Staid St. Louis is turning into SoHo, as artists and musicians discover
our raw spaces, storied past and cheap rent. Will they save the city?
By Lynnda Greene
Imagine a bustling metropolis perfectly situated on the plangent confluence
of two magnificent rivers smack in the center of the American Heartland.
Now, remove half a million residents. Drop its national ranking forty
places -- from 8th to 48th -- in forty years. Sever commercial
arteries; bleed out scores of blue chip companies. Tear down significant
historic architectural infrastructure, and allow what remains to rot.
Erect uninspired office towers in haphazard fashion. Neglect schools,
public services and mass transit. Invest billions in office, sports
and convention complexes, and luxury housing development. Ensure
a deficit of affordable, mixed-income housing. Add dodgy politics and
atrophic leadership. Mix in terminal low civic self-esteem and you've
got ... a post-industrial has-been, right?
Actually, such a city -- our city -- is ripe for the picking
of a whole new educated and innovative demographic economic guru Richard
Florida delineated in his landmark tome The Rise of the Creative Class.
You know -- the artists, writers, filmmakers, scientists, designers,
architects, engineers, educators, IT eggheads, entrepreneurs, nerds, and
bohemians whose economic function, he says, is to think up cool
ideas, attract business and initiate social change. In fact, that
Florida didn't rank St. Louis on his top-ten Creative Cities list in his
landmark book -- we've been making the "worst ten cities" lists lately --
may explain why a whole new "Creative Class" of our own has been migrating
here over the last few years, and jump-starting our city on the road to
economic and spiritual renaissance.
While most of us have bewailed our losses, legions of educated, imaginative,
enterprising people of all ages and persuasions have been migrating
here over the last decade to join an already vibrant, if largely subterranean
creative ecosystem. Here, amidst an abundance of authentic historic
architecture, grungy buildings, scruffy street life, dense neighborhoods,
diverse ethnic populations, parks, cultural amenities, and a pervading
aura of decay, even despair -- they relish a certain creative freedom
they can find nowhere else. Unlike the über-cool crowd thronging to those
tony top ten cities, our Creative Class come to St. Louis less for
what they can get from it than for what they can do in it -- and
for it. Fueled by a jerry-rigged spirit of optimism and ingenuity, they're
determined to build St. Louis. And if we're careful, they just might do
Who They Are
There is no listing for Creative Class in the Yellow Pages. They're too
absorbed in whatever makes them cool and a class in the first place to
dwell on what might define them -- so you have to sleuth them out,
in their habitats. You'll find them in warehouses, basements, garages
and attics, in bistros, bars, bookstores and park benches, in schools
and storefronts -- the artists, designers, actors, dancers, musicians,
writers, poets, chefs, filmmakers, architects, teachers, rehabbers, techies,
innovators and entrepreneurs across a broad socio-economic spectrum who
live in and enliven our city. From Seattle, Washington, San
Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Chicago, and
Austin theyÕve come, out-state, down-state and sometimes across the county
line to settle like hermit crabs into neighborhoods throughout the city
proper, or city-by-association communities like Maplewood and University
City and Overland. Together they comprise a unique, integrated eco-system
wherein all forms of creativity -- artistic and cultural, technological
and commercial -- take root and flourish. Think: urban stem cells.
By their ingenuity and resourcefulness they've utilized their moxie
and means, their brains and brawn, to open a glass studio, a microbrewery,
a museum; theater companies, art compounds, music performance groups,
design and advertising agencies, restaurants, bistros, bars, gyms, gallery/event/community
spaces and all manner of shops: coffee, bike, books and records,
clothing and jewelry, specialty foods and spirits, flowers and gifts,
antiques and vintage gear. By their immense energy they fix up storefronts,
rehab houses, restore architectural treasures, build neighborhoods, foster
partnerships, plant gardens, teach children, rescue strays, look out for
the homeless, destitute and addicted, and otherwise volunteer in dozens
of community endeavors. By their passion they fight - at neglected
parks, threatened landmarks, abandoned blocks and vacant lots - to preserve
our city's historical and cultural heritage. Intensely committed, they
forge something our major sport teams, entertainment venues and business
enterprises cannot: an urban identity unique in al the world. Above
all, they love this city shamelessly.
Many, having come here from elsewhere for work or school, decided to stay.
Some take creative jobs in the private or not-for-profit sector (museums,
arts and public service organizations, design and media firms) because
they simply like the lifestyle the city affords. Natives typically
have gone to school elsewhere, looked around the country for some place
to live out their dreams, and then come back. Amanda Doyle, co-founder
of The Commonspace and Mephis native, fell in love the city.
"I think a lot of the negative impressions come from people who left the
city long ago for what they perceived to be 'nicer' suburbs," she says.
"They're remembering old images."
A surprising number are older. Approaching or well into mid-life, they've
been living here for years, plying their enthusiasm and talent to build
businesses, and sometimes entire neighborhoods and districts. Natives
Joe Edwards, entrepreneur and Delmar Loop developer, and Bob Cassilly,
founder of City Museum stand out, but scores of others, having moved here
years ago, found St. Louis a good place to settle in for the long haul
both personally and professionally. "It wasn't a conscious decision,"
says architect Stan McKay, a San Francisco native. "I came here
to go to school, met good people, stayed. I left, but came back
because I can afford to do what I want here. I don't make a lot
of money, but I do make a good life."
While some have always managed to follow their creative hearts and arts,
however jagged the trajectory, others found their passion only after trying
something else first. Jim McKelvey worked in software before launching
the Third Degree Glass Studio, Jeff Orbin ran an advertising firm before
opening the Monarch Restaurant with a partner in Maplewood, Robert Powell
worked in business before opening Portfolio Gallery, and Catherine Neville
and Allyson Mase had worked jobs in web design and food service before
launching Sauce Magazine.
Some have achieved considerable success and visibility through their ventures
Š certainly Tom Schlafly, Bob Cassilly, Joe Edwards, Kiku Obata, Jack
Thorwegan, and Nina Ganci have achieved regional if not national and international
recognition and client bases with the Taproom and Bottleworks, the City
Museum, the Delmar Loop, Decorative Lighting and Design, Zipitoni, and
Skif International respectively.
More typically, most succeed handily in their enterprises, largely because
the city's low cost of living, affordable housing in neighborhoods tailor-made
to their needs make just about anything possible. And "anything"
includes everything -- from bistros to boutiques to book stores to bike
shops to belly dancing studios to boxing clubs. More importantly,
such enterprises (Fort Gondo, Panda Athletic Club, Hartford Coffee, Mad
Art Gallery, Left Bank Books, The Taproom make the short list) serve as
community forums and action centers, as means to engage denizens and visitors
alike in a unique, if often unorthodox, new paradigm for urban
All loved the idea of what they could become because they live in St.
Louis. "I was a bit reluctant, after I got a master's in Creative Writing
at NYU, to move back to St. Louis," says poet Aaron Belz. "I feared
I would be putting myself in relative obscurity, but my work has really
benefited from the low-key, eclectic intellectuals and artists I've met
here. There is no fake hipsterism here because there's no social
reward for that, only marginalization. If you're an artist or a city arts
patron, it's because you're devoted to a cause. St. Louis is becoming
a significant poetry center; we're part of the big picture in a vital,
St. Louis' central location and low cost of living likewise make it a
great place from which a performing artist, particularly, can work. "Quite
a few of our 'Artist in Training' program graduates make their homes here,"
says Maria Schlafly, a company administrator for Opera Theatre of St.
Louis, "even though they travel elsewhere to take work with other theater
companies around the country."
That said, while most achieve a viable life, they accept certain tradeoffs.
The "plankton," as one South City denizen dubbed the younger creatives
newly out of school, barely make it. Many do not have health insurance.
A fair number work day jobs; many more wait tables, free lance or teach
in local schools and universities.
But no matter how many hats they don and doff to make it all work, they
sink deep roots into their place. Most become community activists almost
by default, organizing neighborhood associations to promote awareness,
cooperation and not infrequently, political and social action. Many volunteer
or donate services to those in need: an art studio networks with
a women's shelter; a restaurant sponsors a stray rescue; a group of artists
works with disadvantaged kids in any number of the not-for-profit education
programs that bless our city. Wherever they go, they give back.
And help each other. Communicating largely by weblogs, list serves and
word of mouth, they mentor and support via artistic, technical, professional
and entrepreneurial consortiums they organize to stimulate business, percolate
creative juices - and brew understanding. "Independent artists and entrepreneurs
create spaces for new kinds of unique business development," says Mike
Levinson, founder of BUILD St. Louis, a network of small business owners.
"These new businesses, always unique and reflective of their neighborhoods,
attract people. Get people to mix and you can change old stereotypes."
Some complain of the clique-ish nature of the arts community here; newcomers
express some frustration at breaking in. "At first I thought St.
Louis was culturally barren," says Nico Leone, who moved here from Austin
two years ago to work with KDHX FM. "In time, I found much to love
and enjoy, but you really have to seek it out. Everything depends upon
word of mouth, as opposed to Austin, where the art and music permeate
every aspect of daily life."
But once they lock in, all report a high level of peer support amidst
what they term a stimulating, if fragmented, creative climate. "I
was a novelty when I came here and in some ways I'm still an outsider,"
says Jeigh Singleton, who teaches fashion design at Washington University.
"But most creative people don't belong anyway, not in the old social networks;
they create their own, which they can do here easily. It's easy to star
in St. Louis; you can find whatever you want here. I've always been
Like most creatives, he has found St. Louis' famed conservativism greatly
overstated. "They always say, if you can make it in New York you can make
it anywhere -- but it's just the opposite," he insists. "In New York
they'll put crap on the sidewalk and people step all around it and call
it art. Here, you put crap on the sidewalk and people will call
it crap. St. Louisans know quality; they wonÕt let you get away
Designer and entrepreneur Carol Crudden, whose Ziezo dress shop has been
a mainstay on the Delmar Loop since she opened in 1982, agrees. "You can
rise to the top here because there's been so little competition. You can
be yourself, and grow."
Mostly, though, creatives tend to craft new concepts for living and working.
Think of Kurt Vonnegut's mythical karass, which he described as a "spontaneously
forming group joined by unpredictable links that actually get stuff done,"
without ever discovering how they do it, or even why. "The standard
means of motivation don't apply," says McKelvey of his Third Degree Glass
Studio and of creative ventures in general. "Of course we need to
make enough money -- and we do, by all kinds of ways. But more often
we'll barter, trade, share, negotiate, swap or, in a pinch, bargain. We
work for different reasons."
Most agree that to some extent, regardless of their success, they remain
strugglers. Many try traditional professional paths, and some even succeed
there, only to grow tired of it, go out on their own and create something
entirely new and vibrant. "They tend to not want the house in the
burbs, the subzero fridge, the granite counters," says Singleton of some
of his own design students once they leave school. "They'll tolerate a
less than nice habitat for the chance to work alone. In some ways, they're
a ghost class. They like being invisible."
Why They're Here
"Because......where else can you do all this stuff?"
Where indeed. Blessed in dozens of distinct old neighborhoods and
scores of neglected, aging-beauty buildings, St. Louis, to the creative
mind, gleams like luscious fruit low-hung on the bow. "The architecture
is sublime, the arch peerless in the world, the arts scene rich and vibrant,
and the quality of the yard and garage sales is unparalleled in the universe,"
says Illinois native, Galen Gondolfi, founder of Fort Gondo, Radio Cherokee,
and Typo Café in South City, who came to St. Louis some years ago by way
of Boston and New York. "It's green: trees and grass everywhere. I love
the post-industrial malaise, and the density. You can be anywhere in about
Unlike the rest of us, creatives love what we tend to bemoan. They
look at liabilities, see improbable possibilities -- and turn them
into successful realities unthinkable anywhere else. An abandoned shoe
factory becomes the region's leading tourist head-trip. A condemned
garage becomes an exciting glass studio. A drug store becomes a restaurant.
A furniture store becomes a clothing manufacturing site. An old jail becomes
an art gallery and event space. A stable becomes a studio. A bank
becomes a coffee house, a restaurant, even a bottle works.
"I tried to do this twice in other cities and it never worked out," says
Jim McKelvey, of his glass studio, which he opened with Doug Auer three
years ago. "So I came home to St. Louis where I've had nothing like
that. If DC had what St. Louis has, this would be there and not
here. So it comes down to this: same person, same plan, different
place - it failed twice. Here, it happened in no time at all. But we couldnÕt
afford to be anywhere else."
Affordability rates high on any creative want-list. In fact, most say,
St. Louis may be one of the very few cities where they can own a car,
buy or rent a decent place, work part-time -- and still do their thing.
Artists especially love the city's abundance of mixed-use spaces in our
seemingly limitless supply of old, underused buildings, whose low rents
encourage the chancier, more unorthodox enterprises that generate buzz
and street life. Many found that, having shopped other cities for
a place to settle, none could offer them as much in suitable housing for
so little money. And to the creative mind, St. Louis' abundance
of well-built, architecturally handsome, often historic older homes of
varying sizes, prices and rents, represents an aesthetic treasure trove
unrivaled anywhere else in the country.
Powerful demographic shifts over the last thirty years have enhanced the
city in ways few could have foreseen twenty years ago. "The traditional
two-parent family now represents only 20 percent of American households,"
says Andrew Hurley, professor of Urban Studies at the University of Missouri
in St. Louis. "That means more empty nesters, singles, and single-parents
need new housing options. The smaller, well-built houses you see
around the city are often perfect for people on one income, be they these
artistic types or new immigrants who are just getting started." And though
South City home prices have doubled and more in some neighborhoods, prices
nonetheless remain reasonable for what buyers get: solid construction
and architectural character in vibrant urban neighborhoods on the make.
Every creative speaks of a love for a cultural personality they found
unique in the country. "It takes fresh eyes to see what this city
has," says Singleton, who hails from Louisiana. "St. Louis is an authentic
city and that's so rare now. I looked at LA, and decided I didn't
like my car that much. New York is too dense, and lacks our alleys
and architecture. Where else can you live in the presence of such
a mythic thing as the arch? And touch it! From my own neighborhood
I can walk to the Basilica and the Great Basin in Forest Park in just
minutes. Here you live close to beauty and history all the time."
Realtor Steve Patterson, a native of Oklahoma City, was on his way
to Washington, D.C. with a friend. They they rounded the city's southern
edge along I-44. "We saw these beautiful old buildings and thought,
this is it: we're stopping here," he recalls. "Now I've got other
friends looking to buy here too." And these days, thanks to Missouri's
legislated tax incentives for rehabilitating historic structures (piggybacked
with federal tax credits), it's never been easier or more cost effective
to restore a building, rehab a house, or revitalize an entire block
to new life and purpose.
The absence of big box retailers and chains is also a plus. "I don't
think most of us realize what we have here," says Schlafly, who pronounces
his feelings about St. Louis "not rational." "I recently drove some out-of-town
friends around town. They gazed at our old historic neighborhoods and
said, "Oh, it's like Disneyland!" What a statement -- that
the real thing is so good it looks like the fake -- which is all
most Americans know. We live in the real thing here."
Neighborhoods are the linchpin in the creative equation. And we've
got 'em -- seventy-nine, in fact, each offering a distinctive blend
of convenience and character creatives crave in a habitat. Most
love their particular enclave, and report that, able to walk or bike anywhere
they need to go - grocery and pharmacy, cleaners, laundries, and often
school and employment - they can modulate their daily experiences rather
than merely consume them.
"The diversity of communities here really nurtures the artist's internal
creative machine," says Brad Fuller, a creative director at Zipatoni,
a downtown advertising company. "The city's patchwork of neighborhoods
populated by families from many other countries offers a wonderful array
of music, languages, food and culture to keep a creative person's engines
Best of all though, are the abundance of what Florida calls the "third
places" and "green spaces" such tight neighborhoods afford. Since most
creatives work alone, often at home, they value easy access to third places
-- the cafe, the coffee shop, the bistro -- and green spaces -- the
park, the bike path -- where people of different backgrounds and
disciplines can meet and exchange ideas.
"Creative people respond to the insider experience of being in a city
like St. Louis," says Fuller. "Strolling down Delmar, listening
to jazz in Dogtown really ignite the creative imagination. Prowl the side
streets of St. Louis, and you'll find the hidden antique store, the corner
café or the out-of-the-way park that make you want to linger. No wonder
visitors say, 'Wow, that's in St. Louis? I didn't expect to find something
like that here!'"
Likewise, they praise the city's surfeit of green spaces, those 106 parks
laid out so exquisitely over our 61 squares miles by forward-thinking
city planners generations ago. "We're sitting in one of the best locations
in the country,' says Minneapolis native David Fisher, who moved here
to become executive director of the Great Rivers Greenway District. "Our
natural river setting, with all its attendant connective patterns, are
ideal for social cohesion. We don't have to invent anything --
it's all here. All we have to do is enhance what we have and build
our communities within it."
These third places -- the coffee shop, the bar, the gallery -- are particularly
important because they spawn an indigenous street culture that becomes
its own complex microcosm of multiple "scenes." Naturally occurring
of serendipitous, spontaneous combustion, often in the most unlikely places
(typically basements, attics, warehouses, garages, kitchens, bars and
bookstores), these scenes, whether music, theater, poetry, film,
food or technology, not only attract talent but incubate, gestate and
propagate an energy that can ultimately drive a cultural/economic engine
- and power an entire region.
"I detect a new energy in St. Louis," says Catherine Neville, co-founder
and editor of Sauce Magazine. It's been building for about nine
years, but has really taken off in the last five as so many new people
settle in, do new things and pump new life into these wonderful old neighborhoods.
Food is an integral part of any city's identity, but it's especially important
In fact, our long tradition of great restaurants, always the city's best-kept-secret-sauce,
is steaming up the entire kitchen these days. Vietnamese, Bosnian, Greek,
French, German, Italian, Soul, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Caribbean,
Cajun and Thai eateries bubble up all over, as do dozens of
coffee houses, bars, bistros and bagel shops - and tattoo parlors,
antique shops and art galleries, clothing boutiques, exotic food,
wine and floral markets. Many offer live music, poetry, theater,
comedy, dance performances in such hybrid spaces as Mad Art Gallery, which
can accommodate art shows, film showings, studio workshops and events,
or Left Bank Books and Duff's Pub, which serve as public forums for readings,
spoken word and music events.
That St. Louis has always supported a diverse arts community -- everything
from the high art institutions older creatives crave and younger ones
age into on down to the urban grunge scene -- draws an unusually
wide variety of imaginative people who tend to stay here rather than migrate
to the next trendy locale. All rhapsodize about a level of cultural awareness
rare they find rare in the country. "This city renders exceptional support
to local arts, thanks to corporate and not-for-profit sponsors," notes
Terry Jones, professor of political science at UMSL. "We spend more money
on the arts than most cities of our size." The tax supported Zoo-Museum
District, a national model of public cultural funding, allows free or
low cost admission to five major cultural venues, and most major arts
organizations engage in extensive, often free outreach, and do a lot to
nurture local talent. "I never watched so much TV in my life as
when I lived in New York because I could never afford to do anything,"
says Gondolfi. "Here, you can do so many things free, or for very
Florida stipulates that an indigenous music scene - think New Orleans
jazz, Chicago blues, Seattle grunge - makes for an audio imprint essential
to the kind of "conversation" creatives crave. That our city lacks
a distinctive "St. Louis sound" these days doesn't particularly worry
the locals though. In fact, its absence explains why younger musicians
have begun to settle here in ever-increasing numbers, and thrive. "Since
you're in no danger of 'making it' here, at least in rock and roll, you're
freer to develop into something real," says musician and photographer
Bob Reuter. "When nothing's going on, you can do anything.
Music can't be laid in; it's got to rise from within, and it does here,
because it's happening slowly, as it should."
Certainly Nelly, Chingy, Erin Bode, Story of the Year, and Lapush have
circled St. Louis as a significant talent incubator. Jim Dunn, who with
Laura Hamlett founded Playback:STL several years ago, praises enlightened
local presenters and a supportive musical community. "I see local
talent taking root and gaining a following," he says. "We haven't achieved
anything like Gaslight Square yet, but musically, we're getting there."
Socially too, thanks to creative neighborhoods that by their very nature
invite and sustain a certain tolerance inversion: tolerance for difference
in races, ages, sexual orientations and alternative appearances; intolerance
for mediocrity and consistency. Case in point the Delmar Loop, brainchild
of Joe Edwards, whose Blueberry Hill bar and restaurant generated what
would become an urban socio/economic miracle over a period of 20 years.
"We proved it's okay to have a smoke shop and a tattoo parlor on the same
block as a Dairy Queen," he says. "There's more diversity along this ten
block stretch than anywhere in the city, maybe the Midwest. Here
you can encounter all sorts of people, food, shopping, music, art and
experience. Diversity is its strength."
Architecture, housing, neighborhoods, affordability, culture -- all
great draws. But in the end few can explain their feelings for a
city that inhabits them as much as they it. Their connection is
less aesthetic as spiritual, they say. "I think it's the arch... this
great curved arm, enfolding us all." "There's this profound sense of place
in the look and the feel of this city that artists respond to." "There's
something comfortable, even comforting about the layout. It's a city you
can get your arms around." "The river is big part of it because that's
how the groove of the place works. It flows through you." It's got
a vibe, a pulse, so the city's in you, even if you leave." "I love
that it's old and tired...you want to take care of it." "What would
happen if we left?"
The good news then: St. Louis now attracts legions of creative,
gifted, dedicated, passionate people of all ages and persuasions whose
impact on our city is undeniable. Thanks to their enthusiasm and
enterprise, our city now shows signs of the same uncanny transformative
capability that enabled us to segue from the agricultural to the industrial
to the technological ages over the last century. But this time we
face a transition far grander in scope because it will trade not in resources
and labor, but in human intelligence, knowledge and creativity.
And because creativity does not enact or sustain itself, St. Louis must
find ways to nurture a vital but ephemeral quality that cannot be handed
Some creatives worry that we could lose what we have. Designer Kiku Obata,
while celebrating St. Louis' potential, decries a certain lack of vision
in the local establishment business community. "We have everything
a city needs to become a great creative and economic center," she says.
"Everything but belief that it can happen. This should be one of the great
creative centers of the country, but there's no dialogue here. We've
got some world class creative people working here but local companies
would never think to enable this talent. They don't think
Creatives themselves, though, have thought deeply about the problems this
city must solve if it is to survive -- and they can remain.
Most agree with Florida's premise that communities, rather than traditional
means of personal attachment (via careers, companies, and families), have
become crucial constants in 21st century America's social equation.
"Neighborhoods are the families of the future," says Bill Byrd, vice president
of Benton Park Neighborhood Association and graduate of the University
of Missouri in St. Louis' Neighborhood Leadership Academy. "Since we all
live in one, it's imperative that we make it as strong and cohesive as
we can." Like many others, he praised the city's Weed and Seed Program,
which has helped his racially diverse neighbors find common ground. "Get
people outside and talking and they learn their differences are more matters
of perception than reality."
But many wonder if civic leaders possess enough vision to really deliver
on the promise this city holds for all its citizens: architecturally rewarding,
comfortably secure, and socially, civically and economically integrated
communities. "They're going to have to decide if we really need
another megaplex on the riverfront, or neighborhoods people will want
to live, work, play and send their children to school in," says Joe Jackson,
a South City piano restorer and entrepreneur. "The schools are a major
Embrace diversity, facilitate equality
Despite significant civic and cultural efforts to reach across racial
and ethnic divides, every creative agreed -- and grieved --
that St. Louis remains a de facto segregated city.
"Racism is particularly potent and offensive here because it comes from
the top," says Matt Ghio, attorney and urban activist. "Our politicians
still preach from an outdated playbook to a choir that doesn't even exist
anymore because we're all living together anyway, black, white, Asian
and Hispanic, trying to make this work."
Certainly our major art institutions' extensive outreach efforts have
helped, says Kansas City native Robert Powell, founder of Portfolio, an
African-American art gallery in Grand Center. "But beyond these noble
programs, the two cultural worlds remain separate," he says. "Few talented
blacks feel comfortable enough to stay here."
Transplants say they simply live over it. Natives, unsure how to redress
old wrongs they barely understand, tend to live around it. All, deeply
aware that racial barriers are not only morally problematic but economically
counterproductive, say they're frustrated. "Creative people do not
want to live in a segregated city," says Davide Weaver, of Art Dimensions.
"But the wounds are so deep it's very difficult to establish common ground."
History may work against us, says Joseph Heathcott, professor of American
Studies at St. Louis University. "White St. Louis just wants to forget
about the past and move on - and that's never going to happen. Individual
efforts are great as far as they can go, but they can't offset entrenched
attitudes and interests."
All agreed that breaking the city's painful legacy of discrimination may
be the creative class' greatest challenge -- and responsibility.
"But commitment to diversity has to mean more than a token call to multiculturalism,"
says Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books. "They have to understand
that it's not about reaching out, it's about sharing economic resources
fully. Nothing will change until North City enjoys the same thriving economy
we see in South City."
That said, some creatives are actively embracing the challenge: confronting
race, forging trans-cultural bonds, and spawning whole new artistic
and entrepreneurial enterprises. All prove that diversity
not only generates money, it builds friendships, partnerships and neighborhoods.
"Creativity by its very nature challenges the nonsense of racism," says
African-American writer/poet K. Curtis Lyle, a Los Angeles native. "I
hang out with creative people here so I don't feel prejudice like some
do. In fact, I'm seeing whole communities develop here, of people
for whom race isn't a filter. Creativity is the great leveler. Creative
people don't know some things are supposed to be impossible."
Support affordable housing rehabilitation
Certainly our fine old architectural infrastructure affords both
developers and creatives nearly limitless possibilities for both
commercial and artistic gain. But with success comes gentrification, higher
rents, and troubling social changes. Some South City and Downtown
housing has appreciated so rapidly that the more eccentric artists and
entrepreneurs, whose very presence pushes up the value of the spaces they
occupy, have had to migrate elsewhere.
That's a shame -- and unnecessary. "The right public policy could
ensure diversity of income levels in any community, but I'm not seeing
it," says Eric Friedman, of the Friedman Group in the Central West End. "We
cannot afford to drive out the very people who build our neighborhoods."
Many worry that the city, eager for revenues, lacks a consistent plan
for what St. Louis can be for all its citizens. "I see good things
going on in some areas, where pure greed determines development," says
Steve Smith, founder/owner of the Panda Athletic Club and the Royale Cafe. "I
see others where prejudice prevents development. Focused on bringing in
big and upscale businesses, city hall doesn't recognize the value of what
the less well-heeled people do for this city."
Our priorities are skewed, says Hurley. "We've got to ask ourselves why
the housing in North City, which is every bit as beautiful and historic
as anywhere here, is left to rot, while developers happily dump money
into South City which, by the way, is now one of the most racially
diverse areas in the Midwest."
Others decry what they see as short-term thinking. "Politics here
are a sickness," says Heathcott. "I see no political culture for stewardship,
of responsibility to the past and the future. Instead, it's all
about quick revenues from poorly thought, short-term development.
The city has shift from a real estate model of city planning to a neighborhood
Support progressive policy-making
Most creatives give city hall mixed reviews. While some praise certain
officials who eased the way for what became successful enterprises, more
express frustration with what they regard as atrophic leadership and a
profound lack of progressive thinking. "I think when the charter
amendment went down," says writer Thomas Crone, "many of us lost hope
of accomplishing anything here. We need to run and elect aldermen of vision,
who are willing to break with an old power structure."
Unnecessary bureaucracy particularly rankled. "The city seems intent
on making it difficult to do anything," says Smith. "I spend an inordinate
amount of time just dealing with bureaucracy." Fisher calls it an insiders'
ballgame. "You work around it, but it's a beat-down mentality."
Tom Schlafly, who opened his brewery's bottle works in Maplewood, rather
than the city, is coy: "Let's just say the city is not well served by
the tradition of aldermanic courtesy."
Others cities support their entrepreneurs better, they say. "City
Hall gives the big developers and chains breaks little guys don't get,"
observes Levinson. "They don't see that we're about the long term; we
generate the commerce that builds neighborhoods, not just tax bases."
Many worry that the city is morbidly bankrupt of ideas. "Provincial thinking
isn't necessarily bad," says Gondolfi, "but here it just spins out in
power plays that negate growth. The city ends up victimized by its
Creative communities, they point out, must be nurtured and renewed lest
they slip away. Unless civic and political leaders can find ways to encourage
broad support for diverse creative activities, and establish colorblind
policies to bring all our citizens into the creative sector, St. Louis
may fall behind. "So much is possible here, but we don't work together,"
says André Holman, general manager of City 10 TV. "If this city
is going to be great again, we've got to work for some greater common
goal that benefits all city residents, not just some."
To their credit, many creatives know they need to collaborate better,
perhaps even form a New Guard by which they can address the panoply of
deeply entrenched attitudes endemic to any city, but particularly daunting
here. "The cultural communities don't work very well together," says
Maria Schlafly, "so it's hard to build audiences and effective networks."
To the city's credit, some government officials likewise worry about our
precarious creative potential. "We cannot afford to be perceived as a
closed-minded or intolerant city, nor do we want to be that in reality,"
says Alderman Jim Shrewsbury. "Making our city a lively, exciting and
diverse place to live with services and amenities that appeal to "creatives"
are things we need to keep fostering."
But all agree the city, ripe for change, can fulfill its promise. "Things
can happen here," says McKelvey. "Nothing is holding us back. The
barrier isn't there; it's imaginary."
St. Louis, then, may need to decide what kind of Gateway City it will
be. A gateway, the dictionary reminds us, is "an arch or frame over a
gate that can open -- or close." Legions strong now, our Creative Class
stands at that gate, eager to push through it to a whole new future. "There's
no need to engineer anything, only enable the creativity at hand," says
South City artist Anna Hancock. "Just let us do it."
St. Louis Magazine - May 2006