Best Of 2008

Sure, this country still accepts some of the poor and huddled masses from around the world, but usually it's not enough to merely welcome folks here. New Americans may struggle with the language barrier, and they often face difficulty finding housing and employment. Thanks to the work of International Institute St. Louis, newcomers' basic needs are met through English classes, career counseling and other services, making their adjustment to a different way of life in our foreign land less stressful. Established in 1919, the IISL assists 8,000 refugees and immigrants each year in addition to planning the Festival of Nations, an annual event that celebrates the ethnic melting pot of St. Louis — and all of the international foods found here. Diversity makes for a city rich with culture (and delicious eats), and the International Institute helps our new neighbors feel like a vital part of our community.

What makes a great bowling alley? Is it the dusty chic of 1950s-era furniture and watery beer specials? Or is it the sheer enormity of some of the newer hi-tech bowling emporiums, featuring a small city's worth of alleys, several cafés and even laser tag? In the case of Flamingo Bowl, Joe Edwards' new joint on Wash. Ave., it's neither. Rather, Edwards has brought a bit of the suburbs to the city with his boutique vision of bowling. Neither too large nor too small, Flamingo Bowl offers twelve lanes, a lounge, an extensive list of cocktails, decent bar food and, of course, a healthy selection of tchotchkes from Edwards' personal collection of mid-century Americana. What's more, Flamingo Bowl is open from noon until 3 a.m. seven days a week, making it both the perfect place for a "working" lunch and an ideal place for a sporting nightcap. So, for all of us city-dwellers who've never really bowled and thought "Turkey Time" meant the last Thursday in November, Edwards is making it as easy for us as a fire drill: All you need to do is stop, drop and roll.

David Robertson has a winning smile and the gift of gab. Those two assets will take you far in life, but Robertson also has vision. And vision will carry the possessor and all who share it to great heights. Robertson's vision is that the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, which he directs, becomes a presence in the lives of as many people as possible, whether or not they live in St. Louis. To this end, the SLSO performs everywhere that will take them, in myriad permutations. Here's Robertson and a group of SLSO musicians at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts with a selection of minimalist pieces to complement the Flavin light installations. There's Robertson and the SLSO in St. Charles' Frontier Park, playing under the summer stars. Back again at Powell Hall for New Year's Eve, performing a live score for a Charlie Chaplin movie. Now he's massed the best band in St. Louis at the Touhill Performing Arts Center in order to construct the jeweled soundscapes of Messiaen's Turangalîla. "It's amazing," you think. "I'm seeing this guy in my dreams." And then you open the New York Times to find David Robertson and the SLSO on the front page of the Arts section in a very positive review of the Turangalîla show, and suddenly you recognize the through-line of Robertson's vision. Make the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra vital; make it interesting; make it varied; make it accessible. Do all these things well, and then play the music beautifully, no matter what's on the program that night — and people will come to hear you no matter where you are, even if they have to hop a plane to do so. They will. And they are.

For the traveler who values privacy, a bed & breakfast can be a little unsettling. There are the awkward "oh-hi-where-are-you-from"s in the living room, the shared bathrooms, the strange feeling of waking up in a room filled with someone else's Precious Moments figurines. At the stunning Fleur-de-Lys Mansion, however, you receive all the hospitality of a fabulous B&B — with all the privacy and luxury of a four-star boutique hotel. Owners Jan and Dave Seifert took no shortcuts when they opened this Tower Grove mansion to guests in 2007. The four guest rooms are the B&B equivalent of penthouse suites: We're talking 600-thread-count sheets, Jacuzzis, chaise longues and gorgeous park views. The mansion's own chef, Dawn Landes, prepares four-course dinners for visitors who make the request in advance, and the second floor houses an exquisite spa. Rates range from $150 to $295.

"Did I mention that Glenn Beck is an asshole?" St. Louis-based blogger Angry Black Bitch wrote after the CNN commentator opined that the government should deliver its "economic stimulus" payments in the form of debit cards so that people couldn't use the money to reduce debt. Other times, though, ABB's reflections are simply poignant. When she learned of the cold case involving a missing British girl named Madeleine McCann, the Bitch mused about an infamous local case dating back to 1983, involving a still-unidentified black girl found decapitated in a north-side basement: "I have never forgotten her, not because she died in my hometown but because she lived.... It is not that I don't weep for little Madeleine McCann.... It's that I'm not sure who weeps for that little girl who was murdered and left to rot in a basement of an abandoned building in a poor neighborhood in St. Louis city." In more reflective moods, the Bitch, who is 35-year-old Pamela Merritt, writes about chilling in front of the TV with her two beagle-mix pound dogs and of coming to appreciate her older brother, who is autistic. In real life, Merritt is a pleasant-sounding advertising saleswoman for the Vital Voice, the local LGBT community newspaper. "I never sound as angry as my blog does," she says. "I try to make it funny-angry." Attracting about 900 hits a day, Merritt says ABB is not a moneymaker. But her writing is in demand elsewhere. She contributes to Shakesville and the power-blog Feministing, and she's a paid staff writer for RH Reality Check, a reproductive-health site. The Bitch commenced to blog on February 10, 2005, about two years after returning to St. Louis from Dallas. Wanting to "walk the walk," she started volunteering to support liberal causes. While spending time at a Catholic-run shelter for teenage mothers, she writes, "I waited to see busloads of concerned Christian women show up and participate in the lives of young women who had chosen to have their children, and now needed direction, a home, and advice. And I waited in vain."

Don't recognize the name? All the more reason Rick Sullivan is this year's finest unelected official. Since being appointed to oversee the St. Louis Public Schools last year, Sullivan has quietly worked to restore the troubled school district. That he's done so without the histrionics and backstabbing of recent school board leaders says a great deal about Sullivan's character. Diligent, humble and willing to listen, Sullivan now must cut $30 million to balance the district's budget, hire a new superintendent and improve student test scores — all while competing for state funds with an ever-growing number of charter schools. Change is not going to occur overnight, but thanks to Sullivan and his cohorts on the Special Administrative Board (Melanie Adams and Richard Gaines), there's hope city schools might finally live up to their potential.

If Metro's bus No. 93 were a reporter, we'd say it had been promoted from the predictable university beat to the much more vibrant city desk. Good ol' 93, which for years trundled dutifully between Washington University and the Wydown area, now has a fresh new route: Midtown-South County. That may not sound exciting, but when you consider where 93 stops, you'll see that it's been promoted to City Ambassador on Wheels. The bus makes stops near the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the Chase Park Plaza and the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex, the Grand Center arts district and the Anheuser-Busch Visitors Center — as well as transporting countless southsiders from home to work. Heck, 93 even stops by Ted Drewes. The only reason the route's called Midtown-South County is because "Super Awesome Civic Pridemobile" won't fit on the marquee.

Earlier this year, Marilyn Yalom, in her book titled The American Resting Place, made the arresting case that cemeteries in this country are increasingly being tucked out of sight. Not so St. Paul Churchyard. There's nothing shy about this old boneyard. Here, 65 tree-studded acres of tranquility front in all directions the comfortable middle-class homes of south St. Louis County. And that's the way it should be. Our dead loved ones ought to be displayed in a place of prominence, not entombed in near invisibility. Among the grateful dead buried here, it must be noted, is the very founder of Affton, Johann Aff, owner of a general store. Also, let it not be forgotten, Ulysses Grant chose these hallowed grounds to build his stone cabin, which he named "Hardscrabble." There's a plaque near the entrance of the St. Paul Churchyard to commemorate the famous landmark that now resides at Grant's Farm.

A trip down Target's wide aisles lined with matchy-matchy merchandise can be so soothing, it's easy to forget that you only set out to buy, say, toilet paper. Awakening from your trance, you realize you're about to become $50 lighter and wonder, "What is it about Michael Graves?" Now the great minds in Minneapolis have found a way to extend the mesmerizing experience: a separate escalator for your shopping cart! The newish Hampton Avenue store is equipped with an escalator to ferry carts to and from the lower-level parking garage. Appetite for well-designed consumables satisfied, you wheel your cart over to the small green double door, and push. Once the contraption takes hold, you step onto your own platform. Then you slowly descend, and the red cart full of bounty floats down beside you. Employed in bigger cities, cart escalators allow retailers to build two-story emporiums. Finding such a distinctly urban, real estate-saving device here might inspire you to call the neighborhood "SoHa." If only for a moment.

A shrewd businessman can capitalize on current events with his own marketing plan, make more money in the process and still keep the public smiling. When your business is brewing and selling beer, in St. Louis of all places, you have to stay original in the eyes of your customers and community, or forever be overshadowed by the once-King of Beers. That's why in addition to cranking out the beer varieties each season, Tom Schlafly and his company, Schlafly Beer, host community events year-round at both Schlafly locations, the Tap Room (2100 Locust Street; 314-241-2337) downtown and the Bottleworks (7260 Southwest Avenue; 314-241-2337) in Maplewood. It's easy to suffer festival fatigue when looking at several seasonal events hosted by Schlafly, but the company's involvement in local causes and charities also makes it a responsible, if offbeat, corporate citizen, led by Schlafly himself, an attorney (or is it beer-company president?) by profession. St. Louis can be proud of him and what is now the city's largest locally owned brewery.

There must be some serious local shoppers out there who've seen passing references to the Strange Folk Festival, imagined Joni Mitchell cover artists and said forget it. What a pity. Strange name, maybe, but as craft shows go, Strange Folk is folkin' awesome. Hundreds of indie artisans from throughout the Midwest set up shop for two whole days under and around the O'Fallon Community Park pavilion at the end of September. The mix of wares — unique stuff with which to deck out your baby, your dog, your best friend (heck, even your bathroom), but most of all, yourself — ranges from pretty to punk. The free entertainment, like alpaca-petting (OK, maybe that's strange), never fails to amuse the kids in tow; tell the man of the house to bring the laptop for the park's free wi-fi. Many of the crafties can point out how to find their goods after the show via an online indie bazaar, so the wait till next year doesn't seem so long. And no bizarro folk music. Promise!