In a normal American city — one that possesses many of the same attributes as St. Louis, but with another sense of spirit, different values — Hyde Park wouldn’t be discussed as a turnaround story. In an alternative universe, the place never would have spiraled into turmoil in the first place.
Even considering the panoply of ills that affected post-World War II St. Louis (white flight, GI loans that made county living attractive, racial unease, poor public transport … the list does go on), Hyde Park still had the buildings (gorgeous), the land (plentiful) and the roads (right along I-70) to avert crisis. But the flight from north city was severe even by Rust Belt standards, and with a rapidly declining population, many of the buildings tumbled or languished. And so the roads became cut-throughs out of, instead of into, a neighborhood that dates back to the 1840s, with early-twentieth-century density that would’ve been the envy of any corner of St. Louis.
Settled by German immigrants, Hyde Park was originally a township named Bremen. Though a street with that name appears on the map today, the township was annexed and renamed after the park in its center. Today the neighborhood, a misshapen triangle tucked alongside the highway between Old North and Fairgrounds Park, is 84 percent black. Its housing units are 45 percent vacant.
Yet despite long periods of decline, Hyde Park never fully cratered. Enough people either clung to their businesses or homes or elected to find their bliss here despite troubling trends that they created an environment that’s been close to full-scale re-blossoming for decades now. One keen north city observer says that at least three waves of redevelopment have almost happened in Hyde Park over the past 30 years. That some happened in part, but not whole, only adds to the intrigue.
Driving through the neighborhood or walking its blocks, you can see the spurts of activity, set against the losses of past decades. And in 2018, some key indicators suggest a tipping point is finally within reach. Neighboring Old North has become a destination for art lovers and urban homesteaders, even as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is building a new home for its 3,000 employees in nearby Carr Square. And within Hyde Park itself, restaurants are opening, rather than closing. New homes are selling for low six-figure sums (even though you can still get the shell of a vacant for $2,500, condition emphatically as-is). Building permits issued in the neighborhood in 2018 to date are valued at $4.2 million.
Some whole blocks still have broken-teeth syndrome, with ugly gaps between the intact housing stock, while some buildings threaten to implode before the clock strikes 2019. And the 2014 demolition of the 119-year-old Bethlehem Lutheran Church felt like a great loss.
But Chris Naffziger, a blogger on history, architecture and preservation for St. Louis Magazine as well as his own site, St. Louis Patina, feels bullish on Hyde Park’s future.
For all the neighborhood’s troubles, he says, “there’s so much good news.” In addition to a food renaissance, with several exciting new restaurants opening their doors, “there is all sort of historic rehabbing and new construction happening for affordable housing, and there is a strong neighborhood association.
“The architecture is equal to Lafayette Square. Benton Park or Soulard. Yes, it is. I stake my reputation on it. I think in ten years, Hyde Park could be a model for creating an equitable and thriving north St. Louis community.”
And if that happens — if the skeptics are wrong and the optimists are right — it won’t be because of any grand redevelopment scheme, or because of the NGA or because of a big plan out of City Hall. It will be because people invested in a community that others had given up on.
Here are three of their stories.
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