Lost Downtown

Amid the lofty renaissance, the hardcore of the urban core

Jan 19, 2005 at 4:00 am
Meet the Twain

James Mercer emerges from his quarters at the Mark Twain Hotel each day as though dressed for a funeral. His signature look of black dress shirt, black suspenders, black slacks, black shoes, black top hat, black skin and neatly kept black afro is plenty dapper but tinged with grief.

Mercer has earned his keep shining shoes downtown for the better part of the past quarter-century, save for the five years he spent in Vegas and Los Angeles ("Just seein' what it was like bein' there") and sporadic Greyhound-ferried wanderlust. At present he operates a chair in a small room on the ninth floor of the Chemical Building on Eighth and Olive streets, next door to Marilyn Massey's Downtown Barber Shop. For Mercer, business is the worst it's been in more than twenty years, a consequence, he maintains, of the lethal combination of commercial sprawl and office workers' ever-increasing preference for casual footwear. And so to make rent Mercer periodically sweeps Massey's floor of freshly shorn locks.

"My business is providing for me from deadline to deadline -- and every weekend's a deadline," says Mercer, whose government-subsidized single-room-occupancy apartment at the Mark Twain, where he's lived off and on for the past decade, costs him $100 a week (linen service and utilities included).

Hard as it may try to put a clean face on its dubious reputation, the Twain, located at Ninth and Pine streets, is the sort of place that tends to attract negative attention, the most recent bout of which took the form of breathless television news reports about the prevalence of sex offenders among the historic edifice's 200-plus residents. But it is also the anchor to one of downtown's most vibrant corners, with a gyro restaurant, basement chili parlor, police substation, pizzeria and neighborhood bar filling its ground floor to capacity.

The Twain's meticulous foyer, whose off-white walls feature framed black-and-white photos of tenants past and present, is tidied regularly by a uniformed custodial crew, many of whom are residents. Near the entrance sits a uniformed security guard named Vic. His post is located opposite an old door with the word "Bar" painted across it. That's a bit of a misnomer, however; there is no longer a bar in the Twain.

The lobby is typically home to as much hustle and bustle as the busiest downtown highrise. It is in this space that Mercer appears early on this winter Friday evening, a plaid scarf augmenting his head-to-toe black ensemble. "I love living at the Mark Twain just like I've loved every day of my life since I've been living," he says. "I'm optimistic about how I'm doing as a human being. I'm appreciating the things that I have, rather than tripping off the things that I don't have."

A gregarious couple stumbles in, flirty and affectionate. The female member of the tandem is unsteady atop her black pumps and fumbles a pair of sunglasses and a pen from her purse as her boyfriend beckons Carol, one of the desk clerks, to check his mail slot. "I've lost a lot of good women in my life," the gentleman muses aloud, casting a come-hither gaze toward his lady friend.

The floor show continues to an R&B soundtrack piped through the speakers of a portable stereo behind the front desk. Enter a short, portly woman clad in baby blue, who avails herself of the house microwave. At a bank of pay phones near Vic's guard station, a fellow in blue gym shorts and shower sandals makes plans for the night while a dude in a black Rocawear T-shirt and red coat announces that, for $10, he'll give a haircut to Carol's fellow desk clerk, David. In limps a ponytailed man dressed in full camouflage set off by a POW-MIA patch, assisted by a walking cane. Next comes a skinny brother with paint-flecked jeans, a stocking cap and a plastic grocery bag, and two barrel-chested fellows, one in a motorized wheelchair, hot on his heels.

"Friday nights when people get their paychecks, they go a little gaga," allows Bunty Arora, the hotel's general manager, cracking an uncharacteristic smile. "We like to say that the floor show here is fabulous.

"The stories I have heard prior to us taking over were just horrific," elaborates Arora, who since assuming the Twain's reins in 1995 has overseen a $6 million facelift to the formerly dilapidated structure, funded primarily through Missouri Housing Commission grants. "A lot of people detest the Mark Twain. But there's no other place downtown for this class of people."

In accordance with its agreement with the state, the Twain must provide housing exclusively for clients in low-income brackets -- specifically, people who earn $27,000 a year or less. "The people who rent rooms here are from all walks of life," Arora explains. "These people, the kind of jobs they do, are good, humble human beings. They work in bars, restaurants, concession stands and construction sites."

And on some level they're vital to the neighborhood's sustainability.

"Most of them don't have cars," Arora notes. "They're not going out into west county; they're working here and they stay in the neighborhood. So they're obviously contributing something economically."

Cracks Mercer: "Just potatoes down here -- ain't no gravy."

First Aid

James Mercer's downtown is not the downtown that has dominated headlines over the past half-century as St. Louis endeavored to stave off suburban flight with central-corridor gimmicks. This 45-square-block central core is the guts of St. Louis -- yet it is devoid of the street-level sex appeal that has allowed the likes of the Gateway Arch, America's Center, Laclede's Landing, Washington Avenue, Ballpark Village and the newly proposed Bottle District (to be anchored by a casino) to capture the imagination of the civic cognoscenti. Yet for all the glitz Lost Downtown lacks, it remains the most critical piece of real estate in downtown St. Louis' latest run at renaissance.

"This is where the workers are," says Jim Cloar, executive director of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. "This area doesn't get talked about, but it's a linchpin."

In 1870 St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the United States (behind New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, which was then counted separately in census tallies), boasting a population of 310,864. Right on up to the turn of the last century, Lost Downtown reigned supreme, serving as the city's undisputed commercial and residential epicenter.

"When they built Union Station [in 1894, on Eighteenth and Market streets], people thought that was too far west," points out James Neal Primm, 86-year-old emeritus chair of the University of Missouri-St. Louis' history department and author of Lion of the Valley, a chronicle of St. Louis life from 1764 to 1980. "Their notion of downtown was Ninth or Tenth Street on in [to the river]."

"The scale of the city was so human," agrees Louis Gerteis, Primm's UMSL successor. "It wasn't until the 1880s that the elevator even came into play."

Armed with twin $300,000 grants, Gerteis' department has launched the Virtual City Project, an Internet-based three-dimensional model of St. Louis (currently accessible at www.umsl.edu/~virtualstl/phase2) that, upon completion, will depict the city's decade-by-decade urban evolution, edifice by edifice, from 1850 to 1950. At the end of that gilded age, according to the 1950 census, the population of St. Louis stood at 856,796, an all-time high.

But as Primm's Lion depicts, civic leaders were already sensing a disturbing trend far beyond the city's packed streets. While the 1950 figures showed a respectable population gain within the city limits over the previous census, St. Louis County had swollen by 50 percent during that period, reducing the city's share of the metropolitan area from 57 to 51 percent. Rather than let demographic history run its natural course, St. Louis' power brokers got vision, minting an organization of the city's elite called Civic Progress that launched a massive bond-issue campaign in 1954 in an attempt to out-suburb the suburbs and ease congestion in city streets. The push worked: In 1955 voters overwhelmingly approved $110 million worth of civic improvements, laying the pavement for what would become the nation's first interstate highway, Interstate 70, not to mention I-44, a system of bridges and viaducts and a host of streetscape and park improvements.

Editorial scribes nationwide sharpened their pencils and weighed in with plaudits:

  • Minneapolis Tribune: "It is an aroused citizenry which has a bold and imaginative vision of the future...ready and willing to pay the cost."
  • Kansas City Star: "In the history of every great city, certain events stand out as decisive turning points.... The smashing St. Louis bond victory was one of those civic peaks."
  • Baltimore Sun: "The awakened citizenry has done something drastic about downtown strangulation and the flight to the suburbs."
  • Harper's: "Energetic Midwesterners have yanked the community out of its long slide of decay."
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "They voted for the new and clean -- and against the outmoded and dirty. They voted for a moving, growing, advancing future -- and against a blighting, killing past."

From this decisive turning point, the city proceeded to slide into an outmoded, dirty, blighting, killing future of decay, complete with an accelerated exodus to the suburbs that bottomed out in 2002 at near-1870 population levels.

"The big evil was traffic congestion," says Andrew Hurley, a professor of urban and environmental history at UMSL and a resident of the Benton Park neighborhood south of downtown. "They thought the key to reviving downtown was interstate highways. They forgot that people could also go the other way on those highways."

Liquid Lunch

Situated on the north side of Olive between Tenth and Eleventh streets, Bussone's leads a double life as a package liquor store and a restaurant and bar dubbed "La Coney Island." The store, which has been in the Bussone family since 1935, used to stay open until 1:30 a.m. (it now closes at 7 p.m.). Current owner Jim Bussone, now age 75, took it over from his uncle in 1957 and in 1986 oversaw its move west from its original location at Eighth and Pine, to make way for the SBC office tower.

"During our lunch hour, we used to put fifteen to twenty martini glasses out on the bar and premix a big pot of martini. So when they'd come in, we'd be ready," reminisces Bussone, ensconced beside a stack of Schlitz half-racks and sporting a button-down short-sleeve shirt and tinted eyeglasses. "There used to be a dozen liquor stores downtown. Now I'm the only one."

Gone too is the three-martini lunch order. In its place, a handful of noon-hour patrons wield plastic silverware on split-frank chili dogs served atop Styrofoam plates, with the occasional pint of Guinness or snort of Jack-on-the-rocks. The jukebox is all Karen Carpenter, all the time. Behind the bar, a robotic pair of Kris Kringle dolls gyrates nonstop near the ancient manual cash register. A small TV set above the till is tuned to CNN.

One Guinness belongs to downtown lawyer Emmett McAuliffe, a native St. Louisan who hosts a late-night jazz program on KMOX radio. "When I went to school, it was like something was wrong with you if you didn't have a drink at lunch," notes McAuliffe, using the side of his index finger to daub the stout mustache from his upper lip.

Down the street a swarm of patrons waits out the noon rush in the burger-assembly line at Dooley's, Ltd., a 36-year-old establishment at the base of the Chemical Building. Dooley's resembles a British pirate ship, outside and in. Hard oak down to every last beam, the restaurant-bar is the once and future dream of 65-year-old Alex Dooley, a former Playboy Club manager who's been in the biz since his formative years in south city.

"I kept walking by and saying, 'That'd be a good place to open a restaurant,'" the gray-bearded Dooley recounts. "We built it like a Cadillac. We probably put way too much money into it, but there's nothing I regret."

Like Bussone, Dooley no longer stays open until the wee hours and depends on a substantial lunch and ballgame patronage to pay the bills. Today's noontime clip is neither zenith nor nadir for Dooley, whose 30-year-old son, Sean, now co-helms the operation.

"When we first opened, downtown was really thriving," Dooley says. "You'd get knocked off the street at Eighth and Olive. Then there was a great exodus to the county around 1974. People felt like downtown was going nowhere. We've come so close to closing so many times."

Rock bottom, he says, came when MetroLink construction in the early 1990s obstructed his front entry from passersby. "I went home and told my family I was going to have to close up," Dooley recalls. "Bi-State's solution was to have high school kids paint the plywood on the construction scaffolds. I said, 'You've got to be kidding!' No help, no money, no nothing.

"People who have worked downtown for years still don't know who we are," he goes on. "But this is the first time since 1974 that I've been really positive, and not until a year ago. There's been a lot of hype, but no hammers being hit to a wall. Olive from Eighth to Twelfth used to be a war zone. Now I see people putting their money where their mouths are."

Scrimping by nine floors up, James Mercer applies smudged chamois to wingtip. Mercer considers his shoeshine business to be "out of sight, out of mind" -- a bear market he intends to ride out. "It's got to be convenient, in that there's got to be enough service in enough locations, which there isn't right now," he says of the ideal re-nascence. "But you'll always have a solid core of people who'll continue a good tradition."

Adds Mercer: "Downtown St. Louis is trying to make up his mind. It's either gonna strive for perfection like New York City or fall into a permanent state of disrepair like Tulsa."

Retail Therapy

"Famous-Barr is the most important cultural institution downtown," Emmett McAuliffe proclaims as he wanders back to work from Bussone's. "You take the last department store out of downtown, then you'd really have a hole."

You won't get any argument from the Downtown Partnership's Jim Cloar.

"It provides a lot of things you don't find anywhere else downtown anymore," Cloar says of Famous, the last of three major downtown department stores in operation; the others were Dillard's (Stix, Baer & Fuller at the time) and Scruggs-Vandevoort-Barney. "A lot of downtowns don't have a department store anymore. I don't think people appreciate it like they should."

Professors Hurley and Gerteis say it goes back to the interstate highways, which freed retailers from having to locate downtown. "It's the doughnut effect," Gerteis asserts. "A lot of the energy has moved out. You want to find the busiest part of town, get on [Interstate] 270."

The downtown Famous may no longer enjoy flagship-store status, but the Railway Exchange Building's anchor tenant still conducts a respectable amount of trade with downtown workers in need of a little retail therapy to break up the day's monotony. More important, the department store gives downtown's ego a touch of old-world class. The bouquet of first-floor perfume is as strong as ever, the smiling shoe salesmen's suits as expertly pressed. On the second floor, the booths at Papa Fabarre's still teem with grandmothers and their progeny, and the French onion soup continues to flow in a cozy environment that exudes brass-rail stateliness and red-bowed kitsch in equal measure.

"The attendants wore white gloves at Vandevoort," Gerteis reminisces, then comes back to earth: "Department stores nationwide are struggling. It's basically a concept of the 1880s to the 1920s. People want more specialty now."

"[The department store] made sense based on how people got around," adds Hurley. "People used mass transit. Now Famous serves a local clientele, not the whole metro area."

Which does nothing to diminish Alex Dooley's love for the joint. "Thank God for Famous-Barr," the restaurateur testifies. "That place is still beautiful. Thank God they haven't abandoned us. Had they left, we'd be in shambles."

Connected to Famous sits a green-and-white albatross as reviled as the department store is revered: the surreally vacant box of shit known as St. Louis Centre. The multitiered indoor mall was intended to serve as a commercial bridge between Famous and the erstwhile Dillard's. But after the obligatory quick start in 1985, St. Louis Centre fizzled fast and now stands as a gaudy relic of Lost Downtown's darkest, least innovative age.

"They wanted us to open a place on the second floor," recalls Dooley, who contemplated a fine-dining spinoff in the Centre back when plans were being drawn. "Then they came to me and said, 'McDonald's wants to open up in there.' And I said, 'I hope you told them no.' And they said, 'Well, that won't hurt you.' I came back and tore up my blueprints. They blew it right there."

Down Time

Twenty steps below the Ninth Street sidewalk lies Chod's Bar, its presence heralded by a single sidewalk sign pimping the subterranean eatery's chili (spelled "chille").

A mysterious enterprise that keeps abbreviated, hard-to-pin-down hours, Chod's is solely owned and operated by Candy Brooks, an orange-haired pepper pot of Korean and Majorcan descent who has lived and worked downtown since 1976. She moved Chod's to the base of the Mark Twain Hotel fifteen years ago from a previous locale on Tucker. Prone to closing up shop unannounced for twenty minutes at a time, Brooks says the best bet for scoring one of her $2.25 hamburgers, $2.75 bowls of chili or stiff well-liquor pours is to show up between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Unless you live upstairs. "I don't let them come down because I don't like them," she says of the Twain's residents. "A lot of lawyers come down. I like to have a clean-cut place."

Chod's used to have a pool table and attracted regulars until all hours. Why the scale-down? "After three [in the afternoon] downtown is a ghost town."

Come the weekend, even the apparitions are apt to feel lonely. The lone exception: the Marquette branch of the YMCA, the sole remaining occupant of the historic Marquette Building on Broadway and Olive, the rest of which is being converted to condominiums. Three floors up a narrow marble staircase and through a labyrinth of steel doors, the Marquette Y appears: a glorified bathhouse whose mostly male clientele tends to bypass the exercise room for a leisurely regimen of steam room to hot tub, hot tub to shower -- repeated several times over.

Indeed, few spaces in Lost Downtown are as clandestine and testosterone-drenched as the Marquette Y's steam room. As at nightfall, it takes a while for one's eyes to adjust to the mist-obscured atmosphere of the pint-size chamber and its buck-naked occupants, who sprawl on the wooden benches that line the walls.

Happy Hour

When the regulars are discussing clogged arteries, high blood pressure and prescription meds, can you properly call it "happy hour"?

To be fair, conversation among the four diehards and their bartender at Gregory's shortly after quittin' time on a chilly December evening ranges beyond maladies: The Pine Street establishment's proprietor (also named Gregory) is dispensing advice on what his loyalists should wear and sing (karaoke madness!) at the bar's upcoming annual Christmas party.

Gregory, whose restaurant-bar sits at the base of the Mark Twain next to Luigi's Pizzeria, is busy organizing napkins and utensil settings on a checkerboard-clothed table. As he toils and talks, four office workers stroll in, thereby doubling his cocktail-hour clientele.

West on Tucker, happy hour is a similarly skeleton-crew ritual at Dapper Dan's, a workaday watering hole whose illuminated black-and-white sign promises cocktails and food, seven days a week. In, say, Chicago, a bar like Dapper Dan's would be teeming with youngsters attracted by the shopworn authenticity of it all (Dapper Dan's was granted Missouri's first post-Prohibition liquor license) and the cheap Miller High Life drafts. But hipsters who venture to this corner of Lost Downtown are far more likely headed next door, to the Creepy Crawl, a mainstay of the local rock scene but decidedly not of the Lost world. At any rate, during hump-day happy hour, Dan's is dead.

Alex Dooley recalls better days.

"We used to have 200 people on the balcony every night," Dooley says of his own bar's glory days. "The DWI really put the kibosh on it, though. Good news, bad news: People don't get killed, but it's no good for my cash register."

As popular opinion and law enforcement frowned upon the four-can Franks of the commuter crowd, Dooley adjusted his priorities as businessman and barkeep. "There's a point of no return with drinking when you say, 'To hell with it, I'll stay out all night,'" he posits. "So we started closing at 8. I'd throw 100 people out, because we'd have a greater responsibility." Like Bussone's, Dooley's now locks up at 7 p.m.

Gary Grannerman co-owns Heuer Locksmiths and Downtown Hardware, a 600-square-foot storefront beneath Craig Heller's Louderman Lofts on Eleventh and Locust. As recently as the early '90s, Grannerman lorded over a 2,000-square-foot space at Eighth and Olive.

"This location and Eighth and Olive are two different worlds," says Grannerman, a burly old sort who wears a flannel shirt to work. "Business boomed before they ran people out of the Paul Brown and Century buildings."

Given that his competition these days is epitomized by the likes of Home Depot, Grannerman considers his move to a smaller, more specialized operation (it's all about the locks) to have been fortuitous. But were it not for Heuer's long-standing (est. 1921) flagship on Kingshighway and Page, the downtown outpost, which Grannerman operates in the red, would be impossible.

"A lot of these lofts have forced out some businesses we used to provide small hardware to, and the lofts won't generate work for a while because their locks are all new," the proprietor muses. "I've thrown out 50 accounts. I'd do their shopping for them. I'd even buy them a sandwich if they wanted me to." Despite the flagging clientele, Grannerman sees some cause for optimism, specifically citing the "time and talents" of his landlord, Heller, and the Roberts brothers, Steve and Mike, who are renovating the nearby American Theatre (which they'll soon revert to its original moniker, the Orpheum) on Ninth Street. "I can see a general trend that St. Louis is coming back," he says.

Grannerman has suffered enough to develop his own pet theory as to why many small businesses -- and happy hours -- in Lost Downtown continue to founder: "To me the biggest decline came with casinos. You can track it in my books. People will take their paychecks and go right to the boats. People will gamble where they used to go drinking beer, and they don't have money for tools anymore."

But even if Lost Downtown's denizens were to bypass the casinos, they'd probably have to venture elsewhere to part with their coin. "I look forward to the day when I can buy a legal pad or camera battery without getting in my car and driving to Brentwood," says Margie Newman, a loft pioneer who operates an art gallery beneath her Tenth Street condominium.

"There's not a movie theater down here," adds Dooley. "I really hope they start addressing cultural things. That's the next area to address."

"Beware the mega-project," warns Carolyn Toft, executive director of the longtime local preservation nonprofit Landmarks Association. "To have theater, to have small events, good places to hear blues and jazz -- we don't have that yet downtown. Some of these things are pretty esoteric."

Last Call

To hear James Mercer tell it, the junction of Ninth and Pine used to be "a jazzy little corner." Back then the Mark Twain was known as the Baltimore and was home to a swingin' lounge called the Upstream.

"The Upstream had an irregular heartbeat, and that's what made it exciting," Mercer recalls on the stroll up Olive for a Friday-night supper at Dapper Dan's. "Ninth Street was The Strip."

Though he hasn't patronized Dan's in years, once inside Mercer is instantly recognized by a veteran parking-lot attendant nursing a can of Busch at a table near the bar. This sort of thing happens to him all the time, Mercer says: Wander the same city streets year after year and you become as much a part of the landscape as the concrete.

Mercer orders a sirloin burger and Coke. A few bites into his meal, he's reminded of a story.

One Sunday morning he woke up hungry in his cot at the Twain, without a dime to his name. Aware of the fact that Dan's, unlike so many St. Louis restaurants, kept Sunday hours, and confident that a fellow patron would front him a couple of bucks for a bite to eat, Mercer set out up Olive Street in search of sustenance. As he neared Tucker, he was stopped by a homeless man he knew -- Mercer was once homeless, too -- and offered a swig of booze.

"At that particular time, I needed a drink," recounts the shoeshine man, now a reformed tippler.

As they worked their way through the jug, Mercer and his friend noticed that another acquaintance, a panhandler, was enjoying a rare hot streak of spare-change affluence, a phenomenon Mercer likens to a jazz musician sustaining a long, sweet solo. The bum sauntered over and offered Mercer a packet of graham crackers he'd procured earlier in the day. Famished, Mercer accepted.

"I ate it real slow, like a six-course meal," he says, his hamburger now cooling before him. "That's how life works: It always comes back around."

By the time Mercer concludes his tale and pays his tab, the cold rain that had begun to drip an hour earlier has turned to snow. Passing the crumbling Century Building and bound for home, he waxes philosophical. Downtown, he says, "is pregnant."

Then, gazing down Ninth Street, his short journey's homestretch, he savors the tranquility of the white night.

"Man, this is beautiful," Mercer exclaims, extending his hand toward the Twain's front door. "Peace."