Will the Convention Center Expansion Wall Off North City From Downtown?

By on October 31, 2018

From NextSTL:  When The Pruitt-Igoe Myth appeared on DVD a few years ago, the filmmakers provided a little-known short from 1970 called More Than One Thing. In this film, directed by Steve Carver, a teenaged Pruitt-Igoe resident named Billy shares his life, loves and philosophy. While scenes of Billy’s world at the housing project are eye-opening, what is most striking is how downtown serves as an extension of his world.

When bored, Billy and his crew head south and walk down Olive Street. They end up at Famous-Barr, inside of the now-empty Railway Exchange Building at Seventh and Olive Streets. They prance and dance, taking the business district’s staid setting as a backdrop for the exuberant curiosity of youth. The open street grid between Pruitt-Igoe and downtown makes the city an equilateral space for exploration and encounter – just pick a direction.

Today, the world of Billy and his friends barely exists. Pruitt-Igoe is gone, of course, but so are most of the other places Billy visited in the film. Franklin Avenue, now called Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, does not sport countless neon-lit blade signs reflecting slow light onto plate glass shop windows. Olive Street west of Tucker Boulevard is a somber, pompous thoroughfare, devoid of a pedestrian pulse save for the strip around Hard Times Lounge and the White Knight Sandwich Shop. The center of downtown vacillates between moments of inviting urbanism and absurdly-located loading docks, parking lots, inexplicably vacant shop fronts and expansive blank walls. Thank goodness for Bird and Lime scooters, or today’s teenagers would be numbed by most of our center city.

A previous generation intervened into this landscape when the city’s convention center, once called Cervantes Convention Center but now called America’s Center, pursued major expansion in the early 1990s. Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, Jr., Comptroller Virvus Jones and others presided over a process that corrected the design flaws of the original convention center building completed in 1977. That building was a hulking, neutral, disconnected modernist form, barely notable as architecture for the placement of a now-removed Ernest Trova sculpture, AV/Bedu.

Placed along Delmar Boulevard, which was christened “Convention Plaza” east and west of the modest superblock, the old convention center represented all that was wrong with modernist urbanism – a segregated monocultural island, distant from the real vital center of downtown and removed from every spark around it.

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