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Economy & Business

'(en)visioning Hyde Park,' seeing hope in near north St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2011 - Once more, the little children shall lead us. And I'd like to show you how.

First a bit of urban history. For a good chunk of the 20th century, the near north parts of St. Louis were terra incognita for many, especially those of us who worked downtown or lived in central-corridor neighborhoods or lived south of Highway 64/40. To put a rather cynical spin on things, the apartness and relative invisibility of north St. Louis was convenient for anyone who didn't want to recognize the plight of poor people in our city or to reflect on the sorts of problems that dispossessed them. Out of sight they were, thus out of mind.

There are exceptions, of course. Blanket judgments about intentions and sympathies are as mindless as they are revolting. But all the folks who populate those architecturally magnificent but rapidly deteriorating neighborhoods -- men and women just like you and me who want to enjoy the promises of America and to participate in the life of our country -- knew all about neglect and dispossession, and how neglect, dispossession and depression often, ironically, breed contempt in the psyches of the prosperous and content.

The causes are legion. Assigning blame is counterproductive. And concerned, hard working folks have -- planners, politicians, clergy, good government advocates, sociologists, developers and, yes, serious journalists -- have tried for years try to sort all this out.

Too often, the picture looked hopeless, But even in the darkest days of 20th century disinvestment, glistening threads wiggled through the neighborhoods that make up North St. Louis history. The heroic stick-to-itivness of the Karandzieff family and their Crown Candy Kitchen deserves commendation, for example. So do social service agencies such as Grace Hill Settlement House. So do fervent preservationists and longtime residents such as John Bratkowski. There are others, many, many others, and all of them deserve commendation and a shower of gold stars.

In recent years, the picture has changed in more dramatic and controversial ways. If you follow the news, you know that North St. Louis has attracted attention, some welcome, some not so, and that all sorts of negotiating is going on in regard to property north of Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard. Tax credits are involved. And lawyers. The proceedings have moments of contentiousness, to understate things greatly.

Yet chugging along on a parallel track, steady work is being done by urban pioneers who've found their ways to North St. Louis, and creative individuals such as the enormously talented artist and cultural planner Theaster Gates have organized (and found the wherewithal) to renovate property for the good of the community rather than for personal gain.

Private individuals have rehabbed falling-down houses for their own residential use. The old Iron Horse railway trestle has been given partial new life as a beautiful trans-Mississippi pedestrian-bicycle roadway and is under consideration for further development like the High Line in New York City.

Entries have been solicited for a competition to find creative uses for the huge Pruitt-Igoe site, an effort that should bring international attention to St. Louis. And the intersection of St. Louis Avenue and 14th that Crown Candy Kitchen has anchored so courageously and brilliantly for so many years has been given new life in the redevelopment of what was the 14th Street Mall, formerly a strip that was literally urban-renewed to death.

So most all of that is very good news for the north side and for St. Louis. And in this a murky and unsettled moment in our history, I am delighted to spread it around.

Here's where the leadership of the children come in.

On Thursday, Sept. 1, a special exhibit that reveals important aspects about North St. Louis opens to the public. It is called "(en)visioning Hyde Park," and it is composed of photographs shot by middle schoolers who live in Hyde Park, youngsters who have, by virtue of living there, a special understanding and appreciation of its value and potential. The opening reception is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Old North St. Louis Restoration Group's gallery, 2700 N. 14th Street, and part of the 14th Street Crown project.

Historian-photographer-preservationist-architect extraordinaire Andrew Raimist helped to bring all this together.

In late spring and early summer, the students were busy in Hyde Park, documenting their home neighborhood, which is one of the most historic and architecturally rich in the region with photographs.

The students are to receive awards and certificates acknowledging their work at the opening on Sept. 1, and even better maybe, each one will be presented a book portraying their endeavor, along with the accomplishments of Washington University students who participated in Theaster Gates's design-build studio. Gates and his students rehabbed a vacant house for use as a community center for residents of the Hyde Park neighborhood.

North St. Louis is an architectural wonderland. Any time a hammer hits a nail to help to improve it, or a photographer squeezes a shutter to create a memorable image of it, and anytime an exhibition goes up to celebrate such industry, all of us in the region benefit. Our city is strengthened, and our appreciation of it is intensified if we take the time to look. Because of all this, it just might make sense to run up to Old North, and indulge in a fresh banana milkshake at Crown Candy, then look at these images and say to all concerned, Thanks.

For more information go to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/raimist/envisioning-hyde-park or http://rebuild-foundation.org/projects.html

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