Monday, February 25, 2008 in , , ,

Some History of St. Louis in the 19th Century

I've come back to tackle some of the stories of St. Louis in the early 19th century.  This is a huge topic.  Scholars write their thesis papers on issues I'll just begin to confront.  I've investigated numerous sources for substantiation.  The problem of urban decay is complex, and certainly not something that anyone can attribute to any one group or action.  But one does begin to wonder how the cities of Europe have remained vibrant in their centers, while American cities have fallen apart.  What differences in policies and attitudes have created this reality?

In 1910 the population of St. Louis was 687,029 and it was the 4th largest city in the United States.  The early period of the 20th century was characterized by substantial growth, construction, and business innovation.  Our city was home to a diverse range of industries and according to the River Web's site documenting the history of Missisippi towns, we were the largest producers of beer, shoes, stoves and wagons.  We also had a substantial textile industry as the "garment district" along Washington Avenue denotes.  Anheuser Busch is one of the beer businesses that remains in the St. Louis area and is a substantial contributor to the industry of the southern riverfront.  Next to the AB brewery is the old Lemp Brewery, now largely vacant and deteriorated, which around 1870 was even larger than AB. 
By 1920 St. Louis had slipped to 6th place in city size by population.  The city had gained an additional  ~100,000 residents, but had not annexed any additional area, sticking instead to the already defined city borders as voters defeated a 1926 proposition that would have included all of St. Louis County.  Building and growth continued within the city borders, with new apartment and hotels being constructed in the Central West End, grand homes along Lindell Blvd (bordering Forest Park where the 1904 World's Fair was held), and theaters like the Fox, which still stands in Grand Center. 

With the onset of the Depression St. Louis faced a situation of relative economic stagnation, large scale unemployment, and a halt to most building activity much like the rest of the nation.  Diversified industries helped the city weather these difficult times.
The aviation industry did well here, with Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" plane representing enthusiasm for flight in this area.  WWII brought wartime and aviation industry to St. Louis in a big way with the establishment of McDonnell Douglas, one of the area's largest employers.

Hyde Park was established as previously mentioned in other posts as the city of Bremen.  German natives migrated to the area in the 1840s, and the city of Bremen was made official in 1850.  In 1856 the city was annexed by the city of St. Louis, ending its independent existence.  It had substantial industry and commercial activity at the time.  Cattle were driven along Bremen street up from the river to the Union Stockyard slaughterhouse, one of the larger businesses in the neighborhood.

Most of the housing stock in Hyde Park was built prior to 1900.  This area is characterized by 2 and 3 story brick buildings with a mix of single family, row houses, and two family buildings.  The residents of this area were middle class folk with larger families.  Artisans, merchants, and industrial employees all called this area home.  The German mason/artisan influence on the building and stonework is very evident in the surviving buildings, which have beautiful decorative details.  Limestone rock foundations characterize most of the buildings as well, laid tightly and withstanding the following century well.

So that brings us at least up to World War II.....  up til that time St. Louis was still a healthy, thriving metropolis.  Though its standing nationally had slipped from 4th largest to 8th largest, the city was going strong.  The variety of factors that would coalesce in the late 1930s and 1940s would help set the stage for the 60 years of problem and decline that would follow.  
St. Louis is far from alone in its struggle.  Philadelphia is another city that was in dire circumstances due to urban decay that culminated in the 80s and 90s.  This is the very interesting fodder for a book by Buzz Bissinger called "A Prayer for the City", published in 1997.  I'm just a portion of a way through this book, but am finding it fascinating and well-written.  It is a nearly 400 page work of journalism where Bissinger shadowed mayor Ed Rendell through his entire term in office as mayor of Philadelphia.  I highly recommend it if you wish to get more in depth with the subject of urban decay and those who are just crazy and passionate enough to try and do something about it.

Next week I'll write a bit more about the happenings in post WWII St. Louis and America as a whole.  Basically I just hope to shed some light on this tangled issue, and provide information that might spark you to learn more.  I certainly don't have all the answers, but as I drive by rotting buildings that still contain an elegance that surpasses the best of surburban development, I can't help but wonder WHY?  So as I learn more, I am sharing it with you.

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