Best Of 2001

Bounded by Louisiana Avenue at one end and South Grand Boulevard at the other, the Crittenden Historic District, which comprises three city blocks (two residential and one on the campus of St. Elizabeth Academy, the only private Catholic girls' high school in the city), is the tiniest historic district in the state of Missouri. If you ignore the hideous '50s extension, St. Elizabeth Academy, the oldest part of which was built in 1894, is a stellar example of High Victorian architecture, with its gothic front door, its rare and beautiful lamella-roofed gymnasium (miss the Arena, anyone?) and its imposing central entrance tower. The 3500 block of Crittenden Street contains large single-family homes, all built between 1901 and 1919, with Tudor and Arts and Crafts architectural detailing; the more modest 3400 block comprises two-family flats and one multiunit building of similar vintage. The more imposing houses in the district wouldn't look out of place in Compton Heights or Flora Place; the more modest buildings, with their lovely brickwork and stone façades, display a quality and craftsmanship seldom seen in newer, planned-for-obsolescence middle-class housing. There are fancier historic districts in the city, to be sure, but few are as pristine, consistent or charming.
Last year, the Riverfront Times anointed Nelly the Best St. Louisan; the readers, in their infinite wisdom, picked Joe Edwards. Instead of giving long-overdue props to a certain civic-minded University City-based capitalist, we chose to commemorate a baby-faced U. City-based capitalist, one known not for his contributions to city development but for his unprecedented ability to dominate the pop charts with catchy singsong raps about automatic weapons, recreational marijuana use, sexy ladies and shopping malls. This year, in a curious twist, the readers' choice is Nelly and the RFT's is Edwards, who, it should be noted, trailed the self-professed clown from U-town by only a few votes.

Quite frankly, Edwards has seemed, for years now, like the obvious choice and, as such, the least fun to write about. There's not the slightest hint of controversy in the decision, and it's not easy to find anyone who's willing to say anything bad about the guy -- beyond a few disgruntled hipsters, of course, who object on principle to the fact that he's made a lot of money over the past couple of decades and is almost single-handedly responsible for the gentrification of the U. City Loop, an area that was once a lot less shiny and bloated and a great deal more, uh, gritty and bohemian -- which is to say, a little scary and a little sad, much like the areas currently favored by said hipsters. Yeah, gentrification is undoubtedly a double-edged sword. But even his most jaded critics would agree that Edwards has, over the years, made his mark in a consistently classy way.

Edwards' accomplishments begin with Blueberry Hill, the quintessential rock & roll bar-cum-kitsch museum, which he and his wife, Linda, founded in 1972. Between bites of your burger, wander around and check out the Simpsons memorabilia, the Howdy Doody dolls, the vintage posters of baseball greats, the LP covers, the fantastic jukebox, the interesting bathroom graffiti. Pop-culture ephemera, darts, live music downstairs in the Duck Room, witty window displays, food that ranges from decent to inspired -- it's no wonder Blueberry Hill is one of the first places St. Louisans bring out-of-town visitors when we want to prove we don't live in a cowtown. (It is, after all, the readers' choice this year for Best Bar/Nightclub.) Stretching for blocks outside its entrance is the St. Louis Walk of Fame, also Edwards' brainchild, a dignified procession of bronze stars celebrating famous and not-so-famous St. Louis natives (or, in some cases, people who lived here for a while), from Shelley Winters to William Burroughs, from Phyllis Diller to Stanley Elkin, from Auguste Chouteau to Buddy Ebsen, from Tina Turner to Ernest Trova. Follow the trail of stars down Delmar for a couple of blocks, and you'll find the heartbreakingly gorgeous Tivoli Theatre, which Edwards reopened in 1995, after an impeccable, ingenious restoration. (The RFT, whose readers named the Tivoli the Best Movie Theater, is a Tivoli Building tenant.)

But Edwards' crowning achievement resides a few blocks farther east, past U. City's border. There, across the great Skinker divide, in the city of St. Louis, did Edwards his stately pleasure-dome decree, building from the ground up a state-of-the-art music hall, one that offers the best entertainment monster-booking conglomerate Clear Channel can buy. Recently ranked the fifth most successful club nationwide by industry bible Pollstar and the readers' pick as Best Rock & Roll Club, the Pageant is not just St. Louis' pre-eminent midsized concert venue. It's not just a beautiful structure that harmonizes perfectly with the surrounding urban architecture. It's not just a music lover's dream, with its excellent sightlines and thoughtful layout. It's a noble experiment, proof positive that Edwards isn't just a real-estate whiz -- although he's certainly that -- he's also a visionary. Make no mistake: If all Edwards wanted to do was turn a quick buck, he could have chosen a less risky path to tycoondom. The outer reaches of Sprawlsville, studded with prefab strip malls and sterile residential complexes, offer greater financial rewards for the conservative wheeler-dealer. By building his 50,000-square foot, three-story Xanadu just a few blocks east of his home turf, Edwards extends the Loop into the what was once, not so long ago, a bleak urban wasteland and gives the city's revenue-strapped coffers a much-needed boost in the process.

Edwards isn't stopping with the Pageant, though. He's also planning to restore the lovely but neglected church across the street, transforming it into a live-theater venue for local performing-arts troupes. Even more recently, he's made a deal with the Regional Arts Commission, which has outgrown its current home in Grand Center; he's building them a brand-new facility a bit farther east on Delmar. All the while, Edwards is lobbying hard to make state transportation dollars available for a proposed fixed-track trolley system, which would make the nearby MetroLink even more convenient for Loop patrons. Edwards is clearly a man who thinks big -- and none but the most jaundiced naysayer would argue that his efforts won't benefit the region as a whole. In fact, most St. Louisans would probably say that if anyone deserves a bronze star on the Walk of Fame, it's Edwards, whose success as a developer is matched only by his passion for the culture of our city.

His biggest fan is his wife, who describes him as an honorable guy who always holds to his word. When asked what made her fall in love with him, more than 30 years ago, Linda confesses, with a rueful laugh, that it was probably "his stuff": "I spent a week in his apartment. I looked around and thought, 'I really like this guy.' All these little oddball things, quirky stuff -- a Superman lunchbox, things like that -- beautiful furniture from his grandmother and then just junk. A very American mix of stuff -- his love of pop culture and his sensibilities in what he picked and chose."

Even according to less biased sources, Edwards is, if not an actual saint, an entrepreneur of the highest order and a convincing argument for human cloning. (OK, it's illegal and probably unethical, but just imagine if South Grand, if Cherokee, if Midtown had a Joe Edwards!) Tom "Papa" Ray, local blues aficionado and Vintage Vinyl co-owner, calls Edwards a "consistent gentleman who's had a lot of positive influence and who's been a real help to the music scene -- and who's still got his ponytail."

Jill Posey-Smith, a former employee of Blueberry Hill and an occasional RFT contributor, describes Edwards' legacy: "I worked for Joe for 13 years. I watched him build his little empire from a storefront dive to the epic superpower it is today. Having witnessed firsthand how he dealt with floods, bomb threats, earthquakes, power outages, betrayals, politics, partisanship, rock stars and the media, I can only say that I'd feel a lot better if he were running the country right now instead of GWB. Unlike the federal government, I have never known Blueberry Hill to shut down."

Here's to the obvious choice.

Last year, the Riverfront Times anointed Nelly the Best St. Louisan; the readers, in their infinite wisdom, picked Joe Edwards. Instead of giving long-overdue props to a certain civic-minded University City-based capitalist, we chose to commemorate a baby-faced U. City-based capitalist, one known not for his contributions to city development but for his unprecedented ability to dominate the pop charts with catchy singsong raps about automatic weapons, recreational marijuana use, sexy ladies and shopping malls. This year, in a curious twist, the readers' choice is Nelly and the RFT's is Edwards, who, it should be noted, trailed the self-professed clown from U-town by only a few votes.

Quite frankly, Edwards has seemed, for years now, like the obvious choice and, as such, the least fun to write about. There's not the slightest hint of controversy in the decision, and it's not easy to find anyone who's willing to say anything bad about the guy -- beyond a few disgruntled hipsters, of course, who object on principle to the fact that he's made a lot of money over the past couple of decades and is almost single-handedly responsible for the gentrification of the U. City Loop, an area that was once a lot less shiny and bloated and a great deal more, uh, gritty and bohemian -- which is to say, a little scary and a little sad, much like the areas currently favored by said hipsters. Yeah, gentrification is undoubtedly a double-edged sword. But even his most jaded critics would agree that Edwards has, over the years, made his mark in a consistently classy way.

Edwards' accomplishments begin with Blueberry Hill, the quintessential rock & roll bar-cum-kitsch museum, which he and his wife, Linda, founded in 1972. Between bites of your burger, wander around and check out the Simpsons memorabilia, the Howdy Doody dolls, the vintage posters of baseball greats, the LP covers, the fantastic jukebox, the interesting bathroom graffiti. Pop-culture ephemera, darts, live music downstairs in the Duck Room, witty window displays, food that ranges from decent to inspired -- it's no wonder Blueberry Hill is one of the first places St. Louisans bring out-of-town visitors when we want to prove we don't live in a cowtown. (It is, after all, the readers' choice this year for Best Bar/Nightclub.) Stretching for blocks outside its entrance is the St. Louis Walk of Fame, also Edwards' brainchild, a dignified procession of bronze stars celebrating famous and not-so-famous St. Louis natives (or, in some cases, people who lived here for a while), from Shelley Winters to William Burroughs, from Phyllis Diller to Stanley Elkin, from Auguste Chouteau to Buddy Ebsen, from Tina Turner to Ernest Trova. Follow the trail of stars down Delmar for a couple of blocks, and you'll find the heartbreakingly gorgeous Tivoli Theatre, which Edwards reopened in 1995, after an impeccable, ingenious restoration. (The RFT, whose readers named the Tivoli the Best Movie Theater, is a Tivoli Building tenant.)

But Edwards' crowning achievement resides a few blocks farther east, past U. City's border. There, across the great Skinker divide, in the city of St. Louis, did Edwards his stately pleasure-dome decree, building from the ground up a state-of-the-art music hall, one that offers the best entertainment monster-booking conglomerate Clear Channel can buy. Recently ranked the fifth most successful club nationwide by industry bible Pollstar and the readers' pick as Best Rock & Roll Club, the Pageant is not just St. Louis' pre-eminent midsized concert venue. It's not just a beautiful structure that harmonizes perfectly with the surrounding urban architecture. It's not just a music lover's dream, with its excellent sightlines and thoughtful layout. It's a noble experiment, proof positive that Edwards isn't just a real-estate whiz -- although he's certainly that -- he's also a visionary. Make no mistake: If all Edwards wanted to do was turn a quick buck, he could have chosen a less risky path to tycoondom. The outer reaches of Sprawlsville, studded with prefab strip malls and sterile residential complexes, offer greater financial rewards for the conservative wheeler-dealer. By building his 50,000-square foot, three-story Xanadu just a few blocks east of his home turf, Edwards extends the Loop into the what was once, not so long ago, a bleak urban wasteland and gives the city's revenue-strapped coffers a much-needed boost in the process.

Edwards isn't stopping with the Pageant, though. He's also planning to restore the lovely but neglected church across the street, transforming it into a live-theater venue for local performing-arts troupes. Even more recently, he's made a deal with the Regional Arts Commission, which has outgrown its current home in Grand Center; he's building them a brand-new facility a bit farther east on Delmar. All the while, Edwards is lobbying hard to make state transportation dollars available for a proposed fixed-track trolley system, which would make the nearby MetroLink even more convenient for Loop patrons. Edwards is clearly a man who thinks big -- and none but the most jaundiced naysayer would argue that his efforts won't benefit the region as a whole. In fact, most St. Louisans would probably say that if anyone deserves a bronze star on the Walk of Fame, it's Edwards, whose success as a developer is matched only by his passion for the culture of our city.

His biggest fan is his wife, who describes him as an honorable guy who always holds to his word. When asked what made her fall in love with him, more than 30 years ago, Linda confesses, with a rueful laugh, that it was probably "his stuff": "I spent a week in his apartment. I looked around and thought, 'I really like this guy.' All these little oddball things, quirky stuff -- a Superman lunchbox, things like that -- beautiful furniture from his grandmother and then just junk. A very American mix of stuff -- his love of pop culture and his sensibilities in what he picked and chose."

Even according to less biased sources, Edwards is, if not an actual saint, an entrepreneur of the highest order and a convincing argument for human cloning. (OK, it's illegal and probably unethical, but just imagine if South Grand, if Cherokee, if Midtown had a Joe Edwards!) Tom "Papa" Ray, local blues aficionado and Vintage Vinyl co-owner, calls Edwards a "consistent gentleman who's had a lot of positive influence and who's been a real help to the music scene -- and who's still got his ponytail."

Jill Posey-Smith, a former employee of Blueberry Hill and an occasional RFT contributor, describes Edwards' legacy: "I worked for Joe for 13 years. I watched him build his little empire from a storefront dive to the epic superpower it is today. Having witnessed firsthand how he dealt with floods, bomb threats, earthquakes, power outages, betrayals, politics, partisanship, rock stars and the media, I can only say that I'd feel a lot better if he were running the country right now instead of GWB. Unlike the federal government, I have never known Blueberry Hill to shut down."

Here's to the obvious choice.

It is possible that J.C. Corcoran is the most misunderstood radio personality in St. Louis, for few in the local media can claim such ardent detractors and champions. The first group -- and they are legion -- seems to comprise stuffed shirts, common louts and various personages, including fellow talk jocks, that Corcoran has offended through any of myriad pranks and scathing on-air rants. These folks take glee in describing the Chicago native as a full-of-himself jerk, a bitter crank who hangs up on callers and (among the more learned) a shameless megalomaniac. Even this group, however, will grudgingly admit that Corcoran is not without talent. The second group, those who know him personally and professionally, as well as fans who have gladly listened to J.C. and the Breakfast Club in its various incarnations these past 17 years -- and they are legion -- describe him as neurotic, sophomoric and a pain in the ass (but mainly to people who deserve hemorrhoids). The difference is they do so with a note of admiration. There is no doubt that Corcoran has whipped up the local airwaves. As New York Daily News media columnist Eric Mink writes in his foreword to Corcoran's new tell-all tome, "St. Louis radio was in a complacent snooze before Corcoran blew into town." Corcoran first landed at KSHE and then bounced around the dial, quitting in disgust or getting fired, for the next 17 years but always popping back up like a Joe Palooka punching bag. The guy should be called the Comeback Kid. His current soapbox is weekday mornings on oldies station KLOU with co-hosts Karen Kelly and Brian McKenna, where he's back to being his old rascally self -- to the dismay of detractors and the delight of fans.
In a city with weather as fickle as ours, is there really any point to tuning in to the 10 p.m. news for a forecast from Cindy Preszler or Kent Ehrhardt? By the time the sun rises, last night's predictions always seem to have a 50-50 chance of being dead wrong (along with the colorful graphic in your morning newspaper). That said, if you really want to know whether to take along an umbrella, carry a sweater or toss a bag of salt in the trunk of your car, you're better off waiting until around 6 or 7 a.m. And no one is more likable -- or better at delivering the morning weather forecast -- than KSDK's Scott Connell, whose snippets appear around the hour and half-hour during NBC's Today show.
Had the price of scrap steel not dropped dramatically in 1976, making the old Chain of Rocks Bridge unprofitable to demolish, current visitors would be denied the splendid view of downtown St. Louis, shimmering like some fabled kingdom. Opened for traffic in 1929, the bridge, part of old Route 66, connected North St. Louis with Madison, Ill. By 1968 the bridge was closed, another industrial relic with no visible future. Thirty years later, Trailnet, a civic organization, finagled a perfectly practical reincarnation for the structure: a pedestrian thoroughfare that will link miles of trails now being developed on both sides of the river. Today, the bridge attracts walkers, bicyclists, Rollerbladers, wheelchair-bound amblers and even a band of skipping enthusiasts. Walking the 1.2-mile length and back takes about an hour; there are picnic tables and outlooks along the way. Chouteau Island looms in the distance, and, closer, two late-19th-century water-intake towers look like gothic mansions or, as one observer remarked, "a place where Batman's enemies would hide out." Approaching the Illinois side, one may peer down on the lush backwaters of the Mississippi and, with any luck, see egrets fishing, raccoons scampering and snakes undulating through the duckweed. Since its reopening in 1999, the bridge has been the site of an Earth Day celebration, nationally sponsored bicycle tours and much more; it has so much going for it that it cannot help but become one of the area's premier attractions. The old Chain of Rocks Bridge is open weekends from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., April-Thanksgiving.
It is possible that J.C. Corcoran is the most misunderstood radio personality in St. Louis, for few in the local media can claim such ardent detractors and champions. The first group -- and they are legion -- seems to comprise stuffed shirts, common louts and various personages, including fellow talk jocks, that Corcoran has offended through any of myriad pranks and scathing on-air rants. These folks take glee in describing the Chicago native as a full-of-himself jerk, a bitter crank who hangs up on callers and (among the more learned) a shameless megalomaniac. Even this group, however, will grudgingly admit that Corcoran is not without talent. The second group, those who know him personally and professionally, as well as fans who have gladly listened to J.C. and the Breakfast Club in its various incarnations these past 17 years -- and they are legion -- describe him as neurotic, sophomoric and a pain in the ass (but mainly to people who deserve hemorrhoids). The difference is they do so with a note of admiration. There is no doubt that Corcoran has whipped up the local airwaves. As New York Daily News media columnist Eric Mink writes in his foreword to Corcoran's new tell-all tome, "St. Louis radio was in a complacent snooze before Corcoran blew into town." Corcoran first landed at KSHE and then bounced around the dial, quitting in disgust or getting fired, for the next 17 years but always popping back up like a Joe Palooka punching bag. The guy should be called the Comeback Kid. His current soapbox is weekday mornings on oldies station KLOU with co-hosts Karen Kelly and Brian McKenna, where he's back to being his old rascally self -- to the dismay of detractors and the delight of fans.
The first job of a politician is to get elected. Buzz Westfall has been passing that test since 1978. He was elected three times as the county's prosecuting attorney, then won three elections to the county's top post. His 1990 win marked the first time since 1958 that a Democrat had become county executive. With his electoral success and his fundraising moxie, many wonder aloud why Buzz hasn't run for offices with more status, clout or geography, either statewide or in D.C. Well, he thought about it -- about 17 years ago. Back then, U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton took him to dinner and urged him to run for Missouri attorney general. "It was such a flattering experience that, had I been able to file that night, I might have done it," recalls Westfall. But then he went to dinner with his wife, Laurie, and they projected -- rather confidently, it seems -- what would happen if he won the race for attorney general, then won re-election, then won the governorship twice. "That would have been the next 16 years of our lives, living in Jefferson City. We're both from St. Louis, and we wanted no part of that," Westfall says. "With all due respect to Jefferson City, we're St. Louisans, and we wanted to raise our children in St. Louis. So I respectfully declined to the senator, who I worshiped then and still do, Tom Eagleton. That's why I've just been a local politician; I'm content to be a local politician and I'll play out the string here." The string appears to have grown longer. Westfall said just "eight or nine months ago" that he thought he had had enough of politics, but he's reconsidered. Part of his indecision about whether to run in 2002 has to do with the Russian-roulette game St. Louis voters play with the mayor. "I'm on my fourth mayor in 10 years. Just think about that when you're talking about continuity and city-county relations -- it's just hard to get going. You just get to start to know somebody, and they're gone." He admits that he and Clarence Harmon "did not have a good relationship personally" but that this has changed with the new mayor. "Now I've got a mayor that I respect and I like personally. That's what's changed biggest for me. That was a big factor in me reconsidering running, that Francis Slay won the race." Westfall backs the downtown stadium, but only if the Ballpark Village concept gets done. If the Cardinals move to the county or Illinois, he says, it will be the "death knell" for the city, and that's bad news for the 2.5 million people in the metro area. Westfall lived in the city until he was 25, starting out in the Clinton-Peabody projects up until the fourth grade. Then he moved north, living near Fairgrounds Park and attending Perpetual Help and Holy Rosary parochial schools. He still describes himself as a "city kid," even though he oversees 350,000 people in unincorporated St. Louis County and has indirect control over the rest of the 1 million suburbanites. The conversion of the Wagner Electric plant in Wellston into a job-training center and the memorial in Clayton constructed for policemen and firemen who have died in the line of duty are what he views as his recent accomplishments. To borrow U.S. Rep. Tip O'Neill's maxim, if all politics are local, then Buzz Westfall is all politics.
In a city with weather as fickle as ours, is there really any point to tuning in to the 10 p.m. news for a forecast from Cindy Preszler or Kent Ehrhardt? By the time the sun rises, last night's predictions always seem to have a 50-50 chance of being dead wrong (along with the colorful graphic in your morning newspaper). That said, if you really want to know whether to take along an umbrella, carry a sweater or toss a bag of salt in the trunk of your car, you're better off waiting until around 6 or 7 a.m. And no one is more likable -- or better at delivering the morning weather forecast -- than KSDK's Scott Connell, whose snippets appear around the hour and half-hour during NBC's Today show.
Had the price of scrap steel not dropped dramatically in 1976, making the old Chain of Rocks Bridge unprofitable to demolish, current visitors would be denied the splendid view of downtown St. Louis, shimmering like some fabled kingdom. Opened for traffic in 1929, the bridge, part of old Route 66, connected North St. Louis with Madison, Ill. By 1968 the bridge was closed, another industrial relic with no visible future. Thirty years later, Trailnet, a civic organization, finagled a perfectly practical reincarnation for the structure: a pedestrian thoroughfare that will link miles of trails now being developed on both sides of the river. Today, the bridge attracts walkers, bicyclists, Rollerbladers, wheelchair-bound amblers and even a band of skipping enthusiasts. Walking the 1.2-mile length and back takes about an hour; there are picnic tables and outlooks along the way. Chouteau Island looms in the distance, and, closer, two late-19th-century water-intake towers look like gothic mansions or, as one observer remarked, "a place where Batman's enemies would hide out." Approaching the Illinois side, one may peer down on the lush backwaters of the Mississippi and, with any luck, see egrets fishing, raccoons scampering and snakes undulating through the duckweed. Since its reopening in 1999, the bridge has been the site of an Earth Day celebration, nationally sponsored bicycle tours and much more; it has so much going for it that it cannot help but become one of the area's premier attractions. The old Chain of Rocks Bridge is open weekends from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., April-Thanksgiving.
Only a strip search of all 28 aldermen would prove that no one else has a more provocative tattoo in a more precarious place, but for the sake of their privacy, and our indigestion, let's hand the award to Ald. Ken Ortmann (D-9th Ward). Ortmann, a former Marine, has a woman indelibly etched on the outside of his right calf. Leave it to the owner of a tavern, the Cat's Meow, to be the city's only elected official with a tattoo in a visible place. Of course, after the redistricting fiasco and the filibustering stunt by Ald. Irene Smith (D-1st), a tattoo seems tame.