I can’t remember exactly when I started at the Riverfront Times, but it was a long time ago — the web site was a .PDF of the paper that was uploaded on Wednesday morning. I can say that I’ve lived or worked (sometimes both) in the Loop since Bill Clinton was in the White House. I've been coming down here for films, books, meals and weird people watching since the late ‘80s, back when gangs of feral kids camped out in the street-level parking lot across from the Tivoli. The stretch of Delmar between the St. Louis Noodle Cafe and the University City Public Library has been my psycho-geographical concept of St. Louis for more than half my life.
But now I'm in the process of packing up my office in preparation for a move. This afternoon, the RFT is leaving our home of 21 years on Delmar. By tomorrow, the paper will be based in Downtown West, and so will I, at least during office hours. Goodbye to all that.
We’re only the latest business to say that, of course. The one constant in the Loop is change. Roughly every five years a new crop of college students floods the neighborhood at night and on weekends. They take a liking to different restaurants than the previous group and patronize different businesses, and by the end of their five-year reign roughly one-third of the storefronts will have changed ownership and concept. The last group brought the sandwich shop flood that is now slowly tapering off into something yet to be determined.
I'm used to the churn by this point, but among the minor losses (does anyone miss the Dairy Queen that predated the Starbucks?), there's a roster of establishments that felt like seismic events when they shuttered. Paul's Books going under was a big deal. Brandt's closing felt like somebody finally turned out the lights on Gaslight Square, thanks to Jay Brandt's family connection to that legendary but short-lived entertainment district. When Smith Hardware closed after something like 100 years in business, Delmar felt like a funeral parlor. And mighty Cicero's, barely a month closed
. That one still hurts.
Worse still are the people who died along the way. Ahmed Eltawmi, the soft-spoken owner of Gyro House, shot and killed outside his apartment
by an unknown assailant. John Thompson, the genial ombudsman at the Tivoli and himself a genuine Loop landmark, who died of a heart attack at 74
. George Nieman, the old man who got up early every day to brew coffee for the University City Fire Department, who died a few months after being stabbed multiple times in front of the laundromat. (Does anybody know where the bench the fire department donated in George's honor
The businesses are always replaced by something else, but nobody replaces the people. Where's the next Ahmed, or John, or George? Who's gonna take over for Dave, the old guy who showed up to a construction site on Melville one day wearing a hard hat and carrying a briefcase so he could deliver a string of nonsensical instructions that the crew stopped to puzzle over for more than a couple minutes? (Dave sometimes spoke of being kidnapped as a child and torn away from his family, and would end up sobbing at the end of the counter in the old Meshuggah's on Melville, and then perk back up and tell a joke with no punchline.)
Over the years, I think, that's what the Loop has lost — these weird, lonely, friendly people who made it feel more like a neighborhood and less of an entertainment district. It's always been a little of both, but the balance has shifted heavily in recent years in favor of “nice place to visit, but nobody lives there.” Some of that is down to the loss of Section 8 housing, which saw affordable buildings on the north side of Delmar get turned into condos (including my old apartment) or student housing (every other goddamn building between Enright and Vernon). The gangs of neighborhood kids are long gone, but so are their parents and their homes. And then Delmar Harvard closes. And then Good Works Furniture closes. And one day you're packing up your shit and thinking about your old home and you realize the five-year cycle is the only permanent resident.
Well, that and Joe Edwards. Joe takes a lot of shit from all corners these days, but I have no complaints. He's been right about almost every bet he's laid on the Loop, and I'll always be grateful that he saved the Tivoli. But even if he’s right about one more big bet and the trolley works out, shocking all the skeptics currently wagering on its failure, its ridership isn't going to be Blueberry Hill's neighbors — just a series of endless five-year cycles, here for sandwiches and t-shirts, and then gone come Monday morning. Nobody but college kids lives in an entertainment district. Not anymore.
Paul Friswold is the arts and culture editor of the Riverfront Times. He believes cell phones are a mass delusion and he thinks social media is for people who are frightened by books. Look for him on a Metro bus starting Wednesday.