Below is a draft of an article/essay for Jeffrey Boyd’s newsletter I put together today. I have no idea if this kind of commentary is at all the sort of thing he has in mind or if it’s appropriate at all. Would you please read and comment on this for me either by posting comments below or emailing me directly?
It would be instructive to undertake a thorough comparison and analysis of the Wellston Loop and the Delmar Loop. This study would not be simply to look at “what works” in one and “what doesn’t work” in the other. To be valid the element of time and history would need to be address in so far as their original development around streetcar lines and primary east-west thoroughfares.
Some of the questions that should be addressed include:
- How were their origins similar? How were they different?
- What was the composition of the businesses, their character, size and nature? To whom did they cater?
- What similarities and differences can one see in their original layout, design, orientation, trees, sidewalks, facades and dimensions?
Such a comparison of their origins would be simply a starting point, not an end in itself, unless one were conducting an academic exercise, however these districts have a much greater importance and significance to their surrounding communities. Of course economic activity, business generated, jobs created, street life activated, . . . these things are of great significance to the area residents, business owners and local governments.
So what then might be the greater purpose served by comparing these shopping districts? Could it serve to suggest approaches to encouraging new development? Might there be lessons to be learned in the way in which development of the Delmar Loop started from being an area that would be considered blighted, dangerous and perhaps beyond hope? What sorts of businesses invested in the Delmar Loop when it would have widely been considered a hopeless situation? Did they require a great deal of capital? How large or small were these businesses and what impact did they have in spurring further investment? To what extent was the rebirth of the Delmar Loop as a viable, thriving business community due to particular institutions (library, city hall, churches, etc.) and to what extent was it’s rebirth due to the vision of Joe Edwards and people like him with the foresight to see the potential for a vibrant future?
With respect to the earlier high point in the commercial, social and economic success of the Wellston Loop, what were the key institutions and businesses which formed a critical mass drawing shoppers for a relatively wide area? How critical was the streetcar transportation infrastructure to it’s success? To what extent did automobile traffic and transportation influence its development? To what extent was limited parking options a factor in its success? Did more people travel to the Wellston Loop using public transportation or by car? To what extent was foot traffic from local residents essential to keeping the area active and alive? Did the larger department stores act as “anchors” bringing people into the area as a primary destination and then in turn support smaller scale businesses selling food, clothing, goods and providing services? How important was foot traffic on the streets and sidewalks important or necessary to the area’s success?
Did the Wellston Loop have a vibrant sense of nightlife like the Delmar Loop has today? What were the primary activities people engaged in the evenings? Is it possible to compare issues regarding safety and crime in a meaningful way? What impact did being located within the City of St. Louis boundaries versus being located in an independent municipality in St. Louis County have?
We could undertake a fine grain analysis relating to the heights of buildings, the widths of the sidewalks, the configuration of intersections, the extent to which nature is included (in the form of parks or landscape), the composition of “street furniture” like benches, signs, planters, light poles, etc. We could consider the use of outdoor eating, musical entertainment, theatrical entertainment, bars, liquor stores and a whole host of other details.
Still the question must be asked: Of what use could any of this be put? Is it possible that such information could help guide decision making in connection with planning for the rejuvenation of the Wellston Loop? Have there already been studies of a similar nature undertaken? What can we learn from such studies? How important is understanding the history of the area to implementing changes that will positively impact its future?
All of the above could be studied and analyzed, charts and graphs made, policy decisions crafted and monies allocated and invested and still not have the desired effect, even if all of that study came developed from true and accurate data that was analyzed using the best possible methods.
The major flaw in such an undertaking that’s apparent to this writer (and is similarly obvious to the reader) is that no account has been taken of the racial, ethnic and socio-economic status of the residents, of the business owners and of the customers. The question raised include:
- How should we take these issues into consideration?
- To what extent does racism embedded in our culture at large impact neighborhoods and their success or failure?
- How can we account for a reluctance on the part of many people to visit and patronize black owned businesses?
- What can be done to address the apparent reluctance of the public at large to spend their time and money in areas that are viewed to be dangerous? How does a neighborhood develop from being ignored and underutilized (like the Delmar Loop had been in the past) into becoming a thriving destination for tourists and residents from the wider metropolitan area?
- Would a revitalization of the Wellston Loop necessarily require gentrification? Would the racial composition of business owners and local residents need to change for positive changes to occur?
- Are there lessons that can be drawn from looking at the rebirth (still in process) of the 14th Street commercial district in Old North St. Louis? Would that be a possible model for revitalizing the Wellston Loop? Who might be in favor of such changes and who would be its primary beneficiaries? If property values begin to rise (which inevitably happens when a neighborhood is seen at increasingly desirable) is there a mechanism that’s fair and practical that would give current, long-time residents protection from being forced out of their homes and commercial buildings?
Can we say whether the rebirth of Old North is a good, applicable model for the future of the Wellston Loop? Would South Grand’s revitalization as a thriving business district be a better model for Wellston to follow? Would a more suburban type of revitalization of a historic downtown business district be a better model for the Wellston Loop, perhaps Kirkwood Road as it runs through downtown Kirkwood or Lockwood Avenue in downtown Webster Groves?
Can ideas and methods successful in a largely white, suburban area be directly applied to a largely black, urban commercial district? What are the social, cultural, financial, advertising and public relations changes that would need to be made to adapt “foreign” models of downtown development into the Wellston Loop? Is it possible to affect a successful, thriving rebirth of such an area based solely on the patronage of local residents? How important are visitors from the wider metro area to the success of such an undertaking? What would be the kinds of key, critical investments required to “jump start” such a process? Would schools, churches and similar community based institutions be sufficient impetus? Will it take a large-scale corporate, university or non-profit investment in the community to give others the feeling that committing resources to this neighborhood will be a reasonably safe way to obtain a return on their investment?
What would be likely candidates for larger entities with a sufficient interest in the community’s rebirth that they can see it would be in their own best interest to foster positive change here? How can we make an argument for such commitments of resources, not a gesture of charity, but as a demonstration of shared, mutual interests?
Should we look to African American organizations to be the catalyst for such a rebirth? Is this already happening based on the leadership and example of the Friendly Temple? Is their work in bringing housing of various kinds into being along with storefront opportunities for businesses and a clear, positive center for community engagement in the form of Friendly Temple itself the best example possible? Should future neighborhood improvements seek to follow the same general formula with a coordinated effort between non-profits, local government and for profit commercial entities necessary for creating change for the better?
Initial response from Will K. (26 Oct 2014)
I would have replied on the webpage, but it said Error 403 and I couldn’t figure it out. But here are my thoughts.
Alderman Boyd wants the newsletter to be essentially light reading, so that people will get engaged in it easily and have a positive view. I think that the general thrust of your essay — comparing the Delmar and Wellston Loops, especially thinking about how the comparisons could illustrate a way to revitalize the Wellston Loop — could be a really great addition, even a centerpiece. I would really be interested in that, and I’d be that people who are old enough to remember the Wellston Loop would be interested because of nostalgia, while people too young would be interested because it’s history.
I think it would be great if the essay were less academic and ephemeral and more concrete and relatable. I don’t know how feasible it would be to research and write by Thanksgiving (when Alderman Boyd wants it done) but it’d be super great to have a comparison of the kinds of shops and people on the two Loops, and how those factual differences could show a way forward for MLK, Jr. Blvd.
Thanks so much for your help!
Andy’s response to Will’s remarks (26 Oct 2014):
Dear Will ––
Thanks for your thoughts. I can completely understand where Jeffrey is coming from. I would nevertheless like to try to get people to think a little bit. Perhaps asking people to submit their ideas for the future and recollections of the past would be helpful.
If you think it would be possible, could you “mark up” my text with the passages that you think are tending to being academic / pedantic? My intention was not / is not to write something academic, but rather to write something meaningful that anyone with decent reading skills could read (or listen to) and understand. Is there some language or working that you think is a little too much? I would like to simplify what I’ve written to the extent possible.
I’m extremely hesitant to undertake any “research” whatsoever because I know my own natural tendency is to delve into something like that very deeply, photographing places, getting stacks of books from the library, scouring the internet, etc., etc.
My general thinking is to revise what I’ve written here for clarity.
My thought is rather to invest some time in discussing the J.C. Penney Building because I believe that it is misunderstood and unappreciated by some people. I’m feeling that having an institution of some substance and strength move into this building, bringing it back to life could very well be the kind of impetus that the neighborhood needs. That along with a proper renovation of the streetcar station (including appropriate community functions/uses) could help to bring about some momentum toward revitalization.
It seems to me that on the eastern portion of the Delmar Loop that Joe Edwards construction of the Pageant and the Moonrise Hotel have given rise to much of the vibrancy now evident there. I can speak of this somewhat more authoritatively because my memories of the portion of Delmar that’s east of Skinker is still relatively fresh in my mind. Joe Edwards owns the Wabash Railroad Station a bit further down the street. Once that building is brought back and the Loop Trolley installed, I feel confident that the rest of Delmar down to DeBaliviere will regenerate itself organically.
If it’s okay with you, I’m going to post your response and my comments to it online so others can read it.
Second response from Will K. (27 Oct 2014):
First off, thank you so much for writing something for the newsletter. Jack and I will certainly be scrambling to get it done and we really appreciate your help this early in the process. Also, I think (hope!) that posting it on the webpage will inspire some people to write articles of their own, which we would love to have.
As I said at the end of class, I didn’t mean too academic like pedantic, I meant it like ephemeral or not concrete. The language and everything is great, it just is a bit esoteric. I think that if you asked the exact same questions about the JC Penney Building or the street car system it would be a fantastic article; a lot of people would want to get to know more about the history of their area, especially as how to relates to a similar but more successful (for now) part of town.
Please post my comments on the page.
Again, I hope I didn’t offend you at all, but Alderman Boyd just made it clear he wants the articles to fun, useful, and informative. An article about the JC Penney building in this style will be all three, and I appreciate it.