A Tale of Two Cities: A Call to Repair Blighted Communities (South Chicago = North St. Louis)

I recently moved from Chicago to St. Louis to further my career in the field of architecture and to get away from the hustle of such a massive city. Taking note of my observations and experiences in the two cities, I could not help but notice the striking similarities that must be acted upon in order for them to become better places to live. This is a “Tale of Two Cities” that is very intriguing. Before getting into the similarities, let’s first explore the differences.

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Millennium Park, Chicago, IL (Google image)

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City Garden, St. Louis, MO (Google image)

Chicago, a city of more than 2.7 million people (according to 2015 data) is the 3rd largest in the nation, while St. Louis maintains a population of approximately 317,000, almost ten times less. Chicago is a city with a downtown core that has continued heavy investment and, according to recent reports, is one of the most expensive places to live in the world. It greatly differs from St. Louis, which has made slow but steady efforts to invest in the downtown core and is now beginning to see true movement in the resurgence of its riverfront and the downtown central business district. Chicago is a city where the cost of living is quickly becoming too expensive for the average lower-middle class family while St. Louis, with generous real estate and rental options, is a viable place for a family to live and actually thrive. These statistics and observations are not intended to place one city above the other as both have good attributes.

While the two cities have their differences, one similarity that both continue to struggle with is the continued obstacle of creating true opportunities for those inhabitants who make very low wages.

Until I was 19, I lived on the south side of Chicago in the Englewood community, which has a high murder rate and ranks high in violence overall seemingly every year. Englewood was and is still today overwhelmed with gang violence, drugs and high levels of poverty which make it a difficult place to thrive on a day-to-day basis.

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Southside Chicago neighborhood (Google image)

As an architect in retrospect, the most vivid observation of my neighborhood was that it seemed to not even be on the radar for rehabilitation. The streets were unmanaged. The housing was ill-equipped and the conditions that people lived in were, quite honestly, criminal. Good people often lived in places that were uninhabitable. How could so many vacant lots and abandoned houses exist on the mostly African-American and Latino south, east and west sides of town while the mostly Caucasian north side was a place full of shops, nice places to eat? It felt to me and many of my friends growing up like no one on the north side of the city had any idea of what was going on in our community. Did they just understand that it was a bad place to be? Was it that NIMBY attitude that is so pervasive in our society when one lives in comfort and does not live in day to day poverty? Was it something else that I could not wrap my mind around?

I now understand that this phenomenon also happens in St. Louis. I recently listened to a Podcast on NPR entitled "We Live Here", where the host talks about many issues related to diversity and the inequality among racial and socio-economic lines and discriminatory housing practices. As an example illustrated in the Podcast, in the City of St. Louis, poor African Americans are being discriminated against even when they meet the housing qualifications, but landlords purposefully use what is known as “racial steering” to systematically put them in neighborhoods that are generally low-income and full of violence. These issues not only affect poor communities; they often spill out into other adjacent neighborhoods.

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Northside St. Louis neighborhood (Google image)

The north side of St. Louis, in my opinion, is effectively the south side of Chicago. Both are communities where many people are unconsciously degraded and exploited and lack basic services. These neighborhoods are generally the ones that are researched before someone comes to visit a city and elicit the "DON'T GO THERE; IT'S DANGEROUS" comments. The fact that this could be said about any place is unacceptable to me. Our country as well as our cities should not have such extreme degrees between its citizens and their opportunities to thrive.

We have to do better! Social issues are a fundamental part of the architectural quilt; however, my view of these neighborhoods as a young child and teenager to my current perception as an adult has not changed much. While I see more of the possibilities and potential as an adult, the limitations known to me as a child are still prevalent. We, as architects, must be stronger in truly speaking out for those living in neighborhoods where dreams are dismantled. We must speak out against injustice and not ignore the reality of our neighborhoods. We must address the abysmal statistics of low levels of minority architects (i.e. less than 15 licensed African-American licensed architects in St. Louis… I would assume lower numbers for other minorities?...). While this may seem critical, recognition should also be given to those firms, including Trivers, who are striving to do great work for our communities and taking the initiative to engage in these discussions. While I’m proud to be part of some of these efforts, I will continue to look for more ways I can help to have a positive impact.

Improvement in these neighborhoods is critical to the success of the greater communities in which they exist. Implementing positive change requires that we push further ahead. These communities cannot merely hope that the next thing coming to them will be better than what they currently have; we must ASSURE them that this is the case. I'll be first!

Posted by Decorda McGee, NOMA, LEED GA, Architectural Designer

PROGRESS and PRESENCE: My Historic House of the Future


It was the autumn of 1939 when Hiram and Helen Hunnicutt had a small house of the ‘modern style’ built for themselves just inside the southwest limits of the City of Saint Louis, MO. It was planned as a replica of “House No. 5” of the New York World’s Fair of that year, one of fifteen houses assembled as a “Town of Tomorrow” area of the fair. For a 10-cent admission, 5000 visitors a day would walk through 15 homes of a variety of plans and materials, which the July 1939 issue of Architectural Forum magazine described as “four houses modern . . . two others so labelled with scant justification; the remaining nine traditional, nearly all Colonial.”  Surprising to me, the Forum article states that the results of a poll of visitors demonstrated that “1) more than 40 percent of the visitors favor modern architecture, and 2) the Town’s most popular house is one of modern design.”  Amidst a crippling global economic depression and the threat of full-scale war in Europe, Americans visiting the fair preferred what-might-be over what-had-been.



Fast-forward nearly eight decades. With four of our five children out on their own, we were looking to downsize (I prefer to say ‘right-size’).  We notice this little gem on the market, and with a few online clicks and one Open House visit, it is ours. Farewell, Arts & Crafts; hello Streamline Moderne. Its World’s Fair cousin was one of the two that Forum appropriately described as not truly modern. Yet here we are in 2016 stewards of a home that visitors, neighbors and relatives invariably equate as “contemporary”, sometimes in a pejorative sense. Our superficially-modern box of an abode belies a contemporaneity that is 75 years old. Its presence is anachronistic – not because it reminds us of our grandparents era (which it should, but does not), but because it suggests our future (which it should not, but it does).

But, I am hopeful. As our society increases its commitment to sustainability, assigns greater value to authenticity, and above all embraces change, we may yet witness a housing vernacular that aims for the future.

Posted by Frank Rosario, AIA, Project Manager

Work Lessons from 5th Graders


Recently one of our firm’s Principals brought her 5th grade daughter and two classmates to the office to collect data for a school project about "How we express ourselves" with the central idea of "creative expression can lead to positive change in our communities". I was selected to be interviewed and not knowing what to expect, awkwardly accepted. I was pleasantly surprised that this interview turned out to be a moment of clarification and re-dedication for me.

The girls asked two simple questions that get to the core of why we get up and go to work every day.

“What do you do at your job?” and “Why did you decide to work at Trivers Associates?”

Taking into account that you are talking with 5th graders who are fairly sophisticated and worldly (they recorded me on their smart phone!), but also not familiar with professional lingo, what are your answers?

Being a project manager, I have a pretty technical and multi-faceted job description and I was stymied at first by how to answer the opening question. I had to stumble through “helping others to use the right amount of time” and “making sure the building doesn’t fall down or leak” and “making sure that people can be safe if the building catches on fire”. We also talked about a project with a work schedule that was as long as the conference table when we printed it out. The girls reduced all of that information down to, “So, you’re kind of like the school Principal on the project.” and I had to say that was pretty correct. (Very cagey this group!) But the thing is, finding solutions to problems and defining processes is, in fact, a creative expression for me that results in building up our community.

The next question was easier to answer. The kinds of projects Trivers Associates works on are things that I really enjoy being a part of. In particular, working on the adaptive re-use of historic structures and buildings that are an important part of our city’s fabric gives me great satisfaction. Plus, the people I work with are a great bunch of knowledgeable professionals who enjoy their work, are engaged in our community and like to have fun. I said this all in simpler terms, but I think they got it.

I realize that I am going to have to work on my “elevator speech” about what I do at work, but I have to say that I’m pretty clear on why I come to work. Answering these questions made me think about “action” and “purpose”, things that we forget in the hustle and bustle of “working”. Thanks to the simple inquisition of three fifth graders for helping me pause to self-reflect and validate my direction!

Posted by John Wilhelm, RA, CDT, Project Manager