Lost Downtown

Amid the lofty renaissance, the hardcore of the urban core

"[The department store] made sense based on how people got around," adds Hurley. "People used mass transit. Now Famous serves a local clientele, not the whole metro area."

Which does nothing to diminish Alex Dooley's love for the joint. "Thank God for Famous-Barr," the restaurateur testifies. "That place is still beautiful. Thank God they haven't abandoned us. Had they left, we'd be in shambles."

Connected to Famous sits a green-and-white albatross as reviled as the department store is revered: the surreally vacant box of shit known as St. Louis Centre. The multitiered indoor mall was intended to serve as a commercial bridge between Famous and the erstwhile Dillard's. But after the obligatory quick start in 1985, St. Louis Centre fizzled fast and now stands as a gaudy relic of Lost Downtown's darkest, least innovative age.

Chod's Bar proprietor Candy Brooks considers 
downtown to be a "ghost town" after three and keeps 
abbreviated hours because of it.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chod's Bar proprietor Candy Brooks considers downtown to be a "ghost town" after three and keeps abbreviated hours because of it.

"They wanted us to open a place on the second floor," recalls Dooley, who contemplated a fine-dining spinoff in the Centre back when plans were being drawn. "Then they came to me and said, 'McDonald's wants to open up in there.' And I said, 'I hope you told them no.' And they said, 'Well, that won't hurt you.' I came back and tore up my blueprints. They blew it right there."

Down Time

Twenty steps below the Ninth Street sidewalk lies Chod's Bar, its presence heralded by a single sidewalk sign pimping the subterranean eatery's chili (spelled "chille").

A mysterious enterprise that keeps abbreviated, hard-to-pin-down hours, Chod's is solely owned and operated by Candy Brooks, an orange-haired pepper pot of Korean and Majorcan descent who has lived and worked downtown since 1976. She moved Chod's to the base of the Mark Twain Hotel fifteen years ago from a previous locale on Tucker. Prone to closing up shop unannounced for twenty minutes at a time, Brooks says the best bet for scoring one of her $2.25 hamburgers, $2.75 bowls of chili or stiff well-liquor pours is to show up between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Unless you live upstairs. "I don't let them come down because I don't like them," she says of the Twain's residents. "A lot of lawyers come down. I like to have a clean-cut place."

Chod's used to have a pool table and attracted regulars until all hours. Why the scale-down? "After three [in the afternoon] downtown is a ghost town."

Come the weekend, even the apparitions are apt to feel lonely. The lone exception: the Marquette branch of the YMCA, the sole remaining occupant of the historic Marquette Building on Broadway and Olive, the rest of which is being converted to condominiums. Three floors up a narrow marble staircase and through a labyrinth of steel doors, the Marquette Y appears: a glorified bathhouse whose mostly male clientele tends to bypass the exercise room for a leisurely regimen of steam room to hot tub, hot tub to shower -- repeated several times over.

Indeed, few spaces in Lost Downtown are as clandestine and testosterone-drenched as the Marquette Y's steam room. As at nightfall, it takes a while for one's eyes to adjust to the mist-obscured atmosphere of the pint-size chamber and its buck-naked occupants, who sprawl on the wooden benches that line the walls.

Happy Hour

When the regulars are discussing clogged arteries, high blood pressure and prescription meds, can you properly call it "happy hour"?

To be fair, conversation among the four diehards and their bartender at Gregory's shortly after quittin' time on a chilly December evening ranges beyond maladies: The Pine Street establishment's proprietor (also named Gregory) is dispensing advice on what his loyalists should wear and sing (karaoke madness!) at the bar's upcoming annual Christmas party.

Gregory, whose restaurant-bar sits at the base of the Mark Twain next to Luigi's Pizzeria, is busy organizing napkins and utensil settings on a checkerboard-clothed table. As he toils and talks, four office workers stroll in, thereby doubling his cocktail-hour clientele.

West on Tucker, happy hour is a similarly skeleton-crew ritual at Dapper Dan's, a workaday watering hole whose illuminated black-and-white sign promises cocktails and food, seven days a week. In, say, Chicago, a bar like Dapper Dan's would be teeming with youngsters attracted by the shopworn authenticity of it all (Dapper Dan's was granted Missouri's first post-Prohibition liquor license) and the cheap Miller High Life drafts. But hipsters who venture to this corner of Lost Downtown are far more likely headed next door, to the Creepy Crawl, a mainstay of the local rock scene but decidedly not of the Lost world. At any rate, during hump-day happy hour, Dan's is dead.

Alex Dooley recalls better days.

"We used to have 200 people on the balcony every night," Dooley says of his own bar's glory days. "The DWI really put the kibosh on it, though. Good news, bad news: People don't get killed, but it's no good for my cash register."

As popular opinion and law enforcement frowned upon the four-can Franks of the commuter crowd, Dooley adjusted his priorities as businessman and barkeep. "There's a point of no return with drinking when you say, 'To hell with it, I'll stay out all night,'" he posits. "So we started closing at 8. I'd throw 100 people out, because we'd have a greater responsibility." Like Bussone's, Dooley's now locks up at 7 p.m.

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