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Road Trip: People Packed Streets, St. Louis Style #1

Recently I took a long weekend vacation to St. Louis with the family.  St. Louis is one of those places, like Buffalo, that is not thought of as place to go for a vacation.  It is thought of as one of America’s ‘down at the heals’, ‘no longer worthwhile’ older cities. But, contrary to popular opinion St. Louis is actually a fascinating and often beautiful city.  I had been planning a few stories on St. Louis since last summer when we took this trip but had not gotten around to it.  
With the recent controversy over music at Elmwood’s Acropolis restaurant and the comments that appeared on BRO I thought it would be relevant now to show how this other historic city handles its retail districts.
Buffalo and St. Louis are sister cities in many  respects.  They are both cities that played a great part in the western expansion of the nation and each spent most of the 20th century on the list of 10 biggest cities in the US.  They each share a tremendous pedigree architecturally. St Louis is home to the Guaranty building’ s sister tower the Wainright.  Each of these buildings are held up as the height of Louis Sullivan’s architectural genius and both came close to being demolished.  As a metro St. Louis is approximately two times that of metro Buffalo, but physically and historically the cities are similar.  Like Buffalo, St. Louis spent most or the second half of the 20th century trying to eliminate everything that was built prior.  Also like Buffalo, St. Louis was very successful in that effort.  
Today, vast areas of the once extremely dense St. Louis have been leveled for parking or just plain empty lots.  Urban renewal in the city began in ernest in the 1950’s when a massive portion of the riverfront was leveled for construction of the Gateway Arch and its surrounding park.  Since then St. Louis has declined sharply, destroying large parts of the city in the process. Although St. Louis continues to decline over broad areas, it also has several neighborhoods showing dramatic improvement which are lively and dense with beautiful houses and popular retail and entertainment districts.  One of these extremely popular neighborhoods is called Central West End.
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Central West End (CWE) is a  compact neighborhood which is mostly made up of large masonry victorian houses, a handful of high-rise condo buildings and some large institutions. The neighborhood sits just north and east of the city’s massive Forest Park.  At the core of the neighborhood is a very dense very, beautiful handful of commercial blocks.  These blocks would be equivalent in size to perhaps three Elmwood Blocks (with much less auto traffic).  They hold about 50 to 60 businesses, approximately 20 of which are restaurants.  The restaurants dominate the scene, and there are sidewalk cafes teeming with people.  The feel is reminiscent of the wonderful streets of European cities.  The activity is all framed with a grogeous set of buildings which are well maintained.  Just off the commercial streets can be found peaceful and immaculate residential streets lined with large trees and filled with elegant victorian houses.  These streets are open to the public but are privately owned by the residents who pay for their maintenance (this is a very common tradition for upper end neighborhoods in St Louis which were developed in the early 20th century).  The blocks to the south hold larger high rise buildings including an elegant 1 million square foot historic hotel. 
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There is nothing as nice as this neighborhood in Buffalo.  There… I said it – but that is just a fact (for now).  CWE’s commercial district is not interrupted by large parking lots.  The street fronts are contiguous and continuous.  The only parking lot of any substance is tucked out of site behind the buildings.  While there I was not even aware of this parking lot and I notice that a new building has recently filled in part of it.  There are no gas stations or convenience stores set back from the road behind a sea of asphalt.  All the properties are in great condition and the businesses clean the streets and sidewalks every day.  The stores and restaurants are sophisticated and professional in appearance and look as if they are updated regularly.  Most importantly of all the density of use is what makes this part of St. Louis so engaging.  The restaurants are lined up one after another and they pack the narrow sidewalks with their cafes one after another.  The pictures I have included give only a hint of how delightful this part of St. Louis is. To be sure this is not the norm in St. Louis but it is certainly something other cities should be emulating.
I think that Buffalo could easily replicate the wonderful urban atmosphere of the Central West End, especially on Elmwood and on Allen.  However, as good as they are, Elmwood and especially Allen Street do not come close to meeting their full potential as urban commercial districts.  These two streets are tremendously important to the future growth and attractiveness of Buffalo and all the power of local citizens and government should be focused on the success of these places.  Demographic trends are pointing clearly to the need for cities to be lively, dense, and urban in order to attract young talent. Is Buffalo willing to be that kind of city? I am not so sure sometimes.
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Any neighborhood which is intensively used by diverse groups will experience tensions between various interests.  But walking around the St Louis neighborhood I had a sense that everyone in the neighborhood understood the benefits of cooperation and that the residential and that commercial interests are ultimately the same – preservation of the quality of the neighborhood.   I don’t always get that sense with Buffalo and the Elmwood Village residents and businesses. With regard to Acropolis  I am too far removed from the issue to make a fair judgment on the presentation by BRO and its commenters’ pros and cons.  That being said, if Acropolis is the source of noxious noise and rowdyism somethi
ng should be done fix the problem.  But, with this Acropolis debate and others like it, I get the sense that there is a core group of people who don’t really want Elmwood to be any better than it is now either from the business side or the residential side.  Perhaps people think this is as good as it can be in Buffalo. 
There are so many real issues to fix on Elmwood. I wish the Elmwood Village Association would work to get rid of the gravel parking lot south of Auburn for instance.  There are owners who don’t maintain their buildings with rotting roofs in plain sight.  I could find a a few dozen residential buildings falling apart that are more detrimental to the neighborhood than Acropolis would be even if it is noisy and rowdy.  Buffalo needs Elmwood village to be many times more busy that it is now.  Great cities need dense highly active commercial districts. As nice as Elmwood is, it is not good enough yet.  I get the feeling that there are many selfish people who don’t want any change.  Buffalo needs change in big doses – good is not good enough IMHO.

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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