Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

An outsider gets to know -- and love -- Soulard

Actually, it was only after I became desensitized to the inner city in general that I started to appreciate Soulard. Working as a counselor with troubled inner-city youth, I would occasionally find myself driving through Soulard and thinking: Why, this is rather quaint.

And then there was the Lutheran in me that started to think Soulard might be OK. My parents had grown up in South St. Louis,down by Lutheran Hospital, and they were thickly part of what I like to call the German-Lutheran Mafia. I call them the German-Lutheran Mafia only because there was a certain strain of South St. Louis German-Lutherans who seemed destined to be clergy or part of a clergy family. My family was right in among 'em. Mom's great-grandfather, grandfather, father, stepfather and brother were all Lutheran pastors. And, following in the German-Lutheran Mafia footsteps of her older sisters, Mom married a Lutheran pastor. Lutheran pastors abounded among the cousins and in-laws, and they all seemed to grow out of this South St. Louis neighborhood. These were the good people. The family. The Lutherans.

Thus it was to my great comfort and reassurance that I learned that Soulard had the oldest Lutheran church in town, Trinity Lutheran Church, at Eighth and Soulard. And just next door was the oldest Lutheran school in town. I couldn't believe it. My doubts about Soulard began to fade. Lutherans in Soulard? An ancient Lutheran church? A longtime Lutheran school? Maybe there was hope. I mean, in this neighborhood, there was family. Maybe I wouldn't get beat up.

Growing Up in Soulard
When I realized I'd be writing about Soulard for this issue, I began to bone up on the topic.

It was in the local libraries that I found a diamond in the rough: Growing Up in Soulard, by Betty Pavlige.continued on page 12continued from page 7

In 1980, Pavlige, who owned a beauty shop, compiled a series of vignettes about her life in Soulard through the Depression years and afterward. Pavlige's simple storytelling has an honesty of experience and expression that gave me a vivid sense of what it was like to live in her neighborhood. It was a hard life, but she knew her neighbors.

If you want to hear some voices from old Soulard, check this book out.

Prepping for Mardi Gras
A few years ago, I was driving through Soulard on a summer afternoon. As in many city neighborhoods, the streets and sidewalks were littered with action. Standing by the side of a car, doing whatever guys do when it looks like they're doing nothing, was an acquaintance I knew through my wife's job. The man was a white-collar professional, but here in Soulard he looked totally in place, as if he should be unshaven, holding a longneck bottle of beer in one hand and wiping his brow with the other.

Too bad Mardi Gras isn't in the summer.
On the late-January afternoon that I go to hang out in Soulard, the streets and sidewalks are empty of pedestrians. Getting stories out of the locals won't be so easy.

Let's take a crack at it anyway, I think. The people will be in the bars. Or, at least, it's a good excuse to check out the bars.

At my first stop, over at Molly's, at 816 Geyer, I order a longneck Busch and leave the narrow front bar to look the joint over. Outside, in the back, I mosey around an expansive brick patio with vines and wrought-iron fence and bells that jingle in the wind. There's benches and a birdbath, and lots of wet, yellow leaves are on the ground. An oversized half-barrel barbecue grill stands near the fence.

Jutting into the air is the naked, curvy butt of a large stone statue of part of a woman lying on her belly. The statue's bare breasts dig into the dirt. This place could do New Orleans proud.

I probably look suspicious, and someone who looks like a Molly's employee appears silently on the scene. Good man. Doing his job.

"You work here?" I ask.
He nods, and I get the OK to keep snooping around.
Graffiti-covered doors and ceiling highlight the second-floor pool room. Lots of room here for people to get drunk, I think. On one door it says: "Harry got naked here. So did Lisa."

I come back downstairs and ask the bartender: What's Mardi Gras like around here? "It's a big cluster-fuck," she laughs, and several of the bar regulars nod their heads in agreement. Cluster-fuck. Hmmm. I haven't heard this one before, but I can imagine what she means.

"It's not every day you can put eight bars in one establishment and work three straight 15-hour days," she croons. Sounds like my house, without the booze.

I shell a few peanuts at the bar and spend 10 minutes listening to 59-year-old George, who seems to be half-soused. George is liberal with his advice: "You wouldn't want to live here when Mardi Gras is going on." I decide to soldier on.

Next door at Norton's Cafe, I conclude that if I have a beer at each stop, I will be pretty useless. The bartender serves up a Coke, and I try to soak in the atmosphere at the bar.

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