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Urban Prairie

September 2, 2010

The only thing worse than this city’s abandoned buildings and surface parking lots, is the Urban Prairie that accounts for far too many blocks in North St. Louis.  One of the largest expanses of Urban Prairie that I have come across is in the area of North Market and 23rd Streets.  This area is just North of the Pruitt-Igoe site and is hardly better off than the rubble that remains from the housing project there.  At least the street grid is intact.

Looking South from N. Market and 23rd

It’s almost too depressing to try imagining what this intersection once looked like, but the task is made easier (but no less depressing) by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of the area in 1909.

N. Market and 23rd in 1909

This intersection was home to a 5-story building that housed “Moving Pictures” in a neighborhood made up mostly of 2 or 3 story flats.  Just around the corner on 23rd was a “Beer Depot”.  Although this area was clearly not extremely dense (at least not in 1909),  I can count over 20 homes that faced the alleys on either side of N. Market between 25th and 22nd.  These alleys are still in place, but only a handful of buildings remain within eyesight of 23rd and N. Market.  A look back to 1875 shows another picture that stands in sharp contrast to the current condition of 23rd and N. Market (in 1875 23rd Street was 19th).

N. Market and 23rd (then 19th) in 1875

For me, these historical documents are just ideas of what could be here next.  Currently, the slate is all but clean.

Urban Prairie

Although this expanse of Urban Prairie is particularly large and depressing, it is by no means strange to stumble across a similar sight while traveling around St. Louis.  Demolitions that continue to occur around our city increase the amount of totally vacant land and decrease the stock of historic buildings with rehab potential.  One plus side to the current state of this land is that Paul McKee would have to really try hard to screw up its redevelopment.  A NorthSide project that narrowed its scope to the Pruitt-Igoe site and the Urban Prairie nearby would have hardly any current residents or legacy buildings to worry about and would serve the purpose of reconnecting neighborhoods that are intact enough to resurrect themselves.  Since McKee has announced that he will soon begin work on the Clemens Mansion, these deserted blocks nearby would be a great place for him to demonstrate his vision and possibly win support for his broader plan for the much larger chunk of North St. Louis he wants to redevelop.

For more on this area/subject matter see Built St. Louis’ Excellent tour of St. Louis Place and Slow Death of a City Block.

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6 comments

  1. Great use of fire insurance maps! Check out http://digital.wustl.edu/unrealcity/ for more on St. Louis.


    • Wow! This will help me out a lot! Thanks for making this great information more accessible.


  2. You’re welcome. Hope the resources help.


  3. [...] Louis” blog has documented, urban prairie is a crucial problem in some areas of St. Louis. In an outstanding post, blogger Paul Sableman (“Exploring St. Louis) focuses on the intersection of North Market and [...]


  4. […] couple of years ago I wrote about a large expanse of Urban Prairie in the St. Louis Place neighborhood.  While I’ve driven through a few times since, I […]


  5. The WashU maps are a pretty awesome resource



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