PHOTO FLOOD SAINT LOUIS

A surge of images along the banks of the Big Muddy.

Photo Flood 37: Downtown West

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photograph by Janet Henrichs

Downtown West is one of St. Louis’ most significant neighborhoods. Defined by the iconic buildings that it contains and as a gathering place for public events (like many of the annual charity races), this neighborhood of distinction is often considered to be “downtown” by many St. Louisans. 

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photograph by John MacEnulty

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photograph by Ryan Stanley

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photograph by Ann Aurbach

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photograph by Santiago Bianco

Though just west of the neighborhood where the city was founded, Downtown West is the area where many of St. Louis’ grand ambitions were realized.  For one, St. Louis City Hall is one of the most beautiful and emblematic city halls in the country.  Designed by Harvey Ellis, it was built from 1898-1904 (when city government officially relocated from Downtown) in the French Renaissance Revival Style, and closely resembles Paris’ own city hall, the Hôtel de Ville.  When it was first erected, St. Louis’ City Hall had several spires and a tower atop it that have since been removed, casualties of changes in local taste (or because of corroded metal structuring; this is debated).  Remarkable structures in the neighborhood are numerous, and include some of the city’s best testaments to its former industrial (International Shoe Company, Butler Brothers, Shell Oil Company) and cultural (Peabody Opera House, St. Louis Public Library Central Branch, Union Station) prominence.  Even the somewhat controversial, St. Louis Gateway Mall speaks of the grand ambitions of a once proud city.  

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photograph by James Palmour

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photograph by Michelle Bates

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photograph by Janet Henrichs

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photograph by Shelly Cendroski

Of course, one of the major complaints of visitors to this portion of town is the ever-present population of destitute persons, asking for spare change, sleeping on monuments, or engaging in other behaviors that might offend outsider eyes.  This has been a rub for city officials as well, whose until current campaign against the homeless could be described as “sweeping the problem under the rug”.  In Downtown West, the problem is more visible, some would say, because of the location of several boarding houses, religious shelters, kitchens, and treatment facilities that cater to these individuals.  As the area’s resident population has spiked over the past decade (one of the only areas in the city to have increased more than 50% since the 2000 census), the issue has become exacerbated.  The current stand-off between St. Louis Mayor, Francis Slay, and New Life Evangelical Center owner, Larry Rice, is a prominent example, wherein the fate of the Center will be decided in a Federal hearing.  NLEC currently houses more than 300 homeless persons; it has an occupancy permit for 32.

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photograph by Jason Gray

On our visit to Downtown West, the group did experience many interactions with vagrant persons, including several lengthy conversations with charismatic individuals (some who seem simply down on their luck).  Among them, I met a man named Danny, who was genuinely passionate and knowledgeable about the city and its history.  Our conversation, which I actually initiated, ranged according to Danny to cover topics from St. Louis’ slave trading history to the limestone curb we spoke across.

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photograph by Susan Hegger

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photograph by Susan Price

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photograph by Ryan Stanley

While it is true that Downtown West may possess a noticeable contingent of homeless people on any given day, this is no different from the downtown areas of most major American cities.  What is also true is that these persons represent little to no threat to your daily activities in the area.  If you are skeptical nonetheless, consider that a bit of street smarts, some basic human empathy, and/or a mix of community and governmental support would go a long way toward alleviating the problem for all.

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photograph by Michelle Bates

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photograph by Sue Rakers

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photograph by Dave Adams

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photograph by Allen Casey

If you look back far enough in time, you would be more likely to run into another kind of resident on any given day in this area- the rich and powerful kind.  In 1851, James Lucas opened the first private place in St. Louis, called Lucas Place.  Located along a stretch of what is now Locust Street, Lucas Place welcomed home many of the city’s most successful entrepreneurs to sprawling mansions on a street closed, except to private carriage.  The Place lost popularity as more exclusive streets opened in Lafayette Square, and later in the Central West End.  Today, the only mansion that remains is the stately Campbell House, which has been converted into a museum for the era.

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photograph of Campbell House in the 1960s

Downtown West is a melting pot of the past and the promise of the future. Many of the cavernous warehouses and manufacturing buildings of industrial St. Louis have been, or are being, converted over to loft-style condominiums and apartments. Structures that were once abandoned or derelict are being revitalized, like the Peabody and Union Station, and the city seems once again focused on the potential for its urban core. Though a full realization of what is possible is still a long way off, to spend a day wandering the streets and visiting the businesses of this neighborhood already offers much reward to city residents and out-of-towners alike.

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photograph by Michael Smith

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photograph by Debbie Gehrin

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photograph by James Palmour

MAP:
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Our end point for Photo Flood 37, was Hiro Asian Kitchen. If you haven’t been yet, Hiro is a delicious option for southeast asian cuisine, and very recommended.

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photograph by Michelle Bates

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Author: Jason Gray

Jason Gray is a photographer in St. Louis who specializes in objective documentation.

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