The Mark Twain Hotel — despite its long and controversial history — is still gorgeous on the outside. Intricate, cream-colored terra-cotta bands wrap three sides of the former luxury hotel, including the entirety of the second floor. Griffins and cherubs stare down at loiterers on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. Above the doors are the words "The Maryland" written in gold foil — the original name when it opened in 1907.
One of the tenants, a stout 45-year-old woman named C.J., sits on a concrete bench across the street from the building. Using two weathered fingers, she drags on the minuscule remains of a bummed cigarette.
C.J. (all the residents are identified by first names or pseudonyms) says she's a former heroin addict, a habit she picked up after leaving the military. She's been living in the Mark Twain for the past three weeks.
"I feel safe here," she says.
Her arms and face are sunburned from hours spent working in a gravel pit for $40 a day. It's a good job that pays under the table, she says. She uses the money to pay rent on her 185-square-foot room, along with her veteran's disability pay. When those resources dry up, at her doorstep is the heart of downtown St. Louis — a great place to panhandle.
"You have to use a key card to get in," she says, ticking off amenities that were unimaginable to her last month, when she lived in a vacant house on the near north riverfront. "You got a lock to your own door, a security check, a security officer at the front. So it is a safe environment, it's just..."
She pauses, scratching at a scarred right knee that she says is mostly titanium, the result of a bullet she says she caught in Iraq while serving with the Marine Corps.
"I wish they would reopen it the way it used to be to be," she continues with a sigh. "When they accepted everybody, no matter what their background was."
Rising eight stories above the corner of Pine and North Ninth streets, the Mark Twain Hotel was once an respectable establishment that rented rooms for less than $3 a day — about $75 in today's dollars. But things changed sometime after World War II, when it transitioned into single-room occupancy housing. For decades it housed blue-collar workers, ex-cons, new transplants and, increasingly, drug dealers and prostitutes.
Building owner Amos Harris bought and renovated the Mark Twain during the mid-'90s when it was little more than a flophouse. He retained the single-room occupancy model, and though he drove out the open drug dealing and sex work, the hotel's 232 units remain home to the city's poorest workers, the elderly, disabled and mentally handicapped. It is also home to a high concentration of felons. According to a database maintained by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, 38 registered sex offenders currently reside there.
"A lot of folks had criminal records, and so they couldn't get apartments," says Harris. "Very few folks in St. Louis will allow those with felony records. So we kind of targeted a community that couldn't get housing otherwise." At least, that's the way things used to be at the Mark Twain. As C.J. and other residents will attest, an important shift is happening at the storied hotel.
"My husband," C.J. says, "they don't allow felons or sex offenders here anymore. I was here a few years ago, and they would accept everybody. They accepted you as long as you could pay the bill."
In early February Harris quietly instructed the building's management to no longer consider applications from prospective tenants with felony convictions. That goes for those on the state or federal sex-offender registries as well — guys like C.J.'s husband. Management isn't kicking out current tenants, but recently released convicts with serious records can no longer turn here.
Not everyone feels sympathy for these men and women. For obvious reasons, the Mark Twain has a bad reputation among its downtown neighbors. Restaurateur Justin Shire pulled his business out of the neighborhood as a direct result of the hotel.
"One of the things I wonder is, how many perpetrators of crimes downtown live or recently lived at the Mark Twain," he wrote in a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2010. "It's my personal belief that as long as institutions like the Mark Twain are based downtown, it will be difficult for downtown to attract and (more importantly) retain residents and businesses."
Phyllis Young, the alderwoman for downtown's 7th Ward for the past 29 years, acknowledges that every so often, debate over the hotel rears its head once more.
"Some years ago, there were all kinds of concerns because people were going online and finding that sexual offenders were living there," she says. "But there hasn't been, as far as I know, significant issues of crime that have come to my attention. The police are watching it."
Back outside the hotel, C.J. is joined on the bench by Rob, a trim man with a baritone voice and graying hair. He's been living at the Mark Twain for six months and has a job at a nearby gas station. He's got a clean record. Like C.J., he was briefly homeless before finding refuge at the hotel.
"Most places around here are $1,200, at the least, that's what they're building up to as far as downtown is concerned," he says. "This is going to have a major impact."
For now, tenants like Rob and C.J. are not in jeopardy. But the changes are sparking rumors among residents that soon rates will be increased, or that the building will be sold to the Saint Louis University School of Law. (SLU tells Riverfront Times it has no such plans, but this rumor persists.) And Harris wants the hotel to cater to a very different market in the near future: St. Louis' growing population of tech workers.
Rob worries evictions are coming.
"The city is squeezing," he says. "When you come out onto the streets, you just can't get into an apartment, you can't get a job, it's really, really hard. It's a high probability that they will not be able to go anywhere else."
Rob, C.J. and many other Mark Twain residents have, at one time or another, stayed at Reverend Larry Rice's embattled New Life Evangelistic Center, a homeless shelter on Locust Street seven blocks west. None of them want to go back. And yet Rob guarantees one thing about Mark Twain's most borderline residents, should the hotel close its doors to them.
"They're going stay downtown."
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