To Dwell in Possibility

A tour of the city with the Landmarks Association's Carolyn Toft presents views of what is and what could be

If there's ever been a time conducive to historic preservation and restoration in St. Louis, the mid-'70s sure wasn't it. St. Louis was the poster child for urban renewal, the scars of which are evident today. But it was also a time when the failures of housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe and Darst-Webbe were inarguable. New approaches -- in which old neighborhoods could be restored and redeemed -- began to gain appeal.

"It was a friction point between a lot of money still coming in for urban renewal from HUD," Toft recalls, "and changes in other parts of the country. The place where that's demonstrated pretty sharply is in LaSalle Park. It was possible to convince Ralston-Purina and the old 7th Ward machine to try something else."

She recalls the former head of the LRCA (the name says it all: Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority), Charlie Farris -- a powerbroker who has been referred to as St. Louis' Robert Moses in some chronicles of city politics -- and laughs wryly: "It was amusing because Farris was still very much around, as were all his minions. [LaSalle Park] was referred to as the 'so-called preservation area' in their literature."

"Ol' Man River View" would make a catchy classified 
for a rehabbed railway-transfer depot.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Ol' Man River View" would make a catchy classified for a rehabbed railway-transfer depot.

Of the 130 historic structures that have been preserved in LaSalle Park, nearly all are residential.

Toft bemoans the anti-urbanist fears that are as much a part of America as they are of St. Louis in particular. She notes how many state capitols were situated "out in the formless prairie," as if the rural naturally inspired insightful governance. She attributes St. Louis' woes to two words: "population loss." Toft bristles when she hears the sprawl in the surrounding counties described as growth:

"There's the excuse: 'It's growth.' No, it's not. It's like cut butter on a pancake. This region is not growing. This region is spreading, man. It is spreading -- and it is so wasteful."

After making several wrong turns down old city streets, Toft points out an early experiment in low-income housing, circa 1935: the Neighborhood Garden Apartments, not far from Laclede's Landing and the Jones Dome. In her book she writes, "All apartments featured entrances directly off stairs rather than corridors, 12-foot ceilings, cross ventilation and balconies.... Sixty percent of the site was devoted to open space; not space left over between boxcar buildings, but designed, landscaped, defensible space."

Today, although the Neighborhood Garden Apartments look the worse for disuse, Toft is heartened that at least one team is proposing it as part of a redevelopment package for the city. "The city owns it," she says, then offers one of the city foibles she appreciates -- anecdotes that maintain humor over disgust.

"There was a very embarrassing moment at the beginning of [former Mayor] Clarence Harmon's administration, when Clarence was going to announce this brand-new get-after-the-slumlords policy. He's out there with all the media, tacking up a 'We're going after your ass, slumlord' sign.

"Guess what? Guess who owns this? LRA."

She laughs and looks up the street, and there, like a beacon, is the joyful Vess bottle, 34 feet tall, erected sometime around 1950.

"There's the Vess bottle," she says, smiling. "What more do you want?"

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