Downtown St. Louis’ second act

Originally posted 7/4/07

In the most recent census, the population of the city of St. Louis actually increased after decades of decline. I’m speaking specifically of the city proper now—the metropolitan area has shown steady growth all along, but in recent years, the city had been bleeding population to the suburbs. it had been losing businesses too—the compact but beautiful downtown was becoming a ghost town, with perilously high vacancy rates in the office buildings that weren’t just plain empty. Amazingly, the convergence of these two daunting problems [common, by the way, to far too many mid-sized American cities] is leading to a single, elegant solution—one that has even garnered the attention of the New York Times.

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So what is bringing people back to the city? The reinvention of downtown as a residential community. Vacant and near-vacant office buildings are being converted to lofts and condos. More important, people are snapping them up and moving in. Restaurants and various neighborhood services are following. One of the pioneers, City Grocers, has even spawned competition—two of the local supermarket chains are opening stores downtown, something I’ve argued that they should have done years ago. There are bars, clubs and art galleries sprinkled around the area. And some of the businesses do still remain, adding their own energy to the mix. The overall result is that downtown St. Louis is becoming not just a neighborhood, but a fun, lively, very urban neighborhood. Other cities have tried this approach—and are trying it now—but for some reason, it is really taking hold in St. Louis.

One of the hubs of all this cool new development is Washington Avenue, the former garment district. Even when much of downtown was on life support, this area was already making things happen. Artists and photographers were renting entire floors of former clothing factories and warehouses for cheap. Soon, young entrepreneurial promoters were renting storefronts and converting them to live music venues and lounges. People started flocking downtown for more than just Cardinals games. Eyes were opened.

Washington Avenue remains at the heart of much of the development. And one of our favorite places for a weekend bite to eat is there—Crêpes in the City. It’s only a part-time restaurant, tucked inside Washington Ave Post, an office services and supply center that offers photocopying, UPS shipping, rental mailboxes, Internet access and a full service coffee bar. Washington Ave Post also offers its wall space to local artists and participates in the First Friday Downtown Gallery Walks.

crepes.jpgCrêpes in the City adds just one more element to this cool patchwork quilt of a business. On Fridays at lunch and Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 2pm, Mary Gonzalez and her partner José set up a crêpe station with three electric crêpe griddles much like those you’d see street vendors using in Paris. And there the Peruvian-born duo turns out a delicious assortment of savory and sweet crêpes. The crêpes themselves are light and paper thin, the fillings fresh, inventive and generous. No wonder happy diners quickly fill the handful of tables inside and on the sidewalk out front.

To some, this half-copy shop, half-crêperie might seem like an odd setting for food. To me, the cobbling together of all these elements into a business is part of its charm. Of course, this kind of casual, let’s-give-it-a-try-and-see-what-happens entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of many of St. Louis’ more interesting businesses and endeavors. Enjoy it while you can at Crêpes in the City—Mary and José are talking about taking the crêperie full time a couple of blocks up the street sometime this fall. I can’t wait to go there when they do.

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