the view from stockton house

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May 2004 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

Order in Chaos
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

"When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense. Because this is so, there is a basic esthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: A city cannot be a work of art."

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

"Potemkin village", def.

NOUN: Something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance: "the Potemkin village of this country's borrowed prosperity" (Lewis H. Lapham). ETYMOLOGY: After Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, Russian army officer and politician. The lover of Catherine II, he helped her seize power in 1762. Who had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of the Ukraine and the Crimea.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

The facades of 18th century St. Petersburg were painted in pastel colors. Baron Hausmann slashed wide avenues through Paris, displacing the poor. Daniel Burnham claimed that a plan like the one he envisioned for Chicago could not stir peoples' souls unless it was larger than life itself. Great civic need gives order to the form of human conurbation, and has done so ever since we as humans first found need to live together in settlements. The need has been precipitated by a lack of an overall cohesive image, by natural or manmade contingency, by the rise of disease and pathology, or by a rapidly growing population, and sometimes the decisions made by the planners create nothing but Potemkin villages; a whitewashing of reality. As resources dwindle, as the environment continually deteriorates, and as we continue to increase in numbers, their decisions more and more affect the many, and more often than not, the public at large is excluded from the process and in the end suffers. This pattern of exemption destroys communities and peoples' lives and creates further deterioration of the world around us. Usually, the government of a particular society monitors all projects, but in our democratic republic, we the people are the government, and therefore must play an integral role before any real work begins. This role must be recognized, understood, and respected by developers, planners, and architects, as well as by the people themselves such that order may appear out of what seems like chaos.

As our world grows more complex, the chance of someone infringing upon the rights of another naturally becomes greater. This too applies to the built environment. For the most part, our conurbations are now nearly thoroughly developed, either in a state of completion, stability, or decay. In the past century, our conurbations have sprawled to their limits, and now, as resources dwindle, cities, as natural systems, have begun to pull back into their centers. As exhibited even here in the city of Saint Louis, this often means constructing something new amidst an existing older context, and consequently, amidst an existing populous, many members of which have lived in their current locations for most of their adult lives, sometimes forty, fifty, even sixty years or more. This type of development may either be to their benefit, depending upon how developers, planners, and architects engage local residents and to what degree, or to their detriment. But what happens when the public has no part? What happens can be found in the headlines of the newspaper quite regularly: historically, it has led to further blight and often to eminent domain abuse and unchecked gentrification, and in many cases it still does.

Even before I. M. Pei's Pruitt-Igoe failed, the proponents of "urban renewal" decimated (and continue to do so) entire neighborhoods in order to "take the poor out of the slums and place them in more hospitable and uplifting settings." In Saint Louis, we also had the Mill Creek Valley, part of which served, and still serves, as an industrial zone. On the north side of the Valley, entire neighborhoods were cleared of their older housing stock. Some of this stock was dilapidated and unhealthy for habitation, but the majority of the older houses were exquisite structures that could have been preserved, and eventually rehabilitated and sold as market rate housing. The developers of Laclede Town, a new development that would take the poor out of the ghettos and provide for them a brighter future, claimed part of the land that was cleared. Laclede Town functioned as intended for only a few short years, yet as residents moved up the ladder to financial independence, and out of Laclede Town (primarily for the new subdivisions of St. Louis County), a vacuum formed that hastened decay and crime, much as general "flight" did throughout the rest of the city. Now the area where Laclede Town once stood is principally filled with suburban-style superblock developments that continue to facilitate the vacuum to this day, ever disconnecting the north side from the south side and downtown from midtown. So why did this happen?

The mechanism that allowed for the possession and clearing of a neighborhood like that which preceded Laclede Town is the legal process of eminent domain, a process by which the municipal government may take for development land that is not in its current use for the good of, or in the best interest of, the municipality, its residents, and its businesses. The problem with eminent domain lies in the fact that is used too frequently, for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong way. Eminent domain should not be used to take homes out from under people or habitable units out of the housing stock, as doing so is in direct violation of the purpose of the act.

In most cities, the brunt of taxes gathered comes from residents paying their yearly property tax. This is a guaranteed source of revenue for a city and should not be thrown away on a promise from a developer that the new condominiums slated to replace the less dense housing units would generate more taxes. Instead, the focus should be on marketing abandoned properties to developers, large and small, in order to increase the population of a city without ostracizing existing residents. When eminent domain is used to indiscriminately (and in some cases, quite discriminatorily) clear neighborhoods for the promise of greater tax revenue sometime in the future, the process, which is inherently beneficial in its intent (remediating the property of absentee landowners, protecting the public against collapsing or otherwise dangerous structures, terminating crack houses, etc.), has essentially been abused by the municipality, which has therefore exhibited in its actions pure unbridled greed and a lack of value for those things that really make a neighborhood work (like engaged, long-term residents). Yet rare is the case when eminent domain is used to seize an individual problem property; instead, the less active position of allowing the property to further decay to the point of condemnation is taken. By that point, the property has either fallen to the city's real estate arm due to back taxes, or has collapsed, leaving nothing but a ruin, a liability that will only be purchased by the most adventurous of rehabbers, but is usually bulldozed, eliminating the investment sorely needed in the neighborhood and in the process creating yet another trash-strewn and weed-filled lot. Certainly, arguments can be made for the use of eminent domain for the creation of schools or parks, but what good does a school do when there is not enough investment in a neighborhood to direct a modicum of residents' and business owners' attention to the goings-on on the streets and sidewalks of the neighborhood to ensure the safety of the students? One only needs to look at Vashon High School, and the squalor amidst which it is sited to understand this as fact. What good does a park do when there is not enough density to support its continuous use? A city cannot justify adding such public amenities without adequate density, yet eminent domain should not be used in order to achieve that density, for density is naturally occurring and happens over time due to investment opportunities for individuals and basic civic need.

Sections of neighborhoods are still being cleared in order to create that density, and in some cases, the "right kind" of density, i.e. a "moneyed" density. Not too long ago, the city of Saint Louis gave the go-ahead for the clearance of blocks of housing, much of which was still occupied and in good repair, in the McRee Town neighborhood adjacent to the Missouri Botanical Garden. Planners understood the difficulty of marketing individual properties to developers to rehabilitate, so they took the extreme measure of exercising eminent domain to clear the slate of everything such that a large developer could be attracted to erect condominiums and town-homes. Certainly, this did allow an out for the few who would have otherwise been unable to sell their properties at a decent rate (which is important), but what of those who wanted to stay where they were and remain invested in the neighborhood they had lived in for their entire lives? Promises have been made that adequate replacement housing will be found for them, but in the end they will be shifted somewhere else, and the neighborhood will have to re-root itself. Most likely the new residents of an upscale McRee Town will not consider the kind of civic engagement exhibited by the previous residents (an engagement that kept McRee Town alive despite the "sprawl and drain" machine of modern real estate) essential to their daily lives.

Another factor in the debate of public involvement in the planning process is the notion of gentrification. Essentially, gentrification can be defined as the process by which capital flows into an economically depressed area in the form of new investments such as the rehabilitation of property or introduction of new construction, thereby increasing surrounding property values. Initially, this investment begins as a trickle, helping neighboring property owners to increase their equity, but quite often the process gets out of hand, raising the property values and the related taxes so high that original property owners, and often times the "gentries," or initial investors in the process, are forced out of the neighborhood because they can no longer afford to live there. And then the Starbucks arrives, establishing that the neighborhood has sufficiently been gentrified. But the values and the taxes continue to rise because of demand, and the cycle continues to repeat itself until properties are so overpriced that no one, save the very wealthy, can afford to live in the area. At least most unchecked gentrification in Saint Louis today will little affect most neighborhoods in the City, as it is primarily focused on the new "loft" district downtown, which is virtually an island unto itself, severed from the surrounding fabric by freeways, parking lots, light industrial zones, and the superblocks that replaced Laclede Town.

To think one could completely stop gentrification from ever occurring is folly, but there are ways to keep it in check so that it does not get out of control and harm residents and business owners. In the city of Saint Louis, there has long existed a fear of gentrification due to the harm that it can bring in the form of burdensome taxation and displacement. In the Central West End, Soulard, and Lafayette Park, some existing residents were priced out of the neighborhoods after rehabbers came in to rebuild these once-slums into thriving neighborhoods. Residents of Saint Louis have battled against gentrification since the first urban pioneers returned to the city in the 1960s and 1970s, yet some of the methods used by planners and politicians on behalf of the people to stop gentrification have wrought more damage than having done nothing at all. For example, to the east of Stockton House exists a large tract of approximately sixteen square blocks known today as "Lucas Heights". Just over twenty years ago this area was filled with a fascinating collection of run-down nineteenth-century townhouses and mansions, and early twentieth-century factory buildings and apartment buildings. Although largely vacant and in need of much investment, it nonetheless had a fascinating history, distinctive character, and truly extraordinary examples of eclectic craftsmanship. This area had all the potential required for its revival as a truly beautiful, vibrant, mixed-use development of integrated housing and small supporting businesses.

Instead, the city government, on behalf of existing residents, resisted redevelopment out of a fear of gentrification and chose to ignore its intrinsic value. In this fear, most of these original residents assumed they would all be driven out of their homes (perhaps this psychological manipulation was intended; think "long-term land grab"). The entire tract of land was cleared over a period of several years and redeveloped with bland and identical two- to three-story market-rate apartment buildings. These buildings, mundane in style and of inferior construction, are already deteriorating and are well on their way to becoming tomorrow's midtown slums. Rather than rebuild upon its established torn fabric and expand its diversity and choices, the area quickly became locked in and economically "capped," unable to grow, evolve, and expand. Today the area remains marginal and depressing. It is almost as if this prison of poverty was intentionally created in order to fence in the area's primarily black residents, with little for them or visitors to appreciate. Today, the few surviving scattered blocks surrounding the perimeter of this district continue to deteriorate dramatically. Nearly all of the original residents have long since moved on. Those residents who opposed redevelopment, yet stayed, have seen their property values continuously drop instead of stabilize. Rather than participate and benefit together from a broad-based renewal focused on rehab and infill development, these few surviving residents have seen their equities diminish to nearly zero, with most simply walking away in the end with nothing. Perhaps the city government, knowing they would probably never see the return of a population large enough to completely fund a bloated bureaucracy, attempted in a last-ditch effort to try their best to at least keep some people in the neighborhood. After all, they could still receive their one percent payroll tax and some hefty government subsidies to boot. This sort of backwards approach to making a civic governmental structure work though begs the question: why did they not keep the original fabric and offer more incentives to people to return the historic homes to a residential use as market-rate housing? Perhaps it all boils down to greed as opposed to true concern for civic well-being. Perhaps this is the reason why the original urban pioneers of the Central West End, Lafayette Square, and Soulard were priced out of their neighborhoods. Government loves gentrification, and anytime they say they don't, they are lying. They are simply biding their time until the next developer arrives with the next sure bet.

When an entire neighborhood is blighted and re-planned, half-baked planning strategies usually hurt people by accelerating gentrification, but the primary catalyst of gentrification, and the source of the distress and hysteria that go along with it, is instead found in the process of how we tax and assess property in such areas after their renewal. The improvement and development/ redevelopment of a neighborhood will always in the long run benefit the neighborhood economically, but solutions must be examined which create rewards for long-time residents who have stayed through thick and thin, improving and maintaining their properties, and which better guarantee the success of the renewal effort. Often, this group of long-term investors consists of residents on fixed incomes, who tend to fear "gentrification" when rehabbers arrive and begin the process of improvement, as the liability seems to fall hardest on those who can least afford it. Yet the rehabbers also find themselves frustrated in seeing their hard work continually penalized by an ever-rising annual real estate tax bill. Obviously, individual families and small businesses should not be penalized for their long-term investment commitments with higher taxes, as they are the foundation of stable neighborhoods which pose less of a burden upon a community's overall resources. Perhaps there should exist a novel formula, yet to be established, for rewarding those who improve and maintain their property. Additionally, higher tax burdens should be placed upon individuals or businesses that allow their properties to deteriorate, simply for the fact that it is they who are the greater burden to the community and neighborhood and its corresponding social service structure.

The improvement and development/ redevelopment of an area must be done with the broad-based support and enthusiasm of the people who live and work there. This can be achieved through any number of ways, but it must always be recognized that the citizens must be actively involved and engaged. Let the people who will be most affected have a clear voice within the decision-making process; their participation can be achieved through neighborhood meetings and discussions, and might further include design charettes, surveys, and questionnaires. Everyone involved should have one vote, with a pluralistic concept of what is best for the neighborhood, and not what can achieve maximum profits for developers or maximum kickbacks for the politicians who pander to them, as the ultimate goal. When the process is handled in an equitable fashion, only then will the neighborhood, and the city, benefit as a whole.

In this process, the role of the architect and/ or planner should be to interpret and build upon the existing fabric, somewhat as a conductor would interpret and build upon a score by Beethoven. If he or she is successful, they will enhance and ennoble the community, the neighborhood fabric, and the quality of life of the individual. As part advisor and part educator, their goal must be to explore opportunities, analyze and evaluate, and be attuned to the residents and the patterns of their day-to-day lives in order to find clarity and to accentuate what is good about an area and how to build upon and strengthen its qualities. A conductor never interprets a score thinking he or she is an expert on the score on par with Beethoven; likewise, the architect or planner should approach a city or a neighborhood with the same humility, especially if he or she does not live in the neighborhood or city in question. He or she must listen to and recognize the value of the residents and business owners, and their knowledge and opinions, for they are valuable assets in the process of understanding the nature of a neighborhood. All people (whether rich or poor, male or female, black or white, straight or gay) have value, and one should never seek to stereotype, marginalize or undermine another's significance and worth, and most especially when making decisions that may affect their lives. The role of the architect or planner is merely to clarify or amplify the patterns that already exist, and to establish a framework in which new work complements and enriches the integral whole. To think that one is above such an essentially humble effort, that one can recreate or redesign anything, is nothing but false pride. To persist in such a fashion will destroy peoples' lives, and eventually tarnish the professional's career and legacy.

The community must also thoroughly understand its role. It must understand its history, the problems and successes of the present, and it must have a vision of its collective future. As stated before, neighborhood meetings and votes on planning issues are essential in presenting a singular voice and an element of solidarity. Power of decision in governmental review processes such as architectural and planning reviews should be primarily vested in the people, not the government, as those government officials usually involved in the process are appointed, not elected, and therefore do not accurately represent the people. The government, in this context, must focus on strengthening the community, not weakening it. Government must back off from its more active approach in the development and redevelopment of our cities, recognize its natural limitations, and realize it exists only to serve its constituents. It might thus be in a better position to lend support in a way that can do more good in the long term. It should facilitate a peoples' ability to make decisions for themselves, and when it does find itself involved in the details of the process, it should remain transparent at all times so that public officials may be held responsible for their actions as servants of the community.

The "top down" approach in the long term does not work, for it is by its very nature aloof, elitist, and distant from the people, the community, and the patterns of real life, which exist around it. Whenever practiced here in Saint Louis, the success rate of this approach has been dismal, with a failure rate all but admitted to by the politicians, at one hundred percent. Downtown/ Laclede's Landing and the Grand Center "Arts and Entertainment District" epitomize this top down approach, and after many decades of planning and thoughtless "intervention" (with a total price tag of millions upon millions of dollars), these areas still remain empty and forlorn. Design and planning which take into account the wishes of its inhabitants, their likes and dislikes, and their peculiar idiosyncrasies, is essentially the approach which will be the most successful, for it is varied, flexible, and fluid in responding to the patterns of life and work which manifest themselves as the true nature of a neighborhood. An approach involving the community and building upon its specific strengths, and doing so with community-sponsored actions which support rather than penalize good intentions, will in the long term yield the most productive and realistic results. When we as Saint Louisans recognize and understand our respective roles, and the proper order of importance of our roles, in shaping our city, Saint Louis will at last rise from the ashes of its racist, classist, and elitist past. On that day, Saint Louis, like the mythic phoenix, shall be reborn.

Urban Design Forum

Past articles:
What is Architecture?
Beyond the Seas of Asphalt
The Myths of New Urbanism and Sustainability
Leon Strauss' Vision of Modern Urban Living
Demolishing Only the Unsalvageable
A More Appropriate Plan for Grand Center
Architecture & Landscape: The Inseparable Pair
The Craftsperson of Today
Indigenous Landscapes

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at

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