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Remembering Central West End savior Herb Balaban

God bless you, Herb Balaban. There was an eerie symmetry to the fact that I happened to be walking by the Euclid/Maryland intersection just days before the news broke of Herb's death.

I'm just old enough to remember when the mansions on the streets adjoining Euclid Avenue were likely to be roominghouses or even boarded up. Herb provided the main commercial street of the Central West End with the dual anchors of Balaban's up by McPherson and Herbie's down by Maryland. And by lighting up a neon billboard (Herbie's) that proudly announced that it was OK to be gay, Herb helped attract residents who played a key part in turning the neighborhood around.

Given Herb's trendsetting, I found no small irony in the announcement that Karen Duffy, another neighborhood pioneer, was making the dining areas at Duff's totally nonsmoking, although you can still puff at Duff's bar. Here the good burghers of Chesterfield had just voted down a smoking ban on the grounds that it would be bad for that city's restaurant business, and one of the oldest restaurants in all of St. Louis stands up and says, "Pfffffft ... it will be better for business without all the smoke."

Well, OK, I guess it's kind of tough to ban smoking in restaurants when your city is named after a cigarette. (Is that mere coincidence? Is it just coincidence, too, that "Lincoln" and "Kennedy" are both seven letters?). More to the point, voluntary compliance is always preferable to yet another law. Maybe in another 25 years or so, this new Euclidean practice will make it out to the burbs. (But maybe not. I haven't noticed very many gay bars out on Long Road, even though the naming possibilities are just devastating.)

Rest in peace, Herbie.

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