Nothing Ever Changes in St. Louis (except all the things that change)

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The Grove_feature

I am producing a conference in May about how places like St. Louis, scuffed up, scarred and humble, are likely the future of the US economy – once we get over propping up megabanks and tolerating private equity scams and pursuing retrograde fantasies. St. Louis has a real raison-d’être where it always has – a confluence of three rivers and many railroads in the middle of a fertile continent. Yet there is pushback against my bullishness on my adopted city, and not from where you would guess. The pessimism isn’t from snarky New Yorkers asking if the Midwest is still covered in Conestoga Wagons. Nor is from the Left Coasters sniping, “Ah yes, the Midwest, that place everybody escapes.” Actually, they usually like the idea.

No, the biggest resistance is from St. Louisans themselves. When you say, “This place could be in the midst of a major renaissance,” you can sometimes expect “Don’t waste your energy. Things here are the way they always have been. Things in St. Louis never change.”

Well, except that they do. They have changed, and they are changing.

I have only resided here a paltry three years, and already I can track major changes to the landscape, almost all of them positive and increasingly in frequency and velocity. Want a list?

The Grove: When I first started hanging out at The Gramophone, I had trouble finding people on the streets. Now I have trouble finding parking on the streets. (Valet? What fresh hell is this?) Soho – Rise Coffee – Urban Chestnut – TV shows at Sweetie Pie’s – new music venues – more everything. In three years the place has gone from transitional to happening and won’t stop for a long time.

The Musial Bridge: That thing is majestic, useful and brand new, the sign of a city investing in its future.

Cherokee: When my friends started living and working there five years ago, they raved about the place and its potential. To me, it looked hit with the ugly stick and rubbed with sad ham, to quote Patton Oswalt. But today, all that grit is giving way to an entrepreneurial spirit that grows straight through the cracks in the sidewalk. Fully-loaded coworking center: check. Fancy whisky bar: check. Outlandish and character-filled watering holes? Check. Art is appearing on buildings, excitement is building on the street.

South Grand: Beautification projects, new sidewalks, more delineated parking – the place looks more open for business every day.

Washington Ave: I met my wife in 2004 and have been coming to St. Louis yearly ever since. While Baltimore frittered its downtown development energy on the ESPN Zone, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Barnes and Noble, Washington Ave has slowly crept up, block by block, business by business, one project at a time. Ten years later, the developments of Bawlmer’s Inner Harbor are deeply in debt, and Washington Ave. moves ever closer to being one of America’s great streets.

The list goes on, and as my friends remind me, these trends didn’t start in 2010 when I moved here, but maybe in the mid-90s. We are experiencing an epic shift and the signs of it are all around us. They may take your Cardinals and toasted raviolis and high school references from your cold, dead hands, but make no mistake – you live in a city that is changing.

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  • T-Leb

    I use to see music on the Landing at Mississippi Nights, for the past 10+ years it’s mainly The Pageant. Had to make way for that Casino. The Old Rock House is a fun venue that sprang up from that change. The Kiel/Peabody Opera House reopening and seeing music there is new for me, maybe not older folks. I think end of this month I will see Devil Makes Three at the new Ready Room. Things change, that for sure.

  • Thomas R Shrout Jr

    I understand your premise. Most of the money for the Musial bridge was state of Illinois, federal and lastly MoDOT. Little if any local tax dollars. Central Corridor development would rank at the top of my list of positive signs.

  • onecity

    I see far more optimism, energy, and ACTION toward change from transplants than I do from people born and raised here.

    • Thomas R Shrout Jr

      I wish Metro was playing an energetic part to the resurgence and developing new and increase light rail/streetcar service to help make it happen.

      • John R

        Tom, are you optimistic that anything exciting on transit will part of the potential 1% sales tax for transportation ballot? My understanding is that EWG through regional stakeholders would have a large say in project selection. But the bare-bones BRT/fancy commuter bus service alternatives from Metro are very disappointing to see.

        • John

          The N-S line should be one of this region’s largest priorities!

        • Thomas R Shrout Jr

          I am not optimistic at all. There are lots of collar counties represented on the EWGCC Board who will decide how the money is divvied up. Plus sales tax for state transportation issues cuts into the ability to fund local projects through sales tax.

          • John R

            Thanks so much for your reply, Tom. So for example, passage of the 1% state tax may mean little for quality transit in the region but make it harder to pass a city sales tax to pay for say, Saint Louis Streetcar(s)?

          • Thomas R Shrout Jr

            Exactly. Under state law both the city and county could pass an additional 1/4 cent sales tax dedicated to transit. That would be about $50/year for Metro. That is your barometer when evaluating the state plan. In addition if the city decides to create a Transportation Development District and voters agree to fund it, that could be up to a 1% sales tax.

          • John R

            Thanks, Tom. I guess the good thing (iirc) is that we should know what projects would be in store for the Saint Louis region ahead of a vote. Back to the post here, it will be a big determinant in how far we can bounce back as a region.

    • http://donspoliticalblog.blogspot.com Don

      Native Saint Louisans suffer from a real inferiority complex about the City. I cringe every time we host a national event and visiting media does ‘man on the street’ interviews of locals for their reactions. It’s almost always something defensive and embarrassing.

      I think the same can be said of natives in most of what used to be called the rust belt. I see it in friends from Pittsburgh.

      People who have been here a long time have seen big projects like Union Station and St Louis Centre launch with much fanfare and then die. Manson House before that. The real success the City has enjoyed in the last 15 or so years is less noticeable to many locals because it’s organic, the way development should be. ‘Retail follows rooftops’ is the old cliche and as people have moved in to reclaim old neighborhoods the retail has come with it at a reasonable and sustainable pace. We are finally doing it right, but this is not as noticeable as the grand opening of Union Station. People just aren’t as aware.

      I’ve grown up here and I struggle to believe the transformations that have taken place all over the city. Going to the Tivoli last week, I was struck with how different it was when I was going to the Varsity in high school in the late 70s to see Rocky Horror.

      We’re in the midst of a true renaissance but it’s moving just slow enough that many don’t notice it or just take it for granted.

      • dempster holland

        I too am a lifelong St Louis resident, and I sometimes cringe
        when the claim is made that all these new residents are saving
        the city–the very city that most of us have spent a good portion
        of our lives in, living and working.
        But then I think back to the 19th century when St Louis has its
        greatest growth rates and dreamed of one day being the Paris
        of the Midwest (as many other cities also did). In those days, it
        was the German and Irish immigrants which gave the city its
        drive and impetus, later joined by Italian and Jewish and many
        other ethnic groups. So the new residents often bring a spark,
        but the old residents should not be ignored or discounted.

  • Presbyterian

    We’re currently seeing an explosion of new development in Midtown as well. With new projects announced weekly in the Central West End, Downtown and Clayton, the Central Corridor is in the midst of an incredible resurgence. I doubt any of us will recognize Forest Park Avenue five years from now.

    • John

      CORTEX alone will be larger than my old city’s entire Downtown and 1/3 the size of the city overall. That was Olympia, WA. And yet, in that town, they’re crying over a 7-story building being constructed Downtown. It would be the tallest new building in Olympia since 1972. I don’t see how that one-horse, snaggletooth, sister-bangin’ hippie village could possibly compete in AWESOMENESS with Saint Louis…even if we are only on the MID-COAST. Big whoop, so Olympia’s just on some polluted lake (Puget Sound – - do not eat seafood out of there). Their current Downtown is just a really shitty, small version of Cherokee, but with little hope of improving. It’s sad but it’s the residents’ fault for holding the town back.

      Midtown St. Louis even has a larger skyline than the entire City of Tacoma, WA, near Olympia. So yeah, St. Louis is big. And it’s fun. And it’s always improving. I remember going to the Grove and Midtown in late high school/early college and thinking “Wow, what a dump. I can’t wait to move out west.” Boy, what a fool I was. Those neighborhoods have improved a ton since then. Meanwhile, in the one year I lived in Oly, it only got worse and worse. Any time someone says St. Louis is blighted, small, or boring, I tell them to go to Olympia or Tacoma. Seriously, everyone should go there once just to see.

  • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

    Washington Avenue IS a “great street!” Literally — the American Planning Association said so: http://www.planning.org/greatplaces/streets/2011/

    I agree entirely that the most push back you get will always be from the locals. Can’t quite put my finger on the “why” of it. It’s almost like there’s this perverse pride in their disdain.

    I think that’s starting to change though…and pretty quickly too, as many with a passion for the City are finding an ease of success in converting those friends/families/strangers who allow themselves to be dragged out of their comfort zones.

  • STLgasm

    Very interesting conference. However, there are a few clarifications to make in the Getting Here section of the conference website that should be corrected:

    “The Moonrise Hotel is located in the historic Delmar Loop neighborhood of downtown Saint Louis.”

    The Delmar Loop is not in downtown St. Louis. Actually, it’s on the opposite end of the city from downtown.

    “If you are arriving at Lambert St. Louis International Airport, you can arrive by rental car, taxi, or by Metrolink Trains, which will take you directly from the Terminal to Delmar Loop Station. Delmar Loop Station is just a 7-minute walk to the hotel.”

    The Moonrise Hotel is a 3-minute walk AT MOST from the Delmar MetroLink station. Definitely not 7 minutes.

  • stldoc

    Saint Louis neighborhoods continue to transform as people begin to
    appreciate and take advantage of our historic and beautiful city bones.
    The national trend where more of the middle and upper class are
    choosing an urban lifestyle (that shows no signs of abating) is
    happening here as well. Although, we in STL are very often late to on
    national trends so it is likely we are only in the beginning stages here
    and the pace will accelerate as we build off all the recent progress.
    Equally
    important, St. Louis has changed in many other important ways. Going
    from a sleepy entrepreneurial town to a nationally recognized start up
    town with a mountain of potential is likely the biggest sea change. The
    tech people that move here for T-Rex, Arch grants, Cortex, Danforth
    Center or the numerous other new magnets in the region will often be the
    type of people that are also looking for urban living. People that
    want to bike or ride transit to work. These jobs will have a compounding
    effect beyond the jobs themselves to our urban core.
    Other bright
    spots that will have big implications for our town. City crime has
    dropped 50% since 2006 and continues to decline. Improving public school
    options in the urban core, particularly Charter schools. There were 4
    or 5 public elementary schools in the city that we liked and had to
    choose between for our kindergartner last year. When he was born in
    2007, only one of these schools even existed and there are more and more
    of these schools opening and proving themselves every year.
    Also,
    civic engagement is rising. People care and are starting to believe we
    can have a bright future and are getting involved. This website being a
    good example.
    Lastly, BetterTogether and other groups working to
    problem solve and help push for much needed updates in our antiquated
    and grossly inefficient regional governance. Any progress in reducing
    redundancies and using our resources to compete in the global economy
    instead of competing and often cannibalizing off our regional partners
    will be significant. So, I completely agree, things are looking better
    for Saint Louis than they have in a very long time.

  • John R

    Not sure how I feel about this…. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying but a couple of observations:

    – I generally like to stay away from saying other places suck. (e.g I could care less about the debt position of the Inner Harbor developments — how about our convention center hotel? — but Central Baltimore btw is exploding with growth that is far outpacing ours.) The fact of the matter is virtually every largish American city is seeing some nice activity in downtown cores. We have wonderful character and potential and should feel good about much of the progress in the central corridor and in certain nabes, but we really shouldn’t believe our budding rebirth is somehow special.

    – The use of entertainment districts can be a superficial measure of progress. Yes, it is great to see Manchester in the Grove and Cherokee Street coming to life as entertainment districts and extra wonderful that the historic buildings there are finding new uses and hope. But there have always been entertainment districts in town and not always a spur for additional investment and population growth in the surrounding neighborhoods. I do think though these particular districts — along with Morgan Ford and unquestionably Tower Grove Mews — are helping on this more critical front.
    – In the end, how much we can continue our progress is largely dependent upon how much the regional economic climate improves and how much we can re-center our jobs base… we are facing difficult challenges on both fronts but hopefully our corporate community will part of the progress. Cortex and tech start-ups downtown are great to have, but they can only go so far. Even the feds/GSA are bailing on downtown! Perhaps cities like ours are the future, but that is largely up to macro-economic factors beyond our control; what corporate leaders can do now though is move some operations — if not entire relocations — back to the core, which in turn makes the region more competitive and appealing.
    – Sure there are naysayers, again not unique to Saint Louis, but there are countless believers and people working to make the city better in ways large and small. Always has been and always will be.
    Best of luck with the conference!

    – “once we get over propping up megabanks and tolerating private equity scams and pursuing retrograde fantasies…” good luck with that! its wall street’s world and that won’t change anytime soon; we just have to move forward on our own.

    • T-Leb

      Couldn’t agree more with: “largely up to macro-economic factors beyond our control”
      In my observation, the world changes, cities gain and lose. Same is true of the rural.

      • John R

        No doubt… one thing the census tells us clearly is that while the Matt Blunts of the world think that “no one wants to live in Saint Louis,” it is actually the rural counties in Missouri (and across America) that are gravely in danger.
        I also think something that is very positive for American cities is that we have a better understanding of what works and doesn’t work. The second half of the 20th century was a massive learning experience…. there were no solid frameworks for how to deal with massive manufacturing/industrial loss, easy-to-flee-to suburban greenfield development, etc. Huge mistakes were made that actually exacerbated the problem, but now it is starting to sink in to even the slower policy makers that trying to look like the suburbs, large-scale urban clearance and failure to provide for true transportation systems and the like probably aren’t the best prescriptions for success.

        • T-Leb

          Learning experience also in that StL ignored the Clean Water Act, or at least doing anything about the combined sewer overflows (CityShit2River). Infrastructure challenges today paid for mostly by locals with little to no federal dollars, when years ago they could have received Federal help.
          Going forward, compliance with environmental standards will hopefully not be optional and this could help slow greenfield development in absence of federal infrastructure dollars.

  • DanieljSTL

    I lived in the South Hampton neighborhood about 5 years ago. I left because I met my wife and she had a nicer house in the county. We recently moved back and bought a new place in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood. In just 5 short years, I cannot believe the amount of young people and families that have moved to the area. While this area has always remained “stable” in terms of general safety and owner occupied houses, it’s great to see that this neighborhood is transitioning from senior citizens who took excellent care of their yards and houses, to young families that take excellent care of their yards and houses. I was worried that with the boom in the Grove, downtown, CWE, etc… that problems would just shift from one area of the City to another. Good to see, at least from my point of view, that the neighborhoods that were stable are remaining that way, while others are revived

    • John R

      Welcome back to the City! Some parts of the city just haven’t seen the upturn that other neighborhoods have seen and are perhaps in decline, but many parts of the city really are teeming with young children…. I was just having an alley confab with some fellow TGS parents as the kids played and one mentioned she had counted over 30 kids living on their block alone. It has gotten to the point where even young couples pre-equipped with children are moving into the city… now that is a marker of progress! Of course a lot of the families will move out to the burbs which is fine, and educational choices do become more difficult as kids reach middle and high school age, but increasingly it is clear that others are choosing to stay. And new families will continue to form to take the place of those that leave.

      • DanieljSTL

        We are actually one of those “pre-equipped” couples. My wife (25) and I (29) just moved back from Kirkwood with our 15 month old daughter. It’s amazing the quality of house you can buy in the City vs. Kirkwood. We went from a 1,200sqft bungalow to a 3,100sqft Victorian for nearly the same price.

    • moe

      When I returned to St. Louis in 2000, I naturally looked at the place I use to stay before I left….Soulard 1980′s. What I found were over priced homes along with the ones that were boarded up when I left were still boarded up. I looked elsewhere..TGS/East areas.
      Found a great bungalow. But as I was just saying to a neighbor the other day…when I moved in, the area was very lacking in children and there were none on my block. None. Fast forward to today and there are 4 on the way, over a dozen all under 12. And a day care. We have over a dozen daycares in our hood.
      And Businesses? We’ve got them by the fistful. Home-based, small retail fronts, bars, breweries, restaurants. You name it, we got it. Didn’t have them before either.
      Sure there are the naysayers. We’ll always have them. I ignore them. But I am left wondering….the City was on such a roll in the early 2000′s….it and many things came to a crashing halt. What could have been accomplished had that momentum continued???
      But we are back to where we were, having gained all that lost momentum. We ARE moving forward. We’ll disagree on building layouts, sidewalks, parking, but we ARE moving forward.
      The next 10 years will be very, very interesting. Buckle Up!

  • mc

    I just welcomed two Dutch guys to my home this weekend. They were touring the country and they loved St. Louis. Said it was one of their absolute favourite places.

    Let’s be proud of what we have!

  • guest

    A good post worth reading and keeping the discussion alive.

  • guest

    A good post worth reading and keeping the discussion alive.

  • Chris Naffziger

    Thanks, Eric, for your post. I just got done reading an article about how Oakland is being gentrified and the middle class can no longer afford housing there. Does anyone besides me see the obvious solution? Move to St. Louis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, or even Detroit. High cost of living problem solved for a very long time. This idea that everybody in America who’s “cool” HAS to live in five cities with hyper inflated prices is no longer sustainable.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Yes, Virginia, Saint Louis is gentrifying.

    Well done to nextSTL for forcefully stating the fact. Awareness of widespread gentrification is important for a couple of reasons. One, the shift from ‘blighted urban’ to ‘hip urban’ is a giant leap in the world of corporate and policy-making urban design. It’s a step up in design and building expectations.

    Secondly, there is something I call a ‘gentrification sweet spot’. It’s that period of time when the gentrifying area gains new prosperity, creativity and diversity while crime goes down. Unfortunately, the sweet spot doesn’t last forever. A strong gentrification trend usually ends in a less diverse, more expensive and more homogeneous neighborhood. My advice would be to make the most of the current diversity and creativity. It (probably) will not last.

    Finally, north Saint Louis is in the midst of one of the worst shooting and murder runs in its history. Children and innocent young people are dying on a weekly basis. Local media fails to discuss what must be gang wars and crossfire.

    It is unconscionable to pat the gentrifiers on the back without acknowledging the terror and grief that fellow Saint Louisans are enduring–this week. Blindness could be one of the cardinal sins of gentirfying and its one of the reasons gentrifiers are hated.

    Yes, there is time to celebrate Saint Louis’ success, but lets also add the Central Corridor and South Side’s substantial political weight to the desperate pleas from the North Side.

    • DanieljSTL

      The problems on the Northside are well documented in the media, but I think that most St. Louisans have just grown numb from hearing the same old story on the news every morning… It’s certainly a tragic way of life for those who live there, but I think we’ve got to take one step at a time and keep focusing on the improvements. I went to SLU from 2003-2007. As a commuter, I often times found myself parking a few blocks away from campus. Back in 2003, the intersection of Forest Park Pkwy and Vandeventer was no place to walk at night, even for a guy who is 6’6″ and 240lbs. Now there’s an Ikea going in. Remember the Creepy Crawl on Tucker? The Galaxy on Washington? Great punk rock clubs, yes, but 15 years ago this was a completely different area than it is today. Hipsters and the cool kids paved the way on Washington Ave… Maybe they’ll do the same on the Northside.

      Unfortunately some of these areas will require baby steps. That’s not to say we shouldn’t focus on the positive areas of improvement in the meantime.

      • DanieljSTL

        Please forgive me if my post sounded argumentative. I just realized that I’m a couple cups of coffee shy of thinking rationally…

        If there’s one thing I hate, it’s an online comments section stand-off where people act like they’re 10 feet tall behind a keyboard. My apologies.

        I’m just proud to see some of the changes in the area, and genuinely want to see the City thrive.

        • moe

          Why apologize? I think you raise a very good point. It’s not to be flippant or arrogant…but St. Louisians are numb to the crime. They either think it doesn’t happen in their neighborhood or they go about purposefully ignoring it. And there is also the mindset that if it’s not happening next door to them, they don’t need to worry about it.
          Gentrification is a two-edge sword.

          • Alex Ihnen

            Crime is also the most intractable problem we face, especially as individuals.

    • mathew chandler

      you can not ignore the changes happening in “old north st.louis”. Much investment and grass roots based productivity. ONSTL is up and coming.
      The problem with north st Louis on a whole is that people know it as a place to ignore.

  • John R

    A topper from Wexford, the Cortex developer out of the East Coast, is quite bullish on Saint Louis’ capacity to be a tech star ahead of the likes of Austin, but says the “problem is hardly anybody knows about it. And those who live in St. Louis are as much to blame as those living outside of the region because people here don’t talk about successes enough.”

    http://www.bizjournals.com/stlouis/blog/biznext/2014/04/wexford-director-st-louis-has-more-resources-for.html?page=all

  • Dan

    Right on the money with this assessment. The future is good – slow and steady wins the race. Now, we just need to deal with the crisis of the spirit.

  • Shaune

    I’m one of the young, pre-equipped households who moved on an ABSOLUTE whim to STL (without a job, actually) and got lucky that I’m very qualified in -my- work expertise. What I’ve found is that older residents remembering my neighborhood (shaw) being much more crime ridden and derelict than it is now. I explain to them that I feel very safe in next to Tower Grove park, and that times must have changed. Tons of young adults and young families is what I see. Also, we found jobs almost instantly. Big bonus.

  • BudSTL

    Fantastic viewpoint! BTW: You left out the development in the loop and CWE.

  • MiguelTejada82

    And the last time I was at the MX at 2pm on a Tuesday you could’ve shot a gun in any direction and hit no one. Being at the confluence of rivers mattered in the steam age. In the digital age, it’s worth significantly less. A few revitalized commercial corridors does not a vibrant region make. Cherokee is grossly overrated for its resurgence. There are a few half decent areas that attract people on a day-to-day basis, but without a strong employment base those people will leave each day to find work (hence why STL lost 10% of its population from 2000-2010). You can’t scale up a coffee shop!