Lost Downtown

Amid the lofty renaissance, the hardcore of the urban core

 Meet the Twain

James Mercer emerges from his quarters at the Mark Twain Hotel each day as though dressed for a funeral. His signature look of black dress shirt, black suspenders, black slacks, black shoes, black top hat, black skin and neatly kept black afro is plenty dapper but tinged with grief.

Mercer has earned his keep shining shoes downtown for the better part of the past quarter-century, save for the five years he spent in Vegas and Los Angeles ("Just seein' what it was like bein' there") and sporadic Greyhound-ferried wanderlust. At present he operates a chair in a small room on the ninth floor of the Chemical Building on Eighth and Olive streets, next door to Marilyn Massey's Downtown Barber Shop. For Mercer, business is the worst it's been in more than twenty years, a consequence, he maintains, of the lethal combination of commercial sprawl and office workers' ever-increasing preference for casual footwear. And so to make rent Mercer periodically sweeps Massey's floor of freshly shorn locks.

James Mercer sits at the foot of his bed in the Mark 
Twain Hotel.
Jennifer Silverberg
James Mercer sits at the foot of his bed in the Mark Twain Hotel.
The terra cotta Twain's reputation is dubious, but it 
remains Lost Downtown's most vibrant corner.
Jennifer Silverberg
The terra cotta Twain's reputation is dubious, but it remains Lost Downtown's most vibrant corner.

"My business is providing for me from deadline to deadline -- and every weekend's a deadline," says Mercer, whose government-subsidized single-room-occupancy apartment at the Mark Twain, where he's lived off and on for the past decade, costs him $100 a week (linen service and utilities included).

Hard as it may try to put a clean face on its dubious reputation, the Twain, located at Ninth and Pine streets, is the sort of place that tends to attract negative attention, the most recent bout of which took the form of breathless television news reports about the prevalence of sex offenders among the historic edifice's 200-plus residents. But it is also the anchor to one of downtown's most vibrant corners, with a gyro restaurant, basement chili parlor, police substation, pizzeria and neighborhood bar filling its ground floor to capacity.

The Twain's meticulous foyer, whose off-white walls feature framed black-and-white photos of tenants past and present, is tidied regularly by a uniformed custodial crew, many of whom are residents. Near the entrance sits a uniformed security guard named Vic. His post is located opposite an old door with the word "Bar" painted across it. That's a bit of a misnomer, however; there is no longer a bar in the Twain.

The lobby is typically home to as much hustle and bustle as the busiest downtown highrise. It is in this space that Mercer appears early on this winter Friday evening, a plaid scarf augmenting his head-to-toe black ensemble. "I love living at the Mark Twain just like I've loved every day of my life since I've been living," he says. "I'm optimistic about how I'm doing as a human being. I'm appreciating the things that I have, rather than tripping off the things that I don't have."

A gregarious couple stumbles in, flirty and affectionate. The female member of the tandem is unsteady atop her black pumps and fumbles a pair of sunglasses and a pen from her purse as her boyfriend beckons Carol, one of the desk clerks, to check his mail slot. "I've lost a lot of good women in my life," the gentleman muses aloud, casting a come-hither gaze toward his lady friend.

The floor show continues to an R&B soundtrack piped through the speakers of a portable stereo behind the front desk. Enter a short, portly woman clad in baby blue, who avails herself of the house microwave. At a bank of pay phones near Vic's guard station, a fellow in blue gym shorts and shower sandals makes plans for the night while a dude in a black Rocawear T-shirt and red coat announces that, for $10, he'll give a haircut to Carol's fellow desk clerk, David. In limps a ponytailed man dressed in full camouflage set off by a POW-MIA patch, assisted by a walking cane. Next comes a skinny brother with paint-flecked jeans, a stocking cap and a plastic grocery bag, and two barrel-chested fellows, one in a motorized wheelchair, hot on his heels.

"Friday nights when people get their paychecks, they go a little gaga," allows Bunty Arora, the hotel's general manager, cracking an uncharacteristic smile. "We like to say that the floor show here is fabulous.

"The stories I have heard prior to us taking over were just horrific," elaborates Arora, who since assuming the Twain's reins in 1995 has overseen a $6 million facelift to the formerly dilapidated structure, funded primarily through Missouri Housing Commission grants. "A lot of people detest the Mark Twain. But there's no other place downtown for this class of people."

In accordance with its agreement with the state, the Twain must provide housing exclusively for clients in low-income brackets -- specifically, people who earn $27,000 a year or less. "The people who rent rooms here are from all walks of life," Arora explains. "These people, the kind of jobs they do, are good, humble human beings. They work in bars, restaurants, concession stands and construction sites."

And on some level they're vital to the neighborhood's sustainability.

"Most of them don't have cars," Arora notes. "They're not going out into west county; they're working here and they stay in the neighborhood. So they're obviously contributing something economically."

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