The Cotton Belt Freight Depot is towering and slender, like a giant book sitting on its binding. In the first half of the twentieth century (and especially the Roaring Twenties), this five-story structure was a bustling hub for Southern cotton. The delivery schedule was so precise, its owners boasted, you could set your watch to it. Almost a century later, it's an airy shell, the entire bottom floor of loading docks wide open and exposed straight through. Birds dart among the rusted sprinkler system overhead, while the graffiti is near tropical in color and diversity (from the giant bird on one wall to "Fuck this sadness" and "Liberate your pussy"). Some of its former glory remains: The huge door marked "OFFICE" is stately. A whole series of copper lion heads still bite onto poles that hold up an awning, which would've kept the rain off the backs of workers unloading freight. And terra-cotta medallions on the top corners of the building bear the words "Cotton Belt Route." It's a proud reminder of why this structure is special — so special, it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It's a little embarrassing to admit it, particularly in retrospect, but the newsroom here at Riverfront Times was caught by surprise and thoroughly discombobulated when the End of the World failed to make its scheduled appearance back on May 21.
In anticipation of the Big Event, we'd set up an entire Rapture Bureau — in the musty old storage closet where our art director dumps all the crap he uses for photo shoots (boy, was he pissed!) — and now we had to totally dismantle it. Worse, everything was going back to business as usual, the same old same old.
You can imagine the grumbling.
But then it hit us: Research for our annual "Best of St. Louis" issue was about to get under way. We could have our own Rapture!
So here you have it, the "Best of St. Louis 2011," a celebration of all that's still marvelous about the town we call home, in the form of nearly 400 blurb-length tributes to everything from the "Best Baby Store" to the "Best Cemetery." From the "Best Adult Video Store" to the "Best Place to Shop for Grandma" (and no, they're not the same place — not this year, anyway). From the "Best 3 a.m. Bar" to the "Best Breakfast with a Hangover." Read, enjoy, jot down notes, shake your head and sneer at our totally off-base selection in the category that was the subject of your PhD dissertation.
Which seems as good a time as any to note that our picks are entirely subjective, that all of us have our own personal favorites in our own personal-favorite categories and that once again we invited y'all to share yours via our Readers' Poll, the results of which you will find alongside our own choices.
Go ahead and see what we've found, but by all means take your time: You've got an entire year until the "Best of St. Louis 2012" — unless the rescheduled Rapture really does come to pass (in which case we've all got, oh, about three weeks).
Tom Finkel, Editor
P.S.: Earlier this week, as we were putting the final touches on this year's issue, St. Louis lost one of our very, very best. To say sculptor and City Museum founder Bob Cassilly will be missed is a colossal understatement. In his creative genius, boundless capacity for whimsy and unstinting love of all things loonbag, Cassilly was a walking, talking, working, stark-raving embodiment of anyone's definition of the Best of St. Louis.
In the summer of 2010, Pi on the Spot and Sarah's Cake Stop tentatively hit the streets, and St. Louis responded, with people lining up and buying everything the trucks had in stock. A year later, those two food trucks have become at least nineteen, and they've changed the way people dine downtown. Instead of holing up in their cubes, coworkers are doing something unheard of — they're going outside, into the fresh air, and they're often dining outside, where they encounter other people who've also escaped stifling office buildings. And they talk! All because they've made the same still-novel trek to buy food from a truck. In fact, at night, we see crowds skipping overpriced concession foods at Busch Stadium in favor of truck offerings. Anything that gets people moving, talking and giving their money to small local businesses is a welcome addition to downtown St. Louis. Delayed, but welcome.
With respectful nods to rising aldermanic stars, sometimes you've got to give props to the guy who's been around the block. St. Louis alderman Stephen Conway has been a force in city hall for many years, using bare-knuckle tactics and financial acumen to balance the budget during tough economic times. But while Conway's a CPA, he's no bloodless number cruncher: Last year, after conservative financier Rex Sinquefield spearheaded a multimillion-dollar campaign to force St. Louis to put its earnings tax to a vote, Conway branded Sinquefield as a financial terrorist and the Grinch who stole Christmas — and challenged him to "come and kick our asses." At the end of the day the Eighth Ward alderman came out on top: City residents voted convincingly to keep the tax. After ten years at the helm of the Ways and Means Committee — keeping the ship afloat despite shrinking city revenues — Conway finally ceded his chairmanship in April. His father, James Conway, the 41st mayor of the city, would be proud.
Nothing has come easy for Granite City mayor Ed Hagnauer. One year after he won his seat, a devastating storm ripped through his city in 2006, causing $1.3 million in damage. Two years later, the recession hit the old steel town hard. Thousands of residents lost their jobs. Businesses left. The budget grew so tight that the city couldn't afford to replace its retiring employees — even as the equally struggling state of Illinois couldn't afford to pay the $1 million it owed the town. Hell of a first term. But Hagnauer fought for his city. With such a precarious budget situation, every penny had to be stretched to its fullest potential. He focused his efforts on infrastructure: Roads were resurfaced, the sewage system was upgraded, a youth center was built. A movie theater revitalized the downtown area, and brand-new restaurants popped up. And, remarkably, the old steel town in the heart of the Rust Belt appears to be coming out of the recession in decent shape, eager to grow.
Did you know the World's Fair was held here in St. Louis in 1904? If you answered "no" to this question, your status as a St. Louisan is hereby revoked until you've watched the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis, which re-creates that momentous time. (Well, sort of; it's pretty clear that the exteriors were shot on the MGM lot.) Equally importantly, the film will get the titular waltz, the official theme song of the fair, stuck in your head for at least a week. Once that's been accomplished, dance your way to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park and take a look at the ongoing exhibit on the fair. The other displays are pretty interesting, too. Fortify yourself with a drink or a meal at Bixby's, the museum café, and start walking westward along Lindell Boulevard. (A true St. Louisan always looks west.) Let your eyes wander over the rolling hills of Forest Park, across the Grand Basin, all the way up to the Saint Louis Art Museum, which began its life 107 years ago as the fair's Pavilion of Fine Arts. Or turn the other direction and admire the mansions built by well-heeled citizens who wanted to be close to the action. Straight ahead is Washington University and its signature building, Brookings Hall, which — you guessed it! — also played a role in the fair, as the administrative building. The area's quieter and more peaceful these days than it was in 1904, but if you feel the urge to sing, nobody's going to stop you.
You made your resolutions. You drank your Champagne. You neglected to sing "Auld Lang Syne." Yes, it's a new year, and while the weather might be chilly — especially if one of those Arctic air masses sweeps down from Canada and across the plain — this is when you want to be in St. Louis. The early-winter sun might not give any warmth, but during the few hours each day that it does shine, the light is pure and beautiful: Corners seem sharper; the Arch, free from summer's haze, sparkles. The crisp air is invigorating. This year, absolutely, you can do anything. By February, the cold will be wearisome; as the Cardinals gather in Florida, your thoughts yearn for spring. In January, though, all is bright and new. This is your city. This is your year.
As reported by the National Weather Service, July 2011 featured:
• Twenty-five days with a high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
• Eighteen days with a high of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
• Eight days with a high of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
• Average high temperature: 94.9 degrees Fahrenheit
• Nine days with a low of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
• Four days with a low of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or lower
• Average low temperature: 74 degrees Fahrenheit
It was bad. And it wasn't even the fucking heat. It was the humidity. The only way there could have been more batwing in St. Louis this July is if we'd moved the entire city into a cave in the Ozarks. Wait, no, scratch that: It was the fucking heat and the fucking humidity.
Who says good ideas don't come from bars? Last winter when Kelly von Plonski's store, Subterranean Books, seemed in danger of going under, von Plonski's fellow bookstore owner, Nikki Furrer of Pudd'nhead Books, took her out for a drink to commiserate and dream up ways to bring in customers. Later that night, Furrer had an idea: What if Subterranean and Pudd'nhead and every other independent bookstore in the St. Louis area started working together to build up business collectively? Within the week, Left Bank Books and Main Street Books in St. Charles were in on the plan, and the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance was born. The first booksellers association of its kind, the alliance now comprises a dozen new and used bookstores across the metro area, from O'Fallon to Granite City, Illinois. It maintains a lively website with recommendations, reviews, a calendar of events and a weekly bestseller list. It has also organized a "bookstore cruise" and an evening of literary speed-dating to bring readers together. The alliance has proven that although both reading and selling books can sometimes feel like lonely enterprises, they don't always have to be. And that's a good thing.
If you're driving on the Clark Bridge you'll see steel cables pass overhead in a geometric blur akin to a Star Trek time warp. If you're heading east into Alton, Illinois, the bridge drops you off in a futuristic, near-apocalyptic downtown repeatedly battered by the mighty Mississippi. If you're driving west to the desolate riverfront stretch of St. Charles County you'll find yourself in a wormhole to cheaper gas. The bridge is equally powerful from afar. We suggest digging the view from the parking lot between Marquette Catholic High School and the First Unitarian Church on Alton's Third Street, where the slight elevation offers a panorama in which the bridge's modern sheen gorgeously contrasts with the charming downtown decadence.
Where to start with Brian Nieves? Well, here are some things he's done in the past twelve months or so: He allegedly assaulted and threatened a political opponent's campaign manager who stopped by his office to congratulate him on his election win. He called a semiautomatic rifle a "Nancy Pelosi special." When retired teacher Tom Smith came into his office to discuss education policy, Nieves called him a "fucking prick" and a "fucking pussy" and, finally, "a "piece of fuck." Then, in a letter to Washington's Missourian, Nieves wrote that Smith had "sneering, evil eyes." Nieves also introduced legislation that would take away the press corps' parking and office privileges in the capitol and made the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Dirty Dozen" list of people trying to strip citizenship from U.S.-born children of immigrant parents. And finally, lest we forget, he once referred to waterboarding, a torture technique, as "a little water in their face." All pretty awful. But even beyond his nefarious posturing, what makes Nieves the best villain in Missouri is the waterfall of entertainment he brings to the table. There's the way he screams and points into the camera during campaign ads: "Federal government, Barack Hussein Obama, leave us alone!" There's his generous use of all caps and exclamation points on his Facebook page. And we have to admit we're kind of proud of the way he orders his followers to "IGNORE the RFT." Yeah, he's a jerk, but there is no greater source of unintentional comedy in the state.