By Sam Levin
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"I like both Lacy Clay and The Roberts Brothers! I am not sure who else will give it a try.... but the guys above are expected to ... 'Give It A Try'.... I have often said, we need 'Business People' in public offices ... And the Roberts Brothers are suspected of being worth millions because of their business accruements ... Lacy is a darn good politician and also a regular guy ... ??? ... I hope the best for the position gets it ... Gulp!, I Hope!, I Hope!, I Hope! ... 'Stay Tuned,' ... 'Fo 'Mo!..."
-- Ole Page L., "Lo Que Pasa," Pub Magazine, May 27
PERSONAL POLITICS: Some people get mad. Some get even. Others -- though not many -- write new-music-and-spoken-word operas to express their discontent.
Close readers of this column will remember the ill will that the city of St. Louis created with some residents of Cherokee Park when the various tentacles of local government helped take down an abandoned building at 3314 Lemp while leaving its neighbor, a structure in equally bad shape, standing. The reason that 3314 Lemp became an issue at all is the fact that Mark Sarich began looking into its history, surmising that it might have been a part of the Underground Railroad, with a cave network spreading out from the old home's basement.
Unswayed by the impassioned arguments of Sarich and his supporters -- including tenacious Gateway Tech teacher Chip Clatto, who still plans to use the area for a summer program in archaeology -- the city took the old home down, with occasional haphazard "work" done on the property in the weeks since.
"I have a language and they have a language," says Sarich of conversations with various city agencies. "And we wind up spitting at each other."
He adds: "Something's gone awry here. The city demolishes 1,500 buildings annually, and maybe a few good historical ones fall through the cracks."
Not content to let the structure die in silence, Sarich -- a musician and music prof -- has headed up efforts to create a unique program that will run this weekend. At 3 p.m. Saturday, the Lemp Neighborhood Social Arts Project will present In Whose Interest: The Heritage of Removing Ourstory, an hourlong program that'll incorporate new music specifically written for this project; texts written in a sketch manner, with titles such as "Demolition Derby," "Fruit of the Doom" and "Change Politician"; and a handful of firebrand speakers.
The event, which will take place in the street, right in front of 3314 Lemp -- between Utah and Cherokee -- was written by Sarich, Edward Schneider and participants in a summer initiative taking place at the nearby Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, which doubles as the Cherokee Park Neighborhood Association meeting hall. Combining old-style grassroots activism with "kooky artists" and their unique vision of protest is the key to the weekend's statement.
"We want people who are interested in new music or new art and community development," says Schneider. "It's an effort of bringing people that live in the city together to speak about the problems."
"I hope for a real mix," says Sarich. "I don't want to preach to the choir."
The Cherokee Park neighborhood -- notable for its proximity to Cherokee's Antique Row and the sprawling Lemp Brewery, plus a host of historic row and alley houses -- has a unique place among city areas going through an extended period of change. Once, Germans dominated the area, though that time has long passed. The new reality: a mix of black and white, renters and owners, transient and established residents, together providing an interesting challenge for those inclined toward the traditional, unapologetically "liberal" notions of consensus-building.
Sarich and his associates have fought some of the usual (if testy) urban battles: removing drug dealers from the surrounding blocks; helping run off prostitutes and johns; starting a community garden. They've also been striving to give the area a defined artistic bent. If the demolition of the 3314 site -- and that's a relative term, considering the halted, half-assed efforts of the C Jones Wrecking Co. -- brings something positive, it's that Sarich now has a wider forum in which to challenge the neighborhood's consciousness.
"I hear a lot of lip service to diversity here," Sarich says. "I have yet to see that in practice."
Listening to Sarich and Schneider banter in the backyard of the house once owned by Sarich's grandparents -- debating the best way to get across the idea of "taking an opera and sticking it in the inner city," for example -- you get the notion that Lemp has a leadership in place, if one that's taking a highly unusual, highly proactive approach: the use of operatic new music for social change, with everything from spoken word and accordions to tape loops. (OK, so there is a historical precedent for these ideas, but not in latter-day South St. Louis.)
In fact, hearing the pair sketch out ideas for cleaning up the alleys, attracting new homeowners and bridging racial gaps, you could almost lose the perspective that something sketchy happened just around the corner on Lemp. Instead, the demo site's become a lightning rod, drawing energy to a corner of the city that's loaded with both the charms and warts of an older, urban environment.
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