By way of Pocket, I came across this story about how dollar stores in rural and poor urban communities have become replacements for Walmart and other big name stores–and magnets for crime: How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing. It is, as expected, a depressing read. The photos of the various stores, often surrounded by empty lots, spoke of neighborhoods filled with decay, abandoned by most and held hostage to these kinds of stores, that occupy areas long abandoned by other retailers.
But instead of providing a needed service, they serve as hubs to crime–robberies, shootings, drug deals and more. They fail to provide security to their low-paid staff and to the surrounding neighborhood.
The story talks first about North St. Louis, noting that the city declined from a population of over 850,000 in the 1950s to just over 300,000 today, a staggering decline that has left large tracts of the city occupied by shuttered buildings or vacant lots. I was intrigued and went to Google Maps to see what it looked like.
At first as I scrolled the satellite view of the map over the city, it looked pretty typical–commercial districts, residential areas with rows of houses. I zoomed in more and spotted the first vacant lot–I had initially mistaken it for a grass field. As I continued to scroll I was stunned at how prevalent these lots were. I switched to street view to “tour” the area and found a blighted landscape filled with shuttered businesses, empty houses and bricked up buildings who function has been erased by years of neglect.
It made me realize a couple of things. America is one of the largest countries in the world geographically–only Russia, Canada, China and India are bigger. And while the U.S. is populous–around 330 million–that number is concentrated around urban hubs in a few states like California, New York and Texas. Vast tracts of the country are largely empty, usually because the land is desert or otherwise ill-suited to large populations. But then you have places like St. Louis, where people have simply fled to the suburbs or elsewhere, creating these pocket ghost towns, where there are blocks of dilapidated houses, foundations with decades’ worth of weeds pushing through cracks in the concrete, and then suddenly a neighborhood that has some new housing, a gas station, a few amenities–an oasis before you head back into the desert of abandoned structures.
The U.S. isn’t the only country that has had cities abandoned, of course, but looking at the scenes in St. Louis, this somehow feels uniquely American, that a major city could just get left behind and forgotten, left to fall apart and disintegrate.
The scenes of desolation are despairing to see in broad daylight. I can only imagine the terror of moving down the streets of these places at night, surrounded on both sides by darkened buildings whose windows are either boarded up or broken.
Here are a few images I captured from street view, with the street view date included for reference.