Kaid Benfield Archive


Of the community, by the community, and for the community: the rebirth of Old North Saint Louis

Kaid Benfield

Posted June 14, 2008 at 11:51PM

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Every now and then I run across a story that is so good, that feels so right, that I thank my lucky stars for the freedom NRDC gave me to evolve my career into working for better, more sustainable communities.  This is such a story, and it reveals an historic, diverse, inclusive neighborhood that is reclaiming its identity, restoring its infrastructure, empowering its residents, and securing its future.  The community wins, and so does the environment, because the Old North neighborhood in Saint Louis is the very antithesis of sprawl.

Here are some images depicting the building stock in Old North before restoration and what one of the revitalized blocks looks like now:

rehab begins on an historic property at Crown Square (image courtesy Old North St. Louis) a block with new homes designed to complement Old North's historic properties (image courtesy Old North St. Louis)   

I learned about Old North from John Burse, an architect with the Mackey Mitchell firm in Saint Louis, which features sustainable design in its practice.  After we met briefly at the AIA annual meeting in Boston last month, John got in touch and told me about how neighborhood revitalization in Old North is contributing overall to a better regional environment through reestablishing density in a disinvested area and combining a traditional walkable community, affordability and historic preservation.  The three projects in the neighborhood that John has been involved with represent a combined $52 million effort over the course of the last 8 years.

As John reports, “If you consider that Old North, once a neighborhood of 40,000, dropped to a low point of about 2,000, these projects represent a considerable shot in the arm. The work we have undertaken is geared towards making this place ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable.”  Applause, please.

On the left below is the location of Old North, as its name suggests just north of downtown.  (Man, the Mississippi looks brown in that image from Google Earth.)  On the right is a tiny image (click on either image for a larger one) of the site plan for what will become one of the community’s new focal points, Crown Square:

Old North is the darkened area north of downtown (Google Earth) site plan for Crown Square redevelopment (image courtesy of Old North Saint Louis)   

According to Sean Thomas of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, the Crown Square project involves the redevelopment of 27 vacant and deteriorated buildings, including several on blocks adjacent to the former pedestrian mall featured on the site plan.  The red and blue colored buildings on the site plan are all historic rehabs, the colors denoting primarily commercial (red) or primarily residential (blue).  Sean reports that most of the buildings include a mix of uses, with residential upstairs and commercial/retail space on the street level.

One of the great success stories of smart growth over the last decade has been the revitalization of older inner city neighborhoods.  But one of the risks is gentrification; if the redevelopment is not done with great care, the community’s longtime residents can be priced out as real estate values go up.  This won’t be the case in Old North, because much of the community’s planning has been shaped by the residents themselves, working with the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance.  Affordability and diversity are hallmarks of the neighborhood’s restoration.

a neighborhood party in Old North (image courtesy of Old North St. Louis) neighborhood meeting (image courtesy of Old North St. Louis)   

The community’s web site has a short history.  Here is a bit of it:

“The Old North St. Louis neighborhood was first developed in 1816 . . .In the latter part of the nineteenth century, large numbers of Polish immigrants settled in the near north side, including present day Old North St. Louis. Old North St. Louis also has an Afro-American population dating back long before the Civil War period . . .  

Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North (image courtesy Old North St. Louis)“More recently, immigrant arrivals to the area came in the 1930's, during and after the Depression. Many current residents can trace their origins back to small farm communities in Southeast Missouri, Arkansas, and other states in the south. At this point, the neighborhood was crowded and thriving. Factories, shops, and homes were interspersed, in the classic "walking city" pattern. Some small businesses have a long history in the neighborhood. The North 14th Street Shopping District, the center of the area's commercial activity, has a Businessman's Association dating back to 1902. Stores, like Crown Candy Kitchen and Marx Hardware, are family owned and operated for more than three generations.  

“The period after the Second World War ushered in another turning point for the neighborhood. The country was pursuing a life of prosperity, one sign of which was a house in the suburbs. Federal policy, private lending policy, and housing developments provided an incentive to build new homes rather than stabilize older neighborhoods. Many residents moved to the suburbs, encouraged by new housing development and highspeed expressways . . . With the elimination of federal [anti-poverty] funding in the 1970's, the pace of housing demolition increased, but little new housing was built, resulting in declines in both the population and housing stock.”  

The history is too rich to recount it all here, but a confluence of circumstances, including the formation of the neighborhood-based Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, enlightened community development leadership, and determined residents, have turned things around dramatically.  (In some ways, the Old North story is reminiscent of the recovery of Dudley Street in Boston).  The Restoration Group, in particular, has initiated home-building and rehab partnerships; works to save historic properties; coordinates beautification work; and sponsors pot-luck suppers, a street festival, an annual home tour, and much more.  The neighborhood even has a history trail and a poetry trail ("Word Up"!).

a neighborhood garden graces redevelopment work (image courtesy Old North St. Louis) some of Old North's new homes (image courtesy of Old North St. Louis)   

Do visit the neighborhood’s web site and blog, and also take a peek at the Crown Village development’s site for a close-up look at part of the work and one of the community’s emerging home developments.

The success of places like Old North and Dudley Street, and some of the good community development work of enlightened architecture and development practitioners like David Dixon and Jonathan Rose, makes me think I should write my next book about these great stories.  And, as a matter of fact, I am thinking of doing just that.