Last week I argued that driving freeways through the heart of urban neighborhoods can have devastating effects. In case you’re skeptical about that claim, consider the case of McRee Town, a St. Louis neighborhood not far from the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood I mentioned in my earlier post.
The River Front Times did a great story on the decline of McRee Town in 2003:
Flora Place, Magnolia Avenue and Tower Grove Place have always been pillars of stability for the Shaw and Southwest Garden neighborhoods. Although some of Shaw’s streets are notoriously rough — a police officer was shot last year in the 3800 block of Shenandoah — it has managed to attract a fair share of rehabbers who are pushing property values upward. Until 1973, McRee Town and an area to the east called Tiffany were vibrant parts of the Shaw neighborhood. That changed when Interstate 44 was completed and the two neighborhoods were severed from the stability of Shaw’s garden and the elegant homes that surround it.
“When I moved here, we had a drugstore, we had a laundromat. We had a Baskin-Robbins at 39th near McRee,” recalls Norma Cox, who bought her home on Lafayette Avenue in 1976. She remembers the day the city blocked the underpass at Thurman Avenue so that traffic could not pass between Shaw and McRee Town. “That’s when I knew we were cut off,” she says.
The same conditions that make for an economically successful urban neighborhood also make for a safe neighborhood. A steady flow of pedestrian traffic makes a street safer, because criminals don’t want to be confronted by passers-by. Neighborhoods with many successful businesses tend to be safer, because business owners tend to be proactive about dealing with troublemakers in the vicinity of their properties.
When I-44 divided McRee Town from the rest of Shaw, it undermined these basic preconditions for safe neighborhoods. Foot traffic between the two neighborhoods plummeted. Because it was smaller, the McRee Town side suffered disproportionately from the loss. The fall in foot traffic meant that the neighborhood couldn’t support as many businesses at it had before. The drug store and the Baskin-Robbins closed.
Soon people who had a choice started leaving. The neighborhood rapidly deteriorated, and by the late 1980s the neighborhood was one of the city’s most notorious slums. Drug dealers moved in. Crime skyrocketed. Houses were abandoned.
Today there’s no neighborhood called McRee Town. Officials from the nearby Botanical Garden hatched a plan to level McRee Town and replace it with suburban-style detached single-family homes. The RFT did its story in 2003, just before the demolitions began in earnest. By the time I left St. Louis in 2008, it looked like a patch of suburbia had been transplanted into the city.
The Garden accomplished its immediate objective, which was to remove a nearby eyesore. But this kind of slash-and-burn redevelopment evades the city’s problems rather than addressing them. Botanical Heights will be nicer than McRee Town mostly because the new homes will be too expensive for the old residents to afford. The old residents were given relocation assistance, but in the long run they’re fighting for a dwindling supply of affordable housing, as the city steadily demolishes low-income neighborhoods and replaces it with suburban-style single-family homes that are out of reach for their former residents.
In the long run, it’s not clear that Botanical Heights will fare any better than McRee Town did. The fundamentals of the neighborhood haven’t changed. It’s still a long, narrow neighborhood sandwiched between railroad tracks and a freeway. The low density of the new housing means that it’s even less likely to sustain the foot traffic and neighborhood businesses that help ward off crime. And the state has apparently been flirting with making the neighborhood even more isolated by completely sealing up the underpasses that connect it to the other side of I-44. Once the new-house smell fades, Botanical Heights could easily begin to deteriorate in the same way that McRee Town did.