Celebrating a Birthday and Smart Growth

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

For this Midwesterner, the 14th of February means more than playing chocolate roulette with the Russell Stover box of unidentified morsels sent by my roommates mother. Valentines day also marks the triumphant birthday of my tried and true love, the city of St. Louis. And this year, there is more to celebrate than our eleven-time red bird champions. To ring in STL’s 247th year of existence, I look to a small north side neighborhood as a hopeful symbol of our city’s future.

Mark Byrnes, in his recent Atlantic Cities article “Landscape Absurdism: An Urban Prairie in St. Louis”, highlights how  historic clearance policies and large-scale demolition practices have not only “failed to create a better neighborhood” in St. Louis but also have led to the victory of nature over abandoned lots.

Blocks away from the blighted birds eye view of Cass and Jefferson which Byrnes uses as an example of St. Louis’s “urban prairies”, lies another concurrent phenomenon in which a Gateway city neighborhood has seemingly escaped this desolate fate.

In the later half of the 20th century, the Old North St. Louis neighborhood appeared to be “one of the country’s most disinvested neighborhoods, losing over 90% of its population while its buildings were abandoned”, according to Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Even as of 2000, “the vacancy rate for homes in the neighborhood neared 40%”.

And yet, as the city of St. Louis overall faced a 8.3% drop in population between 2000 and 2010, Old North St. Louis saw a near 30% growth in its number of residents.  During a time of challenge for many Midwestern cities, including St. Louis, and many neighborhoods in the region, these numbers beg the question: what has attracted people to Old North? While many projects initiated by the Old North Restoration Group and other community organizations have definitely improved the quality of life in the neighborhood through initiatives like the Old North Grocery Co-Op, the 13th street community garden,  and other community development opportunities, Old North would still fail to attract new residents if it didn’t retain a viable housing stock.

According to a recent HUD report.  highlighting Old North’s restoration as a “best practices” model,  “The Restoration Group and the Community Development Alliance, with the help of other partners such as Habitat for Humanity, are responsible for the rehabilitation and construction of more than 200 homes in Old North St. Louis.” These rehabs have included housing units as well as mixed-use and commercial space and as a historic city neighborhood, the organizations involved in this work have gone to great lengths to preserve the neighborhoods character and original structures.

Check out this video featuring more of Old North’s story as the EPA Smart Growth award winner for 2011.

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