Best Neighborhood

Central West End

With due respect to Soulard, University City, Lafayette Square, South Grand and other places in which I spent pleasurable time during my year in St. Louis, my selection of the "best" neighborhood in town is unquestionably the Central West End -- first, last and always.

There is hardly another urban area in the country with the same concentration of high sophistication and low dives, elegance and funk, history and hedonism. I can sum it up no more quickly than to note that this is the neighborhood that produced both T.S. Eliot and William Burroughs -- and that, somehow, their divergent spirits linger on in a curious afterglow that is distinctly St. Louisan.

Indeed, at the risk of grandiosity, I might venture a comparison between the Central West End and San Francisco. Thanks to North Beach, Haight-Ashbury, the gay-liberation movement and myriad smaller happenings underneath and around that charmed fog, the Bay Area has come to be known for its easy tolerance of the full panoply of human nature. But it is sometimes forgotten that San Francisco is also the most conservative city in California -- and that its conservatism is no small part of its appeal.

By conservatism I don't mean "right wing" or even "Republican." Passionate supporters of Ashcroft, Helms, Buchanan and Co. are as uncommon in the Central West End as they are in San Francisco. No, I mean conservatism of an older -- nobler -- sensibility, which pays full due to customs and traditions while constantly expanding them. There is a palpable sense of history in the Central West End, never burdensome but always there. You can walk from the formal enclave of a private street into the freewheeling circus of Euclid Avenue in a minute or two. A woman will be just as comfortable wearing white gloves as she would be in magenta hair frosting -- and she can reverse the two tomorrow. Moreover, the waiter with the ring through his ear will likely treat you with a grace and politesse that would not displease Emily Post. This sensibility is both Old World and absolutely up-to-date.

On a less philosophical level, the Central West End may be recommended for its convenience to public transportation (at least five bus lines serve the area, and there are two MetroLink stops). The food is excellent, be it a friendly breakfast at the Majestic, a terrific burger at Balaban's, a fancy dinner at Chez Leon or any of the above at Duff's. There are some unusual stores and galleries -- homegrown, not chains -- and you can wash down the day with a beer at Llewelyn's or Dressel's. Forest Park is a short walk, with all of its treasures and tranquility. Downtown, Clayton, University City -- and, of course, Powell Symphony Hall -- are a few minutes away by car. And, should one get sick, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, staggering in its size and resources, is right in the neighborhood.

The Central West End's nearly unbroken cluster of extraordinary mansions -- some of them 7,000 square feet or larger and a few with ballrooms on their top floors -- place the neighborhood among the most architecturally distinguished in the nation. I'm clearly not telling St. Louisans anything they don't know, but visiting friends were never less than suitably awestruck by a walk down Hortense Place (that wonderful old sarcophagus that looks as if it should be the tomb of either a late pharaoh or Rudolph Valentino -- you know the one I mean!).

I miss a lot of things about St. Louis: the people, the thunderstorms, the chance to hear the orchestra every week, some paradisiacal food at Ted Drewes, O'Connell's, Harvest (not to mention the occasional jaunt to Fast Eddie's up in Alton, one of the "realest" places I've ever been). And, as a returned Easterner, I am aware that I will never find another apartment like the one I had in the Park Royal on Lindell Boulevard; my present place would fit handily into one of its corners. Matter of fact, I wish I could just transplant the whole neighborhood to Washington. But that would never work. The Central West End is purely -- triumphantly -- St. Louis. So I'll just have to wait, with no little eagerness, for my next visit.

-- Tim Page

Tim Page is a culture critic for the Washington Post and a consultant to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, where he served as artistic advisor from 1999 until August. His books include The Glenn Gould Reader, Dawn Powell: A Biography and the forthcoming The Unknown Sigrid Undset. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writings on music for the Post.

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