Lost Downtown

Amid the lofty renaissance, the hardcore of the urban core

Cracks Mercer: "Just potatoes down here -- ain't no gravy."

First Aid

James Mercer's downtown is not the downtown that has dominated headlines over the past half-century as St. Louis endeavored to stave off suburban flight with central-corridor gimmicks. This 45-square-block central core is the guts of St. Louis -- yet it is devoid of the street-level sex appeal that has allowed the likes of the Gateway Arch, America's Center, Laclede's Landing, Washington Avenue, Ballpark Village and the newly proposed Bottle District (to be anchored by a casino) to capture the imagination of the civic cognoscenti. Yet for all the glitz Lost Downtown lacks, it remains the most critical piece of real estate in downtown St. Louis' latest run at renaissance.

"This is where the workers are," says Jim Cloar, executive director of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. "This area doesn't get talked about, but it's a linchpin."

In 1870 St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the United States (behind New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, which was then counted separately in census tallies), boasting a population of 310,864. Right on up to the turn of the last century, Lost Downtown reigned supreme, serving as the city's undisputed commercial and residential epicenter.

"When they built Union Station [in 1894, on Eighteenth and Market streets], people thought that was too far west," points out James Neal Primm, 86-year-old emeritus chair of the University of Missouri-St. Louis' history department and author of Lion of the Valley, a chronicle of St. Louis life from 1764 to 1980. "Their notion of downtown was Ninth or Tenth Street on in [to the river]."

"The scale of the city was so human," agrees Louis Gerteis, Primm's UMSL successor. "It wasn't until the 1880s that the elevator even came into play."

Armed with twin $300,000 grants, Gerteis' department has launched the Virtual City Project, an Internet-based three-dimensional model of St. Louis (currently accessible at www.umsl.edu/~virtualstl/phase2) that, upon completion, will depict the city's decade-by-decade urban evolution, edifice by edifice, from 1850 to 1950. At the end of that gilded age, according to the 1950 census, the population of St. Louis stood at 856,796, an all-time high.

But as Primm's Lion depicts, civic leaders were already sensing a disturbing trend far beyond the city's packed streets. While the 1950 figures showed a respectable population gain within the city limits over the previous census, St. Louis County had swollen by 50 percent during that period, reducing the city's share of the metropolitan area from 57 to 51 percent. Rather than let demographic history run its natural course, St. Louis' power brokers got vision, minting an organization of the city's elite called Civic Progress that launched a massive bond-issue campaign in 1954 in an attempt to out-suburb the suburbs and ease congestion in city streets. The push worked: In 1955 voters overwhelmingly approved $110 million worth of civic improvements, laying the pavement for what would become the nation's first interstate highway, Interstate 70, not to mention I-44, a system of bridges and viaducts and a host of streetscape and park improvements.

Editorial scribes nationwide sharpened their pencils and weighed in with plaudits:

  • Minneapolis Tribune: "It is an aroused citizenry which has a bold and imaginative vision of the future...ready and willing to pay the cost."
  • Kansas City Star: "In the history of every great city, certain events stand out as decisive turning points.... The smashing St. Louis bond victory was one of those civic peaks."
  • Baltimore Sun: "The awakened citizenry has done something drastic about downtown strangulation and the flight to the suburbs."
  • Harper's: "Energetic Midwesterners have yanked the community out of its long slide of decay."
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "They voted for the new and clean -- and against the outmoded and dirty. They voted for a moving, growing, advancing future -- and against a blighting, killing past."

From this decisive turning point, the city proceeded to slide into an outmoded, dirty, blighting, killing future of decay, complete with an accelerated exodus to the suburbs that bottomed out in 2002 at near-1870 population levels.

"The big evil was traffic congestion," says Andrew Hurley, a professor of urban and environmental history at UMSL and a resident of the Benton Park neighborhood south of downtown. "They thought the key to reviving downtown was interstate highways. They forgot that people could also go the other way on those highways."

Liquid Lunch

Situated on the north side of Olive between Tenth and Eleventh streets, Bussone's leads a double life as a package liquor store and a restaurant and bar dubbed "La Coney Island." The store, which has been in the Bussone family since 1935, used to stay open until 1:30 a.m. (it now closes at 7 p.m.). Current owner Jim Bussone, now age 75, took it over from his uncle in 1957 and in 1986 oversaw its move west from its original location at Eighth and Pine, to make way for the SBC office tower.

"During our lunch hour, we used to put fifteen to twenty martini glasses out on the bar and premix a big pot of martini. So when they'd come in, we'd be ready," reminisces Bussone, ensconced beside a stack of Schlitz half-racks and sporting a button-down short-sleeve shirt and tinted eyeglasses. "There used to be a dozen liquor stores downtown. Now I'm the only one."

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