PASS THE MIC: The distance from being an "occasionally aspiring presidential contender" to merely being the "former alderman of the 14th Ward" maybe isn't such a long journey after all. Sometimes, it's just a plane ride and a couple of car trips away.
In town last week, Congressman Richard Gephardt (D-3rd), the famed son of a milk-truck driver, was stumping in the home district, promising to work for an increase in funds for Forest Park -- a nice, safe, popular move that'll play well with the old folks -- and pitching for levees that'll keep safe those who live too near the water. In what was, perhaps, his best move, he showed up at a celebratory press conference highlighting the development taking place at the old Sears building near Grand and Chippewa. There were cheers and applause all around for the House minority leader, on a corner that hasn't been so cheery lately.
Most South Siders know the score on this one. After operating from 1928-93, Sears pulled the plug on what was considered an older, rather unprofitable locale. The linchpin of the neighborhood gone, several other businesses -- including the next-door Ben Franklin, the Amvets, a diner and a medical center -- soon shuttered, too. Not surprisingly, the property value of the homes in the immediate area took a hit, what with an empty parking lot and several large abandoned buildings within spitting distance.
As told several times during the press conference a week back, the neighborhood organized, forming the South Grand Team, which even the most cynical city critic would find reassuring. Coupling religious, business and political types with the energetic push of the neighbors, the group helped secure a deal that moved the site's ownership from Pace Properties to Pyramid Construction, who'll build 30 "market-rate" homes on the rear of the property, optimistically priced in the $120,000s.
At the press conference, Gephardt was the third speaker, after initial words from the new developer, John Steffen of Pyramid; and a local priest active in the South Grand Team, Father Mike Lydon of St. Pius V. When Gephardt arrived -- a bit tardy -- he worked the crowd with a pro's touch in his few spare minutes, gripping and grinning. Once onstage and at the mic, he immediately seized the opportunity to fully connect with the entirety of the audience by joking about the weather.
It worked. They laughed.
Man, this guy's good.
Gephardt's positivity-laced speech eventually reached a crescendo, met with more applause. He then ceded the mic to Mayor Clarence Harmon, who battled a sore throat. He was quicker in his address but just as "up," ending with the classic Clintonesque line "I feel like a drum major in a band called Hope. And you are that band. Thank you."
What happened nex couldn't have been predicted.
Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th) -- who bears an uncanny resemblance to underground comic artist R. Crumb -- was up for re-election the next day and apparently gripped with campaign fever. His speech thanked most of those in the crowd. Taking a pass on the old "separation of church and state" doctrine, he tossed in a protracted, heartfelt prayer, thanking the Almighty for helping rescue the block, among other things. Then he led the group in a rousing call-and-response. So excited was the crowd, including the congressman and the mayor, that they screamed "Yes!" before he was finished with his first question.
In short, he upstaged the current mayor and a former presidential stump speaker. Gephardt could be seen mouthing the words "Good job" as Schmid left the dais, openly praising a man who once canvassed for him. Like Churchill in Fulton, like Kennedy in Berlin, like Gehrig in Yankee Stadium, this one was a keeper and a definer. Wow!
The next day -- election day -- Schmid was back in his usual, less excited mode, noting that his speech "was written down." No winging it, and no need to apologize for being thorough. He also suggested, "If we could do that every week, it'd be great, wouldn't it? It was a terrific day."
Not the least of all for Schmid, an attorney who devotes most of his time to ward politics, seldom not answering a call within an hour. Realistically, he noted that despite the new houses and the still-unofficial announcement of some luxury apartments arriving in the neighborhood ("within a quarter-mile of here"), the 10th Ward has a tricky mix of constituencies and problems, with a rapidly changing racial/ethnic makeup and some rust on its oldest business districts.
One big project won't be a panacea, he's aware, but you'd forgive the man if he took a bit of time to gloat. Instead, he low-keyed it, saying in perfect pol-speak, "You can't just build houses -- you have to continually work at building a community."
Later that day, he won his primary, by a total of 529 to 289, defeating challenger Thomas Cholak in their second encounter. If he can bottle the effectiveness of that Sears speech, it won't be his last electoral win.
THAT'S OUR GUY: It's been another successful winter for Guy Phillips. Over the past few seasons, he's been filling the Kiel Center on a good number of chilly nights, enticing people into the downtown sports arena with his wit, wisdom and over-the-top commentary. This season, Phillips filled the Kiel to the tune of 15,142 per night. So many fans for a public-address announcer? Amazing, really.
Although his act is set against the backdrop of St. Louis University Billiken basketball, Phillips divined early on in his PA career that folks weren't there to see hoops -- they were there to hear his take on the game. So far, he's rarely disappointed. Count his signature calls: "Hughes, Larry Hughes!," "Larry Ssssssssimmons!" or "JT!" All belted out for maximum attention. Seldom did a contestant fail at one of the halftime games without catching mocking abuse from Phillips, who seldom utters such harsh jibes when heard on his Milquetoast pop radio station, Y-98.
At Bills games, though, he is unchained. He is letting you know that he is there and you are there and you will listen to him whether you wish to or not. It's his job, it's his take, it's his mission.
Today, the Billikens; tomorrow, roller derby!
TOTALLY UNRELATED FACTS: The total acreage of the St. Louis Arena, with parking lots included, was/is 26 acres. The total acreage of the St. Louis Rams' Earth City headquarters/practice site, Rams Park, is 27.5 acres. The Arena was shut down in 1994. The Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995.
We are in no way suggesting that the Rams would've given the city of St. Louis a tremendous shot in the arm by moving their operations into the central corridor rather than squirreling away in the tony suburbs, where the team's fleet of Land Cruisers and Lexuses have a much shorter trip from condo to training table. Nor are we suggesting that the city would have been served in both public relations and commerce by cutting just one more deal -- say, offering the Arena site for some small change and a handshake.
These are, simply, totally unrelated facts.
HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU: This past Saturday, artist Jerry Monteith hosted an opening for his installation "Day Lights Night Eyes," a public piece that, when viewed from the inside, proves deceptively simple. The work is situated in the rough-but-handsome 9th Floor Gallery of downtown's A.D. Brown Building; Monteith has covered the windows with black paper, save for two sections, shaped like eyes, that are floodlit from inside the room. From Washington Avenue, the piece could confuse the unsuspecting county hordes, out for a night out on the town, with a couple drinks down the hatch; when lit from the hours of 9 p.m.-midnight, the effect is creepy and otherworldly, the eyes peering directly down into the Washington club district -- or what remains of it this week.
For those who catch it without warning, it should provide a odd little moment of surprise. Those who have occasion to view it more than once may consider it a shame that the project has to come down in a month. With buildings coming down nearby, the A.D. Brown's got some real size and stature on Tucker. And this quirky little touch only adds to its surroundings. Neat.
RFT ANAGRAMS: In our version, extra punctuation is allowable.
Goalie Grant Fuhr = A Lie: Hurt for Gang
Busch Stadium = It Dumb, as Such
Mayor Clarence Harmon = No Car Larceny, More Ham
Send quips, tips and anagrams to Thomas_Crone@rftstl.com.