Stan: our neighbor across the street
Stan has lived on Washington Boulevard in Grand Center since 1995. He used to be a contractor, specializing in rehabs throughout the city, and told me that he has recycled and stabilized over 2,000 housing units. Living on Washington Boulevard – more specifically – directly across the street from the Pulitzer and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, gives him an interesting vantage point on our organizations and their impact on the neighborhood. The Pulitzer and the Contemporary share a courtyard and a blog (which you’ve already bookmarked, right??).
Over bowls of blueberries and nuts in his kitchen, he described a neighborhood that’s dramatically shifted in the 13 years he’s been living here. Grand Center’s heyday – when the area was referred to as “Midtown” – was in the 1930s and 40s. It was the entertainment district in the city. Here’s what it looked like back then:
As with many urban neighborhoods, the 1970s and ’80s were not kind to Grand Center. When Stan moved in in 1995, the neighborhood was consistently rough – an image the area still is struggling to overcome. He described how the Fox Theatre – now an anchor in the district – was just wrapping up a major renovation after years of disrepair. The other arts institutions in the neighborhood at the time consisted of a struggling Sheldon Concert Hall and Powell Symphony Hall. But through the development of a CID (Community Improvement District) and increased security, the neighborhood started on a steady incline. In 2001, the Pulitzer opened, with the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis following not far behind in 2003.
After their opening, Stan noticed young people starting to come back to the neighborhood. The Contemporary’s active programming started bringing people into the district. More galleries followed, and art walks throughout the neighborhood became more and more successful. He’s seen Grand Center go from an area where no one would dare walk the streets at night, to groups walking between the Light Project artworks at all hours.
After our meeting, a few more questions struck me. I couldn’t imagine what it must’ve been like to witness such a dramatic shift in the neighborhood and to watch the evolution of two arts institutions through my front windows. So I followed up with a few more questions: “What did you think when you heard the Pulitzer and the Contemporary were opening across the street from you? Have your perception of these institutions changed over the years? Have you noticed an impact on the area since they opened?”
Here’s what he had to say:
“I was active in the Grand Center area as a general contractor and knew of the master plan for the GC area initiated in the early 80′s by Father Rienert, then president of SLU. I soon learned that Mrs. Pulitzer was looking to have a gallery in the Grand Center area in the early 90′s but not across the street from me when I bought my home. As the rumors grew and as the media started making public the details of a significant investment designed by a renowned architect, I was both excited and threatened too because Grand Center still had power of eminent domain.
“I really was excited with watching the whole development of the sites and the Pulitzer. Months after its completion did it become public that the Contemporary would be built adjacent to the Pulitzer. Upon learning this I was still even more ecstatic about being in such proximity to such institutions.
“Not until the spring of 2006 did I relax. Grand Center’s redevelopment charter with the City expired and was not renewed…thus eliminating the threat of eminent domain to my property.
“Now I feel truly both luck and blessed to be part of such a prestigious theater-arts district and environment. I too wish to add to that fabric by completely restoring this 1890′s house that was put on the National Historic Register.
“I see the Pulitzer and the Contemporary as being in Grand Center but independent of Grand Center. The two institutions are making strong statements to and about the St. Louis Community in involving us in the arts with their programs. I am very impressed with their aggressive promotion of the Arts and their programs to the community. I have witnessed their growing success of the community responding to their efforts. I want them to maintain their present success forever.
“With the level of their present success …they are inevitably creating a national and regional attention which is creating a pent-up demand for further development in the Grand Center area with related Arts Energy. This energy is exciting.”
There’s still a lot to be done, but in a district that only has a few – what Stan calls “urban guerillas” – left in residence, testaments like these are the ultimate words of encouragement.
Addendum: Before I posted, I wanted to get a photograph of the view of the neighborhood Stan sees from his house. An added (and slightly nerve-wracking) bonus: he took us up on his roof for the best view I’ve ever seen:
The Pulitzer is on the left, and the Contemporary is on the right. You can see Serra’s Joe and our shared courtyard in between.