Feature Story

Dorothy About Town: 1.17.18

We probably all know something about Grand Center Arts District (previously called Grand Center). We know Powell Hall is there, and Fox Theatre—but what else? A recent tour of the area revealed an amazing past, present and future just a few miles from home.

Did you know that The Sheldon Concert Hall was originally built as The Ethical Society? Or that Jazz St. Louis was once a Pope’s Cafeteria? And Kranzberg Arts Center was a Woolworth’s! In fact, there was so much going on in this part of St. Louis—what with vaudeville houses, dance halls, an opera house, movie palaces and theaters (Odeon, Fox, Grand Central, Empress, Victoria, Sun, Missouri, St. Louis)—that it was dubbed the Great White Way right through the Depression, thanks to all its neon lights.

Its master redevelopment plan was first envisioned nearly 40 years ago when the area (roughly bordered by Lindell Boulevard on the south, Bell Avenue on the north, Compton Avenue on the east and Vandeventer Avenue on the west) was a shabby relic of boarded-up buildings and desolate streets. Thanks to the vision of countless St. Louis businesses, churches, individuals and charitable foundations, today this region is filled with arts incubators, performance venues, restaurants, parks and schools. The Grand Center Arts District website lists a continuous daily calendar filled with events. Plus, the redevelopment success story isn’t just about the arts; it also has revitalized a real neighborhood that 2,000 residents call home, many of them from economically fragile households.

Those civic leaders 40 years ago realized that to save the Grand region, they would need more than a theater or two. They needed to attract businesses to renovate the historic homes and buildings as offices, and schools to populate the area with fresh young faces. They needed eateries to provide service for those choosing to work there and safe parking for those finding entertainment. It’s amazing what they have accomplished through slow-and-steady efforts.

First, Saint Louis University deserves a big shout-out. Note the 1964 words of Father Paul Reinert: “… the urban university’s role in restoration must begin with its own commitment to stay where it is in the heart of the city …” The district’s churches played a big part, too, like Third Baptist Church, which posts this saying large on its facade: “In the city for good.” And public media (Nine Network, KWMU, KDHX) have made their home there, adding another stabilizing element. Now, 16 theaters, eight schools, 17 museums/galleries, two hotels and 22 eateries later, civic leaders are focused on the next step: connecting all of the district’s various parts through a well-planned network of walkways and common spaces. But why not see for yourself? Weekend walking tours, in partnership with Landmarks Association, are available in warmer weather. It’ll be the best $10 you ever spent.

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