Historical Photos of St. Louis Capture the Great Violence of “Urban Renewal”

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Some of these images, dug up by Alex Ihnen at NextSTL, almost look like a war zone. Buildings exploding. Entire city blocks reduced to ghost towns. Families out on curbs, carrying all their belongings in suitcases.

It wasn’t a war, though — it was mid-century St. Louis. Perhaps no other American city more enthusiastically embraced the development strategy known as “urban renewal,” a euphemism for wide-scale demolition to clear land for rebuilding on a blank slate. Today we look back on this era as a moral and social catastrophe of our own government’s design.

Urban renewal’s fiercest critic was Jane Jacobs, who was born 100 years ago this week. In recognition of Jacobs, Ihnen unearthed these images of the urban renewal era that she rebelled against, complete with scenes of powerful, confident men standing around neat little models. They are pretty remarkable.

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st-louis-riverfront-before-clearance_8904995691_o-1

The same church, before and after.
It’s the same church in both photos.

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Of course, much of the destruction was to make way for a car-based city. Here are a couple of particularly heinous examples:

Before
Before.
After
After. (For context, look for the church with the two spires in the top photo. In the bottom photo, you can see one of the spires.)

Before

After

Urban renewal wreaked an enormous human toll. An estimated 1 million people in 993 neighborhoods across the U.S. were forced to relocate by urban renewal policies, most without any compensation. A disproportionate number of them were poor or black. Here is one family in St. Louis who were uprooted.

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Here are the “visionaries” behind Pruitt-Igoe, the gigantic housing project that later came to stand for everything wrong with the towers-in-a-park model. In Death and Life, Jacobs wrote about why the variety and fine-grained detail of city streets matter — qualities that were swept away here to make room for monotonous buildings and sterile green space. The scene of planners toying with neat, orderly models, oblivious to the effect on actual people, captures the antithesis of what Jacobs stood for.

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As Ihnen notes, “people did fight back. Residents did oppose demolition. Activists did go to the courts and seek relief and the protection of their rights.” But the legacy of urban renewal has been tough to overcome. St. Louis has lost 63 percent of its population since 1950.

These photos powerfully evoke what Jacobs fought against and remind us that it’s the street-level, human details that make a city great, not mega-projects imposed on a map.

  • Oh, it makes my heart and stomach hurt so much.

  • Le peage

    Beautiful photos of a time gone by. Very sad to see the “visionaries” of a better life. By the 1960s these optimistic families were largely torn apart. Deindustrialization coupled with false promises. The tragedy of mid-century modernism and modernist philosophy.

  • Dennis Opihory

    all these urban policies were the direct result of progressive politicians and ideology

  • N. Flagrante

    The Chambers of Commerce pushed this stuff just as hard. it was a mid-century ideological consensus, that is why it was possible.

  • Roger87

    “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”

  • Dennis Opihory

    it was the progressive ideological policies of urban renewal in the 60’s that produced projects- the myth of building gargantuan projects surrounded by a greenbelt & handing out government largess was the left’s utopian dream for the black underclass –

  • Joe R.

    You need to think here about the tower-in-a-park approach and superblocks in the context of urban renewal. Notice that the overriding goal was to get cars moving through cities as rapidly as possible. Given that, would you really want a fine-grained grid of high-speed roads which interrupted pedestrian space even 250 feet or so? Hence the superblock was born to give some sanctuary from high-speed auto traffic. This issue here is that this concept suffered from very poor execution. Instead of building a few towers and having barren, wideswept plazas you could have had something resembling a traditional grid with retail and other things, except that unlike the old street grid this grid would be permeable only to pedestrians and cyclists. This actually would have been better than what we have today. The cars would be limited to streets on maybe a 1/4 to 1/2 mile grid. A lot of our cities now would be peaceful places free of motor vehicles.

    Of course, what I described still might have been a hard sell to people like Robert Moses. Part of the appeal of cars to them was door-to-door travel. Nevertheless, I think the idea of superblocks with respect to motor vehicles is a great idea. It adds absolutely nothing positive to the urban fabric having car streets every 250 feet. You only need to keep a finer grid intact for slower moving bike and pedestrian traffic.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, and to this day I still strongly believe their goal was to segregate poor blacks under the guise of “helping” them. Housing projects put in far flung areas well away from expensive white neighborhoods made this goal abundantly clear.

  • Vooch

    exactly – government meddling and arrogance has caused more death and destruction that anything

  • Dennis Opihory

    it was democrat liberals who destroyed the cities and gave us the modern day welfare system

  • Dennis Opihory

    no it wasn’t- it was liberals under the guise of the great society that thought these were the solutions in addition to transferring billions in welfare/social programs. don’t rewrite history

  • Vooch

    you believe there is a difference between the 2 parties ?

  • A.J.

    Eisenhower interstate system. Eisenhower being a Republican. There was and is much bipartisan short-sighted policy in regards to infrastructure and housing.

  • Dennis Opihory

    urban renewal in the 60s which created the new housing/social welfare paradigm was a direct result of democrat progressive policies put into practice- hence urban blight

  • Dennis Opihory

    in the 60s yes. lyndon johnson’s great society was a liberal dems wet dream

  • Vooch

    50 years ago

    today there is zero difference between the parties

    Christ both Hillary & Bernie voted to build a Wall

  • A.J.

    Pardon me for being doubly confused why there is so much pushback nowadays from the right to trying to end these financially unsustainable sprawl development pattern policies you blast as failed progressive policies. Anything that might get people back into Urban areas and living without depending on a car for transportation is not greeted as a “less government” solution.

  • A.J.

    Ironic that Suburbs are a liberal central government creation that are now disproportionately full of Republican voters who don’t seem eager to give up the car commuting and large home mortgage interest subsidies to move back to Urban areas.

  • Dennis Opihory

    actually the creation of the suburbs was not a simplistic version of the urban government intervention in the cities. the suburbs are not disproportionately republican or states like new jersey wouldn’t be democrat caliphates. and who would be eager to go back to the failed urban wasteland of detroit,newark or camden? however successful urban renewal and reclamation has created a large class of young people moving into gentrified sections of places like brooklyn hoboken and jersey city.

  • Dennis Opihory

    well u go live in detroit and tell me how that works out for you

  • wklis

    We have Jane Jacabs Walks, but no Robert Moses Walks, I mean Drives, for a good reason.

  • WOW!

  • Art Anderson

    Right. That’s why Pruitt-Igoe was approved by Republicans in Missouri and built in 1954, 10 years before Lyndon Johnson was President. Stop talking now before you look stupider than you already do.

  • A.J.

    I live in the city of St. Louis with my wife and son, ride a bicycle to work, and things are going great for me. Thank you for asking.

  • A.J.

    “liberal dems wet dream” And also all the farmers and rural whites who were in the Democratic party at the time. Urban areas were largely Republican before the civil rights era.

  • Dennis Opihory

    u are really clueless about urban history public policy and planning. take a course

  • Dennis Opihory

    yeah well good for frickin u. must be great in the winter when u grocery shop

  • A.J.

    Hat, gloves, and a coat. Great inventions. Also not being a car-cottled suburban namby-pamby.

  • Dennis Opihory

    joseph darst – became democrat mayor of st louis in 1949 concocted & implemented disastrous urban planning schemes . pruitt igoe one of them. stop talking now before u look stupider than you already do

  • A.J.

    Oh no. I’m agreeing with you, that failed Urban Renewal Policies and Pro Suburban Housing/Infrastructure were New Deal Era Democratic policies that harm Urban Democrats of today. But you’re ignoring the Democratic Party of 1930s-1940s that elected FDR was largely white, southern, and rural before the Civil Rights Era.

    The problem being after the Civil Rights Act and the Nixon “Southern Strategy” of the 1970s those groups left the Democratic Party but still receive much of the benefit of those failed New Deal policies: Indirect Interstate funding, mortgage interest deductions, and farm subsidies. I would love to see a smaller government in those respects as it would be good for Urban areas but I’m not going to hold my breath to see suburban and rural Republicans of today give up that government dependency.

  • Dennis Opihory

    yeah especially when ur 65

  • Dennis Opihory

    actually it was lyndon johnson and the great society transferring over a billion dollars to urban america saying and i quote,’give the n–gers the money and they vote democrat for the next 200 yrs.’

  • Dennis Opihory

    LOL that’s because you can’t afford a car-

  • Art Anderson

    Choke on a bag of dicks you fucking Nazi

  • Dennis Opihory

    LOL – little artie needs a diaper change and a meds adjustment

  • Jason

    Interesting perspective. It occurs to me that the car streets would also allow for a pretty thorough bus network that moved at reasonable speeds–sure, the Robert Moses types probably wouldn’t have gone for that at the time, but it would have been pretty easy to add in after the fact.

  • Lloyd Bergenson

    Public housing and urban renewals were federal programs.

  • Dennis Opihory

    read the caro book on robert moses….. get a clue about the collaborative efforts of dem city & fed policy

  • Brad

    dude you’re a fucking idiot, I dropped IQ points listening to your moronity.

  • Dennis Opihory

    you mad,dude? LOL

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