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How Davide Weaver Cheated Death — and Revived St. Louis' Festival Scene

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A 1996 apartment fire left Weaver hospitalized, heavily bandaged and barely alive. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVIDE WEAVER
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVIDE WEAVER
  • A 1996 apartment fire left Weaver hospitalized, heavily bandaged and barely alive.

Davide Weaver (pronounced "DAH-vee-day," reflecting his family's Italian heritage) might be St. Louis' best-kept secret. Anyone who has sampled dishes at Taste of St. Louis or jammed into the night at 2720 Cherokee owes the man a thank-you. Indeed, Weaver's resume reads like a miniature history of St. Louis' cultural revival in the last decade.

After founding the artist collective Art Dimensions in the early 2000s, Weaver built a network of up-and-coming artists, entrepreneurs and promoters, culminating in 2005's reboot of the Taste of St. Louis festival. After four years (and tens of thousands of attendees), Weaver sold his shares in the food festival to a partner — and immediately co-founded 2720 Cherokee, the warehouse-sized music venue and gallery space that anchors the increasingly influential art and music scene on Cherokee Street. Thanks in part to his investment, the once-neglected south St. Louis street has become the hippest place in town.

It is in the basement of 2720 Cherokee that Weaver maintains his studio, although the word hardly seems adequate. 'Sprawl' seems more fitting, albeit a carefully curated one. Weaver prefers the term "therapeutic mind ride."

"I like the whimsical kind of feel, kind of like in a dream," he says during a tour. Illuminated by patchwork lamplight, the walls support layers of curtains and picture frames. They hang above antique furniture, several mirrors and an army of tchotchkes, trinkets and, well, junk.

"Things aren't really where they're supposed to be, but you still recognize it. I try to play with your subconscious a little bit," he says. "A lot of this stuff has been thrown away at some point in someone's life, and I just collect it and use it."

Weaver grew up in University City, but he was born into the restaurant business. His mother, Rita, ran the local European Café and another restaurant in Clayton. By the time he turned thirteen she had put him to work bussing and waiting tables. In his mother's restaurants, the young Weaver first observed how a sweeping obsession with organization could transform a bare room into a marvel, practically a living thing.

"She designed all aspects, from the menu to plate presentation and the interior design for the restaurant. That deeply affected me," reflects Weaver. "I feel like that was a seed that was planted in my head for creating an environment where people come in and they become a part of it."

On the other end of the spectrum, his father, Dave, worked in the construction business. The youngster enjoyed a childhood in which both power tools and inspiration were readily available.

After graduating from Christian Brothers College High School in 1990, Weaver enrolled at the University of Kansas, where he majored in ancient history. But by his senior year, Weaver was falling in love with the idea of something a bit more modern. Building on his restaurant background, Weaver taught himself to brew beer and produced a business plan to open a microbrewery in downtown St. Louis. He says he was closing in on a deal with Kansas City's 75th Street Brewery.

"I was supposed to meet them on a Saturday. That's etched in my head forever," Weaver says. "Thursday morning I was in the fire. And that meeting never happened."

Weaver's family took up a 24-hour-a-day vigil in the hospital. John White, a childhood friend, showed up the day after the fire, only to learn that Weaver had been placed in a coma while doctors treated his mangled limbs.

More than a month later, they woke Weaver up.

"He was mummified head to toe. I could only see his eyelids," recalls White. "The first time I saw him with his bandages off of his face, he was in bad shape. His nose was basically gone. He had no skin from his shoulders down on his arms and hands."

White says he wanted to do something nice for his friend, who was clearly suffering through the emotional and physical toil of recovery. His idea involved a bit of breaking and entering. Months after the fire, he made his way to the blackened shell of Weaver's apartment.

"I just wanted to have a look and see what was still salvageable. He had his whole life in there," White says now.

"I broke into the adjoining apartment, and I went up to the third floor and crawled through a hole into what had been his bedroom. Everything was gone. Not everything had been burned, but if it hadn't burned it had melted. The TV was melted, the stereo was melted, his Star Wars collection was melted. Except for that Imperial Walker, so I grabbed that."

White isn't entirely sure what possessed him to take the Walker. He and Weaver had spent many enjoyable Friday nights eating takeout from Joanie's Pizza and blasting through the original trilogy on VHS, so perhaps White sensed its value as a kind of totem, a reminder of better times. (Years later, Weaver would utilize dozens of Star Wars action figures for installation pieces in City Museum and 2720 Cherokee.)

On the way out of Weaver's destroyed apartment, White grabbed one more thing: a heavy fireproof briefcase. It contained Weaver's handwritten notes for his microbrewery business, as well as a floppy disc with his business plan.

At first, Weaver didn't even recognize the contents of the briefcase. Along with the physical effects of his injuries, he struggled with deep memory loss. In fact, even after White presented him the briefcase, Weaver left it unopened for months.

"That was everybody's big question while I was in recovery, 'Are you going to pursue opening the microbrewery?' I didn't even remember me wanting to open the microbrewery," Weaver explains. "I had tons of memory loss. I didn't remember studying the microbreweries. My answer was, 'No, I don't even know how to brew. I don't know anything.'"

When he did finally open the briefcase, and read his own handwriting, the memories came back, as if someone had flipped on a light switch in his mind.

"The briefcase was like a room that opened up to me, and I recalled everything that I worked on for a couple years," he says. "It slowly opened back up for me that yeah, eventually I want to open a microbrewery."

Three years after the fire, Weaver fulfilled that dream. The microbrewery was called the Bacchus Brewing Company. But it survived in its Union Station locale for just one year before closing permanently in 2000.

Weaver found himself out of work but in possession of a large Washington Avenue loft. This became the setting for his first art installation, a room Weaver festooned with layers of fabric, ornaments and recycled objects — whatever items and decoration that could be arranged just so in order to draw an experiential response from the visitor.

With that much free space, Weaver realized he could do more, especially for other artists jockeying to get a foothold in St. Louis. Weaver found a willing ally in a childhood friend from University City: Mike Landau, owner of the Phat Buddha Productions recording studio.

"We realized that both of us had a lot of friends who were struggling artists and had no organization, no way of really promoting themselves and giving themselves a chance to become successful professional artists," Landau says.

Weaver and Landau conspired to create a support system for St. Louis' resource-hungry art scene, eventually founding a nonprofit to host gallery shows and attract burgeoning talent. They called the nonprofit Art Dimensions, and it initially attracted 20 artists and put on shows every six weeks or so.

Growing Art Dimensions kept Weaver busy for several years, but he itched to put his skills to wider use, and for a much larger audience. He began toying with the idea of reviving a big food festival begun by the city, only to be discarded. It was called Taste of St. Louis, and it would be a bigger project than anything he'd pulled off before.

He'd need help. He'd find it in the office of Ann Chance.

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