Like many memorable forays into the built environment this particular story begins with a trivial errand; one day this past August my watch died coincidentally at the same time as my co-worker’s. One of the partners mentioned there was a jewelry store by the Old Post Office that might be able to replace watch batteries and we set off at lunch to take care of the errand. The city I grew up in was predominantly a post-war city so the existence of a independently owned fine jewelry store that simultaneously sold breitling and rolex and replaced timex batteries for five dollars was somewhat of a welcome novelty.
We dropped our watches off and went around the corner to Dooley’s for a burger. Dooley’s was a famously non-descript pub lodged in the Chemical Building across the street from the Old Post Office in the most intact and urban area in St. Louis. The disregard for fenestration so often seen in truly exemplary watering holes made the gloomy two story space a welcome relief from the hot and sunny street and as my eyes adjusted I realized I had stepped back in time. Not only were the furnishings and plaid wallpaper strikingly dated but the weathered faces of the employees suggested they could have easily worked there for forty years, which in fact most of them had. As I finished off my cheeseburger (topped with a strangely satisfying pimento spread impersonating ball cheddar applied with an ice cream scoop) I thought to my parents stories of trenchers carving roast beef in dark saloons in early 60’s New York and realized this was my analogous experience.
Such experiences are generally antithetical to our the ideas of progress held by our society. Both the old trenchers in the Bowery and Cheddar Ball Cheese have now fallen victim to the desire for urban lifestyles that has been loudly proclaimed by persons such as Richard Florida It is of course a sad reality that as redevelopment occurs increased rents lead to the increasing property values that raise taxes and eventually force the redevelopment of almost all properties. In a related cycle, the capital necessary to redevelop forces the kind of massive rent increases that are not kind to independently-owned small businesses. Thus, in a bitter irony the laudable preservation of the long-endangered Old Post Office played an indirect but important role in the St. Patrick’s day demise of Dooley’s. Although many downtown developers and politicians, such as the CEO of Downtown St. Louis Partnership, were frequent customers none were able or willing to buck the market reality and facilitate the relocation of Dooley’s. As Dooley’s, Everest and several other recent cases attest there is now no room in downtown redevelopment for niche-defying small businesses. If given the option of the old sterile downtown-as-office park scattered with small struggling businesses or the current bland and overly safe disneyfied condo-land I would choose the former, but I'm sure Barb Geisman would beg to differ. After all, granting half the city twenty year tax increment financing is certainly a wise move in a a city with a notoriously constrained tax base. But then again, at least the dwindling conventioneers have a comfortable place to sip Gee and Tees.
Following recent trends, the condos in the Chemical Building will undoubtedly have a restaurant downstairs but if I am allowed to prognosticated I am sure it will contain “fusion” “pan-asian” or some other buzzword and probably be out of business within four years. The persistent irony of urban redevelopment is that the same unique local color that draws residents back to cities is so often obliterated by the demands they place on urban space. In this case the residents will certainly enjoy the ability to still live only yards from their cars in a dense city due to the convenient mid-block parking ramp that has replaced an authentic and distinctly local restaurant.