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Midtown: Beneath the glimmering lights, grassroots take hold

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 11, 2013 - Pity the driver at the intersection of Grand and Washington boulevards on a Saturday night. As crowds flock to and from the Fox Theatre’s national acts, Powell Hall’s St. Louis Symphony and other venues and galleries, traffic must yield to the arts, the grand institutions of Midtown.

But a few blocks from that intersection, backstage and on the fringes, the grassroots of independent artists and small organizations are taking hold.

While the large institutions such as the Fox and the Symphony paved the way, joined by the Black Rep, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the Contemporary Art Museum, the Sheldon and other major players, the smaller venues and individual artists are increasing the vibrancy of the area.

Circle of lights

Midtown’s lights weren’t always so bright. In the early 20th century, the area roughly bounded by Vandeventer, Page, Jefferson Avenues and Lindell Boulevard was a thriving entertainment district and industrial hub, with the region’s first car dealerships selling Studebakers and Hupmobiles along the swarming crowds of Locust Street. At 3003 Locust St., for instance, cars were stored on the roof and lowered by elevator onto the showroom’s mosaic floor.

In an ironic twist, the rise of the car as an American necessity helped fuel a post-war urban flight that devastated the area. Suburbanization and de-urbanization took hold as St. Louis’ population moved westward along the expressways. Midtown was largely abandoned by the late 1960s.

The eastern industrial corridor had largely fallen still and, on the west side of the neighborhood, the theaters turned off their lights. 3003 Locust St. sat quiet. The ornate Fox Theatre was shuttered.

The rebirth in the 1980s was spearheaded by local investors and Grand Center Inc., a community development corporation dedicated to the “intersection of arts and life,” the tagline for Grand Center. In 1982, the Fox Theatre reopened.

Grand Center purchased and rehabilitated projects on its own, such as the Grandel Theatre, the current performance space for the Black Repertory Theatre. In the 1990s, it supported the conversion of the Woolworth Building into the Big Brothers and Big Sisters building, which houses the Kranzberg Arts Center, Craft Alliance and small theater spaces. The organization also helped create venues for such things as Jazz at the Bistro and paved the way for 25 arts and education organizations. And 3003 Locust St.? It's the home of Satori and Tom Brady's ANNONYarts. 

The abundance of arts and education organizations, along with powerhouse institutions such as the Contemporary Art Museum and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, has meshed a net of the arts, at first glance most visible in the always-on lights of the Fox Theatre.

But for every mainstage, there is a fringe, a mime waiting outside the doors of an opera house or a musician serenading the crowds of symphony goers enroute to their cars. In Grand Center, that fringe -- literally and figuratively -- is booming.

A Fringe is born

When St. Lou Fringe Founder and Executive Director Em Piro moved from Seattle in 2004 to attend St. Louis University, she was thrilled to be steps away from the Fox Theatre. A theater enthusiast, Piro and a friend headed north from the campus their first weekend in town to explore the neighborhood.

“I walked up Grand with a friend of mine. We go to the Fox, and we get past that and thought ‘Where are we?’” Piro said.

“It was like tumbleweeds were blowing by.”

In 2011 Piro resurrected an old idea of hers: creating an inclusive arts festival in St. Louis that would highlight a variety of local acts, ones that often flew beneath the typical theater-goer’s or music-enthusiast’s radar.

It wasn’t that non-traditional or cutting edge arts didn’t exist, Piro said. On the contrary, she had found the St. Louis art scene to be vibrant, even if disconnected from itself and its patrons at times.

“We had so many opportunities to work collaboratively and creatively together and to connect the work that we're doing with patrons who want to see interesting things happening in the city but don't necessarily know where to find it,” Piro said.

As momentum built behind St. Lou Fringe, Piro vetted locations. The usual suspects -- Clayton, Cherokee Street, Forest Park -- courted her.

But Midtown, with its recent growth of venues and a physical infrastructure that could create a walkable fringe, stood out. And Piro was inspired by arts-based projects that “led to a physical restoration of a vacant, urban setting,” pointing to the Crestwood Court, in which local artists, galleries and theater companies filled vacant space in a St. Louis County mall.

Beyond the physical and practical, what cemented Midtown as the location for Fringe was the support Piro found from “surprising entities.”

Hotel Ignacio, an upscale place Piro described as having a “more conventional patronage” (read: not Fringe), directly approached Piro soon after Fringe was finalized.

Thinking she was going to have to convince former Locust Business District Executive Director Katie Kappel “of this weird concept,” she instead found Kappel “on board immediately,” Piro said.

And when she held her first exploratory meeting with supporters, Grand Center Inc. President Vince Schoemehl showed up to make pitches to Piro in an attempt to draw the festival to Midtown.

With the support from the local powers-that-be, Piro “knew that the time was right, the place was right, and that [Fringe] needed to happen here.”

The festival was a success in 2012, and the slots for this summer’s festival, which will expand to five venues, have already been filled. As for Midtown itself, Piro said it had proven itself to be more than she expected in 2007.

“It is so much more of a blank canvas, it's really different and unique ... here's kind of an unearthed treasure here that's waiting to be found,” Piro said.

Public media center

KDHX Executive Director Beverly Hacker quite literally found unearthed treasure in the independent radio station’s new home at 3524 Washington Ave.

A donor gave the 25-year-old independent radio station the four story building in 2010. Originally the offices for a sign manufacturer, the building strikes an imposing figure, heightened by a large sign frame jutting from the roof.

As rehabbing began, Hacker soon discovered the first floor, a planned concert space, had 20 foot ceilings with uninterrupted sight lines.

The move to Midtown will deliver the growing station of 17 staff members and a thousand-plus volunteers from a 4,000-quare-foot building the station had outgrown. With more space for broadcasting, offices and storage, Hacker said  the move will allow the organization to increase its educational programs.

“What's going on in Midtown and Grand Center in this area in the last 5 to 10 years has been just phenomenal,” Hacker said. When the move is made, the city's public media -- KDHX, the Nine Network, St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon -- will be an easy walk from each other.

The station is no stranger to this cozy environment, having provided DJs to the Contemporary Art Museum’s first Fridays, held programming at the Sheldon Galleries and staged free concerts in conjunction with Grand Center Inc. for “Thursdays at the Intersection.”

Staying power of Portfolio

If Hacker and KDHX are the newest kids on the block, Robert Powell is a mainstay. The founder and executive director of Portfolio Gallery -- an art gallery and education center dedicated to promoting African-American artists -- has been around “for them all,” he said.

A sculptor himself, Powell opened his gallery in a house just east of the intersection of Grand and Delmar adjacent to the relatively towering Powell Hall in 1992 with assistance from Grand Center Inc. A native Kansas Citian, he was drawn to Midtown as the heart of St. Louis.

Balanced on the demarcation line of Delmar Blvd., with historically a black population to the north and a white population to the south, Powell called his location “the Great Divide.”

“When people look at art, they get a story. If they're fortunate enough to talk with the artist who created it, there's something that they're trying to say. And I think bridging the gap here in St. Louis, the great divide, all of those things that pop up, art can play a role in bridging that,” Powell said.

Portfolio sits on the southern edge of Delmar, the edge of Midtown’s most bustling streets. Directly across the street are some of the only medium-density residential housing in the neighborhood, the St. Louis housing authority’s Renaissance at Grand.

Several well kept blocks of townhomes comprise the village, which took the place of larger, high-rise apartment complexes. Powell said he has partnered with residents for jewelry making, pottery, mural painting and other endeavors. A new coffee shop there also showcases artwork.

'Melting pot'

Powell’s reach to the neighborhoods across the street from him is precisely the sort of bridge that creates community where walls, cultural or legal, once existed. In a city known for divides, Midtown seems to be a living, breathing melting pot of various people and organizations.

For Piro, the dream of Fringe is close to being realized on an even larger scale.

“It’s a true melting pot ... you can have artists and esteemed creative firms and treament centers and social service agencies side by side” she said. "I really credit, if that's the right word, the recession in encouraging people to be more resourceful and collaborative in how they work together and in breaking down some of those barriers.

“I don’t see them necessarily integrated and working together like they could, but I think it’s just a matter of time before that happens. And that I think is rare for any city.”

"You can't just have a space for housing, with no place to engage one another and to help the environment." - Jason Wilson, owner of Northwest and Chronicle Coffee

Johnny Buse is a freelance writer.

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