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TinotopiaLog → Arts Mumbo Jumbo and Eminent Domain ( 1 Feb 2005)
Tuesday 01 February 2005

Arts Mumbo Jumbo and Eminent Domain

For as long as I can remember, there’s been a push in St. Louis to develop a certain area — called ‘Grand Center’ by its boosters — as an ‘arts district’.

I call this kind of thing ‘Sim City Urban Planning’. In Sim City — and particularly in the early versions of the game — you are the god-mayor, lording it over some pathetically needy simulated citizens called ‘sims’. The sims, like real people, don’t like to pay taxes. Also like (many) real people, they expect the government to look after their every need. One of the things that raised the sims’ level of satisfaction with their city — and hence your score in the game — was a stadium. I forget how much of the game’s money a stadium cost, but it was a lot. Deployed early in the game, the stadium would (I think) increase your city’s rate of growth. Eventually, the citizens would demand one, and shortly thereafter your population wouldn’t grow unless you had a stadium.

Later versions of Sim City continued along this line, with parks, fountains, marinas, zoos, etc., etc. all offering opportunities to enhance your sims’ lives. You could always tell the cities built by people who didn’t know what the hell they were doing, because the city was going bankrupt trying to pay for all the amenities. When I first bought Sim City, I stayed up all night playing it on my XT. I gave up on it a couple of versions back, when it became clear that the simulation was failing to grow in sophistication at the same rate as the graphics.

Maxis, the makers of Sim City, focus now almost exclusively on The Sims, which I’ve never been able to get into, at all. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I’ve never been able to get past the fact that the sims in that game are horribly pathetic; they’re supposed to be adults, but they won’t go to the bathroom without explicit guidance from the user, and they show a marked tendency to stay up all night and sleep through work the next day. It’s very much like having a computer-simulated infant, but one who has external responsibilities and who has infintely more complex demands than those of an actual baby. Call me Jimmy Bringdown, but I have never been able to see the appeal of that. The game is popular enough that I assume that the characters must at some point start using the toilet on their own, but I have never had the patience to get to that point.

Anyway, I was talking about St. Louis, and specifically that part of St. Louis called (often ironically) Grand Center. Grand Center is an ‘arts district’, i.e. an area with a high concentration of galleries, museums, concert halls, and ‘upscale’ restaurants that tend to feature live jazz now and again. St. Louis already has a billion-dollar football dome, and a new baseball stadium is under construction. In the absence of a plausible excuse for spending money on any more sports facilities, the Sim City Urban Planning idiocy seems to have been turned up a notch lately in Grand Center.

Grand Center is a small area almost smack in the center of the city of St. Louis, stretching for a few blocks along Grand Avenue between Lindell and Delmar Boulevards, and maybe a block east and west of Grand. It’s home to Powell Symphony Hall, where the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performs; the Fox Theatre, a restored movie palace; the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum; a few other things, and a whole lot of parking.

In fact, there’s far more surface area devoted to public parking on the official Grand Center map than to anything else. Here’s their map, with the parking colored red:


Orange buildings are ‘performing arts’ spaces; purple means a restaurant; yellow is ‘education’, blue is ‘visual arts’. These categories are pretty widely-defined; ‘The Bistro At Grand Center’ is listed in purple (#25), and ‘Jazz At The Bistro’ — you will note that this is the same place, but with jazz — is orange #12.

‘Education’ is particularly broad, encompassing the local PBS station, a Catholic high school, the ‘Earthways Home, the ‘City House’, which does God only knows what, and the Vaughn Cultural Center, which “promotes awareness of African-American history and culture through exhibits, storytelling and special programs”.

If you want to live in Grand Center — and plenty of people would, I’m betting, because St. Louis University is just off the bottom of the map — you can’t, generally. Residential space is shown in green. This is one of the reasons why there’s so much parking: so that people can drive in from the suburbs to eat overpriced food and watch (mostly) mediocre performances of this and that. The national touring company of Les Misérables opened there tonight!

Now, I haven’t lived in St. Louis for ten years, so things may have changed. Scratch that, things have changed. The Continental Life Building (#15 on map), at least, has been Recalled To Life after standing empty for decades. It gives me hope even for the Woolworths next door.

But it doesn’t give me hope for Grand Center as a whole. You may have deduced by now that I’m not particularly enthusiastic about the entire project, and you’d be right. St. Louis has a few such districts that have developed more organically, and that continue to be popular. Grand Center, on the other hand, is largely the product of eminent domain and of public money. This results in a mania for ‘inclusiveness’ that means that the place appeals to no one in particular. On January 27, there was a tsunami benefit concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall. The program:

1. YMCA Boys Choir (St. Louis Style Gospel)
2. Mark Holland (Native American Flute)
3. Farshid Etniko (Latin Jazz and World Music)
4. Los Flamencos (Flamenco Music and Dance)
5. Mitzi MacDonald and Keltic Reign (Maritime Canadian/Celtic)
6. One Kindred Soul (Americana) [i.e. countryish music]
7. Andrew O’Brien and Tommy Martin (Irish Fiddle & Pipes)

Now, I realize it’s a benefit, and that people might be expected to attend out of charity. That’s good, because I cannot imagine any other reason why any single person would be interested in this particular program. The individual acts might be fine, and might have their fan bases, but the juxtaposition of them shows the hazards of this kind of Art By Committee.

This beneift, and the ‘Red, Hot & Cool cabaret season’ (Oct 20-24) are the only things currently listed on the Grand Center ‘shows & events’ page.

The calendar page is a little better, listing four distinct acts or shows in the month of February, and another two in March. It appears that the suburbanite’s vision of a ‘hip’ urban arts district doesn’t include a whole lot of ‘arts’, aside from touring companies of bad musicals.

Now, what would the next logical step be in developing such a glittering and bustling area? If you answered ‘seize the property of a profitable business on the periphery so you can build something that’s only a bare concept at this point’, you’re ready to be a St. Louis Urban Visionary. Read about it here, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

An agency backed by the city is preparing to take Day’s [auto repair] business by eminent domain to make way for something called a “Media Box.”

Day can take the offer of $67,500 for his property — less than the city says it’s worth — or continue with an already drawn-out court battle. Either way, he has little chance of keeping his shop on a triangle of land at Spring Avenue and Olive Street. […]

Grand Center’s vision has the area becoming the “cultural soul” of the city, a residential and commercial district that will rival the Delmar Loop and Central West End.

Because, of course, it’s better to use public financing and eminent domain to attempt to draw business away from already-successful districts.

The vision does not include an auto repair shop. The Post-Dispatch obtained a map of Grand Center’s “Strategic Development Master Plan” that shows the “Media Box” in the same spot as Royal Auto Repair.

So just what is a Media Box?

For weeks, officials in Grand Center and others involved refused to discuss the plan. […]

“I can’t talk to you about the Media Box,” Eric Friedman, a real estate agent who describes himself as a principal in the project, said earlier last month.

But last week, Michelle Cohen, a public relations executive recently hired by Grand Center, said the “Media Box” is a building that will hold a design studio and apartments or condominiums.

“The ‘Media Box’ is really the working title for the design studio piece of it,” Cohen said.

Friedman is working with the city’s postmodern standard-bearer, an asbestos lawyer turned multimedia artist named Paul Guzzardo. Guzzardo has been involved in creative presentation of images, including projecting the last episode of “Seinfeld” on the side of a building on Washington Avenue. He also owned an “interactive” nightclub, Cabool, where dance moves were broadcast over the Internet.

It is worth noting here that this story is presented as a straight news piece by the Post-Dispatch.

“I have an interest and kind of obsession with information culture and urbanism,” Guzzardo said recently - although he also refused to discuss the Media Box.

Undoubtedly it’s in the pursuit of ‘urbanism’ that he’s helping to create an arts amusement-park for a demographic that doesn’t exist. And an interest in ‘information culture’ apparently doesn’t extend to letting that information out of the Petri dish.

Posted by tino at 18:39 1.02.05
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The story about Jim Day’s struggle with Grand Center, Inc. (http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/stlouiscitycounty/story/2395E726FA04C73E86256F9B001791A2?OpenDocument&Headline=Eminent+domain+takes+aim+at+life’s+work&highlight=2%2Cgentle%2Cjim%2Cday) is only the most recent chapter in a long saga of faulty policies brought about by force in Grand Center.

For more information about these faulty policies and the resultant abuse of stakeholder rights, please refer to the following:





These heavy handed policies, resulting from GCI and SLU’s collusion to use taxpayer money to fund the construction of a building (SLU Arena) intended for sectarian purposes (illegal) or smoke and mirrors pipe dream follies like the “Media Box,” are unacceptable.

(The “Media Box” can most likely only be funded through the Grand Center TIF, unless a private entity with deep pockets intends to pay for it, and therefore profits from the abuse of eminent domain. Since the bulk of the Class A TIF bonds are set aside for the Arena, imaginary projects like the ?Media Box? would have to get Class B or C bonds, which will be worthless. This project is an illusion.)

Grand Center, Inc. intends to confiscate Jim Day’s property not to build a “Media Box” but to forcibly banish a business that does not fit into their elitist, upper class, white, suburban vision for our neighborhood.

Such issues as these are now pending in the US District Court. http://news.estrong.com/strongfunds5/NewsStory.asp?Mode=Theater&cat=Entertainment&Story=20041014/288e2348.xml

In the meantime, it is important to let the powers that be know that the public will not accept government supported bullying of residents and small business owners for selfish purposes, or otherwise.

So, give them a call:

Mayor Francis Slay 314.622.3201 Ald. Michael McMillan, 19th Ward 314.652.1992 Fr. Lawrence Biondi, President, SLU 314.977.7777 Vince Schoemehl, President, GCI 314.533-1884 x202

Thank you. David Laslie, small business owner in Grand Center

Posted by: David Laslie at February 4, 2005 07:24 PM