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Granite City council member serves tea with a side of steel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2009 - Brenda Whitaker serves lobster bisque and fruited chicken salad and hosts tea parties for birthday girls in her Granite City tearoom that could pass for a country cottage, if you don't look too far down the street.

This is, after all, a steel town. And within walking distance of Whitaker's century-old stone restaurant with its crisp white paint, green trim and charming bulb gardens is the Amsted Rail foundry and an industrial rail yard.

Whitaker knows that her Garden Gate Tea Room is in an unexpected location -- on the other side of the swath of tracks on Niedringhaus Avenue that separate the city's historic Lincoln Place neighborhood from the rest of downtown.

"We battle perceptions daily," she says. "Eighty percent of the time, the comment is, 'I can't believe that this is in Granite City.' There is a hair salon next door called Planet Granite, and it's fabulous. If someone would set you down inside, you'd think it was some place in Clayton."

Whitaker is used to the reactions of customers who come from St. Louis and Metro East to lunch at her quiet tearoom in this neighborhood that was settled early last century by immigrants from central Europe. They were drawn to jobs in the town's steel mills and raised their families in rows of narrow little houses. A scattering of these "shotgun" houses can still be found in the neighborhood, though the city no longer allows construction on such skinny lots.

Residents named their burg Lincoln Place in 1916 after the nation's 16th president, but that didn't stop other city residents from referring to it as Hungarian -- or "Hunky" -- Hollow.

Whitaker, 46, who has lived in Granite City all of her life, appreciates both the heritage and the modern-day importance of the city's industrial roots. She worked at Granite City Steel, now owned by U.S. Steel, for 15 years. It was a tough job, she says, but it afforded her the opportunity to create a tearoom from what was run-down rental property when she bought it in 1999.

"I love this town,'' she said. "I could have moved any place, but I made a choice to stay here. I love the sense of community. We're a town of about 35,000, but it has a small-town feel.''

Art and industry

Whitaker, like many residents, speaks of the city's parks and schools with pride. But she also describes an arts community that she says is little-known to nonresidents -- from award-winning jazz bands at the high school to community theater groups.

It is the arts where Whitaker sees the future for revitalizing what was once a thriving downtown core. She serves on the City Council, representing Ward 4, which includes downtown and Lincoln Place. And she chairs the Downtown Rehabilitation Committee.

"Our goal as a municipality is to turn the focus,'' she said. "We know that retail space is not going to be in the downtown area like it was years ago; our new retail is along Route 3.''

The plan is to entice people downtown, through arts programs and a movie theater the city is constructing with TIF funds. And Whitaker's tearoom on Niedringhaus Avenue is in the right location in that vision.

"This will be the corridor leading from Route 3," she said. "You'll see small specialty shops like mine. This will take you through to downtown, which we want to be walkable and livable. With dining. We have a beautiful movie theater we're putting up.''

The plan has a motto: "Granite City: Where art and industry meet.'' And Whitaker hopes the downtown area will some day house public art -- steel sculptures that will offer a different take on steel than images of blast furnaces and coke ovens.

If you build it, they will come

On Thursday, weather-permitting, Whitaker will add a new summer feature to her tearoom: free outdoor movies in the garden on Thursday and Friday nights. She and friends who belong to a community theater group have started a nonprofit organization they're calling Alfresco Productions -- an outgrowth of an event they held last Halloween that she said drew 600 people.

There will be no charge to see the flick -- first up is "Maltese Falcon'' -- and profits from the sales of hot dogs and popcorn will go to fund other arts projects.

"The hope is to show classic films that younger people have never seen and to make the community aware of the arts. Second, it brings people who maybe don't come to this side of town, reason to come,'' Whitaker said.

But for all her ideas for the future, Whitaker is keeping a careful eye on the present -- and the effects layoffs from the city's industries are having on the local economy. For example, about 39 percent of the 2,000 laid-off workers from U.S. Steel's Granite City Works, live within the city's limits. But even those who live elsewhere spend money in town, she said.

"Your steel workers are here and working in this town, and they're buying lunch and stopping for gas and buying a newspaper. They're spending money here and not just making it and going home," she said. "I understand the value of the steel industry to this community -- and not only to our community. If anything happened to this industry, the trickle effect to the surrounding communities would be devastating."

Whitaker, who earned a degree in business management with a minor in art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, worked for the May Company after graduation. After she was laid off, she applied for what she thought would be an office job at Granite City Steel, now U.S. Steel. She was hired as a laborer, eventually working as a coiler operator -- a technique she likens to pulling taffy but with hot steel.

It was a different kind of education, she says, and a good way to make a living -- about $22 an hour -- if you don't mind working hard.

"At 27, I was making more money than I did with my degree, and I had a time clock. So, when I went home, I was home. There was no pressure. I met a great group of people. Our community is known as a melting pot, and the steel mill truly is a melting pot," she said. "It's a common misconception of steel workers -- people perceive them as just strong backs and weak minds. That is not the case, especially today in the industry."

Still, she says, she had moments when she wondered what she was doing there - such as when she started working on the plant's "hot strip."

"It looks like Dante's Inferno," she said. "You've got this big orange steel coming through and the condensation. It looked like I was in hell. And I thought, 'And I went to school for this.' "

What's wrong with that?

After 13 years at Granite City Steel, Whitaker decided it was time to open her tearoom. She bought the building, which was built in 1896, worked at the mill at night and rehabbed during the day.

Whitaker said she didn't tell her fellow steelworkers what she was doing until just before opening in 2000 because she knew they would tease her mercilessly. She did, however, test her recipes on them. During her first year of business, she worked both jobs.

The Garden Gate has 15 tables and seats up to 50. Whitaker says the business is doing OK, despite the economy, but she worries.

"I always try to think of what we can do differently. Have we lost our spark? Is it really as special as I think it is? What can I do to draw people in? I'm always trying to think of what can we do to draw people who haven't been in yet," she said.

And, there are those perceptions.

"Granite gets a bad rap of being just a gritty, blue-collar community," Whitaker said. "But what's wrong with being a hard-working community?"

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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