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Old North: A web of artists, rehabbers and general characters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Old North St. Louis, a roughly 250 acre neighborhood that sits a mile north of Downtown St. Louis, housed more than 13,800 residents at the time of the 1940 census — a community more densely populated than current-day New York City. By 2000, that number had dropped to less than 1,500.

The story, if not cliché, is known to anyone familiar with St. Louis’ history in the 20th century — again and again, a grand past followed by decades of disinvestment. For Steve Marx, Old North's saga is more than just a misty anecdote, but something he lived.

“I’ve spent 50 years at the store. I grew up in the neighborhood. It got started because someone needed a job, and the family banded together and got it going,” Marx said. “You built the houses, built everything: you came and you stayed.”

Each day of the week, Marx can be found in Marx Hardware and Paint Company, which has been in business since the early 1870s. The store, at the intersection of Benton and 14th streets, has been run by his family for five generations. Marx readily recalls his childhood days, when he says the streets were so thick with activity that if he missed a streetcar moving down the main drag of 14th street, he could see the headlights of the next car a few blocks away.

Today, Marx mans the counter, selling tools and various odds-and-ends to the slow and steady thuds of his associate fixing windows. The large front windows of the business open to a street that carries a passing car or pedestrian every few minutes.

Marx Hardware and Paint Company is the oldest business on a stretch of 14th Street that runs through the heart of Old North. The three blocks between Marx and the 1913 diner-turned-institution that is Crown Candy have undergone a physical transformation in the past two years — not so much a reinvention as a recreation — under the guidance of area residents and the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, an organization that traces its roots back to neighborhood residents from the 1980s.

A block north of Marx’s lies a two-block stretch of what was once the 14th Street Mall. Closed to traffic in 1971 and converted to a pedestrian mall, the blocks fell vacant and quiet. An exception is Headhunters, where Archie Cole has been cutting hair since 1976, when he opened the barbershop at the age of 22. In his early days of business, he would eat at the Woolworth’s department store next door.

“Everything shut down, everything closed up,” Cole said, referencing the years of decline on the 14th Street Mall. “We were the only ones here for [30 years].”

Headhunters survived, and is still a bustling barbershop today that has seated “all of the Cardinals players — Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith” and even Barack Obama during a campaign trip in 2008, when he was “nothing but a little senator,” according to Cole.

In partnership with the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, the Old North Restoration Group secured and renovated crumbling buildings along 14th, adding residential and retail space, according to a 2011 article in the St. Louis Beacon. Construction was completed and the street reopened in 2011.

With the reopening of 14th street to traffic in 2011 and the rehabilitation of buildings along the stretch, Crown Square, as the area is now called, is a linchpin of the area.

In the early days of the Restoration Group, residents of Old North would clear “overgrown, weed-filled, trash strewn lot” vacant lots and plant community gardens, Thomas said. As the group matured and garnered momentum, they turned to loftier goals while continuing to offer support and guidance to individuals — be they long-time residents, new arrivals from the county or out of state transplants — rehabbing buildings in the neighborhood.

Thomas’ first day on the job in 2003 coincided with a ceremonial groundbreaking for the group’s first residential development at North Market Place. While various obstacles would delay the project, today 20 new homes and nine historic buildings with fixed-income housing have replaced vacant lots and neglected, abandoned buildings.

The biggest crowds are consistently lined outside the door of Crown Candy at the northern end of the two blocks, rain or shine, and the area is still sparse compared to the mid-20th century. But life dots the streets.

Artist William Burton hunched over a panel of wood as smoke rose from the table, visible through the large windows at 14th and Montgomery Streets in the center of the square. Burton was surrounded by artwork spread through the gallery and workspace of 14th Street Artists Community, a building independently rehabilitated by owner Peter Sparks. Paintings rested on easels, tables and across the floor. A trained painter who taught himself the folk art of woodburning, Burton was working on images of icons such as Ma Rainey for a show detailing the northward migration of blues music from the delta.

Burton’s passion for the northside neighborhood was stoked by the owner of the building who shared his “vision and passion for rebuilding the community and institutionalizing art into the community where people are constantly inspired and motivated and begin to interact with each other.”

“It was just a perfect match — like divine intervention — so the space is actually created around the vision,” said Burton, who has worked at the gallery since July.

Artist/cultural activist and director of the Northside Workshop Juan Williams Chavez, who has worked in the neighborhood, tells a similar story.

The founder of the now-defunct, widely acclaimed Boots Contemporary Art Space on Cherokee Street, Chavez was approached by Thomas in 2010. Over several months of discussion, Chavez said he realized the goals of the neighborhood organization matched his own: community revitalization and education through the arts.

“I do socially engaged art practice, so I work with people: Developing this building, [the Northside Workshop], was my art,” Chavez said.

“I'm a kind of artist that is not married to a specific medium — whatever the job or idea requires, then I have to find the right tools.”

That art expresses itself through activities such as snowcone making, in which students explored the variety of flavors used to create snowcones across the world, and beekeeping, which Chavez said served as a hands on model for the bridges and bonds that help communities thrive.

“We have recognized from early early days that a lot of artists are often pioneers who come to a community that has been either neglected or overlooked by others and part of the nature of the artist is to see something that others don't imagine and then they create something to reflect what they see, and that often starts with a blank canvas,” Thomas said. “It's like a village here,” Perpetua Iron fabricator, artist and long-time Old North resident Janet Sanders said.

She referenced an economy of give and take that serves as a cornerstone for much of the community. Outside of Crown Candy, where a dozen or so people wait in line for an early lunch, daily fixture Jamaica Ray played the steel drums with his decorative mannequins and hand-carved brick art serving as scenery. A block to the east, Ray eats free of charge at Seattle transplant Chuck Foster’s Ye Ole Haunt — Foster and his wife live above the bar — in exchange for paintings done on the back of barstools that line the funky, halloween bar and music venue.

It can be hard for an outsider to grasp or define the web of give and take, but it is nearly impossible to miss.

Even Marx, who possesses a certain gruffness that would seemingly be at odds with Jamaica Ray’s sunny persona, has an article about Ray taped above his front counter.

“I put that up there as a little recognition for the guy,” Marx said.

Rebuilding blocks

The St. Louis Beacon has been following the Kresge Arts Community Grant for several months, reporting independently. Four areas in St. Louis City and County were selected by the grant's steering committee: Old North St. Louis, Midtown, The Garden District and The Delmar Loop. These do not necessarily conform to the city's neighborhood map; indeed, the Garden and Loop areas are significantly larger.

The Kresge committee, with DiCentral Client Solutions consultant Kris Lewis, has set up focus groups consisting of neighborhood leaders, long-time residents, artists and interested parties to define needs, desires and general boundaries of each area. With input from these groups, the local group will apply for a Kresge grant to support specific arts and health and human services programming.

This article is part of a four-part series profiling each neighborhood. See: Kresge articles, including Old North: A web of artists, rehabbers and general characters; Midtown: Beneath the glimmering lights, grassroots take hold; Artists at work in neighborhoods around the Loop; St. Louis experiment hopes to use 'embedded arts' to build neighborhoods. Open mics were held in Old North, Midtown, the Loop and Garden District.

The Beacon's reporting is supported by the Kresge grant.