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10,000 sunflowers brighten Delmar Boulevard and spur hope for revitalization

10,000 sunflowers brighten Delmar Boulevard and spur hope for revitalization

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A new patch of about 10,000 sunflowers is getting lots of attention on a stretch of a city street that has been vacant and forlorn longer than neighbors care to remember.

Alderman Lyda Krewson along with the co-founders of the Sunflower + Project: StL — Richard Reilly, of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Don Koster, an architect and senior lecturer at Washington University — and many volunteers transformed what was an empty urban spot in the 5100 block of Delmar Boulevard into a bright community asset.

“We’ve made a vacant lot that people thought was an eyesore into a head-turner,” said Reilly.

The project’s organizers hope the flowers will do more for the neighborhood than add a field of golden color.

The flowers mean environmental and, potentially, economic benefits that could spur revitalization of the beleaguered neighborhood, they say.

Reilly said that he and Koster “share the view that redevelopment is the best use for vacant urban lots and that projects like Sunflower + can be a valuable interim effort to bring beauty and attention to the potential of the lots.”

The Sunflower + Project, developed by the pair, is one of five ongoing projects of the Sustainable Land Lab, a partnership of Washington University and the city of St. Louis. The five were selected from among 48 proposals in a design competition last year as innovative ways to re-use abandoned or vacant land in St. Louis.

The others are a restaurant and culinary incubator made from shipping containers, a chess pocket park on 14th Street in Crown Square, a pollinator garden and an experimental site using farming and other practices of the Mississippian Native Americans.

The contest was held to find and test creative, new and sustainable ways to re-use the lots at relatively little cost. St. Louis has about 20,000 vacant properties, some with abandoned structures. About half of these tracts are owned by the city; the rest are in private hands.

Phil Valko, director of sustainability at Washington University and one of the organizers of the Land Lab, said Tuesday that the vacant lots blighting older cities were “an American epidemic and also a tremendous opportunity to create sustainable cities.”

Krewson came up with the idea of planting sunflowers at the Delmar site between Kingshighway and Union Boulevard, east of the Third Degree Glass Factory, and organized the planning and planting there. She’s working with Reilly, Koster, Doug Auer with Third Degree Glass, Jim Dwyer with the Central West End Association and Mike Owens, a lawyer and former TV reporter who is also Krewson’s husband.

“Once this stretch of Delmar was a thriving residential community with hundreds of residents — today it sits vacant, forgotten and forlorn,” Krewson wrote to her neighborhood when she was seeking volunteers.

Before the seeds could be planted, volunteers cleared the site of rubble and prepared the soil.

About 75 volunteers, ages 5 to 75, showed up May 24 for planting day, Krewson said. The workers used 2½ miles of string to mark the rows and signed their names to boards marking the ones they planted. They also had to lay mulch. A few weeks later, they weeded the field, on which no herbicides or fertilizers were used.

The tall flowers with bobbing yellow heads that now grace the site are attracting thousands of bees, lured by the flowers’ sweet nectar, as well as other admirers.

“They’re so-oo beautiful,” said Mai Hua, 25, who made a special trip to see and photograph the sunflowers one evening this week with her friend, Thuy Nguyen, 24. Both live in St. Louis and are studying business at different colleges.

“To me, a sunflower means happiness,” Hua said. “Happiness comes to those who are always positive. Don’t ever give up. ... Have hope and dreams. Keep your head up high, just like the sunflowers.”

As summer winds down, finches and cardinals are likely to visit. Eventually, the sunflowers’ seeds will be harvested for next year and the field will be replanted with winter wheat.

Although this is the first year for the Delmar sunflowers, it’s the second for the Sunflower + Project. Last year, 1,800 sunflowers brightened a section of Warren Street near Crown Candy Kitchen in the Old North neighborhood. In the fall, winter wheat was planted, and this April, the sunflower seeds were planted again. They bloomed in profusion but are now fading.

The project added to the re-invigoration of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods with the assistance of Old North neighbors and people from throughout the region, Reilly said.

Krewson believes the new sunflower plot on Delmar has given the neighborhood pride. “The real question to be answered is: Is this something we could do on more lots in the city, on some scalable level to make people think differently about their neighborhoods?” Krewson said. “How inspiring is this? I think it’s very inspiring!”

Eventually, she’d like to see the land redeveloped with housing. For now, the Delmar sunflowers are enjoying their days in the sun.

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Margaret S. Gillerman is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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