Saturday, November 22, 2008
Beautiful + What?
I had the pleasure of visiting St. Louis November 14th. I wanted to visit the site of the Mill Creek Valley Urban Renewal Project, as well as the site of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project. I was staying at the Hilton at the Ballpark -- a delightful hotel -- and these sites were close by. I also got to see the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which includes the Gateway Arch. All of these places turn out to flank a downtown mall, which starts at the Old Courthouse, and ends by Union Station. What splendor! The arch is a stunning site and the museum well worth a visit. The Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott trial took place, is one of the most important places in American history. Union Station, designed by Theodore C. Link, is a magnificent building, and a major project in adaptive reuse. And the mall is also an attraction. Yet, sadly, the magnificence is not well-used. You would think that such a charming spot would be full of people but everywhere I went, the streets were empty. There were a scattering of tourists in the park, but that was it. Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist, made the observation that parks need people. In general, she was quite skeptical about open space, seeing it as a potential rupture in the tight coherence of occupation that makes a city hum. She was decidedly opposed to the orthodox view, as propounded by the great park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, that city people are longing for great open spaces. Evidence on the Jacobs' side: the most active place I was visited with the tiny stretch of historic waterfront, which is full of restaurants, shops and people strolling about. St. Louis has much of beauty but to make the city vibrant again, its leaders might rethink all that open space that replaced what once was its energetic urban core.