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The Grove's Better Block deserved better weather

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 15, 2011 - May can be a rough month on event organizers, as Saturday's nasty combination of cold, wind and rain demonstrated. There might not have been a local, outdoor event more affected by the weather than the Tour de Grove in mid-town St. Louis City.

True, cyclists from around the region, and nation, were still able to take to the 1.7-mile, looped course for a full day's worth of rain-dampened races. But organizers hoped that St. Louisans without a direct tie to the racers, themselves, would pack the Grove neighborhood to watch. 

That hope, unfortunately, took a hit with the weather, as only a few dozen friends, families and cycling die-hards were at the start/finish line during the morning hours, despite the high-quality competitors flying down the closed-to-traffic Manchester.

That kind of urban sight - a shut-down, major thoroughfare, used for a new, unique purpose - can provide a kick-start to all types of ancillary activities. Members of Mayor Slay's Vanguard Cabinet were attempting to do just that, as they brought the Better Block idea from Dallas for a St. Louis debut. In this concept, buildings that are abandoned, or under-utilized, are temporarily dressed up, serving as models for what could be found in a particular location.

In a sense, the 4200 block of Manchester provides just such a template, with urban buildings that are in-use, but tend toward industrial/storage uses, with plain, closed-off exteriors.

"It's good for the city that these buildings have businesses in them," said Patrick Brown, a mayoral staffer who heads up the 80-plus-member Vanguard Cabinet. "But they don't add to the pedestrian nature of the street."

Brown says the that the area "took on an industrial" feel over the years and that efforts to make it a more mixed-use community will take time. And events like Saturday, can bring attention to the redoubled efforts of making The Grove a destination.

As for folks familiar with The Grove know, the block's already become a small-scale, club-and-restaurant hub over the past five years, rebranded with signage and a common advertising approach. As can happen, the first clubs to move into the area, well over a decade ago, were LGBT venues. They frequently crop up in bunches, in neighborhoods that are in the early stages of revival. With the arrival of the Atomic Cowboy, though, the area's leadership began to aggressively seek out new businesses, while working on minor streetscape improvements. At the time of greatest momentum, though, the nation's economic situation clouded, then recessed, meaning a slow-down on countless efforts of urban rebounding, including those in The Grove.

In that neighborhood, the 4200 block of Manchester is instructive in how a single block can either extend a business/entertainment district or can cause a pause. On Manchester, the Gramophone nightclub sits just outside the main action, while restaurants to the west, such as the well-regarded Newstead Tower Public House, weren't able to wait for business to return. Many see a need to begin wedding the strong, eastern edge of the Manchester strip with businesses closer to Kingshighway, on the west.

Matt Green, a member of that youth-and-activist-oriented Vanguard Cabinet, was on-hand Saturday, not just as a key organizer of Better Block but as a "multi-tasker. I'm also selling the beer today."

Found under a series of white tents outside of their weekend-only creation, Green and friends had been on-hand since 6 a.m., working to set out their rain blocks. One protected table had baked goods, with another tent serving as the grill station and beer bar. A movable projection system was on the way, to show the classic in local cinema, "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery," against one of the buildings. On each of the buildings, modest bits of signage suggested new usages, like a bakery, a bistro and a movie theater.

If nothing else, Saturday allowed Green and his co-horts a chance to test out their idea in the great outdoors, instead of just the world of theory. That said, attention toward the event did blossom in cyberspace.

"Overall, we were pleased with the amount of good press we got on social media," he said. "There seemed to be a lot of interest in this."

Pointing to one of the buildings, with people huddled in the doorway, he add that "even today, with the rain, this is the most amount of people that have hung out outside of these buildings in a decade."

Brown said that the group is discussing doing Better Blocks "on a quarterly basis."

"But," Green added, "it probably won't be in The Grove again. The idea in doing it is that you have developers realize the potential in an area. You show people how beautiful they can make it for themselves. Ideally, you do this in a neighborhood only one time."

Brown agreed with that sentiment, saying that "it's something that's cool. Something different and engaging on a local level. There's been tons of support around this. Everything you see here was donated and put up by volunteers. And these aren't slouches; they're people with full-time jobs who wanted to do this."

Also, the organizers of Better Block shot video on-site, with people standing behind a picture frame, giving their testimonials for why they're city residents. These will be uploaded in coming days at stayinginstl.com.

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer.