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Focus on art feeds Maplewood's recent growth

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2009 - Standing behind the mayor of Maplewood and a woman wearing a guillotine blade in her wig, Rachelle L'Ecuyer took a moment to soak up the atmosphere. Under a tent on this mild Friday evening, dozens of people snapped photos and whistled as contestants in a costume contest strutted down a makeshift catwalk.

L'Ecuyer, who is Maplewood's director of community development, helped plan the "Don't Dream It - Be It" contest, which featured a range of zany outfits -- the blade-wearing people's choice award winner, Julie Strassman, built her look around a striped prom dress that she unretired for one night only.

The costume competition is the latest addition to Maplewood's "Let Them Eat Art" event, which intentionally calls to mind the phase "Let Them Eat Cake," attributed to Marie Antoinette. Now in its fourth year, the progressive art show pays homage not only to Bastille Day but to Maplewood's burgeoning arts scene.

Visual artists from across St. Louis went to work inside bars and coffee shops and hair salons. People strolled down sidewalks on Manchester Boulevard and the gallery-filled Sutton Avenue, watching belly dancers, a Japanese top spinner and other street performers.

The scene would be unrecognizable to anyone coming to the St. Louis County inner suburb for the first time in years. "People keep telling me, 'This is what the city was like when I was a kid,' " L'Ecuyer said.

Even to current residents, the arts event is one reminder of how far Maplewood has come since its days of high crime and empty storefronts.

"When I went three years ago to 'Let Them Eat Art,' I couldn't believe people were eating on the sidewalk and listening to music and going into cool boutique shops," said Eileen Duggan, a freelance writer who has lived in Maplewood for nearly 14 years. "One thing I like about Maplewood is the artsy kind of community. A lot of writers, artists and musicians live here."

The growth of this lively summer arts festival mirrors the growth of Maplewood's arts community, which has been instrumental in the city's revival. Some of the evolution has been organic -- artists and architects following earlier arrivals who took a chance on a downtrodden town.

L'Ecuyer, who's been in her post for more than four years, and other city officials have also made a concerted effort to brand the city as an arts hub with events like "Let Them Eat Art," "The Taste of Maplewood" and "Art Outside," an alternative fall art fair that showcases local talent and is held at Schlafly Bottleworks.

Commissioned public art, such as a "Maplewood" sign made of brick, wood and other parts of demolished city homes that welcomes drivers who pass below a bridge near the Maplewood-Manchester MetroLink stop, is also part of the branding plan.

A Growing Arts Scene

If you're looking for a neighborhood that's on the verge of a turnaround, find where the artists are setting up shop. Maplewood has proven that adage. Well before the city became attractive to many small-business owners, painters and photographers were finding cheap property and a central location between Highway 40 and Interstate 44.

"Artists who came in early on, they didn't look at things the way others did," L'Ecuyer said. "They saw buildings they liked or a community of people they wanted to be with. They looked for places where they could get the most bang for their buck and were willing to take risks that someone else might not have been willing to take."

Maplewood is still home to emerging artists and more recently has attracted established businesses looking to take advantage of foot traffic on Sutton and Manchester. Alicia LaChance, co-owner of the artist-run gallery Hoffman LaChance Contemporary, located in the heart of that arts district, said she was excited to be a part of the downtown revitalization. (The gallery moved from Clayton to Maplewood three years ago and into a new building in town earlier this year.)

"You could see the potential for this neighborhood for a long time," she said. "Now there are so many artists and studios and cool music venues; it's lively and has a great mix of alternative thinkers."

LaChance said the mixture of full-time professional artists, part-time artists running studios, as well as professors who frequent some of the new coffee shops, makes for a vibrant cultural scene.

Jackie Sanders, co-owner of CooperElla Cafe and House of Art, said her regulars include students, people who work in Maplewood and other locals coming to use the free wifi or hear live music.

Sanders bought the business in December and turned her attention on the retail side to local painters, photographers and sketch artists, among others. She said she was drawn to Maplewood for its diversity of creative types, including designers and caterers.

And photographers. David J. Cerven, owner and head photographer at Studio Altius, said when he moved his business to Maplewood in early 2007, two other photographers worked near him. Now there are eight in the same vicinity.

Cerven, 32, who moved to Maplewood six years ago and was elected to the City Council this spring, also represents another trend. In 1970, the city's median age was 60. Now it's roughly 34. Cerven said many young people who moved into the city over the last decade were attracted by the growing arts and music scene.

Beyond the live music venues, Maplewood is also home to the Folk School of St. Louis, a nonprofit that offers evening classes and weekend jam sessions. Colleen M. Heine, executive director of the school and an avid fiddle player, said she was attracted to Maplewood for its neighborhood feel, unlike her last location on Big Bend Boulevard in Richmond Heights.

"If you're an artist you don't want to feel isolated, and here the businesses and government folks and residents all kind of take an interest in things going on," she said.

Added Cerven: "This is a community that embraces creatives. If you're an artist or photographer or one of the 13,000 architects who live here, you'll find plenty of support."

Architect City

Cerven's intentionally exaggerated estimate has some truth to it. Maplewood is home to plenty of architects --L'Ecuyer said at least 10 firms are rooted in the city, and more architects live there but work elsewhere.

Like artists who came to the city before its turnaround, early-adopter architects saw something different in Maplewood.

"I think they are drawn to the area because of interesting buildings, some of which have been restored," L'Ecuyer said. "They are also drawn to places where they see things developing."

Doug Kassabaum, who opened his first office in Maplewood in the mid-1990s and moved to the city five years ago, agrees. "A lot of architects are adventuresome in one sense when it comes to discovering an area," he said. "I was drawn by the historic architecture and the low prices. It's a good scale for a community, and it offers the possibility of being a pedestrian-scale type of place."

Kassabaum, co-partner of the Sutton Studio Inc., an architecture and design firm based in Mapelwood, owns four buildings in town -- one of which he used to attract Hoffman LaChance several years ago. He said he tries to foster the arts in Maplewood by renting to artists.

Lately, Kassabaum said, Sutton Avenue feels like architects row. There's a mix of small firms like his and larger companies like SPACE, LLC, owned by Tom Niemeier. His 15-person firm began in Maplewood four years ago.

Many of the designers are buzzing over the possibilities for a piece of land just down their block. Metro recently turned over to the city what originally was a trolley loop and had since been a bus loop.

City officials decided to hold a design charette and invited local architects to present their ideas for the land, which include a park, a playground and an amphitheater. The concepts were on display during the Taste of Maplewood earlier this summer, and the dialogue on how to use the space continues.

"It's very rare to get a piece of land and to be able to do what you want with it," said Cerven, the council member.

While Niemeier didn't take part in the charette, he said he's curious to see what happens to the bus loop -- though he won't be in Maplewood to see the result. His company is on the verge of moving from two buildings that total less than 4,000 square feet in Maplewood to one 7,500-square-foot property in the Grove neighborhood. The transition is also from renting to owning.

Niemeier said architects are constantly trying to find the next area that's still cheap and on its way up. Maplewood, he said, is no longer that place.

"I have nothing bad to say about Maplewood; we strongly considered staying," he said. "But you can find more space for less downtown or in the Grove. Maplewood's a great story, but it isn't the cheap place to go anymore."