“Cities: Routes to Reinvention”
Earlier this week, Principia College completed a three-week, multidisciplinary study program called “Cities: Routes to Reinvention,” led by internationally known architect Diane Haigh. The program culminated with presentations based on class visits to the Old North St. Louis neighborhood and a roundtable discussion, led by Haigh, featuring St. Louis professionals in community development, sustainability, preservation, higher education, religion, and the arts.
As Principia College’s 2012–13 Annenberg Scholar, Haigh has been working with faculty and students in many disciplines—economics, political science, religion, sustainability, art, art history, and mass communication. For the Cities project, she conducted a series of seminars and field studies in conjunction with Old North Saint Louis Restoration Group (ONSLRG), the organization guiding the revitalization of a once-prosperous village that later experienced decades of deterioration after being annexed by the City of St. Louis.
During the roundtable discussion, Sean Thomas, executive director of ONSLRG, praised Old North residents’ efforts to rebuild. “I’ve been incredibly inspired by people in the neighborhood as they’ve seen through the fog to recognize what this area could become,” he noted.
Fortunately, that kind of vision isn’t unique to Old North. “Current urban analysts see a trend of people moving back to cities,” Haigh explains. “Growth in the 1950s and 60s tended to be on the peripheries in vast suburbs, while city centers emptied. A so-called ‘Fifth Migration’ is now taking place, resulting in design initiatives to reclaim historic areas. This pattern is playing out in St. Louis, providing an excellent opportunity for students to consider these complex global issues that touch the lives of so many people.”
Indeed, complexity—in the form of interdisciplinary study—was central the Cities project, which was designed and directed by Professor Duncan Martin, chair of the Art and Art History Department. As he explains, “Redesigning cities in the 21st century demands a holistic approach including cultural and artistic enrichment, architectural preservation, and the integration of sustainable building and living practices.”
Kelly Pollock, executive director of COCA (Center of Creative Arts) and a participant in the roundtable, couldn’t agree more, especially about the role of the arts in community restoration. “The arts set the trend in a community and define the city,” she noted.
Along with the importance of an interdisciplinary perspective, time spent on site in Old North emerged as a highlight of the project. “Students consistently spoke about how their eyes were opened, perceptions changed, and assumptions and pre-conceived ideas about urban neighborhoods challenged,” Martin noted. Senior Kanoe Wagner, who visited Old North with Professor Tom Davidson’s economics class, underscores this point. “I thought it was so cool that rather than clearing out everything because some places have foundered, the community chose to restore what was salvageable,” she says. “There is much worth saving! Restoration rather than gentrification is wonderful because it communicates a visual sense of hope.”
Mass communication students in Professor Paul Wesman’s Feature Writing class found the on-site experience challenging but ultimately rewarding. Earning the trust of local residents took persistence, but in the end they refined their reporting skills on topics such as green space and the much-loved Crown Candy Kitchen, a retro diner that has become a St. Louis tourist attraction after being featured on the Food Network.
As a way of documenting and extending students’ learning, the Art and Art History Department will publish a book on the Cities project.
Note on the Annenberg Scholar: Principia College received a grant from the Annenberg Foundation in 2006 endowing the Annenberg Visiting Scholar program to bring leading scholars, diplomats, writers, and civic leaders to campus for short-term teaching and writing opportunities. This year’s Annenberg Scholar, Diane Haigh, teaches architecture and is a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge University, England. She was involved in refurbishing Royal Festival Hall in London and the new planetarium for The Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Haigh also served on special design review panels for the legacy master plan for 2012 Olympics infrastructure projects.