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Festival and forward thinking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 2, 2011 - Today is the halfway mark in the second Beacon Festival. Tonight (Thurs., June 2), ticket buyers will meet downtown in Charles Metz's beautiful apartment in the old, meticulously restored Edison Brothers Warehouse building on 14th Street for a sold-out harpsichord concert.

Tomorrow is architect Gene Mackey's talk on Louis Sullivan at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Saturday, I'll meet folks at the construction headquarters for the builders of our new Mississippi River Bridge. Sunday, there's gospel music at New Sunny Mount Missionary Baptist Church. And Monday, the finale -- A Little Lunch Music, presented by young singers from Opera Theatre's festival season.

The building where we are meeting tonight nearly bit the dust, but the late Don Breckenridge led the successful effort to rescue it and converted it into a 288-room Sheraton hotel and condominium complex. In addition to its service as a dwelling place for visitors and St. Louisans, the building literally is a work of art -- as it happens, a three-acre work of art. In 1984, mural-meister Richard Haas was commissioned to paint one of his trick-the-eye masterpieces on the walls. The mural is sensational and may have helped to save the building from destruction.

Wednesday night, after memoirist Kathleen Finneran's reading of her poignant and ironic essay on crock pots and gay marriage, my partner Martin Kaplan and I went on an adventure that ended up at another landmark, Crown Candy Kitchen. We chewed our way through a diet destroyer supper that featured two signature dishes of Crown's -- the best BLT in the universe and the best egg salad sandwich in the world, washed down with Diet Pepsi, which, as everyone knows, because it said DIET right there on the can, washes away any caloric indiscretions. We checked in with Andy Karandzieff on the family's health matters. The news, I am so glad to say, was all good.

Crown -- like the Edison warehouse -- is a valued community resource, an engine of sustainability in the drive to protect and renew St. Louis. We arrived there after touring around north St. Louis to get our bearings, the better to be on time for our Festival tour on Saturday. Once we figured out how to get to First and Mullanphy streets, we meandered around, looking at the old elevated railway trestle and at the big boulder that marks the site of the Big Mound created by Native Americans and at the robust, 19th and early 20th buildings that survive the urban plagues of the our time: poverty, feckless disregard for the value of existing resources, greed and the natural processes of decay.

Such an adventure can be woefully depressing. But in our booth at Crown Candy at 8 o'clock at night, as I watched a stream of customers arriving and leaving, as I dipped my spoon into the vessel containing a Crown Candy special sundae, I was awash in a sense of hope and evidence of prosperity. I admit I see potential where others see disaster, but I am confident the free fall St. Louis was experiencing in the second half of the 20th century as been checked, and piece by piece, inch by inch, progress toward genuine, sustainable vitality is being accomplished.

We drove home past success stories such as Washington Avenue's loft district, and the renovation of the Central Library. We could see the Edison Brothers warehouse as we turned west on Market Street, and there was the Peabody Opera House, its renovation nearing completion. If we had turned left on Market, we'd have passed the magic of Citygarden, and continuing on east, we'd connect with our great symbol, Eero Saarinen's Arch, for which there are great, ambitious, muscular plans to revitalize the Arch grounds and better connect them with the city and the river and East Side.

When we arrived at home in the baja west end, I was struck by the progress that took hold of and changed, altogether for the better, my little corner of the world. Continuity is expressed in my neighborhood by such established landmarks as Newmarket Hardware, an urban resource if there ever was one, across the street from our condo, and evident and tasty evidence of resurgence can be discovered in restaurants such as the Scottish Arms and Terrene.

Are there problems? Certainly. I don't need anyone telling me that my spectacles have a certain rosy tint. We need to take off the rose-tinted glasses and also throw off the restraining garments of smugness and complacency, and we must work hard to ameliorate the problems of our time. But we also need to proclaim and promote our resources, and to celebrate what has gone right.

By reporting not only what troubles the region but also on the strong indicators of new life, the Beacon aims to be part of the process of steady growth and responsible renewal. In large part, our festival's mission is to take folks places they've never been before in this sprawling, marvelous metropolis. On such visits, our hope is that participants will have a good time in their home town, while taking serious note of challenges and, in balance, reveling in the struggle toward a lasting renaissance.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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