Inn & Out

Decadence and desperation rendezvous at St. Louis' no-tell motels

On this night, however, the Mansion is quiet, as it has been for quite some time. The action, at least for the time being, has migrated elsewhere.

If there's one Patel all the other local motelkeepers know of, it's Ricky Patel, proprietor of the Grand and former owner of the Flamingo. In contrast to his motel, Patel's private dwelling is a handsome brick estate on a quiet cul-de-sac in a Chesterfield subdivision called Nooning Tree.

"The neighborhood would be a lot better without them": Neighborhood activist Columbus Edwards has seen enough of the Grand and the Flamingo
Bob Reuter
"The neighborhood would be a lot better without them": Neighborhood activist Columbus Edwards has seen enough of the Grand and the Flamingo
St. Louis police are still trying to identify this woman, who was found dead late last month at the Grand
St. Louis Medical Examiner
St. Louis police are still trying to identify this woman, who was found dead late last month at the Grand

Reached for comment while on a vacation cruise, Patel declined to discuss his involvement in the motel business and referred questions to his lawyer, Gary Uthoff. The attorney did not respond to phone messages. On-premises Grand employees Tammy and Denny Patel also declined to comment, referring questions to the owner.

Other Patels, however, are more willing to discuss the ups and downs of running a budget enterprise in St. Louis.

"Right now it's okay, but you've got to be careful," offers Toné Patel, manager of the Guest Host. Patel says he rents his rooms to "only local" customers. In his estimation, the Grand sees "more trouble" because of its proximity to a liquor store.

Sporting a hospital ID bracelet courtesy of a mishap with an electric foot massager and slumped on the flower-print couch in his family's quarters behind the bulletproof window at the Flamingo, manager Jay Patel has the face of a man who's somewhat the worse for the round-the-clock, three-hours-a-pop wear.

"The Grand gets better business because they're on a busy street," Patel theorizes. "The troublemakers are down here. They're not here because they're supposed to be here; they're here for other things. This isn't a very good neighborhood. When it gets dark, we don't go outside."

Patel lives at the Flamingo with his sister and two other relatives. The environs are surprisingly homey, with kitchenette flanking well-kept bedrooms and a clutter-free, couch-endowed commons. But when he speaks of the suburban bliss enjoyed by Ricky Patel, Jay Patel (no relation) evinces admiration and envy. "He's made a lot of money, so he doesn't want to stay around here," he sums up.

As for the condition of the rooms at his own place, Patel shrugs. "The building has deteriorated," he laments. "Clients just want to break everything."

He acknowledges that the rent-by-hour set is doing "a lot more than taking a nap." But of course, without those clients, Patel would be out of business. It's a ticklish situation. He says he'd like to see an increase in police presence, but he believes the cops are content to let shenanigans on his property continue to simmer. "They don't want to deal with the Flamingo," Patel says.

"I'm disappointed he said that -- that instigates us to do more," counters Major Dave Heath, commander for the Central Patrol Division. Heath's division encompasses the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Districts, bordered by Adelaide and Chouteau to the north and south, and Kingshighway and the Mississippi River to the west and east. (The Eighth District, in which the Gil Hess is located, stretches from Natural Bridge to Delmar, and Vandeventer to Kingshighway.) "We always intervene in illicit behaviors, but we also are aware that there are illegal behaviors occurring on private properties that we don't see."

While Heath's office on Jefferson, a stone's throw from the Flamingo, annually fields several dozen calls apiece from neighbors or tenants of the Flamingo and Grand for alleged crimes ranging from violent assaults to carjackings, the major says he has never been contacted by either motel's owner.

"If they're really concerned, we're poised to help them," asserts Heath, a loquacious, philosophical lawman who bears more than a passing resemblance to the comic actor Leslie Nielsen. "But in some sense, it's about them renting rooms for three hours at a time. They're attracting a clientele that's into clandestine activities."

Like his friend Shellee Graham, St. Louis County Parks Preservation historian Esley Hamilton expresses a fondness for old-school motels, hourly rates and all. After all, the concept of the hourly rate originated to serve weary big-rig drivers and travelers who needed to freshen up or catch a catnap in the middle of a multistate pilgrimage. "The fact that an institution offers a three-hour rest period doesn't make it criminal," the owl-faced Hamilton points out. "Somebody still has to do something."

In Hamilton's mind, motels like the Grand and the Flamingo are victims of an old nemesis: suburban sprawl. "We have too few people spread across too big an area with no government regulation," the historian explains. "That's the overriding issue in St. Louis that affects all other things. It impacts small businesses in general. There's no pressure to live in the center part of the city. It's much easier for someone to move out to the county and take advantage of all the chain businesses. There's no pressure to keep up infrastructure, either.

"It's part of a downward spiral," Hamilton continues. "People move in and say, 'We're taking over,' and all the middle class has moved out. That's why you wouldn't find a motel like that in U. City. People would be on the phone every five minutes."

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