When Brooks Goedeker, the executive director of Park Central Development, first arrived as an intern for the redevelopment non-profit Urban Strategies in 2002, only a handful of storefronts in the Grove were open, and even those kept their windows boarded up. These days, the entertainment district consists of more than 60 businesses, including restaurants, nightclubs and retail outlets. In the past year alone, the area has seen several big openings, including Rise Coffee House, Taha'a Twisted Tiki, Siam nightclub and Urban Chestnut's staggering 70,000-square-foot brewery and bierhall.
"Up until this point, we haven't had this clash because the long-time residents are so happy to see that these boards are coming off and that businesses want to be in the area," says Goedeker, adding that various complaints about patio noise in the area have since been alleviated. "We have several long-time residents who were born and raised here in the '70s and say that Manchester hasn't looked this good since the late '50s."
This is not the area's first heyday. Sixty years ago, the estimated population of Forest Park Southeast was about 10,000. There were grocery and clothing stores, a sports-equipment shop, a pet-supply store and a movie theater. A streetcar provided transportation to the pedestrian-friendly intersection of Vandeventer and Chouteau avenues as a central shopping destination.
As people fled the cities for the suburbs nationwide, the area declined like so many others in St. Louis. Today, the population numbers have plummeted to less than half — somewhere around 3,500 residents. In the 1970s and '80s, blue-collar firms, such as plumbing and constructions contractors, gobbled up the empty commercial properties along Manchester Avenue for use as storage shops and garages. Vacant houses and absentee landlords made the residential neighborhoods a questionable place to live.
Things began to change again about twenty years ago. Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corportation, a partnership between BJC Health Care, St. Louis Children's Hospital and the Washington University School of Medicine, has invested $30 million since 1996 in efforts to revitalize the area around its own campus. Along with McCormack-Baron, a leading U.S. real estate development firm, the WUMCRC led a master-planning process that resulted in the re-establishment of Adams Elementary School in 2001, a state-of-the-art community center now operated by the St. Louis Boys & Girls Club, and the McCormack House senior living facillity.
"The medical center has invested money in safety and security, social- and human-service programs, working with developers, attracting developers to the area and assisting with economic development," says Goedeker. "It's been exciting here. The momentum is moving more quickly than anyone could've expected."
In the late '80s and throughout the '90s, the LGBT community also quickened development, opening several bars and businesses in the area. Three bars — Attitudes, Rainbow's End (now Rehab) and Freddie's (now Just John) — formed the nucleus around which a newly created "gayborhood" flourished.
"Certainly, the LGBT community were very instrumental in the early years," says 17th Ward Alderman Joe Roddy. "Now, it's very much one of the most diverse entertainment districts in the region."
Guy Slay, owner of Mangrove Redevelopment, bolstered revitalization when he opened a restaurant and ice cream parlor called the Mangrove at the intersection of Manchester and Tower Grove avenues in 2003. Two years later he recruited Sweetie Pie's soul-food restaurant — which went on to star in its own reality TV show on the Oprah Winfrey Network — to take over the space. Meanwhile, Atomic Cowboy set up shop just down the street. Slay and Schloss rebranded the formerly named "Manchester Strip" between Vandeventer and Kingshighway by combining the historical name of the neighborhood, "Adam's Grove," with Tower Grove Avenue.
Between 2009 and 2010 two large neon signs were hung over Manchester proclaiming the area "The Grove." The signs cost a total of $135,000.
As businesses boomed, the surrounding residential neighborhood grew, too. Homeowners such as Fratello and Moore moved in and invested in the neighborhood, steadily increasing property values with each rehab.
"It's a dramatically different neighborhood residentially," says Schloss. "Merchants have funded a lot of improvements and attractions, and now you have people who want to live there close to it, but maybe they don't give full consideration to how the neighborhood will evolve in the future. That's just more organic growth. It's a tough balancing act."