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  • Writer's pictureRustopolis

The Inconvenient Archive: Land and Memory

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Abandoned and vacated landscapes comprise an inconvenient archive, one that persists on the ground, refusing to go quietly, often more expensive to dismantle than to leave expiratus in situ. This archive records centuries of changing epistemologies and conceptions of land and its use.

An Archive of Episteme and Succession

The landscapes that we examine in our project arise out of the heritage of occupation under settler colonialism and creative destruction under capitalism. Taking St. Louis as an example, we see the succession of several modes of land use over time. Prior to European colonization, the landscape was primarily composed of mixed tall grass prairie edged by forest and fed by creeks and waterways of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. For 500 years, from roughly 900 to 1400, the Mississippian mound building culture dominated the region from their central settlement at Cahokia. As that culture dissipated, smaller groups of Osage, Miami, Sioux, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, and Peoria expanded their settlements, using waterways and trails laid down by previous groups and creating new ones. Many of these trails would become the market roads of European settlers, who also dismantled most of the remaining indigenous burial mounds. By the late seventeenth century, many of these groups had created thriving villages in an interconnected mosaic with French farmers and trappers (Morgan 2010, 5–12). Around that time, Native people formed the Illini Confederacy, which would eventually be forced to cede its lands whole cloth to the new U.S. Louisiana Territory after 1803.

Destruction of Big Mound in the 1860s. This was the last of the Mississippian mounds distributed throughout downtown St. Louis.

St. Louis was established in 1764 as an outpost for French colonial expansion upriver from New Orleans, and as a defense against English incursion from the east. It was also a central point of trade and passage for many Native groups in their trading with the French, the Spanish, the U.S. American settlers (Gitlin, Morrissey, and Kastor 2021). The French parceled out land according to the arpent system of measurement, which created long thin strips of land for farming--though few of the settlers farmed, as most were engaged in trading fur and other commodities. After 1803 the city was part of the U.S., and it expanded westward from the riverfront into the hinterland. Throughout the 19th century, rapid urbanization saw the long French farm fields platted and chopped up into new subdivisions with individual parcels for sale to Euro-American settlers and land speculators to build homes (Sandweiss 2001, 47–61, 79–92).

The 1853 J.H. Fischer map of St. Louis. The map is remarkable as it shows the city at a moment of profound transition between three regimes of property and land use. The various creeks and trails of Native people are still evident at various points, though they are subsumed by the long French 'common fields' and farms across the top of the map. Meanwhile, the Anglo-American city, subdivided and platted, marches rapidly westward from the river, chewing up the landscape as it goes.

By the early 20th century, the industrial city of factories, rail lines, gridded streets, houses and tenements had taken hold. This was the city of rapid industrial capitalist expansion--a furious engine of growth based on an Anglo-American property system that doubled and redoubled the urban population and cast the city beneath a pall of soot and smoke. One of the principal concerns among planners in the mid-20th century was the migration of families of means toward the western suburbs, and the 'landlordization' of the older neighborhoods left behind, where townhouses were converted into boarding houses to accommodate large numbers of Black families moving up from the rural South. Such concerns would eventually form the core justification for large-scale slum clearance during post-World War II Urban Renewal.

Mayor Raymond Tucker (left) looks over Mill Creek Valley in 1952. The largest Black neighborhood in St. Louis, it would be entirely cleared through Title I Urban Renewal between 1956 and 1964.

As a mode of production, capitalism is incredibly powerful at creating built environments. However, its capacity to maintain what it creates is limited, generally offloaded onto spheres of social reproduction through costs encumbered by families, communities, and government. State and federal policies play a fundamental role in shaping the distribution of maintenance, upkeep, and investment. The lack of local state capacity to trap capital within its boundaries for jobs and taxation, coupled with federal housing and transportation policies that have encouraged predominantly White families to relocate away from central cities, has resulted in rising unemployment, massive disinvestment, and a collapse of maintenance. This collapse, forged by racism and the creative destruction of capital, leaves behind artifacts in the form of vacant lots, shuttered factories, crumbling infrastructure, abandoned and burnt out homes. It is by no means a return to a pre-colonial condition, but something else, a ruderal, blended, damaged, and emergent ecology that constantly challenges the atomistic conception of property so dominant in our culture.

An Archive of Embodied Energy

Leftover landscapes contain tremendous embodied energy. This is the energy required to produce, operate, and maintain a building over its lifecycle. Embodied energy includes everything from the trillions of terajoules applied to manufacturing and construction, to the sweat and labor of humans expended in the building process, to the fuel required to heat and pump water to buildings (Costanza 1980; Azari and Abbasabadi 2018).

For two hundred years, barges, trains, and trucks funneled food and natural resources into industrial cities to be converted into calories and raw materials (Cronon 1992). Factories processed millions of tons of timber, clay, sand, metal, and stone into products for the construction industry. Builders assembled those products into the homes, offices, shops, factories, warehouses, government buildings, courthouses, schools, libraries, and other structures of the expanding metropolis. Labor and craft knowledge supplied the city with a wash of decorative detail for the façades and interiors of buildings, from the terra cotta egg-and-dart friezes of grand department stores to the newel posts, crown molding, and glazed tile fireplaces of ordinary homes (Heathcott and Ambrose 2009).

Building materials and merchandising catalogues from the 19th and 20th centuries--a record of energy embodied in the commodity form,

All of this this "stormy, busky, brawling" activity, to quote Carl Sanburg, has been underpinned by a global fossil fuel economy, sinking the energy of carbon into motion and materials. The abandonment of this embodied energy is the tragic result of racist public policy, white flight, disinvestment, and the creative destruction of capital--a kind of frozen in place catastrophe.

An Archive of Materiality and Second Life

Some of this embodied energy finds a second life as the city cannibalizes itself for parts. In the decades following World War II, a vibrant antiques market developed in what Allison Isenberg (2013) calls "Second Hand Cities," largely revolving around the detritus of the city's built environment. Strapped for cash, families would sell off their stained glass windows, chandeliers, fireplace mantels and other appurtenances to antique dealers. As neighborhood vacancies increased, unsecured buildings yielded valuable materials for roving work crews, sometimes operating on their own initiatives, other times at the behest of antique dealers. Finally, even the timbers, brick, copper, and other building materials themselves became valuable.

Images culled from REHAB Facebook page. REHAB is a reclaimed materials company that trains shelter insecure people in restoration work. Objects recovered from abandoned buildings include hardware, fixtures, fireplaces, doors, windows, bathtubs, wood flooring, sinks, furniture, and many more.

In St. Louis, for example, abandoned and crumbling buildings proved easy targets for harvesting the city's famous red bricks for export for rehab projects in hotter real estate markets--a phenomenon noted as early as 1978 (Reinhold 1978). After the fire of 1849, the city required most new buildings to be constructed of brick rather than wood. The brick comes from clay seams beneath the city, laboriously harvested, shaped, and fired by people and machines for over a century, each brick a discrete bundle of embodied energy. Driving around St. Louis today, it is not uncommon to spot a group of workers dissembling a building, packing the bricks onto pallets to haul away (Gay 2010; Chen 2020). While some of the brick is upcycled into local rehabilitation projects, much of it is transported for sale in hot real estate markets such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona.

Brick harvested from buildings such as the one on the left can be sold for $250 per pallet.

Many of the artifacts pried out of old buildings make their way to antique shops, antique consignment malls, and large consolidator operations. In Philadelphia, consolidators such as the Architectural Antique Exchange in Philadelphia, or Artefact Architectural Antiques in Furlong, Pennsylvania, purchase large quantities of salvaged material from demolition crews with varying degrees of legal right. In turn, they sell the materials to smaller retailers, renovation companies, builders and homeowners (Henkels 2001, 8, 13–15, 20–25).

An Archive of Public Investment

Beyond this brick or that balustrade, leftover landscapes also embody vast public investments in streets, utilities, and other accumulated improvements over time. As early as 1925, Harland Bartholomew recognized the wasteful expense involved in constantly replicating urban infrastructure in new peripheral developments unconnected to central cities. In article he wrote for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics, he maintained that the compactness of the city was essential for the rational extension of services (Bartholomew 1925). After all, cities represented billions of dollars of public capital sunken into streets, sewers, water, electric, gas, mass transit, and other physical plant.

Cities are focal points of immense sunken costs in public capital. Left, workers pave a street in St. Louis. Right, a crew lays new sewer pipe along a commercial thoroughfare.

Yet the rapid expansion of suburban communities both required new public capital investments and drained the central city of the tax base needed to keep its infrastructure up to date. In an effort to rebuild the tax base while reconstructing postwar U.S. cities, the federal government provided funding through programs such as Urban Redevelopment, Public Housing, and the Interstate Highway system. However, not only did these programs yield mixed results in cities--demolishing viable housing while increasing racial segregation--they also worked at cross-purposes with other federal policies that encouraged white families to relocate to suburban homes, therefore draining cities of their tax base (Jackson 1985; Teaford 1990).

By the early 1970s, the federal government entered a long period of devolution, which dramatically reduced the amount of funding available for cities (Eisinger 1998). Programs such as the Urban Development Action Grant and the Community Development Block Grant helped to maintain basic levels of public works in some parts of cities. However, residents in working class neighborhoods, especially in communities of color, experienced ever-decreasing levels of city services, resulting in backed-up sewers, overflowing storm water drains, crumbling sidewalks, unrepaired streets, and the accumulation of debris in abandoned properties. Such processes of disinvestment and disrepair are by no means 'natural' phenomenon, but rather the cumulative result of concrete policy decisions made over time. And of course, inaction and neglect are also policy approaches: in 1975, the Team Four Plan for St. Louis recommended large-scale triage, providing instructions oh how to allow entire districts of the city to decline so that they could eventually be redeveloped (Team Four Inc. 1975).

An Archive of Stories

Finally, the identities, values, beliefs, and memories that haunt the ruins of old industrial cities are the products of collective imagination--intangible cultural resources that will fade when their material anchors are removed. Whether people still live there or have long since moved on, the streets and blocks remain resonant in our understandings of place. These neighborhoods, however tattered and frayed, continue to soak up multiple human associations and to reflect back varied meanings. Taken together, the innumerable elements of the leftover landscape endure as an archive of personal storytelling and place consciousness, as a marker of collective memory, conveying a whole greater than the sum of parts (Hayden 1997; Cresswell 2014).

Tillie's Corner Historical Project, St. Louis. This is a grassroots effort to commemorate Lillie Pearson, who migrated from rural Alabama in the 1940s and eventually established a home and grocery store on this corner, a long time fixture of the neighborhood.

Over time, however, as the built landscapes dissemble and fragment, the artifacts that comprise them--the homes, shops, warehouses, factories, schools, churches, social clubs--are "decommissioned" from the archive, left out in the sun and rain and wind to decay. And as the city empties out around these artifacts, their power as touchstones of collective memory begins to wane. Here and there local initiatives manage to salvage singular artifacts from this process for adaptive reuse or conversion into heritage--a historic factory, such as the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, or the home of an important personage, as with the Scott Joplin museum in St. Louis. But with time and disinvestment, the vast majority of artifacts in this archive continue to dissipate, fraying the relationships once present in the landscape.

This building was one of a row of densely packed houses and shops that once lined 12th Street (Tucker Ave) in St. Louis. The 'improvements' of this property cover the entire footprint of the land. By the 1970s, the land values had dropped so much that the properties were worth more as parking lots than homes.

Concluding Thoughts

As individual properties become abandoned or vacant, the Rust Archipelago takes hold as a chain of lost cities within cities, a landscape dissembled by race and capital, flight and disinvestment, foreclosure and withdraw. The artifacts of these lost cities are loosed into new material and symbolic circulations through salvage processes. Where does it all go? Where do these zombie artifacts travel once wrenched from the buildings that contained them? What do they take with them besides the dead labor and hollowed-out space once filled through the caloric heat and enchanted power of capital? What new stories do they tell, what new meanings do they convey in their altered locations?

Many cities have taken an aggressive approach to this archive by demolishing as much of it as possible--"decommissioning" the built environment. City governments do this both as a way to reduce maintenance costs and to clear, re-grade, and prepare sizeable parcels to attract large developers (Accordino and Johnson 2000; Tisher 2013). These efforts have varied effects, but they do not reverse the trends that created vacancy and abandonment in the first place. If we are to address the whole and not just the parts, we need a new remit for our old industrial cities, a massive wave of public investment backed by many good ideas, sound public policy, anti-racist commitments, alternate modes of land use and stewardship, and an abiding ethic of care.


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Azari, Rahman, and Narjes Abbasabadi. 2018. “Embodied Energy of Buildings: A Review of Data, Methods, Challenges, and Research Trends.” Energy and Buildings 168 (June): 225–35.

Bartholomew, Harland. 1925. “The Prevention of Economic Waste by City Planning.” The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics 1 (1): 83–88.

Chen, Ellen. 2020. “St. Louis Begins Taking Apart Buildings To Salvage Valuable Brick And Lumber.” Morning Edition. St. Louis Public Radio.

Costanza, Robert. 1980. “Embodied Energy and Economic Valuation.” Science 210 (4475): 1219–24.

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Eisinger, Peter. 1998. “City Politics in an Era of Federal Devolution.” Urban Affairs Review 33 (3): 308–25.

Gay, Malcolm. 2010. “Thieves Cart Off St. Louis Bricks.” The New York Times, September 20, 2010, sec. U.S.

Gitlin, Jay, Robert Michael Morrissey, and Peter J. Kastor, eds. 2021. French St. Louis: Landscape, Contexts, and Legacy. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Hayden, Dolores. 1997. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Heathcott, Joseph, and Pamela Ambrose. 2009. “Industrial Urbanism as an Archival Project: The Work of the Building Arts Foundation.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 28 (1): 44–47.

Henkels, Carol. 2001. “Architectural Salvage: Saving or Stealing.” Master in Historic Preservation Thesis, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

Isenberg, Alison. 2013. “Second-Hand Cities: Unsettling Racialized Hierarchies of Mainstream and Marginal Commerce Unpublished Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, 3 January.” Washington, D.C.

Jackson, Kenneth. 1985. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. 1st edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morgan, M. J. 2010. Land of Big Rivers: French and Indian Illinois, 1699-1778. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Reinhold, Robert. 1978. “In St. Louis Even the Old Bricks Are Leaving Town.” The New York Times, July 9, 1978, sec. E.

Sandweiss, Eric. 2001. St. Louis: Evolution of American Urban Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Teaford, Jon C. 1990. The Rough Road to Renaissance: Urban Revitalization in America, 1940-1985. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Team Four Inc. 1975. “Citywide Implementation Strategies: The Draft Comprehensive Plan.” St. Louis: Team Four, Inc.

Tisher, Elizabeth M. 2013. “Re-Stitching the Urban Fabric: Municipal-Driven Rehabilitation of Vacant and Abandoned Buildings in Ohio’s Rust Belt.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 15 (1): 173–223.



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