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  • 08.24.16

These Desolate Photos Show How Highways Ruined St. Louis Neighborhoods

A series looks back at how the interstate system carved through communities 60 years ago–and hopes to inspire people to reverse the damage.

When the St. Mary of Victories church was built in downtown St. Louis in the 1800s, it was part of a busy neighborhood, surrounded by row houses and businesses. Now it faces highways on two sides and a massive, empty parking lot on another.

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In a photo of the church, part of a new series, a semi drives through the place where houses once stood. St. Louis photographer Michael DeFillippo wanted to document how the city–like all American cities–was carved up by the interstate system in the mid-20th century.

Marconi pedestrian overpass I-44.

“The interstates have really attacked our cities,” says DeFillippo.

While some parts of St. Louis stayed walkable, others were deserted. “When an out-of-towner comes to visit me, and we go to a part of the city that’s empty–and they say, where is everyone–I say they’re out in their cars out on I-70 going somewhere,” he says. “It’s a commuter kind of culture.”

Most of the photos show a historic building in the background, offering a glimpse of former neighborhoods. Some include unintentional irony. “As I framed up neighborhoods, I’d see a mobile home rolling through,” he says. “I realized this is going through what used to be someone’s living room.”

The series also includes some hope: one shot, with the St. Louis Arch looming in the background, shows where the city is building a cap over part of the I-44 highway. By 2017, the arch will be reconnected with the city’s Old Courthouse and waterfront, and visitors in the area can start to walk again.

St Louis building, I-64.

DeFillippo, who documented the series as a personal project–his 60th birthday happens to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the interstate system–hopes that it inspires photographers in other cities to do the same thing, and that those other photos might also inspire better urban design.

“Maybe a local legislature sees those pictures, and says, ‘I’m on the transportation committee, I’ll explore that,'” he says. “That’s how things can happen.”

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[Photos: Michael DeFillippo]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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