The heart of developer Paul McKee's ambitious plan for St. Louis' North Side is an empty lot that was once home to the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex.
In the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe was touted as a model of urban planning, but it became a high-profile failure.
McKee is making even bigger promises, and says a more diverse plan to attract jobs and residents will help turn things around in North St. Louis.
Maria Altman begins St. Louis Public Radio's four-part series on McKee's plans for the North Side with a look at how one man hopes to succeed where others have failed.
The first of 33 Pruitt-Igoe high rises was finished in 1954, part of the post-war urban renewal spreading across the country.
Less than 20 years later, the promise of safe, affordable housing made by the federal government had crumbled into dust.
In 1972 it made the national news when the first 11-story high rise was imploded with the federal government's blessing. All of Pruitt-Igoe came down by 1976.
Today tall weeds and trees obscure the rubble. If not for the occasional broken-out street lamp, it would hardly seem that thousands of people once lived there.
Pruitt-Igoe was doomed before it was even built, according to Joseph Heathcott, chair of Urban Studies at The New School in New York City.
He says after World War II the city of St. Louis was planning for growth but steadily losing population. Heathcott says by the time Pruitt-Igoe was going up in the mid-50s, the trickle had turned into a steady stream.
"The flood gates were already open. People were leaving the city in large numbers and so that by the 1960s you have a situation in which there are fewer and fewer people even available to live in the high-rise housing projects," Heathcott said.
The government relied on tenants' rent to pay for maintenance. But as people left, maintenance suffered, the rent went up, and Heathcott says the downward spiral quickened.
The same could be said for much of North St. Louis. People and businesses left, buildings were abandoned, then blocks, then neighborhoods, and the city did not or could not stem the decline.
Now developer Paul McKee says he has the answer.
"If St. Louis is to be great again and to really grow, what does it take? It takes jobs, in my opinion," McKee said at a public meeting in May where he unveiled his vision.
That vision includes three business parks with the promise of attracting 22,000 jobs.
He's calls his concept Northside Regeneration. The massive project would cover more than two-square miles and include retail, mixed-income housing, and parks.
For the old Pruitt-Igoe site, McKee is planning what he calls a community hub.
But some long-time residents are skeptical.
Jill Mason grew up in Pruitt-Igoe and watched the deterioration of a place she says started out as a good idea. She still lives in the area today and now finds herself in the footprint of McKee's proposal.
Mason isn't sure there's a place for her in his plans.
"If I'm going to be a yuppie or a buppie then I can move in there," she said. "If I'm going to be one of them maybe I have a chance to get there, but it's not going to be something that's inviting to me. It's going to be geared at someone else, and that's what I don't trust."
Like many residents Mason resented the way McKee secretly bought up properties and let them deteriorate.
Mason's Alderwoman, April Ford Griffin, felt much the same way… at first. But she says McKee has become a better neighbor, and he offers the best hope for her downtrodden ward.
"For people who say "why would you work with Paul McKee?" well, who else is there?" she asks.
Griffin says McKee will bring the businesses, housing, and jobs her neighbors desperately need. She says McKee has already invested $47 million of his own money.
Yet the private developer's plan hinges on public money, including and unprecedented $398 million in tax increment financing.
Ford Griffin says Paul McKee will have to uphold his end of the contract to get the city's help, but she says the city needs McKee's help too.
Ultimately, if his promise is fulfilled, it could not only help heal the scar of Pruitt-Igoe, but a two-square mile area of the North Side that many have left for dead.
For all of the documented problems at Pruitt-Igoe, it was home to thousands of people. Many former residents have fond memories of their time in the housing development. In 1954, when the first of the 33 high-rises opened, many families living in the area did not have hot water, in-door bathrooms, or had to burn coal for heat. Pruitt-Igoe, by contrast, had hot and cold water, new appliances, and radiators in each apartment.
The memories are not all happy ones. Former residents vividly recall design and maintenance problems that inconvenienced their families and even endangered them. Elevators broke down often, leaving children and women to climb up to eleven floors in sometimes dark stairwells. Hot water pipes were exposed and could burn children until the Housing Authority had them insulated. One resident even recalled children falling to their deaths from windows without screens.
In 1972 the first of the buildings was imploded. They were all brought down by 1976 and much of the site is now covered by weeds and trees. Developer Paul McKee has said he wants to building a “community hub” on the former site, including housing, entertainment, and retail.
Yet each year former residents gather for a reunion to remember the happier times and enjoy the company of lifelong friends.