back and it probably took half the time to get back. It was like I was flying. The clouds were getting darker as the sun was going down. I make it back to my car and I see a flash. It is lightning. Those puffy clouds I was looking at and taking pictures of turned in the storm clouds and I made it back just before it started raining.

10554231_560357424124032_2144883462_n

Hills to Clear The Mind

Today my ride was more about clearing my head than seeing anything. I did hit a couple new neighborhoods and biked more through Forest Park. The morning was cool but it was damp, cloudy and dark. Not ideal but it could be worse. There was some rain that was actually more of a mist than anything.

I’m not saying I didn’t see anything interesting but I just wasn’t that focused on it as much. I didn’t take many pictures. I just thought and huffed and puffed a lot. This ride was mostly about forgetting about all the political nonsense going on right now that has sent my stress level to an unhealthy level. It’s the type of stress that causes me high anxiety and endless ruminating on things I can’t control. It sends me into a ranting and inconsolable angry mess. I don’t like feeling powerless and unable to see a meaningful future that is hopeful. I am always hopeful for a better future cause I typically see the present as a unmitigated disaster or just boring. I just don’t have a sunny disposition or have unrelenting positivity about the present so I hope for a better future where I learn to be happier. I’m not sure how to make that happen.

I’m not saying NOTHING makes me happy. Many things make me happy or bring joy but it’s always tempered by some underlying doom. So I hope to be happier but in my soul I know that it may never happen. It’s just how it is so maybe I should just own it and like it.

wfpav-postcardAnyway, I started at the World’s Fair Pavilion that actually wasn’t there during the pinnacle of St. Louis history that was the 1904 World’s Fair. The pavilion is rather nice and I look it with the thought that it would be a great place for a wedding. It’s on a terraced hill and features waterfalls and features. The pavilion it self has this southwestern look with curved clay tiles on the roof, arched columns. I bet people have weddings there all the time. The pavilion opened in 1910 as a gift from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Committee. It was designed by Henry Wright, with George E. Kessler, a landscaper.

Looking more into Henry Wright I learn he did many things in St. Louis. He designed the private subdivisions Brentmoor Park, Brentmoor, and Forest Ridge in Clayton. They were platted in 1910, 1911, and 1913. He was also instrumental in creating the design for Hi-Pointe subdivision between 1917 and 1923. The area just south of the southwest corner of Forest Park. He also did work in other cities such as Pittsburgh, New York City, Washington DC and other places on the east coast.

Another things Henry Wright is known for is that he was a major proponent of the Garden City. It was method of urban planning that was conceived in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the United Kingdom. The vision was utopian and intention was to create highly organized, self-contained communities surrounded by “greenbelts”. There would be designated areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. I haven’t looked into this too much but it sounds like the concept of suburbanization – there would be a central cities with little cities around it with highly organized and separate spaces for housing, industry, commercial development. I’ll call it “zoning”. I think the idea was to create healthier environments for people to attain a higher quality of life. This was in opposition of the old, dirty, polluted, unorganized cities where factories and businesses and people were all were mixed together.

So I climbed up the hill by the Art Museum, swept down curvy winding hills passing people on morning walks, jogs and walking their dogs. I weaved through the forest on bumpy paths of mostly potholed concrete and gravel. I eventually made my way around the Zoo and over to cross the highway at Tamm. I made pedaled past the Bob Cassily created Turtle Park without giving it much notice. I swung over on to Oakland and then into the Clayton-Tamm neighborhood. The scenery was mostly brick multifamily housing that is distinctly different to the architecture closer to downtown. My guess is most of this was built in the 1920s-1930s and some later. The neighborhood is also known as Dogtown and it a neighborhood known for it’s Irish heritage and you will see that in the numerous pubs, and places decorated in green, shamrocks and such. It is St. Patrick’s Day weekend so I’m sure that area will be buzzing with activity. Headed south and east the houses are pretty ordinary, modest and lots of shotgun houses. Go further you will head downhill to Manchester.

I then swung up on to Macklind where it’s mostly light industry with some offices. One place is called American Pulverizer – that sounds like could maybe be the title of a book or movie. It would have to be something violent and action packed. I don’t think that is what is there now but it is carved into stone so it’s there forever. I was attracted by the White Castle regional office building which looks just like one of their restaurants. It’s white with a crenelated tower and their logo. All I could think of were chicken ring sliders. I love those things. I think I like them more than the burgers. I decide to turn around and breeze down the hill through the mist and cross Manchester and go into The Hill.

10554231_560357424124032_2144883462_nFirst though I stop on the bridge before the big hill to go into The Hill. It crosses what I think is the River Des Peres. At this point I think it is just a big open sewer. It is mostly empty right now and the bed is covered in concrete. The river used to snake through Forest Park but it was heavily modified for the World’s Fair probably for sanitary reasons. I think I read something about it being swampy and was known for harboring cholera and other water borne diseases. Eventually the river was buried. That said what a person sees of the River Des Peres today doesn’t resemble a natural river. It just looks like a wide concrete channel that goes through the south side and forms the southern border of the city and county. It eventually empties into the Mississippi. It looked nearly empty today but if it rains a lot it will fill up and can cause some flooding like it did around this past New Years.

I then huff and puff slowly cranking up the hill. I will mention Dogtown and Forest Park isn’t entirely flat. There was a lot of hill climbing. The climbing is really what clears the head cause there the thinking is for survival. Its breathe, breathe, breathe. Go. Go. Go. Keep going. Don’t quit. You can do this. Almost there. This is all as your legs are burning and getting tighter. Once to the top it is such a great relief and i just coast a little to get my composure. I’m not thin and fit. I’m middle aged and a bit chunky so I’m sure it doesn’t look graceful.

The Hill is the center of all that is Italian in St. Louis. Honestly, when I got up the hill the the scent of food cooking was mouth watering. Whatever it was, I bet it was heavenly but I got other things to do. I really didn’t spend much time in the neighborhood. A lot of modest homes, some shotgun, some simple one-story ranches that looked mid-century, some “gingerbread” tudors. It’s a variety but not big mansions or the more opulent styles just north of Forest Park. North was more upperclass and south was more working class.

magic-chefI retraced my route down Macklind and then I wanted to check out the old Magic Chef building which is now a big U-Haul storage area. It doesn’t look like much with all the corrugated metal cladding but it is a significant piece of midcentury modern architecture. It was built in 1947 and it’s architect was Harris Armstrong. It was in the International Style and there are not many buildings in St. Louis like it. It had big curtain windows on the south and east side. The west side has this tall brick tower jutting out. One part is rectangular and the brick portion is angular like a knife cutting into the glass and metal structure.

What may be more significant is the fact that there is a hidden Isamu Noguchi designed ceiling that is still there but under a drop ceiling. I hear it may be uncovered someday. That would be awesome to see. The curtain windows may never be uncovered again. I think it was said the cladding probably damaged it and it’s all in bad shape.

Here a little article about it from St. Louis Public Radio. Click to read.

The rest of the ride is getting back on Oakland and riding by what used to the the Forest Park Highlands that I never got to see. It was an amusement park that was around from 1896 to 1963. You can see lots of pictures and learn more about the pace here. Today Forest Park Community College occupies the space. I also ride past where the old Arena was. I do remember that pace. I went there some as a child to see the Ice Capades and other kid friendly stuff. It was the Blues used to place. I won’t hash out too much on it since there is a lot of stuff about it on the web, I am sure.

Here’s a video of the implosion. It was quite the spectacle! Lots of booms! Watch on YouTube.

From there it was past new glass structures for mixed use development, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, the vacant land left from the old Forest Park Hospital. The Zoo is supposed to do something with it. From there it was returning back via the bike/running trail and dodging runners and returning to the madness of life.

12718068_10209017774663841_8441347364081797652_n

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.

stbridgetoferin

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.

IMG_1893

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.

IMG_1832

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!

Monroe Tree House

Monroe Treehouse

Monroe-TreeHouse

Some places have surprises or they just are not what they seem. From the front, it’s another boarded up house and looks to be in fairly decent shape. Then you walk around to the back and your perception changes. It is another boarded up house and it’s another house that has a giant chunk taken out of the back. I imagine it’s probably due to brick thieves.

Also it isn’t uncommon to find trees and other plant-life growing in and on vacant buildings. This tree doesn’t look to be rooted in the house but it is growing into the house. I can’t really see everything happening with this in that there are some giant plywood boards creating a fence around the exposed rear. Probably to keep people out for both the safety of the people and of the building.

This house is estimated to built around 1907. As with a lot of houses in St. Louis, I assume many to be older than I find out they are. It very well could be older. The front is red brick with a mansard type roof which would make me think that it is older, like 1870s-1890s. It’s a pretty modest house with simple dentils and the original shingles (probably slate) are gone and are replaces with brown shingles you’d find on recent new houses. The front door(s) are ground level and are right on the sidewalk. No front yard. It looks like there may have been 2 front doors. One going to a ground level flat and the other to a second floor flat. One door as a couple white stone steps that sit atop a worn, weed strewn sidewalk – or what is left of a sidewalk.

This portion of Monroe St, near N 14th Street is mostly vacant lots but are typically cut and maintained. Across the street from this house is a collapsed ruin of a multi-family house that was probably built around the same time. There is also a small one-story shotgun type house next door to this one with a worn asphalt shingle facade that covers the brick. The windows have white awnings. It looks worn but seems tended to. Further west on the same block near Blair, the houses on the corner have been rehabbed and look very nice.

I did this drawing sometime in October of 2014. Probably late in the month. It was colorful. It’s a comfortable time in that it isn’t too cold yet. The leaves haven’t all left the trees – some are hanging on. I remember there was a concrete pad in the back near the alley. That is where I set up to start the drawing. It was well shaded and I’m pretty sure it was in the evening when I did this. There were some people around. I think there was an event at a nearby building that is on the corner of North Market and 14th. Mainly kids. I did encounter one guy walking down the alley and he took a peek at my drawing but really not much conversation. Just some friendly words.

I didn’t do many outdoor drawings after this one. Once November comes around, the daylight hours are shorter and the temperatures start to take a nosedive. It becomes really difficult to get out and most of my drawings are made and finished on my kitchen tables. It isn’t like I stop going out. I don’t. I take pictures and work from the photos and sometimes it just seems easier to do so.

1409 Monroe - October

1409 Monroe – October

Double Exposure- Diana F+

Double Exposure- Diana F+

Front of 1409 Monroe from 14th St.

Front of 1409 Monroe from 14th St.

Blair Shack

Blair Shack

BlairShack

The little one is pretty underwhelming when compared to all the old Victorian era brick houses that are all around Old North St. Louis. This one is a little wood frame one story shotgun style of house. Right next to it is a tall 2 bay wide, brick 3-story mansard roof fronted house that was built in 1886 (est). The same website I am getting dates from (click here) states this was build the same year, 1886. For some reason I have doubts. I could be wrong. I do know that it is owned by Blairmont Association Ltd. This is essentially a rotting property Paul McKee owns….and seems to intend for it to rot. There is also a cool little house on the corner of Palm and Blair (1501 Palm), built in 1885 (est), that seems to be just getting in worse and worse shape every time I see it. It’s a two-story 3 bay wide brick house with a mansard roof. Last time I saw it the mansard roof had completely collapsed and there is a pile of roof and slate shingles nearly all over the sidewalk. The rear of the house is almost gone and the inside is completely exposed to the elements. I’m not sure how long that one will survive. You can look at older pictures of the house on Built St. louis.

Across the street is pretty much all vacant lots close to Strodtman Park. I know I drew this in the summer of 2014 and sat near the sidewalk in one of those lots. It was littered with discarded tires. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was standing water in those tires and midway through drawing I was being attacked by mosquitos. However, once I start the drawing I don’t stop until I have the general sketch drawn out and proportions worked out at least. I can get the details and values and such worked out at home. I always take a photo from exactly where I sit or stand. Anyway, I left with a drawing and legs covered in mosquito bites that night. I also remember just series of cars stopping in front of a house just to the north and waiting for someone to come out to the car. Someone would come out to the car. Then the car would leave. This happened several times and all different vehicles. That doesn’t seem normal to me. It makes me think something illegal is going on. I’ve never seen really disturbing things but a few things that seem suspicious and weird. However, no one has ever scared me or been unfriendly. Anyone I have talked to on the street have been very friendly and inquisitive.

Anyway, what is this little wood frame “shack” doing here? Is it possible that actually another brick house similar to the one next door stood here and it was demolished and this wood frame house with brick veneer slapped on was built on the same foundation in it’s place? I just don’t buy that it was built in the 1880s considering almost everything from that era is brick.

3211 and 3215 Blair

3211 and 3215 Blair

Corner of Blair and Palm

Corner of Blair and Palm.

Palm St 1983

Palm St 1983. Photo by Jane M. Porter.

Corner Invasion

St Louis Place Corner

stlplace-nmarketcorner

I find it really hard to blog and keeping up with what I am doing. Essentially I have a stack of drawings that I haven’t even documented formally and it has become overwhelming. So I have to start somewhere. This is a building on N Market in the St. Louis Place neighborhood. With this one I have managed to capture the building in focus but also the context to an extent. In the background there is the old brewery and the line of houses along North 20th Street.

I know I drew this in the middle of last summer and sat along the edge of a community garden across the street. I’m sure where that garden was, there were buildings of some sort there. Also I am sure there was something right next to the building I did draw – on both sides. Most are gone. Just vacant weed infested lots. St Louis Place is a neighborhood with clusters of buildings/houses and then areas of vast vacant lots that make you question if you are really in a city or not. When I ride my bike through here I am reminded of when I was a kid in Troy, IL and riding my bike out on the back roads in the middle of nowhere.

What strikes me about this place, built in 1898 (est), which used to be a store at ground level and maybe apartments on the top levels, is the cast iron “columns” that are stylized to look like classical columns. A lot of the woodwork is heavily damaged, or missing but what is left looks well crafted and intricate. I notice this more in the woodwork in the dormers. There are intricate patterns and corbeling along the cornice. The mansard roof looks in tact but if you take a look from above via Google Maps, you will learn that the roof is nearly gone. This winter, once the leaves of the trees were bare, more of the building on the west side was revealed and it isn’t pretty. It’s crumbling. The building is literally being squeezed by the trees and plants that surround it. Nature is gobbling it up. It’s hard to imagine people from the neighborhood walking in and buying milk or whatever and walking out, hanging out – it being alive.

When I was drawing a long time resident came out wondering what I was doing (this happens sometimes) and of course I show him what I am working on. In general, it opens up a conversation and he was telling me about the place and honestly I don’t remember much but he does remember when the block I was sitting in and the lots surrounding this building were full. He has lived in the neighborhood since he was a kid in the 1960s. When the neighborhood was sliding into disrepair and people were leaving he bought a bunch of properties for very cheap just to the west of N 20th along N Market and he rents them out. I really wish I could remember more and that makes me think I should record conversations if they consent and take their pictures. Either way, I should keep tabs on this one, for it wouldn’t surprise me if it were demolished soon.

North Market

North Market

View from N 20th Street

View from N 20th Street

Howard Street Three

The Howard Street Three

Howard Street Three

These three are just to the east of the other house I drew that is on Howard street. This is close to the corner of Howard and North 22nd St in the St Louis Place neighborhood. This one is a little bit closer to the old Columbia/Falstaff Brewery. To the east of 22nd, the area becomes more inhabited with some newer multi-family units, rehabbed rowhouses, and the old brewery. To the west of 22nd the grid turns into an “urban prairie” that I find haunting but alluring.

Across the street from these houses are small Victorian-era brick houses. I would describe one as a brick “shotgun” house with decorative brick corbelling, a roof that is slightly terraced toward the alley. It has one window at the front with shutters and the front door to the left with a small wood deck, a stone foundation, and the small front yard has a damaged white picket fence near the sidewalk. According to here, it was built around 1885. The other one has a roof that slopes toward the street with one dormer. It looks like a one-story from the road but from the side it has two-stories with what looks like a later wood frame addition to the back. This one seems to have more in common with the Second Empire townhouses across the street and was built in 1895. It has a more recessed front door with some painted wood moulding in the entryway, smooth stone foundation at the front, white stone lintels, some brick corbeling along the cornice that is more simple than the other. However, I think it has the front sloped gable roof with dormer that reminds me of Federal Style houses. Now they are in varying degrees of disrepair, cluttered with trash, overgrown grass and weeds, leftover objects from previous owners that felt no need to take them to their new place. Maybe the previous owner died and their relatives didn’t want or couldn’t take the stuff. Who knows? All these houses probably have hundreds of stories to tell.

I think I picked these because they were grouped and are quite different from each other but all were built in 1887/1888. The one on the far left was built in 1887 and the two others were built in 1888. I would describe the two on the left as being Second Empire Townhouses and the one on the right is confuses me a little because it was built at the same time period but has no mansard roof at the front and is more modest but has some later attachments such as the awnings and wood deck. I love the colored shingles arranged in stripes on the mansard in the middle. My guess for the one on the far left, it has lost it’s mansard, which looks taller, and has been replaced with some wood covered in contemporary shingles and the wood corbeling along the cornice is gone. I saw something distinct in each of these in terms of style, and it’s stages of abandonment but don’t look like they are in abysmal shape. Yet you never know. I haven’t seen the back or inside. An intact front can be deceiving. However these don’t look like they have been empty for a real long period of time. I image at one time most of these lots were full with the shorter ones on one side and the taller 2 to 3 story houses on the other. I would also think on each corner were a store or a bar/tavern.

Again so much history, so many stories that seem lost forever. Each one of these houses has something unique about them, a distinct character, additions and can give you insights to previous inhabitants. I suspect the inhabitants of one on the left liked some privacy because of the fence and the bushes. The built on deck and awnings gave shelter from the sun. The deck would give a nice place to sit in the summer. I would suspect these didn’t have air conditioning at one time and St Louis summers can be miserable. Sitting outside and not in a brick oven would be great on a 100 degree summer day. The other two have chain linked fences, not as many bushes and that gave it more connection to the sidewalk and street. I imagine families sitting on their stoops, conversing with others by the fence.

One thing I didn’t mention in my previous post was that St Louis Place has been hit hard by brick thieves. Some people were looking to make a quick buck literally tearing down houses by pulling walls down, setting fires to burn most of the building to rubble and then taking the brick (less work this way, I guess). So anyway, perfectly inhabitable buildings, though vacant, were torn down by “poachers” to sell brick to people around the country. All to make a quick buck. It’s a shame really to lose these types of houses so someone can have a pretty patio. You can read more about the problem of brick thieves here.

I think what i remember most about the drawing is while I was on site it was late in the evening and the sun was setting. In a drawing with no color, it’s hard to tell but the light that evening made everything glow almost orange-pink. The light was very distinct. It was humid and I was getting eaten up by mosquitos. Like many, this was started outside but then finished in my studio. I just started this one so late in the day, I couldn’t finish it there. I rarely ever finish them on site though.

One thing that strikes me when doing these is how isolated I feel. In the middle of the city and it feels quiet but I know that at one time these streets were alive with people, industry and commercial enterprises. I feel like I am sitting and drawing surrounded by ghosts from the past. Under my chair is a brick road covered by cracked asphalt. Sidewalks are cracked and weeds sprout tall, bricks are scattered. The light posts seem frivolous. Sometimes I find pieces of terra cotta, stone, glass, random fragments. I wonder what else was there and is there as a clue to life there.

Howard Three

Howard Three

Howard Street Sunset

Howard Street Sunset

Howard Street Sunset

Howard Street Sunset