Saturday, May 27, 2006

conversations about the arts

If you're not sure that great things are happening in St. Louis, let me give you this evidence:

The other night, while five of us sat around a table at Brennan's in the west end, we discussed the state of the world-- as we do. We touched upon liturgical furniture, what we wanted to be doing in twentry years, the greatest problems in America, globalization, and the erasure of place. All this after da day at the batting cages. And then we talked about Dan Scott and Wiktor Szostalo, two of St Louis' own, and residents of Forest Park Southeast.

Forest Park Southeast has undergone a rejunvenation, and a revitalization. In the past 18 months, new businesses have flanked the area, rehabs are under devlopment, and the streets have been cleaned up. Known as a neighborhood given to crime and drugs, Forest Park Southeast has also long been the home of many regular working folk, including Scott and Szostalo.

I visted the neighborhood years ago for the first time. Driving with Steve Smith in his caddy, he was taking me to Dan Scott's gym for a bit of research. Pulling through Newstead, we encountered what remains one of the most beautiful images I have of St. Louis. A group of about 20 girls, all in matching t-shirts, were marching down the street. Lead by two women in the front, the girls ranged in age from about five through seventeen. They would stop periodically, in formation, do a cheer, and then step. Then they would keep marching. There, in that neighborhood, where everyone thinks it all goes wrong, there were kids out playing, and adults finding things for kids to do, and doing them.

Steve and I stopped the car as the marching girls went around us, engulfing us in a sea of chants and laughter. I felt I had literally entered the belly of another world, and inside it was warm and confortable. We continued on down to Dan's gym where small children came running up to Steve, showing him their new shoes, asking if they could watch the Caddy for him. Inside, young men trained in the heat with the clocks buzzing and bells ringing. Dogs ran through the street into the gym and on to the backyard. Neighborhood kids come to the gym for a place to go, and Scott gives them chores to do often in exchange for training.

Caddy corner to his house lived Szostalo, a world renowned religious sculptor, who sadly seems barely on our register. Szostalo has art all over the world, including in the Basillica in St. Louis. The back of his yard is a mass of found objects and wood being carved by chainsaw into sculptures. Out front, he used to have the Pissing Sculpture on a trailer.

It's interesting to me that these two men's names are barely whispered in St. Louis, and doubtless there are countless more like them. Men who make their own terms, who create their lives in their neighborhood, and who have a vision for how to change things. This is not massive change, but it starts where we live. It starts with passion, with looking for ways to connect ourselves to the world, to the people who surround us, and to our neighborhoods.

And then there is Brett Underwood and the Hoobellatoo gang.

This St. Louis artists' collective boasts some mighty fine members and some great projects. Brett, himself, often goes unnoticed. Though he works at the Tap Room and has a show on KDHX (the No Show on Thursday nights), he is more known for being behind the scenes and tirelessly promoting literary events and arts organizations. Coming up on June 4, at the Tap Room, there's a Trivia Night to raise funds for Hoobellatoo ($10 per person, 10 people per table).

And finally, the Arch Rival Roller Girls are getting their due. Founder Sarah Kate Buckles, was just profiled along with a nice piece about the roller derby queens in the latest RFT.

In a city where people say nothing happens, where people on the coasts can barely find us, we are creating our own way-- in diffewrent ways. Starting organizations and groups, promoting people and events, working on our neighborhoods. Not because we want to be famous, especially because surely there is a less heartbreaking path to that, but because we believe. Just goes to show, all the cool stuff happens underground, organically-- but that doesn't mean it doesn't change the landscape of our city. It's these small things everyday that are weaving the fabric of who we are, of who we will be. And every time I get the chance to sit around and talk about it, I feel just a little better about it all.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Signs of Progress in the 'Lou

James and I went out to Bill Christman's place in the Loop the other night. We sat in the garden, drinking a beer and catching up, and being us, we talked about the small signs of progress we've both seen in this city lately.

1.) Metrolink. The public meetings are finally being held for the Northside-Southside routes.

Below is an email from my friend Matt.

"We've been waiting for this for a loooooong time."

Public meetings set for Northside-Southside Study

The first round of public open houses has been scheduled for the
Northside-Southside MetroLink Study. An initial set of of preliminary
MetroLink routes and other transit improvements within the City of St. Louis
will be available. The same information will be available at each open

Northside--Tuesday, June 13, 2006 5 to 7 p.m. Herbert Hoover Boys and
Girls Club 2901 Grand, 63107 Presentations at 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Downtown--Wednesday, June 14, 2006 3:30 to 6 p.m. Downtown St. Louis
Partnership 906 Olive, 63101 Presentations at 4 and 5:15 p.m.

Southside--Thursday, June 15, 2006 5 to 7 p.m. Monsanto Research Facility
Missouri Botanical Gardens 4500 Shaw Blvd., 63110 Presentations at
5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

2.) In the May 8 issue of Newsweek "America's Best High Schools", Metro in St. Louis was listed at #40.

Not only was that great enough, but no other school was listed in the top 100 in MO, and only a couple in the Midwest were even ranked. Newsweek ranked the schools based on a ratio calculated from AP offerings and the number of students graduating with AP courses. It should be noted that they only ranked public schools, not private, and that the majority of the public schools listed (and 5 of the top 10) had 25% or more of their students receiving government free lunches. So for those that think that great schools can't crop up in poverty-beaten areas, you're wrong. It was interesting as well that many of the great schools were in cities that were very diverse in race and extremely stratified in terms of wealth. Several schools were profiled, and each had a different approach.

I don't think that we can go for a one size fits all approach to education. Different students need different things; different areas require different teachings. We are not monolithic and yet our education often assumes that we are, or that all children will go to college. I would like to see all children capable, academically and financially, of going to college, but that is not necessarily the best solution for everyone.

It's funny though, here we are home to a nationally ranked public school and we never hear anything about it. Nada. Zip. Zilch. The only high schools in the news are private schools and their sports and scandals and Vashon with its fights. Too bad we don't tell the people in St. Louis about what we are doing right.

3.) The Tower Grove Farmers Market. Every Saturday from 8:30 to 3:30 just west of the pool pavilion. Local farms and southside merchants are gathering to peddle their wares. It's small and beatifully communal-- herbs and meats, pastas and coffees, crafts. And all in one of our most beautiful parks-- one again overlooked by most not living on the southside. It's worth the drive though. My favorite thing about it: it sprang up organically from people who live in the neighborhood and is supported by businesses surrounding the neighborhood. Now that's progress.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

$20 goes a long way

There will be many posts soon, but for now, check out my other baby

Click on $20:Code Red

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Hats Off

My love affair with this city is more involved than
just place. It's about the people I know, what we do,
and how we do it. It's the long conversations we have
late at night, the things we create, and the ideas we
tirelessly try to bring to life.

This weekend marks a small milestone, albeit an
important one. Over a year ago, Steve Smith came to me
and said he wanted to start a restaurant. There was a
small buzz. I'd hear conversations at Mangia late at
night, read bits in the gossip column of the
newspaper, and offerings of opinions would come my
way. There were naysayers and difficulties, meetings
that lasted way too long, and television cameras in
our faces. But still, there was a vision.

What we got turned out even better.

This coming Saturday, May 6th, we are celebrating the
Royale's first year in business. What started out as a
place where you could bring your grandmother for
lunch, your date for dinner, and your friends for
cocktails has turned into much more. Sure, the drinks
are fresh and innovative, some classic tales of days
past. The records spin at night, the bartenders trade
quips and insight; outside the fountain bubbles as the
tents sway and the grill sends up smoke signals.

The Royale has come together as more than just a
restaurant. It's a place where we have seen scores of
people come together to watch political addresses,
where books clubs meet while sipping wine, where
community leaders organize and teachers discuss the
state of education, where washers are thrown, and
where small revolutions begin their neighborhood
whispers. It has also become my home and my family--
not in the sense of that which you can't escape, but
in the way that it is constant, there for you to
return to when you need laughter and insight the most.

Come celebrate all this with us this weekend. On
Saturday, May 6th, we are holding our Second Annual
Derby Party, though this year it is officially the
Royale Derby Speakeasy. Mint juleps will be cold and
strong as the heat of spring stirs the building.
Jessica Butler will be outside on the patio singing
her jazz stylings and playing with her band. DJ's will
spin classic tunes inside and out. Our new chef, Tony
Beno-Holden, has whipped up a variety of food specials
that celebrate the South, the Derby, and the era of
Prohibition, not to mention officially opening the
full grill menu up for business. The race will kick
off around 4:30 for horse fans. There will be hats
worn and fancy dress, and the party will last long
into the night. And for lovers of the drink, Tim
O'Connell will be on hand, in town special from DC, to
hold court.

Thanks for the great year, hopefully the first of
many. Speak easy. Dress sharp.

WHAT: Royale Anniversary Party/ Derby Speakeasy Bash
WHEN: Saturday, May 6 2pm-close
WHERE: Royale Food and Spirits, 3132 S. Kingshighway
DRESS: sharp

Monday, May 01, 2006

Highway Sounds

My friend Richard Newman wrote a beautiful poem once called "Highway Sounds" about living in Soulard. Richard is the editor in chief of River Styx Literary Magazine where I was also an editor (before the days of teaching). I was just sitting outside watching traffic on 40, the way those cars whipped and whizzed past. As a kid, I always liked being in cars, especially watching the yellow lines zoom by. I sat there just now thinking. Thinking about where all those cars are going, where they came from.

And I decided something.

Since I never have time to do much of anything before midnight, and because I work about 100 hours a week and have no energy, as soon as school is out, I am designating one day each week for myself. When I first moved to St. Louis, I used to go out every Monday and see a different part of the city. I'd explore a neighborhood or eat somewhere or browse a row of shops. I'd hit museums and bookstores and coffeeshops. But somewhere along the way, my free time dwindled and I felt like I had seen a lot. On Sex and the City, I heard a character talk about having a "date with the city". Friends of mine used to go out for Tourist Tuesdays, and I liked the idea.

So, coming soon, each week I am going to go out and do something in the city. And no, I'm not just going to go to MoKaBe's (or Blackthorn, or Mangia, or the Royale). I might hit some oldies but goodies, see how the 'Lou has changed over the years. And yep, I might just skip. And definitely, I will blog.

There are some great sites out there about STL, and some great blogs (the Lowlife Guide, The ACC, Steve Smith's blog come to mind), but we need even more documentation about what we see in our city. Since I've been blogging on, the way I have been communicating things has changed a little, or rather perhaps, my point has. I want people to go out, to see the things we see, and to love them as we do. So that's what I am going to write about, and that's what you'll get.

Maybe soon some of those cars will be coming to St. Louis, not leaving it so fast. Maybe some people will want to come here for vacation. This is not the kind of place you come to for luxury, but I often like 3 or 4 days in a new city, especially one I can drive to, and this is a great destination for people looking for something cheap, fun, and different-- and if they want beer and baseball, they just might find the place that spins along that axis.