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Our Neighborhood

July 24, 2013
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We’ve talked and written a lot about our Big Ass Building. We love its unique history and the many things about it that are Big Ass. We’ve focused this blog on our building and on what we are doing with it. Recently, I realized that we haven’t documented why we picked this location. With the decision to find more space, we looked at interesting buildings all over St. Louis, but we actually narrowed our search to this particular area of the city. We’ve not posted about why we picked this neighborhood. Recently, we gave another talk to the Alberti kids, kicking off their summer program. This time Gay asked us to talk about our neighborhood. This post came out of that presentation.

Here's where we live

Here’s where we live

I want to live in a neighborhood. Tom would have preferred to live down by the river, all by ourselves, surrounded by warehouses and industrial buildings. Ever seen Omega Man? No pesky neighbors to be bothered by jack hammering or who knows what. You probably don’t want to know what.

If that was the path we had taken, we likely would have found something more quickly than the two years it took to find this BAB. There are lots of big buildings down by river. It was much harder to find a big building with more traditional houses around it. Before finding this gem, we looked at, for example, a funeral home, some former corner stores, a couple of churches and a small house with a soda factory stuck on the back. We were hoping for something like a fire station, but we never found one of those on the market. Some of these had real potential, or as some have said, nothing but potential. But, who wouldn’t want their own casket elevator? For various reasons, none of those fit the bill. When our intrepid realtor, temporary landlady and all around cool chick, Mary, sent us the listing for what became the BAB, I was very resistant at first, but it certainly fit our need for more space but it also was in a location that was a neighborhood.

What makes a place a neighborhood? I grew up in what we considered to be ‘the country’. We had a few neighbors but mostly we were surrounded by fields and farms. Not many of those farms exist anymore, but Mom and Dad’s view is still mostly uninterrupted woods and fields. It was great to grow up in a place where we could dam creeks and build forts in the woods. After living in University City for so many years of my adult life, I have come now to appreciate the amenities that come with a neighborhood. What are those amenities?

Shopping. There are funky local shops, your typical chains, a grocery store and the all important hardware store nearby. One of my favorite stores is called Cool Stuff Really Cheep.

Located on Virginia at Bates

Located on Virginia at Bates

Restaurants: We have a wide variety of eating establishments near us including Mexican, Afghan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bosnian, the ubiquitous Bread Co, and the super delicious Iron Barley. Our area is home the International Institute which settles international refugees. The diversity of the community can even be seen in the offerings in the grocery store. Every time there is an international crisis, we seem to get new, interesting restaurants. I wonder what Syrian food is like?

It is hard to resist the Prime Rib, but there are many other amazing (and healthier) options. The Watermelon salad it a must!

It is hard to resist the Prime Rib at Iron Barley, but there are many other amazing (and healthier) options. The Watermelon Salad it a must when in season!

Services: There are a number of services that are convenient to have close to home including a car repair shop that has serviced the BAT, the Carondelet YMCA is where I’ve spent countless hours when it is too hot/cold/wet to run outside, and the Bates Lock and Safe store that make the keys for our unusual doors.

Conveniently located next to Cool Stuff and Iron Barley

Bates Lock and Safe- Conveniently located next to Cool Stuff and Iron Barley

Public Entities: Anyone that knows me knows I need to be near a Library at all times. We have a newly renovated, classic Carnegie library branch, Carondelet, in the community. Not that we have a direct need for them, but there are also a number of schools, public and private, in the area. The schools are required for kids but they also act as secondary community centers. During Lent, the Catholic schools have Friday Fish Fries. It is a matter of community pride to pack in folks and feed them fried food. One in particular, St. Cecelia’s, brings in people from all over the region. Their Mexican Fish Fry is more of a festival that features a roaming mariachi band and students performing traditional dances but we discovered that you have to get there early to get the Chile Rellenos.

Part street fair, part fundraiser, part heart attack

Part street fair, part fundraiser, part heart attack

Parks: Carondelet Park is beautiful. There are trails, picnic pavilions and a popular summer concert series that we will get to one of these days. It is nice to have large open green space for the girls to run. Lucy isn’t up for runs or tree climbing anymore, but Tom attaches a long clothesline to Lily’s collar and ties the other end to his waist and lets her take off and tries to keep up.

That's Lucy in by the tree- Lily and Tom are heading our way

That’s Lucy by the tree- Lily and Tom way at the back, are heading our way

Architecture: It may not be considered part of the common definition of a neighborhood, but I think, of course, that the quality of the architecture impacts the neighborhood. I don’t think anyone will be nostalgic for vinyl sided cracker boxes in a hundred years. I think an important part of what kept this neighborhood intact and what continues bring new folks in is the quality and character of the buildings, large and small, new and old.

The area could be a pattern book for brick details.

The area could be a pattern book for brick details.

We have many houses in the area with white glazed brick details.

We have many houses in the area with white glazed brick details.

The new Habitat houses don't have the rich details of their neighbors but they still fit the streetscape.

The new Habitat houses don’t have the rich details of their neighbors but they still fit the streetscape.

History: This is something that is important to me but I feel it is lacking in the ‘new urbanism’ movement of development. I appreciate the desire to recreate the scale and character of older communities. Even though we always make a point to visit Seaside and Rosemary Beach when we do our annual Peterson Family Florida Extravaganza, they feel like architecture theme parks to me. Maybe they are missing the patina that comes from generations of people using a building, and they will gain that character over time. Maybe they are missing the randomness that comes with the slow evolution of a place. Maybe I just miss the oddball people and stories that come from old places. A shout out to a couple notable places in our neighborhood- the Susan Blow Kindergarten was home to the first successful public kindergarten in the United States and Irma Rombauer, of the Joy of Cooking fame, was a long time resident and, some say, odd ball.

The Susan Blow Kindergarten is now the Historical Society

The Susan Blow Kindergarten is now the Historical Society

Trees: Old growth urban trees make such a difference in how a place feels. They soften the edges that come from dense urban structures. They provide shade for us and a habitat for the urban fauna. I think they somehow make a street look more prosperous and expensive.

We are a city of oak trees

We are a city of oak trees

Gardens: We no longer have our own extensive gardens but we have big future plans for the roof. In the meantime, I do value other people’s gardens. Like the old growth trees, the quality, personality and investment in a garden makes a community look more loved.

This one has it all- color and texture by the sidewalk, foundation plantings, hanging baskets

This one is so exuberant- color and texture by the sidewalk, foundation plantings, hanging baskets

Walkability: All of these amenities are within a 10 minute walk from the BAB. We don’t walk to them, necessarily, but having everything we might want so close is a real bonus. Plus with two fuzzy buddies that need frequent spins around the neighborhood, it is nice to have pleasant things to look at along the way.

All this great stuff is close by!

All this great stuff is close by!

I didn’t articulate the qualities I needed when we were considering locations for our adventure. I would say things like ‘I need a coffee shop’ which doesn’t make any sense because I don’t drink coffee. Thanks to Gay for making me think through and articulate what I intuitively understood.  She’s still teaching me.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim and Laura permalink
    July 26, 2013 4:41 pm

    Excellent

  2. Avik permalink
    July 25, 2013 11:33 pm

    Great read- beyond the BAB and Iron Barley I know little about that part of town. Thanks for giving me some context about another cool St. Louis neighborhood!

  3. rick peterson permalink
    July 25, 2013 6:01 am

    WOW Sue, great insight into why you bought the BAB.

    • Sue permalink*
      July 25, 2013 3:38 pm

      Thanks Rick- I’m sure you can picture Tom up on the roof while I’m strolling the neighborhood taking pictures 🙂

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