This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: For the past month, there’s been noticeable, steady rehab action at the corner of Grand Boulevard and Connecticut Street, where the Tree House Vegetarian Restaurant’s taken over a corner storefront last used by the youth-geared, hookah-friendly Petra. Prior to two distinct incarnations of Petra, the space held a tiny Chinese takeout, with, let’s call it, a modest street facade.
It’s safe to say that most watchers of the city scene would consider this succession of moves as a (super-)slow-burning improvement, with Tree House adding the first major new “pop”-worthy addition to the block in the new year -- certainly the first since a bikram yoga studio came into the huge, long-shuttered Woolworth store down the block.
By mentioning the disappearance of the old Woolworth’s, I’m dating myself. And maybe I’m showing a kind of stuck-in-amber existence on my block. See, in winter, I’ll be able to see Tree House from my front steps; it’s just a block-and-a-half down from the third, separate crib I’ve called home on the 3400 block of Connecticut. Over the past four decades, I’ve most-often lived only a block from the profound changes along South Grand moves, a unique way to watch the slow progressions and occasional slips.
South Grand’s a major commercial and retail player on the South Side. It’s also, like other major streets, a dividing line in the crazy-quilt of our divided city. Three wards bump up against South Grand’s borders, just in the heart of the district between Utah and Arsenal. The neighborhood designations change rapidly, too, with pedestrians able to hop through multiple differently labeled nabes in 20-30 minutes. These types of artificial boundaries can mean nothing, or they can mean everything, as city dollars are frequently and tightly linked to aldermanic spending habits and visions.
But the district ultimately serves one central great, even “best,” need: it’s a place with activity happening during most of the day and night. The lights turn on as the coffeeshops fire up the ovens in the early morning and stay on until the 3 a.m. bars close nearly a full day later. As the central place for gathering, a cultural component is obviously part of the mix. And here’s where we land today.
Thinking about South Grand’s once-undisputed role as the linchpin of south city culture, there’s plenty of reason to wonder what’s next for the neighborhood’s heart. Two neighborhoods -- the Grove on the near-south side and Cherokee Street, just a few blocks to the south and east -- have, in different respects, roared past South Grand as cultural hubs. One could make a case that Morganford, too (though blessed with more residential buildings and fewer storefronts), should join that list; certainly, it’s a neighborhood with lots of fresh, still-evolving appeal.
While not a strict list or a set of an actionable improvements, the following items address some key concepts that contribute to South Grand’s present status as a cool kid that’s lost a bit of that hip edge. And, yes, we’re fully aware that plenty of people toss around both unfunded ideas and “the city should do X”-type posts. Enough qualifiers ...
Signing in: While some might call the Grove’s penchant for large, wall-scale murals only a nice add-on to the activity around it, there’s gotta be a nod of appreciation to that hook; no longer is it a surprise to see painters adding a chess board or racing cyclists or a giant, wild cat to the side of a building. It’s common, and it adds to the aggressive branding in the Grove. Muralists come in abundance in St. Louis, and South Grand has walls. A nice connection between those two things would be awesome in establishing a sense of artistic motion.
Unofficially mural-ed: In areas with a sense of vitality and cultural growth, the emergence of unofficial art is completely tied to the artistic strides around it. A place without stickers going up on every Dumpster, without graf popping up on empty walls, may be an area without the vim and vitality a neighborhood would ideally want to claim; graffitti’s part-and-parcel of what makes a city. This’ll be argued down from all kinds of corners and that’s OK; anyone whose property has been touched up without warning will understandably be among the critics. But a look at the cultural “pop” of the Cherokee and Grove areas could suggest that artists are rolling through with regularity, working on the clock and off.
Onion-ey appeals: Certain types of developments feel like they will eventually be sent-up via The Onion, the best online source for trend-tweaking. But any neighborhood would be lucky to have many of the things in an Onion mock. For example, The Grove recently welcomed the news of Urban Chestnut Brewing Company’s new bottling plant and tasting room. The new endeavor, replacing a closed (and closed-looking) paper concern, is big news. The impact Schlafly Bottleworks has had on Maplewood is profound, the business adding to the indie restaurant scene around it. Similarly, the new UCBC won’t just add jobs, it’ll add a destination. Though no magic can change what’s happened, the discount grocers that have gone into an old National at Grand and Magnolia have had a lot less impact than had the same space been used for a micro-brewery.
Moving pictures: It’s likely a marker of last decade’s growth wants-and-needs, but while we’re talking beer, we should note that micro-brewery/moviehouses have been impactful, enduring additions to many growing neighborhoods. Some years ago, an ex-owner of Mangia Italiano would muse about the cinema possibilities of the long-shuttered Roosevelt Bank building across the street. There’s been no shortage of ideas on what the building should become, even as it’s sat in development mothballs for years. The arrival of a fun, attractive reuse would bring one of the key, empty buildings of the block back into energetic play.
Musical marks: This past Saturday, a good-size audience was at Mangia Italiano to see/hear Peck of Dirt and the debuting Nefertiti. The room was rife with longtime local musicians and scene-types, all coming to catch the music. Mangia’s primacy in keeping a late-night crowd alive on Grand is well known. But music venues work best when not operating in isolation. The Loop’s always had multiple venues, featuring a variety of sounds. The Grove recently added The Demo, to go with its partner club, The Atomic Cowboy. Cherokee has linchpin musical outposts, like Foam and 2720. Grand has dance and EDM clubs, but another live music venue - one with a standing PA, lights, the works - has been a missing ingredient for oh-so-long.
Fun vs. function: I don’t want to just pile dirt on the place I gladly call home; plenty of functional services are up-and-running on South Grand: A library. A health food shop. A middle school. A post office. A dry cleaners. Multiple gas stations. Some other businesses have moved on over time, from a corner pet store, to a new-release bookshop, to a tailor. But there’s always been a critical mass of useful locations in place; ask anyone on Cherokee if they wouldn’t love a full-service bank in the heart of the district. Such a non-hip amenity is a need. Things like a skate shop, a bike shop, a tattoo studio, a record store are types of (metaphorical) canaries in the (development) coalmine; they prove that more can come and add to what’s in place. Each arrival gives a sense of new, city-friendly life to its surroundings. And Grand’s due for more of these. If Cherokee can sprout five bakeries, after all...
New is good: In fact, if the arrival of Tree House signals anything, it’s that the restaurant scene on South Grand - while internationally diverse, blocks-long and featuring several landmark spots - has been too-stable, if anything. If that sounds goofy, consider how many places measure their time alive with at least a decade in operation; sure, some storefronts have rotated, several concepts haven’t taken hold. But neighborhoods on the bounce feature the new. The Tree House is run by the Tran family, operators of the nearby Mekong/Upstairs/Barbarella complex. This new vision adds to the scene, with a fresh concept and attractive buildout. (Meanwhile, late word confirms that Mojo Tapas is on the way to the great restaurant in the sky. Bummer. But the space is nice and something’ll surely emerge there, again.)
Build on diversity, build through indies: While there’s a hint of chain businesses on South Grand, the neighborhood’s bedrock is diversity in all kinds of forms. From the ethnic makeup of the surrounding neighborhoods to the mom-and-pop nature of the business district, South Grand reflects the best, most-positive aspects of having that kind of mix. One has to expect that empty storefronts will continue to be filled with businesses complementary to what’s already in place, with a strong LGBT presence welcomed. Speaking of which...
The street itself as a player: Any arguments to the contrary are off and goofy: If South Grand lost anything of major consequence in recent years, it’s the Pride Parade and Pridefest, which will be downtown this year. One hopes the smaller Pride in Tower Grove event, which has been ramping up marketing in recent weeks, will take root in Tower Grove Park, long the perfect home to Pride. Neighborhoods house events that often have the ideal feel for themselves; the People’s Joy Parade and Cinco de Mayo make sense on Cherokee; the Tour de Grove strangely works along Manchester; just this past week, the Amsterdam Tavern held a soccer tourney in the middle of Morganford and ... it ... just ... made ... sense. South Grand’s had street festivals and fairs over the years and the neighborhood nuts (bless ‘em, all) have always come out in force.
Money would help dreams come true: Hey, civic leaders. Let’s get South Grand moving. How about a mini-golf course behind the old Roosevelt Bank? The originally promised second floors on the Bread Co. and Qdoba? Rooftop dining? Bring back the Ratha Yatra Parade? Put a music shop and venue in the skeleton of Mojo’s? It’s too late to keep KDHX in the neighborhood, isn’t it? Perhaps we can start casting the statue of Mo Costello? Maybe some speed-limit enforcement? And how about no more knockout gamers? Those would be rad starts. And so would a renewed sense of spirit; we Tower Grove Easter’s are getting a little tired of those Cherokee People and all their well-deserved gloating. Enough coolness for you.