Inside the Abandoned Schools of St. Louis

In the Midwest, people grapple with a decaying city and forgotten promises.
abandoned school in st louis documentary still
The Carr School

The early, bustling years of St. Louis are a stark contrast to the city’s current state. 

By the 1890s, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the country. During the Great Migration between the two World Wars, thousands of African Americans moved to the city, bringing its population to a peak of 850,000 in 1950. By 1965, the iconic Gateway Arch was under construction, boasting the city's position as "the gateway to the West." 


In the second half of the 20th century, though, mass suburbanization and the collapse of industry during the “Era of Revitalization” completely transformed the city. Today, the city’s population is under 300,000 people, an over 60 percent decrease from its heyday. Vacancy rates for apartment rentals topped in 2009. In 2023, St. Louis had the second-highest homicide rates of all major U.S. cities. 

A few years ago, for VICE TV’s Abandoned, host Rick McCrank visited St. Louis to understand what life is like in the city now. Along the way, he met with Adrian Walker, a photographer who grew up in the Jeff-Vander-Lou (JVL) neighborhood. As the two walked the empty streets, Walker voiced his nostalgia.

“It’s just depressing to see boarded-up houses where you were born and raised,” he said. “In your mind, it was safe, because you were a kid. But now, looking at it, it’s just sad… it’s just gone.”

“I still have love for where I come from,” he continued. “This is what taught me how to be who I am now. I came from this, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Walker said gang activity was common in his area. In fact, a portion of his old street was then blocked off as a dead-end, an attempt to stop high-speed chases of stolen cars, or “stolos,” that often occurred there.

“Buildings do not have the ability to get up and walk the fuck away. But the people of the city can do that. It’s just that simple and just that hard.” –Cheeraz Gormon


Among the most alarming parts of the neglected city are its over 20 abandoned schools, which effectively create education deserts. “Outer-city kids have the best education,” said Ceaira Hall, a high school student in the city. “They have laptops, tablets, all these sports you can do.”

“It’s like, our voices don’t matter ‘cause we’re inner-city,” she continued. “We don’t have the education you guys have. We don’t have all the resources that you have. So when we’re over there trying to talk or get our points across too, no one wants to listen.”

“There’s a lot of empty schools that can be used for a reason rather than just being left out like this one,” added Romeo Harris, a student at Roosevelt High School in St. Louis. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

Nevertheless, many are still proud to call St. Louis home. Cheeraz Gormon is a writer who grew up in St. Louis and then followed her career to the West Coast. After a decade away, she returned, and she said she was unable to deny the love she still had for her home city. 

“It is painful to see this,” she said, walking the abandoned schools. “Imagine what this neighborhood could be if this school was back up functioning, having football games, having plays, being active.”

She also shared her concerns about St. Louis becoming a “poverty porn center where people want to come and explore our decay.”


“There are people with dreams and ambitions here,” she said. “There are families here.”

She remembered how much potential the school once had, helping its students believe they could amount to something. Now, abandoned in a declining city, the empty building no longer provides a glimmer of hope to inner-city children.

“Buildings do not have the ability to get up and walk the fuck away and say, ‘You can’t tell me who I am,’” she said. “But the people of the city can do that. It’s just that simple and just that hard.”

In the documentary, McCrank also explored the Cleveland Junior Naval Academy, a magnet school built in the bones of one of the neglected high schools in the South St. Louis area. However, since then—as of 2021—the military academy has closed down, with the school ultimately being abandoned, too.

Still, the city of St. Louis has not lost all its potential. It’s still home to wonderful people with passions and dreams worth pursuing—residents who are proud of their hometown. 

“All in all, St. Louis is awesome,” one such resident said. “I’ve lived all over the world, and I always wind up coming back here. I’ll live here ‘til I fucking die.”