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One of my favorite books is Roberta Brandes Gratz’s The Living City: How America’s cities are being revitalized by thinking big in a small way (1994).

Gratz, a historic preservationist, echoes her titular message as the refrain of the book.

“Think big in a small way.”

It’s quite a statement that, to me, applies to both historic preservation and natural conservation.

To Grazt:

Urban Husbandry means the care, management, and conservation of the built environment. The built environment is, in fact, a man-made ecosystem that stretches from individual streets within a city to the highways between cities.

She continues:

The fundamental principle of Urban Husbandry…is change that is gradual, natural, noncataclysmic and responsive to genuine economic and social needs.

Gratz’s call is one for incremental revitalization of cities. She derides the megadevelopments that characterized urban development in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. These developments tore up urban blocks, ripped out viable and beautiful housing, and scattered residents with established social networks all in the name of rebranding an urban area as something that could be “defined” and “marketed”. Gratz notes that planners of the time erred in assuming that there was an “urbanology”–a set of theories that applied to all cities, regardless of region, demographics, economy, et cetera. Each city, she suggests, is an ecosystem all to itself, something that has grown, in typical planner parlance of today, organically.

Instead of one developer buying up series of blocks and erecting the same stale architecture throughout, small scale, organic urban development stresses a study of the extant urban fabric. It seeks to weave the new in with the old as seamlessly and as sensitively as possible.

In St. Louis, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project has become infamous for its textbook representation of the ills and unintended evils of modernism. Instead of developing the project in the fashion of old urbanism, the designers of the large public housing project sought to rip up the old “slum” named DeSoto-Carr that was present and replace it with humane modernism. They tore down a series of city blocks, leaving a church as the only sign of the original street grid and neighborhood character. They replaced the street network with car-less plazas. The plazas were flanked by sparely designed modernist concrete slabs–33 of them, each clocking in at 11 stories.

Pruitt-Igoe soon after construction. Note the homogeneity of the complex.

Pruitt-Igoe soon after construction. Note the homogeneity of the complex.

The disruption to the urban fabric was total. Constructed in 1954, Pruitt-Igoe faltered as soon as the mid-1960s, when vacancy and crime rates both skyrocketed. The project, by its own design, contained no corner stores that were numerous in the old DeSoto-Carr. “Temptations” such as liquor and gambling dens needed to be eliminated from the streets, according to planners, so commercial infrastructure was rejected within the project.

Pruitt-Igoe could not have contrasted more starkly with surrounding neighborhoods. The red brick row houses of adjacent neighborhoods soon also succumbed to the stigma of P-I. Pruitt-Igoe was demolished starting in 1972. The neighborhood just to the north, St. Louis Place, saw such gratuitous emptying after the two decades of Pruitt-Igoe’s presence that it today has the largest urban prairie anywhere in the city. Scores of utterly empty blocks, urban in appearance only due to mangled sidewalks and rundown 1970s-era streetlights skulking over each block, now call St. Louis Place home.

The surrounding neighborhoods, all low rise construction, but still dense, hint at what old DeSoto-Carr looked like. This photograph also shows the unbelievable contrast--a vertical graveyard of buildings amidst a then-healthy neighborhood.

The surrounding neighborhoods, all low rise construction, but still dense, hint at what old DeSoto-Carr looked like. This photograph also shows the unbelievable contrast--a vertical graveyard of buildings amidst a then-healthy small scale neighborhood.

An old entryway to Pruitt-Igoe.

The large St. Louis Place "prairie"--abandoned urban land.

 

A street view of the urban prairie.

A street view of the urban prairie.

Urban Husbandry was sorely lacking in the old DeSoto-Carr, condemned both for its presence of undesirables (Southern Italians, Eastern Europeans, and African-Americans) and for its aging buildings with little in the way of modern conveniences.

Unfortunately, Pruitt-Igoe was but one of St. Louis’s megadevelopments. Whole neighborhoods, such as Mill Creek Valley and Kosciusko, some of the city’s oldest areas and surely would be today’s most desired if renovated, witnessed their own fabrics forever unwoven. Replacements were sure to be dull and even deadening, exacerbating decline and aesthetic scarring. Office parks, strip malls, interstates, and minimalist housing projects formed the new urbanism, the modern city. This was thinking big in a small way–the opposite prescription Gratz called for.

Sometimes, though, the neighborhoods remaining, isolated by some manmade barrier, such as a highway or a railroad bed, would survive the era of federal funding for mass demolition known as Urban Renewal.

These remnants are unlikely survivors of a war against cities. Often, they show the bruises of such a battle, as their failure to attract megadevelopers’ attention in the Urban Renewal era often signified a greater cost to the demolition of their structures. These neighborhoods simply atrophied, then, drifting quietly into obsolescence.

Here again, Gratz has a comment, and sadly, St. Louis is her whipping boy. Under a heading entitled “The Remnant Complex”, she notes:

The restoration of a historic area often obscures the fact that what is being restored is only of meager meaning to the larger context of the whole city and is of a scale too small to remain or become again a significantly productive patch of the larger urban fabric. I call this the Remnant Complex. Meager pieces of urban fabric are being rescued, restored, and celebrated as if the city itself had been rewoven back to full strength. Too many cities are suffering from this Remnant Complex.

She presses on, later mentioning St. Louis:

In St. Louis, [the Remnant Complex] is [seen in] Laclede’s Landing, a nine-block waterfront remnant of nineteenth century warehouses and factories not bulldozed when so much of the economic heart of the city’s downtown was demolished to construct the Saarinen Arch…

It is true that Laclede’s Landing is isolated. The cast-iron storefronts are holdouts from a series of urban slash ‘n’ burns. What ones survive today have lived through fires and urban renewal, “District-making” and parking pressures. Laclede’s Landing is now a sad place. Gradually, its warehouses continue to slip away. Gratz is correct in that such a diminished urban context also diminishes the clarity of interpretation of that same area as healthy and functional. The Landing, as it is most often known, is now marketed as a nightlife district, sporting several nondescript bars interspersed among restaurants, a couple shops, a zany Wax Museum (?), and, as of late 2007, a glitzy and overwrought brand-spanking-new casino. It is severed from downtown proper and adjacent neighborhoods by the Mississippi River to the east, the majestic Eads Bridge to the south, elevated Interstate 70 to the west, and heavy industry to the north.

The Arch stares down the narrow streets of Lacledes Landing.

The Arch stares down the narrow streets of Laclede's Landing.

But I wonder what naturalist and lover of the severely diminished pine savanna ecosystem Janisse Ray would think of Gratz’s statements on remnants.

Do not remnants provide a window into a waning heritage, and therefore a dream, a model for restoration of that fabric?

Gratz’s indictment seems to suggest that such remnants do not deserve the rapid lifeline to which they cling. But why erase history forever?

I see the same theme running in my study of River des Peres, of the Forest Park oak savanna, of the Calvary Cemetery tallgrass prairie. Progeny deserves to know, to touch, to see, to smell, to experience this heritage. Remnants are not hopelessly unwoven–only critically threatened reminders of how, exactly, we should go about restitching.

These are lessons in these places. Why usher them to extinction? Remnant restoration is thinking big in the smallest of ways–preserving, conserving the remnant.

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