-- Charlie Tuna on WGNU (920 AM) last Friday
THE SOUTH SIDE SHALL RISE AGAIN: Democracy, when it happens, is an interesting process to behold.
Election days, of course, provide bits of that experience, but at times it's merely a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils. (Amend that: most times.) When the choices are limitless and nonbinding, that's when things get interesting.
On Sunday afternoon, better than 200 people made their way to the cafeteria of St. Mary Magdalen Church, a pillar of the South Side, just blocks off the intersection of Chippewa and Kingshighway. The scene in the room was shockingly salt-of-the-earth: Kids' drawings, often religious in nature, lined the walls. The attendees looked exactly like people who make their way to the polls every couple of months -- 70 percent of them, by a conservative estimate, were over the age of 50. They gladhanded one another and (this is not fiction) talked about family and church and wholesome things of that sort.
The new Southtown Coalition brought them to this place, brought them together to discuss and debate a single issue: the future of the most criminally underutilized piece of real estate in the city.
These were taxpayers. Writers of letters to the editor. Callers to "Town Talk." Folks who are serious about ward-level politics. They clearly reflected the immediate community, in that only one black face was seen in attendance. On the other hand, they didn't exactly reflect the community, in that little Serbo-Croatian was heard, despite the fact that hundreds of Bosnians have clustered in the area. Zip through the nearby alleys or walk the sidewalks and you'll hear the Serbo-Croatian language being spoken by kids kicking soccer balls, by women hanging wash and by men tinkering on wheezy Japanese cars.
Bosnian businesses, too, are beginning to cluster in the area: A disco here. A restaurant there. A coffeehouse. A video shop. These businesses have quietly appeared as older ones have departed. Like the newer Mexican storefronts on Cherokee, these language-specific shops are capturing a pedestrian audience, people right in the neighborhood. Maybe the old ones -- those whose spaces were left behind to series of low-end quick-money-lenders and traffic lawyers -- felt that things weren't looking up after the landmark Southtown Famous-Barr closed down in 1992 and fell to the wrecking ball in March 1995.
Sunday's agenda, though, concerned not the Fate of Small Business but the Biggest Picture of All for local residents, the future of the "Famous lot."
In a sense it's funny that the popular thing to call the site is the "Famous lot." After all, May Co. sold its parcel to the city's "Operation Impact" all the way back in 1993. Since then the Sansone Group has been reaping the benefits of a deal that's been lucrative for them, if not for the local residents. Sansone, selected by the city as the developer of the location, dallied for a while before subleasing the site to the Hechinger Co., the parent of home-improvement retailer HQ. Unfortunately for those wanting to see something actually built, Hechinger quickly fell into financial crisis, even as Sansone was building a massive competing Home Depot just down the block.
Although the site's been owned by a joint venture between Sansone and Cleveland's Developers Diversified Realty (DDR) since 1998, it's proved a nice income provider for the local developer. Despite the absence of a building on the site, it's been reported that Hechinger's lease calls for the company to pay $50,000 a month in rent. For a field of gravel and weeds. Such a deal!
When that figure was mentioned, an audible gasp went up from the audience. After all, we're talking about folks who've worked their whole lives, squirreled away their savings and kept their investments in the city when thousands of others left for havens to the west, the east and the south. (Maybe they simply didn't have the money to flee. No matter. They stayed.) The figure seemed astounding to those who hadn't heard it bandied around before. Sensing that the meeting could quickly turn into a bashing session targeting previous city administrations and big companies clearly not in attendance, organizers shifted the focus toward the present and future, and enthusiasm quickly spread.
After instructions, the folks quickly fanned out to four discussion groups, each focusing on a particular type of development: commercial, with an emphasis on "big boxes," retail strips and office buildings; mixed use, which would bring storefronts with apartments on top; residential, featuring any number of styles; and the catch-all "other," which could mean a soccer field, a community center or still other uses.
The residents tacked up gold stars for their favorites, green dots for the next best. Red dots went up by ideas they hated. There was plenty of support for a movie complex; the locals loved the notion of a giant post office. Red dots were found in number, too. Getting the thumbs-down were the ideas of a public school and a strip mall. The idea of a Kmart got decidedly -- if not universally -- low marks.
That's interesting, because common wisdom has it that Sansone/DDR is negotiating with Kmart, the retail chain shutting down operations at its nearby Gravois Plaza location. Members of the Southtown Coalition, who spearheaded the announced development of housing at the site of the old South Grand Sears, noted that this would simply shift the pain to another city location. Kmart's a short-term solution, it was suggested, in that it could leave the area vulnerable to another single entity that could shut down, move and leave the area desolate again.
Some of the residents, given the option of unbridled discussion, came up with quirky alternatives. "Underground parking" was a suggestion. A drive-in theater was written in, but red dots circled it. (Sorry, folks, but that's a wonderful idea!) The occasional neighborhood loudmouth dominated discussion, yapping about his or her (OK, mostly "his") pet project. That was all right, though -- people had the option of escaping the gales of hot air by simply sliding to another room to debate and write and tack up stickers.
An hour-and-a-half moved by quickly. In fact, the entire process will be brisk, the coalition says, with a development plan ideally on the table by December. Organizers note that even if all their efforts go by the wayside (say, a Kmart starts going up tomorrow), the community has made a valuable statement by coming out and talking.
Along with the commoners, some longtime pols were on hand, ranging from local Democratic clubbers to aldermen to state legislators. What they saw may have surprised them. Maybe the idea of this kind of "bottom-up" democracy will strike a chord.
In fact, one thing should be relayed to City Hall: There's writing on the wall, as obvious as the kids' watercolors. These were older, white South Siders. People who vote. People who voted for Clarence Harmon. People whose patience is running thin on this seven-year-old problem. Let's spell it out again: THESE WERE OLDER, WHITE SOUTH SIDERS. PEOPLE WHO VOTE. Yessiree, they're mad and, worst of all, now have a thorough command of the facts at hand! They even think they have a vested interest in what happens!
The revolution is on! Democracy in the cafeterias! Money-grubbing corporate whores having their feet held to the fire! Ah, it's a beautiful thing.
Memo to the mayor's office: WAKEY, WAKEY! Alarm bells should be going off. The voters are restless -- it's time to act. WAKEY, WAKEY!
B(e)SIDES: Let's see if we can get this straight. People in Clayton and portions of west St. Louis city, along with the mayor of Our Town, have come to the conclusion that above-ground light rail doesn't work in urban environments. Remarkable. Cities around the world have not come upon the wisdom displayed by our friends in Clayton and City Hall. Wouldn't opponents of an overland MetroLink feel better about themselves if they dropped all the arguments about noise and safety and cut to the chase? They fear black folks from East St. Louis having quick, easy access to their tony suburbs and their fleets of SUVs. As Anne Keefe used to say, "C'mon!"... What's happened to all the Southwest City Journals in Kingshighway Hills? It's almost as if they're not being delivered regularly! Sacrilege!... The newish zine catalog Zine Guide lists, in its second issue, the country's Top 25 zine communities. St. Louis is given the rather robust ranking of 24, interesting in that it seems few zines are published here. That's not to say "none," just "few" -- fewer than a, say, No. 24 ranking would imply.
THE HIT PARADE TOP SEVEN: This week, the Top Seven things you may also enjoy, if you're one of those madcaps who can't get enough of the zany antics at Union Station's laffatorium, the chain nightclub of (yuk, yuk!) ComedySportz:
7. Ted Drewes vanilla custard
6. Cable TV's See Hear
5. Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar
4. Larry Conners
3. The Suburban Journals' gardening page
2. Creve Coeur
1. Guy Phillips
E-mail quips, tips and plastic toy fish to Thomas_Crone@rftstl.com.