by Mabel Suen
On June 24, as hundreds of fans entered the Ready Room — a new 800-person-capacity music venue on Manchester Avenue in the Grove — they were greeted with a warning sign: "Tonight's show features excessive volume levels. Hearing protection available at front door." The experimental-rock group Swans would soon treat the audience to one of its brutally loud and viscerally exhausting performances — a sweaty, two-hour set of heavy guitar drone and chest-thumping bass.
Next door at the Demo — a much smaller sister venue which opened its doors in May, just a month after the Ready Room — rock group the Paul Collins Beat christened the stage along with fellow pop-influenced bangers Sherbert and Bruiser Queen.
Inside the two venues, the crowds roared their approval. Outside, it was a different story.
"Throwing two bands in a blender is what it's like to be in our back yard," says Grove resident Brad Fratello.
Fratello and his husband, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Doug Moore, own the Forest Park Southeast home that abuts the back wall of the Ready Room. Fratello, a professor at St. Louis Community College, says he can hear shows happening on the stage only twenty feet away from where his head hits the pillow at night — even with all the doors and windows closed.
"It's not just a bass thumping. We can hear lyrics of songs. We can hear the entire array of instruments," he says. "We're talking about potentially $1 million worth of residential investments backed up immediately against probably the loudest potential commercial venues that one could put someplace."
In the back yard, the edge of Fratello and Moore's in-ground swimming pool sits a mere five feet from the Ready Room. There's not an alley, garage or even a fence between them. About twelve feet up the wall is the window of the venue's greenroom — frosted by the building's owners so the couple could enjoy some privacy, including their customary skinny dipping, in their own back yard. Fratello can see the silhouette of a piece of paper taped up on the inside of the pane. He doesn't know what it says, but he guesses it probably has something to do with the fact that, for a period of time, bands would prop the window open and ash their cigarettes directly into his yard. That, at least, has stopped.
For these reasons and more, Fratello and Moore and many of their neighbors are fed up. They've spearheaded a campaign to put a stop to the noise, and they're hitting the venues where it hurts: their liquor licenses.
"We were told by our alderman, Joe Roddy, essentially, that protesting the liquor licenses of these two clubs was our only avenue to start to reach some sort of compromise," says Fratello. "All the neighbors that have signed it have seen it as the last resort. We were literally told that there was no other way for us to move forward, to have ourselves heard."
It's working. After a backlash from the neighborhood and subsequent removal of a conditional-use catering license, the Demo closed on June 26. Without bar sales to sustain its business model, the venue canceled or parceled out 60-plus shows from its event calendar to other local venues including Fubar, 2720 Cherokee and the Ready Room next door. But the Ready Room is in jeopardy as well, with formal complaints against both venues circulating among the residents. They are asking the city to take a harder look at the clubs.
"I never went into it promising the world because I knew we were going to generate some noise. I knew there were going to be issues and that we'd have to work on this as neighbors," says Mike Cracchiolo, managing partner of both the Ready Room and the Demo. "I am sympathetic to it, but at the same time, as a businessperson, the Grove is the spot for me. This is the spot for the most potential as a walkable entertainment district.
"Venues are constantly bringing people in who have never been here before. A lot of places reacted directly to this moving in," he goes on. "Bars are keeping later hours, their business starts to pick up. It's understandable why the neighbors are upset, but at the same time, some of that growth is inevitable."
The controversy seems to mark a moment of transition for the Grove. It's changing from a moderately busy club district popular with the LGBT crowd that's bordered by an increasingly affluent residential neighborhood, into a full-fledged entertainment district — and everything that goes along with that.
"That's sort of a good problem to have," says Chip Schloss, owner of long-standing area restaurant and venue Atomic Cowboy. "It's growing pains for the neighborhood."
When Brooks Goedeker, the executive director of Park Central Development, first arrived as an intern for the redevelopment non-profit Urban Strategies in 2002, only a handful of storefronts in the Grove were open, and even those kept their windows boarded up. These days, the entertainment district consists of more than 60 businesses, including restaurants, nightclubs and retail outlets. In the past year alone, the area has seen several big openings, including Rise Coffee House, Taha'a Twisted Tiki, Siam nightclub and Urban Chestnut's staggering 70,000-square-foot brewery and bierhall.
"Up until this point, we haven't had this clash because the long-time residents are so happy to see that these boards are coming off and that businesses want to be in the area," says Goedeker, adding that various complaints about patio noise in the area have since been alleviated. "We have several long-time residents who were born and raised here in the '70s and say that Manchester hasn't looked this good since the late '50s."
This is not the area's first heyday. Sixty years ago, the estimated population of Forest Park Southeast was about 10,000. There were grocery and clothing stores, a sports-equipment shop, a pet-supply store and a movie theater. A streetcar provided transportation to the pedestrian-friendly intersection of Vandeventer and Chouteau avenues as a central shopping destination.
As people fled the cities for the suburbs nationwide, the area declined like so many others in St. Louis. Today, the population numbers have plummeted to less than half — somewhere around 3,500 residents. In the 1970s and '80s, blue-collar firms, such as plumbing and constructions contractors, gobbled up the empty commercial properties along Manchester Avenue for use as storage shops and garages. Vacant houses and absentee landlords made the residential neighborhoods a questionable place to live.
Things began to change again about twenty years ago. Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corportation, a partnership between BJC Health Care, St. Louis Children's Hospital and the Washington University School of Medicine, has invested $30 million since 1996 in efforts to revitalize the area around its own campus. Along with McCormack-Baron, a leading U.S. real estate development firm, the WUMCRC led a master-planning process that resulted in the re-establishment of Adams Elementary School in 2001, a state-of-the-art community center now operated by the St. Louis Boys & Girls Club, and the McCormack House senior living facillity.
"The medical center has invested money in safety and security, social- and human-service programs, working with developers, attracting developers to the area and assisting with economic development," says Goedeker. "It's been exciting here. The momentum is moving more quickly than anyone could've expected."
In the late '80s and throughout the '90s, the LGBT community also quickened development, opening several bars and businesses in the area. Three bars — Attitudes, Rainbow's End (now Rehab) and Freddie's (now Just John) — formed the nucleus around which a newly created "gayborhood" flourished.
"Certainly, the LGBT community were very instrumental in the early years," says 17th Ward Alderman Joe Roddy. "Now, it's very much one of the most diverse entertainment districts in the region."
Guy Slay, owner of Mangrove Redevelopment, bolstered revitalization when he opened a restaurant and ice cream parlor called the Mangrove at the intersection of Manchester and Tower Grove avenues in 2003. Two years later he recruited Sweetie Pie's soul-food restaurant — which went on to star in its own reality TV show on the Oprah Winfrey Network — to take over the space. Meanwhile, Atomic Cowboy set up shop just down the street. Slay and Schloss rebranded the formerly named "Manchester Strip" between Vandeventer and Kingshighway by combining the historical name of the neighborhood, "Adam's Grove," with Tower Grove Avenue.
Between 2009 and 2010 two large neon signs were hung over Manchester proclaiming the area "The Grove." The signs cost a total of $135,000.
As businesses boomed, the surrounding residential neighborhood grew, too. Homeowners such as Fratello and Moore moved in and invested in the neighborhood, steadily increasing property values with each rehab.
"It's a dramatically different neighborhood residentially," says Schloss. "Merchants have funded a lot of improvements and attractions, and now you have people who want to live there close to it, but maybe they don't give full consideration to how the neighborhood will evolve in the future. That's just more organic growth. It's a tough balancing act."In 2010 the 17th Ward's nonprofit improvement board, Park Central Development, approved Fratello and Moore for the purchase of vacant property held by the city's Land Reutilization Authority. Two years later they moved in to their single-family home. Back then, the building behind them was still a storage facility. Fratello's father invested in an unoccupied four-family structure located directly behind the Demo's current space, renovating it into market-rate townhomes — one of which Fratello and Moore own and rent out to tenants.
"You could hear a bit of music that would bubble out of Atomic Cowboy every now and then, but in general the street was quiet and much less occupied when we arrived," recalls Fratello.
When news spread that the warehouses behind his new home were going to turn into concert venues, Fratello was actually supportive. In fact, he voted in favor of the Ready Room's progress while serving on the eleven-person Forest Park Southeast Development Committee, a body made up of stakeholders in the neighborhood, including residents, business owners and representatives of various institutions. Though the committee does not have the power to veto a project, their approval is a big leg up in the process. The Ready Room was able to obtain the required 51 percent of signatures from the neighborhood to secure its initial liquor license. And Fratello was all for continued redevelopment of the area.
"Nobody that lives behind these clubs is new to city living. Doug and I moved from Washington Avenue," he says. "None of us were expecting to hear crickets in our back yard."
But then the Ready Room actually opened. Fratello and Moore say they were surprised by the noise level but privately granted the club the benefit of the doubt. They say they thought that, given enough time, the owners would fix the problem on their own. Meanwhile, the club managers figured that, because they hadn't heard any negative feedback, everything was fine. Mid-May brought the opening of the Demo, and then everything went sideways.
"We always expected that [the warehouse] would become some kind of commercial venture as the Manchester strip grew, but it has, at least thus far, grown into something that is the loudest possible thing that it could be," says Fratello. "This noise has been, to date, pretty intolerable."
Some of the neighborhood complaints stemmed from how the Demo was able to open without a liquor license. St. Louis city excise commissioner Robert Kraiberg explains that he granted a catering license to the Demo during its transitional period while it underwent the full liquor-license application process. One of the Demo's managing partners, Brandon Cavanagh, also owns the nightclub 2720 Cherokee, and so he possesses the full license needed to cater to other venues.
"In the interest of business assistance, I allowed the liquor license that was held on Cherokee Street to cater to the Demo while this process was going on. I only do that when I sense that it is a non-controversial situation," says Kraiberg. "However, when I found there was controversy surrounding it, I stopped issuing those catering permits because I didn't want to interfere in the neighborhood consent process."
With the residents on the 4200 block of Gibson Avenue up in arms over the combined noise, Cracchiolo and Cavanagh failed to get the Forest Park Southeast Development Committee's seal of approval for the Demo's pending liquor-license application. Without either license, the Demo was forced to shutter.
"The crossover of negative emotion for the Ready Room is carrying over to the Demo, and arguably unfairly," says Cavanagh. "It's live music but on a very different scale."
At the same time that Cavanagh and Cracchiolo were going door to door asking for residents' signatures to get the Demo's liquor license approved, a protest petition was also circulating around the neighborhood, asking that residents actively oppose it. It also asks the city to address the lack of parking and the noise levels. (Parking solutions have been in the works since early 2014, and Goedeker says parking lots and resident-only parking permits are on their way.) If it is successful, the excise commissioner will have to call a hearing to mediate the situation. On top of that, an additional protest petition has started against the Ready Room.
"As soon as we have signatures and we're able to collate everything, that hearing will be public so that I can pay attention to the neighborhood consent process, hear testimony and hopefully forge something that will work," says Kraiberg. "I can't please all the people all the time, but I try. And if it doesn't work, the neighborhood will be the ultimate decision-maker."
Cracchiolo and Cavanagh have attempted to make amends. At the request of Park Central Development and with the assistance from their property managers, a professional acoustician performed costly tests on the Ready Room and the Demo. According to the reports, the results of which were shared with Riverfront Times, both venues were well within the legal limit of 86 decibels at 50 feet from the property, with levels maxing out at about 70 decibels. Additionally, Cracchiolo and Cavanagh have insulated the back walls of each venue. Cavanagh says soundproofing of the Demo's ceiling will be completed this week.
"I think it's important to point out that, while we're under the neighborhood ordinance, it's really about going beyond that," says Cracchiolo. "This isn't about getting the place legal so that it can open. It's about being a good neighbor. It's about wanting to coexist peacefully in the neighborhood."
But as it is, going above and beyond the call of duty may prove logistically impossible. With the Demo closed, funds are severely limited, and they've had to lay off four employees.
"My main focus throughout this process has been on obtaining signatures and getting the Demo back open so I can get my people back to work," says Cavanagh. "I think in all of this, that's really the element that gets lost. People lose sight of what's really important. I love being a part of the music scene and working to further the arts and the community at large, but underneath it all are very real people with very real families."On a recent Tuesday evening Fratello and Moore invite Riverfront Times into their home to experience the cacophony firsthand. On the night's bill at the Ready Room: four punk bands featuring opener Animal Teeth, a show relocated from the Demo. The couple invite their neighbor, Rachel Siegert, a senior real estate agent for Ameren to sit in the living room, sip wine and weigh in.
It's surprisingly hushed. At best, it sounds like someone behind the house might be playing a radio.
"We're embarrassed by this quiet evening," Fratello confesses. "This is only 10 or 15 percent of how it usually sounds."
Moore and Siegert agree.
"Tell them that whatever they're doing tonight, keep doing it. These are ideal living conditions," Fratello says.
They walk down the block to Siegert's house to stand in the back yard — the Demo's back wall in sight.
"We normally wouldn't even be able to have this conversation right now," she says. "Had I known that two live-music venues were going to open just feet away from my bedroom, I would have never purchased my home."
Though the usage of the venue's sound system — and ultimately the overall stage volume — will certainly vary from show to show, it's an illustration of how confusing and subjective things in the Grove have become. And the situation is fluid. For example, the Forest Park Southeast Development Committee's ranks have recently changed. Half of its members were replaced by new ones. Siegert, who served on the committee for the past year, has been cycled off. Meanwhile, new members, including John Boldt, one of the venues' building owners, will take her place.
"It seems awfully convenient, doesn't it?" says Siegert.
As of Monday, July 28, Cavanagh says he has collected enough signatures for the Demo's liquor license to move forward. However, the protest petition will delay the hearing for 30 days.
Regardless of their frustration at the current situation, it seems that none of the three neighbors actively want to see the venues closed.
"We want everything on the Manchester strip to thrive. We want it to succeed, but it's got to happen in a way that doesn't prevent people from enjoying their own home," says Fratello. "It is still our hope that, in tandem with or outside of the meetings with the excise commissioner with both clubs, we can make progress."
Still, the Grove continues to grow.
Reliance Bank is completing a $1 million rehab at the corner of Tower Grove and Manchester avenues, and a three-story development project at the Old Donut House at 4321 Manchester will offer a ground-level floor of new commercial property this fall. And in early August another new business will fill a space on the 4200 block of Manchester. Music Record Shop will open in the 650-square-foot space between the Demo and the Ready Room, nearly doubling the size of its previous location in Kirkwood. The shop will likely generate some noise of its own.
"I'm really excited about being open. It's an ideal situation for a music record store to be between two different venues," says founder Mark Carter. "The Grove's just the place to be. It's the perfect fit for us, and I still believe in it 100 percent."