Summer of 1993. Hundreds clad in sweat-drenched t-shirts, beads weighing against earnest eyebrows, stacked sandbag after sandbag on the shores of the River des Peres near its junction with the Mississippi River in a typically quiet lower middle class area of south St. Louis. The small tributary of the Mighty Mississippi, once a free flowing natural stream, was, in the 1930s, harnessed and channelized into little more than a drainage ditch by the city that enveloped it. In large storm events, a rush of storm runoff and sewage would swell the artificial concrete and limestone walls of the river. The noxious odors from the forlorn stream would lend it a formidably poor reputation—in local vernacular, it became “River Despair” or “River des Pew“. Yet now, the sewer-river that, to generations far removed from the Army Corps of Engineers’ riparian surgery in the 1930s, was simply always there was now approaching backyards and basements. Its usual face—little more than a series of boggy puddles inexplicably accompanied by some unenvied flora—had transformed from putrid pond to raging river alarmingly quickly.

To those of us St. Louisans who lived well beyond the river’s onetime floodplain, the Flood of 1993 was unnerving for a different and more subtle reason than concern for property. River des Peres was a river after all! With its long and open channel roughly demarcating suburban St. Louis County from the city of St. Louis, it seemed more a landmarker than a real hydrologic feature of the metropolitan area. Throughout that wet summer, the embittered River des Peres boldly reasserted its long built-on wetlands. The surface of the muddy soup in its spacious channel nearly licked the railings of bridges that dared to pass over. 

River des Peres, in south St. Louis

River des Peres, in south St. Louis

Even to my eight year old’s mind, the full-to-the-brim-and-then-some river impressed and frightened me. My father had taken us for walks and playground visits in an adjacent park named Willmore. Of course, my older brother and I wanted to climb into the deep ditch. We would be subterranean explorers with a veritable road, paved in weeds and some unnamed white rocks, all to ourselves. We could drive pretend cars, or turn over stones to find the occasional frog, or bring a dollar-store-bought kid’s fishing net down to snatch some crawdads lingering near a drainage pipe (just like in Wilmore Park). My dad chided our wishes, always wont to tease. “Sure, I’ll take you down there. If you want to play in poop water,” he’d say, with a pitch-perfect level of exaggerated incredulity just out of range of children’s sarcasm sensors. As this scene played out several times, each time I wondered if he could be telling the truth. Yes, even my young mind seemed attuned to a world steeped in caution and concern for legal liability. Surely they wouldn’t let anyone down here if this were an open sewer, I imagined (in dressed-down child vernacular language, though). But the smell attested to something awful, and so my nearly empty sewer-road would have to remain a playground in imagination alone. Later, the river would represent a geographic boundary—a transition from the somber orange phosphorescence of the nighttime City’s streetlights to the suburbs (the County), where the roads were as dark and as smooth as the unlit night.

Willmore Park, Southwest Side of St. Louis

In historic preservation, urban context is everything. A splendidly diverse and architecturally profound grouping of row houses requires, first, an intact row, and second, an intact neighborhood to appear a worthy piece of the urban fabric.

Yet in St. Louis–and other industrial cities of the North and Midwest–buildings meet the wrecking ball. Why? They’ve been vacant for years. They’re deteriorating eyesores. They become havens for criminals and drug addicts. Or so the story goes.

A stone-faced mini-castle stands alone on the South Side of Chicago.

A stone-faced mini-castle stands alone on the South Side of Chicago.

Are these reasons good enough? After all, hundreds of neighborhoods in decline across the country have been resurrected, once discarded homes are now the centerpieces of community revitalization. A simple board-up job may not be seen as good for present property values, but what about the future? Neighborhoods that have lost too much appear less urban and more eerily desolate parkland punctuated by the occasional holdout home. This former category of urban neighborhoods finds the most difficult route to revival.

Context is so important.

Thanks go to Larry Massey for pointing out one Chicagoan’s documentation of standalone buildings that have somehow beaten the odds of demolition. David Schalliol makes the point that his photography’s subject is as much the absence of neighbors as it is the focal remaining building. The whole series of photos reveals a context that the buildings themselves cannot–the context of the disinvested, discarded city.

When human settlement meets nature, often such islands of nature are created–small pieces of formerly pristine habitats that, in isolation, appear hopeless, useless, even laughable. “Why not finish the job?” a viewing of such remnants seems to provoke. More importantly, would it even matter if the job were finished? What’s the real impact of the loss at the point of such contextual degradation?

To me, and to like-minded preservationists and conservationists, these “remnants” are critical to the effort to connect the residents of urbanized and urbanizing areas with an important heritage that can be stewarded, fostered back to connectivity and context. Sewing them back together represents a window back to sustainability–dense land use for human settlement and a complementary salvation of the natural environment for wildlife, hydrology, and human use as well.

Please check out Mr. Schalliol’s collection of photographs (see the beginning of this post for one of his Chicago examples). His work demonstrates that, though these structures seem isolated, they’re part of a larger pattern that deserves the attention of our policy makers and our stewardship — not our amnesia and our bulldozers.

It’s a stream whose valley is much too large for the size of the stream.

St. Louis’s own River des Peres is an example of a “misfit stream”–in more ways than one. Subjugated at the hands of engineers around the Great Depression, the once free-flowing stream now more clearly resembles a manmade drainage ditch.

St. Louis residents don’t exactly hold it in high esteem. The most common nickname for the rank-smelling river is the “River Despair”.

In this blog, I hope to present a side of St. Louis that the casual St. Louisan–and those far removed from the city altogether–do not often see. Too many times, St. Louis captures a spotlight for how devastated it is; how un-whole years of decline and disinvestment have made it.

“Whole sections of the city have reverted to nature,” a journalist covering Rustbelt outcasts such as Detroit and St. Louis might remark.

But St. Louis is a city of remarkable resilience. Long abandoned late 1800s row houses have sprung back to the unlikeliest vitality. So too has the city’s notable park system, including its crown jewel, 1,200 acre Forest Park.

Now, several projects to restore the natural environment compete for a spotlight with remarkable transformation of the built environment–including a beautification of the long maligned River des Peres.

On this blogging adventure, I’ll explore the “misfit stream” (and other eco-projects) that present a window into the city’s far, far distant past–before its founding, even.

On these pages, misfits–remnants surviving in the unforgivable and nebulous face of change and “progress”–yes, misfits will have their day.

–Matt M.