Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
What happens to a neighborhood when demolition becomes the official urban policy
As with many industrial cities in America at the time, post-war St. Louis experienced a rapid decline of its inner city. Desperately seeking solutions before the decay could absorb downtown, local planners and politicians saw slum clearance as the best option.
Decades later, the results are nothing to celebrate. An aggressive demolition policy failed to create a better neighborhood. Instead, it led to a different kind of stigmatized inner city. The chaotic, dirty and declining urban condition of the mid-20th century gave way to the urban prairie of the 21st.
This section of St. Louis, just northeast of downtown, is an extreme but far from exclusive example of the impacts from public policy that heavily favors demolition in neglected areas.
During the 1950s, politicians, planners and architects consistently preached neighborhood clearance. A 1951 article from Architectural Forum titled "Slum Surgery in St. Louis" (pictured left) is accompanied by a map that categorizes almost all of St. Louis' downtown and inner city as "blighted" or "obsolete."
The city had two agencies to clear its slums. The St. Louis Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority demolished targeted areas and sold them back to the private sector for less than market value. The St. Louis Housing Authority cleared land as well and constructed new public housing complexes for displaced residents.
The Housing Authority constructed the infamous Pruitt-Igoe complex, but it also built more successful housing projects on smaller scales nearby.Those projects however, were still not enough to stabilize the neighborhood or slow down the clearance of this part of the city. For the Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority, much of the land remained undeveloped, and in many cases, stuck in the city's hands.
The physical legacy of that era is a neighborhood that hardly qualifies as such. Aided by demolition, nature has slowly taken over the grid with disappearing sidewalks, blocks with nary a building in sight and six-lane streets that drive through green space. Below are a series of aerial images from today that showcase some extreme examples of what comprises this section of inner city St. Louis.
'Slum Surgery in St. Louis' photo courtesy of Michael Allen.