By Ray Downs
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The last time a swarm of TV cameras, talking heads and newspaper reporters descended on St. Louis, they were all abuzz about Sarah Palin. Leading up to the vice-presidential debate at Washington University in October 2008, Barack Obama characterized the difference between the policies of John McCain and George W. Bush as "lipstick on a pig," an ill-received remark that some said was a veiled reference to the soon-to-be ex-Alaska governor.
Next Tuesday President Obama will throw out the first pitch at the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and an even larger media horde will be on hand. Nearly 2,000 journalists have been issued credentials for the game and its peripheral events. With the action set to be broadcast to 226 countries in twelve languages and more than 100 million households, the television audience has also increased substantially.
And this time around, it's the city itself that is sporting lipstick.
While no World Series or Final Four will be decided next week, the All-Star Game is the most important sporting event in St. Louis' recent history. City leaders are banking that the game will have a lasting impact on the local economy. If all goes well, they say, the thousands of tourists and executives visiting St. Louis and the millions of viewers tuning in to watch the spectacle will be awed by all the city has to offer.
Naturally, a critical part of the game plan is dispelling the lingering stereotype that downtown remains the same urban wasteland it was when Escape from New York was filmed on St. Louis' streets. As a result, the city has undergone a substantial facelift in the hope of impressing visitors. And, like a pretty-but-pimple-faced girl primping for prom night, the makeup is being applied in layers.
Certain changes, such as the overhaul of Old Post Office Plaza, are substantial and impressive. But in other instances, like the Ballpark Village softball field, they are merely Band-Aids applied to mask the city's flaws during its week in the national spotlight.
"St. Louis is like Moscow before Nixon visited in 1972," jokes KMOX (1120 AM) radio host Charlie Brennan. "Moscow put their best face on; it was kind of a détente. They put new sod down all over, and flowers were planted 72 hours in advance. The city never looked better, but the Western journalists found it funny."
Will the notoriously fickle national media be taken by the elaborate makeover? Will the changes attract businesses and help reestablish the city as a regional power? Does Cardinal Nation care? Or are they far more concerned about how Albert Pujols will fare in the Home Run Derby? The answers may not be clear for years to come, but, for better or worse, St. Louis is putting its best face forward for the midsummer classic.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of St. Louis' concern with keeping up appearances as it struggles to sustain development during the recession is the case of Ballpark Lofts Building No. 8.
The building, located a few hundred feet west of Busch Stadium, is a ramshackle warehouse slated to become upscale loft apartments with views of Stan "The Man" Musial Drive. In what local developer Kevin McGowan describes as an "NFL draft-style auction," nearly $9 million worth of the condos were bought in about 40 minutes in May 2008.
Despite the successful sale, fourteen months later, Ballpark Lofts is still just a dilapidated pile of bricks on a prime piece of downtown real estate. Many of the windows overlooking the stadium are either broken or boarded up. The name "Waldo" is spray-painted in red-and-white bubble letters on a corner facing Highway 40.
"We started construction in about November, did all the demo and the abatement, then the economy crashed and lenders ran for the hills," recounts McGowan, president of Ballpark Lofts' proprietor Blue Urban and two other development companies.
Under pressure from the city, McGowan set out (at last report, unsuccessfully) to spruce up his eyesore in the easiest way possible: by covering it up. "We're trying to get some nice colorful banners, maybe two stories tall, and wrap the building," he says. "Short of that, there isn't much we can do."
There have been several times in the past when St. Louis was desperate to make a good impression, notes Gerald Early, professor of humanities at Washington University who writes about baseball and St. Louis history.
Early compares the scale of the All-Star preparations to the 1904 World's Fair. Back then, much of the Central West End and Forest Park was built to accommodate visitors. Much later, in the years leading up the 1966 All-Star Game (the last one held in St. Louis), the city razed its entire Chinatown and displaced almost 300 people in order to build Busch Stadium I. This time, Early says, St. Louis seems more preoccupied with looking good for the TV cameras.
"Most of it's pretty cosmetic and superficial. It's meant to make a showcase of the city for a very short time," Early says. "It's sort of like a cartoon where you see people sweeping the dirt under a rug. That's exactly what they're doing. You come in and say, 'It's a clean and lovely room,' but the dirt is still there."