Cityscapes: North St. Louis

These photographs comprise a love song for north St. Louis. Over the last 20 years I have spent a lot of time in this part of the city, bicycling around, attending church meetings, working on projects, learning from elders. Like many, I have a deep affection for these places and an aching hope for a better future.

The challenge in using photography to document such landscapes is to avoid overbearing narratives, either of ruin or redemption, because the story is never so clear-cut. Indeed, the temptation is strong to read these buildings and streets as a ruined landscape, full of desolation and resigned to an uncertain future. However, my hope is to create a visual record that opens up multiple readings, and allows for other stories--stories of decline, to be sure, but also of struggle, negotiation, adaptation, and revival.

All landscapes emerge through processes of investment and disinvestment, at different rates at different moments in time. What makes the north side of St. Louis stand out is the sheer scale and extent of disinvestment, where people, capital, and services fled neighborhood after neighborhood over a 50-year period. It is a slow-motion Katrina, a devastation wrought through racial panic, white flight, factory closings, job loss, and the shuttering of schools, churches, and services. As a result, thousands of buildings sit abandoned and forlorn, properties vacant and overgrown, entire blocks open to the baking Midwestern sun.

At the same time, little pockets of change open up like flowers in a sidewalk crack--a fresh coat of paint here, a make-do repair there, a new small business down the street. Now and then entirely new blocks of homes spring up, the hard-won fruit of CDC, nonprofit, and public-private partnerships. Meanwhile, the buildings themselves reveal a long history of superlative craftsmanship and vernacular design. Though constantly mined for bricks to sell to wealthy renovation markets elsewhere, the buildings of north St. Louis continue to bear witness to the great forces that created them.

In the end, there is no one story of north St. Louis. Rather, countless stories attend every brick and stone and sidewalk and tree. We have much to learn from this landscape.

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© 2016 Joseph Heathcott