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It's 10 p.m., and a typical weeknight slumber has settled on South Grand Boulevard. A few late-night wanderers trickle from the just-closed restaurants and head directly to their cars. Their only musical accompaniment is the booming bass pumped out by a passing Oldsmobile, rattling the windows of the darkened shops. The bustling activity of the daytime has completely subsided.
"If you walk down South Grand at 10 on a Tuesday night, it's dead," says Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, former manager of the Side Door club on Locust Street and currently producer of the local-affairs show The Wire on KDHX (88.1 FM). "Go to the Loop or the West End, people are running around. A music venue seems, to me, to be the best answer."
Both the thriving University City Loop and gradually reviving Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis built their early success on a vigorous nightlife, boasting hotspots that draw people from all over the region. The Loop would be very different today had not Blueberry Hill, Cicero's and other venues been there in the early years, offering congenial surroundings for late-night fun along with the all-important live music.
South Grand (roughly defined as Grand between Magnolia Avenue and Utah Street, in the Tower Grove area on the city's South Side) has thrived, thanks to an eclectic mixture of shops, restaurants and services. You'll find the most authentic Southeast Asian cuisine in town here in restaurants such as Mekong, the King & I and Pho Grand. The Vintage Haberdashery and Re:Generation offer affordable vintage clothing, and specialized boutiques such as T.F.A. and Curve of the Earth are part of the mix as well. Essential services -- a barbershop, a dry cleaners, an optical store and a post office -- preserve a taste of the old city streetscape. The shady paths and Victorian pavilions of nearby Tower Grove Park provide an oasis of natural calm.
But after the sun goes down, the options narrow. Only Mangia Italiano regularly offers live music, primarily jazz, improv and acoustic. The smallish Upstairs Lounge, located above Mekong, presents a steady schedule of DJ-based entertainment, and CBGB occasionally lets a rock band play. MoKaBe's, a coffeehouse around the corner on Arsenal Street, is open late but doesn't serve alcohol; nor does it have much space for performers. Although each of these establishments adds great personality to the district and enjoys a substantial and devoted neighborhood clientele, none is a regional destination for music lovers.
So what gives? Where's the live-rock venue or big dance club on South Grand, catering to the area's young hipsters and music lovers? The answer takes us into the world of city-development politics, a place far murkier than any smoke-filled nightclub.
South Grand is divided territory in more ways than one. The west side of the street is in the 15th aldermanic ward, represented until recently by the now-retired Marge Vining and now by freshman Jennifer Florida. Neighborhood affairs west of Grand are handled by the Tower Grove Heights Neighborhood Association (TGHNA). The street's east side is in the 9th Ward, represented by Ald. Ken Ortmann and home to the Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association.
But geography isn't the only polarizing factor. The unique small businesses that give the street its flavor sit alongside national chains such as Domino's Pizza and Hollywood Video. Another fault line divides the commercial district and the residents, both of whom have a legacy of poor communication. South Grand's bureaucracy is also fractured; a variety of city agencies, from the St. Louis Development Corp. to the Cultural Resources Office, have jurisdiction over various aspects of South Grand's development. According to some in the neighborhood, this tangle of authority has provided convenient cover for developers to carry out their plans away from neighborhood scrutiny.
"It's a difficult thing to figure out, because these developers like to operate outside the public eye," says Brian Marston, president-elect of TGHNA. "Conversations are made, and deals are cut."
Anyone scratching the surface of the South Grand situation will hear one name over and over again: Tim Boyle, president of City Property Co. and owner of some of South Grand's most prominent properties. As a developer whose vision for the neighborhood's future is based on a profoundly suburban perspective, Boyle nicely fits the villain's role in this particular drama, and people around here have strong opinions about him.
"Boyle calls himself a developer," says Marston, "but he's just sitting on thousands of square feet of empty property in what is supposed to be an up-and-coming commercial district. He's got enough contacts and influence to tie that property up but not enough to do anything with it."
The decrepit state of several of Boyle's properties supports this claim: the old Anderson Garage at Grand and Sidney Street; the boarded-up storefront of the old Dickmann Bakery on Grand; three unoccupied ramshackle houses on Juniata Street that locals call the "Three Stooges." Boyle is also part-owner and manager of the Dickmann Building, the tallest building on South Grand and, with its gorgeous whitewashed terra-cotta façade, perhaps the jewel in South Grand's architectural crown. But its six floors are mostly empty, housing just one tenant.
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