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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.

Posted in architecture, biking, history, industry, St. Louis.