Posted on March 28th, 2011 13 comments
St. Louis, Missouri is a river city that’s spent hundreds of years trying to ignore its genesis by blotting out the unignorable. But there’s a remote section of North St. Louis County that has to end because the river says so. And in that wilderness are a few folks who don’t pay extra for a bluff-side river view because it’s part of their backyard.
Head out New Halls Ferry Road in deep Florissant and you’ll come to Shackelford Road. While at that stop, look across the intersection to the left and see the last remains of the once-grand entrance to the Desloge Mansion, now a weedy, gravel road blocked off with a utilitarian metal gate. Then continue up New Halls Ferry, where you will come to an undeniable line of demarcation between mannered society and where the river reigns. The house above, ancient but occupied, is the welcome mat to a stretch of road engulfed by trees, and where most everyone has made the wise decision to live on the hilly side because to live on the other side is to be a part of the river more times than a body can be comfortable with.
But there are 4 remaining homesteaders who did build on the other side of the road, smack against the thin lip between blacktop and river. For about 8 months out of the year they are hiding behind water-logged forestry, shadowy even on the brightest day. There is no sidewalk, so you can’t casually stroll by and observe these stubborn souls living where no one else has the guts to. And it’s no exaggeration to say that if you did make the choice to traipse through the mossy mud on their side of the road, a shotgun blast warning could be a standard feature.
New Halls Ferry Road ends at the straight where the Missouri River seems to be logically heading toward a union with the Mississippi River in what would become Elsah, Illinois, but a radical change of mind caused it to high tail it out of there. But the Mississippi – a river that was having second thoughts about committing to a southerly direction – took chase after the Missouri, cornering it about 13 miles to South East. A Confluence was born, and then the Mississippi River runs down stream to New Orleans.
Look at this map and see that New Halls Ferry was making a crazy beeline into the river before it thought better of such a foolish notion.
Right at this point is the easiest and quickest public access into the churning brown waters of the Missouri. A casual stroll can turn into a suck down into the undertow. For a short spell we lived less than a half mile from this point, up Douglas Road.
I was waiting to start 1st grade, so to a young girl coming from the dense, inner ring suburbs of Jennings and Ferguson, this was a wonderland of endless forests, swarms of lightning bugs brighter than the dusk-to-dawn lamp post in the front yard, a loping Trouble puppy and my first Sugar pony trotting alongside a red gelding named Rusty in the back yard horse paddock.
But during our two years, there was a late summer locust invasion that thoroughly freaked out my thoroughly Soulard urban mother, livestock along this stretch of river road were poisoned to death in a personal vendetta, and dead bodies were dumped onto that last sliver of land between the road and the river.
North Countians over a certain age still recall the 1971 murder of two Radio Shack employees abducted after they closed up shop. I remember watching my folks bid goodnight to guests as the Channel 4 evening news followed the nightly “It’s 10 o’clock – do you know here your children are?” with the report that their bodies had just been found in the woods between New Halls Ferry and the Missouri River. That’s right down the street! We all shivered at the thought of the closeness of depraved souls wading into places we knew you should never go, rolling bodies into the deep, damp unknown.
I lingered on the thought of detectives gingerly stepping through rotted trees and underbrush in the ominous cold indigo with nothing but flashlights, looking for something grisly, second-guessing their line of employment. I couldn’t fall asleep that night, and for every night after that, as another murder was reported, I was sure their body was laying 2,500 yards from our house.
A North County rite of passage is the legend of the Bubble Heads, who seem to exist in all those pockets where land gives way to river, as if the unrelenting humidity swells the heads of the unhinged. They claim that Bubble Heads were along this stretch of New Halls Ferry. I’d rather run into one of those mythical creatures than the real world facts of murdered bodies – known and unknown, human and bovine – that have littered the area. They claim the ghosts of young boys who drowned in the long- abandoned quarry (right before you get to the still-operating quarry) can be heard as the sun sets. All of it adds up to a low hum of ominous that affects even those who know nothing of the area until they stumble upon it during a Sunday drive.
Passersby who notice these abodes tucked behind the trees in front of the river comment on their rumpled state. But as with any riverside community, there is an acceptable level of decay, because you can’t stop Ole Man River from peeling your new paint job and curling your wood siding. For these 4 homesteads along New Halls Ferry, they probably have to sweep river water out the basement after just 2 days of steady rain, so what’s the point of being overly manicured when the river will always chew your nails to the quick?
For the 1910 home above, if someone has a good throwing arm, they could lob a baseball into the Missouri from the back porch. They’re sited so close to the road because they had no other option. But year after year, the option to not live there doesn’t seem to cross their mind, except when the river and old age has eroded a home into the ground.
During the last 40 years along this short stretch of road hugging the river, once occupied land has reverted to vacant swamp, but the family still holds the property rights. Unlike the flood-prone portions of, say, Chesterfield Valley, developers aren’t clamoring to build new upon the unbuildable. When the sound of the river can sometimes drown out the TV with the windows open, logic prevails in the hearts of those not cut out to live on the river.
Posted on February 18th, 2010 6 comments
I just ran across some black & white prints I shot in 2002 of two retail plazas on New Halls Ferry Road in Florissant, MO. Above is a detail of one of the two signs that represented Cross Keys Shopping Center, which went up in 1969 as a combination mall/open air retail giant at New Halls Ferry and North Lindbergh Blvd. The signs were ungodly tall and shiny, and always reminded me of a cross between Johnny Sokko’s robot and Batman. The signs were demolished in 2003 along with the rest of the original Cross Keys. The site was born again.
Still standing in its original state, about a mile south of Cross Keys, at New Halls Ferry and Parker Road, is Plaza Madrid. This plaza went up in 1970, and as you can make out on the photo above (click to enlarge), this part of Madrid was originally the National grocery store. Spent a lot of time at the magazine stand inside this building, but even as a kid, I knew this place looked cheesy. During its boom years, this part of town had a deep fascination with anything Spanish, and Madrid Plaza really went over the top with the theme.
Back at the original Cross Keys, this is a detail of what was originally a Krogers grocery store, which disappeared around the time Cross Keys also got a Schnucks. The center of this retail oasis was an indoor mall, but I can’t remember a time when it was as lively and thriving as the open-air stores along the perimeters. Actually, I remember the mall being a bit creepy.
In 2003, they cleared all the buildings and started from scratch, even giving it a new name: The Shoppes at Cross Keys. When you use pretentious, Olde English spelling for 21st century suburban shopping parks, you know there’s no place for a stainless steel Batman sign. The new concern is all Big Box open air, and though it lacks personality (which is the point, really) it is doing quite well, if cars on the parking lot are a fair indicator.
Plaza Madrid is also open-air, has loads of personality and its parking lots are sad and lifeless. They’ve been that way for about the last 15 years. Some other businesses have moved in and out of National building over the years, and it sits empty yet again. The beloved Dairy Queen (that occupied the Knockouts space, below) disappeared by the start of the 1990s, and you knew the jig was up when even the Radio Shack closed.
Plaza Madrid is in a good location, the buildings are holding up very nicely (especially those clay tile roofs, which are not budging) and the layout is perfect for exposure of individual shops, yet owners just can’t seem to make it happen.
I know retail is an unsympathetic creature of New, Newer, Newest and Madrid has the stench of old about it. Retail also requires either a complete lack of personality or the EIFS-fake personality of “lifestyle centers,” while Madrid just has played out kitsch from a different century, so it’s the wrong kind of personality. I’m not claiming this place is worthy of preservation, just saying that remodeling the buildings we already have is a smart idea. I will always hold on hope that retail can learn to think differently, maybe learn to save some money by recycling buildings, and that Plaza Madrid would be a good test lab for such a radical idea… scrub it up, patch it up, market the kitsch. Let’s learn to think outside the Big Box of retail Shoppes.
Posted on May 19th, 2009 8 comments
New Halls Ferry Road & 270
I took this photo in the town of Dellwood in North St. Louis County in the early fall of 2003. As a kid, I mentally referred to it as The Flying Building. I chanced upon it right as they turned on the lights, which made it look even more so like it was launching into flight.
It was a quick moment, and I made mental note to come back and further explore this building with a camera. Upon returning for that purpose, it was clear the moment had passed. They had knocked down the original Buick sign and junked it up with a bunch more vinyl banners. But at least they haven’t torn down the building.
Yep, I probably just jinxed it.