Saturday, April 29, 2017

Earliest Memories of St. Louis

Growing up less than ten miles east of St. Louis, my family rarely brought us kids to the city even though my dad worked downtown. The occasional visit was to the Zoo, a Cards game, Union Station, St. Louis Centre or  the VP Fair/air show.

My earliest memories of St. Louis are my dad taking me to his work (Market Street) and taking me out to lunch. There were people everywhere, I loved it. Women would change out of their heels into athletic socks and Reeboks and briskly walk to lunch in professional attire except from the ankles down. It felt like NYC to this suburban cul-de-sac kid.

I also remember my uncle taking me to a Blues game at the Checkerdome, an unforgettable experience with beer-sticky floors, hoosiers without shirts carrying 12 packs of Busch on the walk to the arena and an epic fan fight in the stands. Hooked! We parked in what I thought was Dogtown (but now know as the Cheltenham Neighborhood) and walked to the arena. There were smoky neighborhood bars with doors wide open and lots of pre-game drinking. The K-SHE 95 1970's culture was still very much alive and kicking in Dogtown.

My uncle would also take me to work where he was selling cabinets to the flurry of rehabbers in the heart of Soulard in the mid 1980's. The brick was mind blowing, and it seemed to go on for miles. This was the first rebirth of Soulard after the cyclone rebuild and it made quite an early impression.

Belleville, Illinois is where I grew up, went to school and eventually left when I wanted to move to a bigger city with plenty of mysteries I craved and ideals I held at the time. But Southern Illinois, more specifically, Belleville (and to a lesser extent Freeburg and Millstadt) will always feel like home.


The bowling alleys, pizza/video game arcades, diners, St. Clair Square mall, the long Main Street, delivering windshields, bussing tables, mowing grass, buying records at Music Biz, corn, wheat and soybean fields, apple orchards, fried fish taverns, cutting off fresh "hunkies" (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on willow trees, Mr. Donut and Zipps fries, binge drinking Red White and Blue at house parties and on farm roads...and the half-assed girl chasing, driving around, smoking and obsessing over music with a very small group of friends are the things that defined me more than St. Louis...the formative years.


I never crossed the river outside of my parent's car until I started delivering windshields for a company in Belleville. The job took me to auto dealerships from Litchfield, Illinois on Route 66 to suburbs in South and West County, Missouri. 

This was also the first time I drove on city streets and realized there was a grid and a pattern to getting around. Sounds naive now, but I had to learn this somehow and the delivery job got me all over the place in a 1970's Chevy van or 1980's Ford Ranger pickup.

Most of the auto dealerships and homes were in decidedly suburban locations and were in pretty boring and non-descript buildings. However, one dealership stood out. It was an Oldsmobile dealership in what I only knew back then to be "downtown" St. Louis.

After a little digging it turns out the dealership that left an impression on me was John E. Hanna Oldsmobile and it was in the Midtown Neighborhood at 3401 Washington Avenue.

Hanna was acquired by Ernie Patti in 1997 amid a major shift by General Motors to downsize the number of dealerships in its network. It closed soon thereafter marking the end of automobile row in St. Louis.

Here's a nice KETC Channel 9 "Living St. Louis" piece on Automobile Row:

The dealership was razed and is now one of the many surface parking lots that rob this part of town of character and the city feel.
But, my early fascination with St. Louis really began here while making deliveries to Hanna Oldsmobile, and to a lesser extent the old McMahon Ford and Vincel Pontiac locations; they were old school and the places had this grit and toughness that you didn't get at suburban places like Dave Sinclair in South County or Wagner Buick in Belleville.

These were the places I wanted to be around...the old city. I still remember the smell of ~80 years of oil, grease and gas in Hanna Oldsmobile. For whatever reason, I love that smell. Very American. Very "There Will Be Blood".
The mechanics looked like they'd worked there forever, you could smoke on the job, there were 1980's hairspray-hot Snap-On and Mac Tool calendars on the walls, it was a scene I loved at the time...made me wanna crank the Thin Lizzy and talk in a Humphrey Bogart voice.  Just tough and gritty...city.

I miss that place.

Another key early memory of St. Louis that eventually drew me across the Mississippi was when my sister, four years my elder, moved to an apartment flat in St. Louis' Southwest Garden Neighborhood in the early 1990's.

When I first went to visit her, I was immediately blown away. Sidewalks were everywhere. You could seemingly walk for miles in any direction. This was the memory that has stuck with me the most.  This is really why I think I'm here today, the sidewalks and brick buildings.

Furthermore, the signs, the restaurants, the brick buildings, the people, it was a goddamn mystery that was nothing like Belleville...or, maybe like parts of old Belleville, but ten times bigger. 

I remember she walked us to the Missouri Botanical Gardens and I was thinking, wow if I can walk here, I can walk anywhere.

You have to understand how hard it is to walk in modern subdivisions and small towns. You have to walk in the streets. So, sidewalks were a revelation.

Simple, I know...but, it was a lasting impression.

I was hooked.

The upstairs apartment of the multi-family had amazing arts and crafts charm and was in great condition. Stained glass, hardwood floors, crazy 50's kitchen, tiled bathroom...man, it was like being dropped into another time. 

It was an escape. I knew if the rest of the city was as cool as this, I had to move here and fast. Adventures around every corner...

The car we had at the time broke down when I was staying there one night and I had to get back to Belleville so I rode the Bi-State bus with my now brother-in-law to get back home. Brick was everywhere, it just seemed to go on and on. Ghost signs, metal and neon signs, small businesses were still prevalent in numbers not imaginable twenty years later. The scenes outside the window were the ones I craved.

The old, densely populated city was still hanging on.

Those were the few memories that oriented me in a westward direction in my twenties. My sister opened the door and paved a path west, and eventually I had to head for the Poplar Street Bridge to cross the river and set up shop in the old city.

I graduated college, came back home to Belleville, got a job in Chesterfield and moved to the Dutchtown Neighborhood a couple months later.

That was that. I'm still fascinated with this city twenty plus years from these fading memories of the 1980's and 1990's.

2 comments:

Adam said...

Beautiful post. I love this: "This is really why I think I'm here today, the sidewalks and brick buildings."

My spouse and I are about to close on a house in Dutchtown. Maybe we'll see you at a neighborhood meeting. :)

Yojimbo said...

Could you specify the years at play here? For example -- what year did your older sister take you on the walk to the Bot Garden? What year was that walk through Dogtown amid "'70s KSHE culture"?

Love your work here.