Wonderful things are happening in a wedge of the city called “The Grove,” from the innocent sorcery of Mississippi soul food at Sweetie Pie’s to the sizzling flavors of the Baja Peninsula and bands playing at Atomic Cowboy to the economically-mixed, Senior residential-housing at McCormack House. This little slice of The Lou is coming back!
Formally Forest Park Southeast, it’s a fragment of the greater prairie that seems to have fallen (from Colonial times) comfortably between the cracks; north and west of the Prairies des Noyers and Cul de Sac, immediately east of the Gratiot Land League and southwest of the Grande Prairie. In more recent times it’s been part and parcel of both the Central West End and the Shaw Neighborhood encompassing the four lesser known neighborhoods of Adams Grove, Gibson Heights, New Boyle and Ranken East.
According to Chip Schloss, owner of Atomic Cowboy (http://www.atomiccowboystl.com/) and founder of Grove Fest in 2005, the area’s newly-lit title derives from the 1940’s and ’50’s when “the old-timers” in the now urban neighborhood referred to it as “the grove”. Cartographer Camille Dry illustrated a stand of trees along the north side of New Manchester Road for Pictorial Saint Louis 1875* (http://www.alder-digital.de/louis/) just west of where Old Manchester (today Vandeventer Avenue) & New Manchester diverged.
What remains of that pastoral area of St. Louis known in the 1870’s as Rock Spring is a city neighborhood with great potential. Taking it’s name from the large spring and main source of the Mill Creek (La Petite Riviere on the early French maps) that, fed by other springs along the way, emptied into the Mississippi River near today’s Poplar Street Bridge, the area grew into a 19th century resort for people from “the city”. Long-gone are the Rock Spring Hotel, Rock Spring School House and Rock Spring Tannery that Camille Dry roughed in between Manchester and Clayton Roads along Old Manchester Road.
Adams’ Grove had also vanished when Angiemae Renner was born in the 4400 block of Arco Avenue in 1920. But she remembers the bustling business district along Manchester Avenue where everything you could want was within walking distance: Woolworth’s Dime Store between Newstead and Tower Grove, the city’s second Schnucks Store (“sometimes old Mr. Schnuck would be there with one of his sons”), the A & P, a department store, dress store, shoe store, Tower Grove Music, a hardware store, Kriegshauser & Ambruster Mortuary and the Manchester Theater, where on summer nights they brought seats outdoors for people to watch the movies.
“We played ball and tag in the alley even at night. But the factory whistle at Liggett & Meyers, up near Vandeventer where they made Lucky Strikes, went off at 9:00 o’clock. And every child was off the street when the whistle stopped blowing. We had to be inside the house by then – or else!”**
Today Angiemae lives across the street from where she grew up and one building over from La Dolce Via (http://ladolceviabakery.com/), the bakery/cafe owned and operated by Marcia Sindel and her family, who have sort of adopted the delightful nonogenarian. For years Marcia did all the baking for Bar Italia in the Central West End.
A careful look at La Dolce Via’s menu shows that here in her own retail space Marcia whips up delicious and imaginative dishes, Italian pastries and according to The Riverfront Times, the best scones in St. Louis. The atmosphere is relaxed, that of a corner cafe, with a play-kitchen-nook for children and shelves of books for them to read.
Renner remembers the last horse-drawn fire engine in the neighborhood and the Brennan family who owned the grocery store and lived upstairs, where Marcia Sindel’s bakery/cafe is now. A tailor and a shoemaker, Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Schmidt, had shops in the same building. She’ll never forget the day in 1942 when FBI agents descended upon Mr. Schmidt’s shoe store and the neighbors discovered he was a Nazi spy, who had been sending messages in his embroidery work.
Sweetie Pie’s at the Mangrove, 4270 Manchester, fills a space occupied by a department store from 1920 to 1950. Sweetie Pie’s is a rare treat on many levels. Grace McCammond’s black and white mural of St. Louis landmarks***: Melroy’s, Crown Candy, Garavelli’s Buffet, the St. Louis Theater, Gaslight Square, Dr. Jazz Soda Fountain & Grill sets a nostalgic mood. From table or booth the aromas are tantalizing: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, short ribs, okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler that send you spiraling back to the age of six when you were sitting at your grandma’s kitchen table. Take a bite, close your eyes and taste the memories.
Sweetie Pie’s is the domain of Robbie Montgomery, whose singing career spanned fifty years of a former lifetime, during which she backed up Ike & Tina Turner as an Ikette, recorded with Dr. John, Barbara Streisand, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones and performed onstage with James Brown and Jose Feliciano. Robbie always cooked when she was touring and now, being cook and restaurateur, have taken center stage in her life. “I LOVE to cook and I love seeing people’s responses to my cooking.”
Interested in food since childhood, Robbie acquired her culinary skills from her grandmother and great-grandmother in Columbus, Mississippi where she was born. As a school girl in St. Louis, she walked from Curtis School to Dunbar for Home Ec. Classes where she had lessons in cooking, sewing and banking that served her well throughout life. But the recipes she has perfected – those came from home, from family. A gracious hostess and expert manager, Robbie is about to open her third (and largest) restaurant, “Sweetie Pie’s Upper Crust” in a building she bought at Grand and Delmar Boulevards in Grand Center. One side will be cafeteria-style with steam tables she purchased from the S.S. Admiral Cruise Boat and the other a full-scale restaurant where guests may order from an expanded menu that includes fine steaks. “Sweetie Pie’s Upper Crust” will also include a bakery and culinary school!
While Robbie Montgomery loved to sing and cook from childhood, Sonja Thompkins of The Little Blacque Dress (http://ilovethislook.com/) across Tower Grove Ave., loved to play beauty shop and store. Now she owns her own “ultra girly” boutique at 4300 Manchester Avenue. Buying trips take her to Dallas, Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico throughout the year. She never orders more than five of any one style (sometimes only three) and never re-orders. “You have to get it while you can.” A boutique with flair for women in the 22-40 age range primarily, the Little Blacque Dress carries dreamy formals for teens during prom season.
Ujamaa Maktaba at 4267 Manchester Avenue has an ambience like no other place in The Grove, one of serenity and welcome infused with aromatic incense and soft jazz. Managed by Robert Mohammed, it was opened in April of 1993 by Marcus Watson, who at the age of twenty-three discerned the need and saw a market for a Black Bookstore in the community. Replacing a 905 Liquor Store, and inspired by the writings of Malcolm X, Ujamaa Maktaba (literally Co-operative Economic Library in Swahili) became a community gathering place where customers, many of them police officers and politicians, were invited to read and check out references, play chess and engage in lively dialogue. Watson’s concept, “to create an information center to help restore the neighborhood back to its potential, to improve the community in non-violent ways”,**** flourishes here though he died last year at age thirty-nine. In addition to books – incense, pure oils imported from Africa, jewelry, prints, t-shirts and snacks are sold.
Unlike Atomic Cowboy and The Little Blacqe Dress, Renard Paper Company, Inc. has anchored the neighborhood for decades. Founded by Henri Renard at 1011 N. 11th Street downtown, in 1953, the family-owned business re-located east of the present location at 4465 Manchester, before acquiring one warehouse at Taylor and expanding to three interconnected warehouses ending at Newstead. Martha Renard Hamilton, who started working for her dad stuffing envelopes at home as a kid, sees great progress in the neighborhood and enjoys having activity around them where for years, there was none. (http://www.renardpaper.com/)
Another anchor of Forest Park Southeast since the 196o’s, Advertisers Printing Company (http://advertisersprinting.com/) was also established downtown, on Washington Avenue in 1923. The company moved to the area in 1966 when the present owner’s father purchased the John Stark Printing Company building one block north of their present location, 1229 S. Vandeventer. Bill Fechner, who is third generation of his family to lead the company, told me that location was everything in their selection. “We wanted to stay in the city and we have great access to interstate highways here .”
Atomic Cowboy owner, Chip Schloss and Guy Slay of Mangrove Restoration represent a breed of urban pioneer who are re-creating old sections of U.S. cities from coast to coast. Schloss grew up in Olivette but fell in love with the energy and architecture of the Delmar Loop, where an aunt used to take him for rides on the electric streetcars and to the movies. On his return to St. Louis from San Diego State University Schloss became interested in urban revitalization. He recognized in Forest Park Southeast a similar architectural feel to The Loop and “a neighborhood that was under-served and had lots of potential”. He wanted to “jump-start” things here.
Taking his inspiration from Joe Edwards, who did that very thing brilliantly in University City’s Delmar Loop, Chip Schloss dug in, bought property (first a vacant warehouse on Kentucky which he later sold “to buy the building the Cowboy’s in), spent a lot of time meeting with merchants, picking up trash on the street and helping to organize a loose merchant’s association.” The inspiration for The Grove’s great, neon sign (lit for the first time December 17, 2010), he took from “San Diego’s monumental, neon, Art Deco signs”.
Schloss’s concept for Atomic Cowboy was part coffeehouse, part club, part restaurant. Having “cooked (his) way through school in California and sought out the most authentic foods on the Baja Peninsula”, he wanted for “the Cowboy” fresh, healthy Mexican food. The Diaz family (including cousins) have worked for him from the beginning. He considers them “part of the familia.” Schloss clearly loves The Grove whose name he helped resurrect, and he has a great store of knowledge about it from early on.
When Mary Urquhart McRee (http://www.mohistory.org/cakePHP/unCommonThreadsSite/dresses_1800_1850) platted a long, elliptical path (the Laclede Race Course) on land she owned between Old and New Manchester Roads. There residents of the very early suburb of St. Louis that she also created, McRee City, could drive their horses and buggies. When Schloss and his associates were excavating the land behind the restaurant for a patio they “came up with loads of horse shoes, clearly for big, buggy-pulling horses.”
It takes initiative, energy, thought, determination and co-operation to bring a dying section of a city back to life. Forest Park Southeast is rich with a diverse and very active group of residents, entrepreneurs, business owners and church communities (like St. Cronan, Gibson Heights Presbyterian and St. James African Methodist Episcopal) who are forging a vision of community here.
Although the neighborhood is distinctly urban, “naturally integrated – racially and economically”***** something that Catherine Nolan, a much more recent resident of Arco Avenue than Angiemae Renner, loves (Catherine settled in the neighborhood with a community of friends after graduating from St. Louis University in the early 1970’s) vestiges of the great prairie remain.
Standing along the south side of St. Cronan Church and looking west into the little yard that separates the church from the rectory I might have been standing in a farming community in rural Missouri – or Kansas for that matter – so powerful was my sense of the land; the storm cellar with its hinged, wooden door reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz and the wooden doors on the parish buildings reminiscent of a country churchyard. I imagine the wildflowers and vines, barely recognizable in wintry stalks, are allowed to have their way with the garden in summer. I’ll return then to see for myself and to further explore The Grove, one of The Lou’s most fascinating neighborhoods.
* Pictorial St. Louis 1875: The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi River Valley – Richard Compton and Camille Dry, Compton & Co., St. Louis, MO, 1876. **Angiemae Renner, ***Grace McCammond – artist, ****Robert Mohammed, ***** Catherine Nolan.
Photo Credits: Interior Shot of The Little Blacque Dress used with the kind permission of Sonja Thomkins; Photos of Neon “Grove” Sign, Atomic Cowboy, Community Housing Building and Wall Art – Thomas Kavanaugh; Sweetie Pie’s and All Other Photos – Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, the author of this blog.
My thanks to Robbie Montgomery, Chip Schloss, Martha Hamilton, Robert Mohammed, Bill Fechner, Sonja Thomkins, Catherine Nolan and Angiemae Renner for generously taking the time to talk with me! And to Marcia Sindel for facilitating my interview of Angiemae Renner. Thanks also to Ruth Keenoy and The Landmarks Association of St. Louis in whose library I pored over Pictorial St. Louis 1875.
***Many thanks to Annette Canale (http://www.annettecanale.com) for this link to Grace McCammond’s website: http://signatureartsstl.com/Grace_McCammond/About.html. Grace has cards that show part of the St. Louis landmarks mural in Sweetie Pie’s as well as prints of the entire mural for sale at 2001 Russell Blvd. (314) 664-4211.