ST. LOUIS — If you make it cool, they will come.
Not too many years ago, a certain two- or three-block stretch of Locust Street in the Midtown neighborhood was known for its unsavoriness, if it was known for anything at all.
Male prostitutes conducted their business in doorways and backyards. Drug users dropped needles on the sidewalk. Homeless people used the street for all their hygienic needs.
But the strip on Locust running roughly from Garrison Avenue to Compton Avenue has evolved. Now called Midtown Alley — though that name may soon change — the strip has become one of the hippest places in town.
Crime is down. Crowds are up. And in a city that celebrates its distinct neighborhoods, the Midtown Alley strip has carved out its own niche.
The Central West End is sophisticated and posh. The Grove is known for its international restaurants and gay-friendly bars. The Delmar Loop is packed full of shops and restaurants.
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But Midtown Alley has a different spirit. The creative and artistic fervor of the street is just as important as the retail side.
Artists and photographers call the street home, along with a modeling agency, film production firms, a recording studio, advertising and marketing firms, architects, designers and the like.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the neighborhood was originally the place where St. Louisans bought their cars. Called Automotive Row beginning around 1911, the buildings along the strip housed one car dealership after another.
Many still have the original hand-laid, sturdy hexagon tile floors that gave the dealerships a distinctive, clean look.
Restaurateurs Dave and Kara Bailey specifically incorporated the area’s automotive history into the design of their whiskey and vegetarian restaurant Small Batch Whiskey & Fare.
The building was originally a Ford Model T showroom, Dave Bailey said, “that lined up really well with the whiskey concept.”
Old family photos from the 1910s and 1920s dot the walls, the most prominent of which features the family in a car from the period. The urban driving theme is continued more subtly with wallpaper that includes fire hydrants and parking meters in its pattern.
The Great Depression hurt automotive sales, and virtually no new cars were built or sold during World War II, as the nation turned to producing parts and vehicles for war. Some of the car dealerships moved out of the neighborhood and other businesses moved in.
Once Films, a film production company, now occupies a space that once sold Locomobile autos. Described — at least by the Locomobile company itself — as the finest cars in America, the vehicles were also among the most expensive. The company folded in 1929.
Some years later, the building was used by Premier Recording, which was where Chuck Berry first recorded on vinyl. Other luminaries used the recording studio too, over the years, including Bing Crosby, Miles Davis and Ike and Tina Turner.
A television studio was added later, and the space became the home of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” with host Marlin Perkins, who was director of the St. Louis Zoo. A former neighbor who had lived there when the show was on the air said they once brought in an elephant through the garage doors in the back.
But the strip eventually fell into disrepair. The remaining auto dealerships moved out when car companies began insisting that they have larger showrooms and service areas.
So it was a bold step in 2001 when Eric and Mary Thoelke brought their branding and design film Toky to Locust Street.
“We were on (Laclede’s) Landing and were renting there and wanted to buy a building. I was familiar with the old auto row because a crazy rock band that I knew (the Unconscious) was living here. The rest of the neighborhood was undiscovered territory. There was nothing else here,” Eric Thoelke said.
Other marketing companies soon followed, and the strip became known for its concentration of advertising firms and the creative businesses that support them, such as photographers and designers.
“There was a time when we had 40 or 45 ad agencies. They had an open house. I went to it and I said ‘Wow, I’ve just been to the most cutting edge, most cool thing in the United States.’ I thought this is where it’s going on,” said Joy Grdnic.
Grdnic founded The Fountain on Locust in 2008, in what had been a Stutz Motor Car showroom. The restaurant — and bar and ice cream parlor — struggled for a few years, she said.
But with an innovative menu and art deco-inspired murals that Grdnic painted herself, it eventually became a destination.
Danni Eickenhorst bought the restaurant with her husband Marcus in 2021. She said that on any given Saturday, the place will be filled with people in goth clothes going to a death metal concert at the Red Flag live music venue across the street alongside people “dressed to the nines” who are headed to the Fox Theatre or Powell Hall in the nearby Grand Center Arts District.
“Where the Grand Arts Center is very high art, we’re more guerrilla art,” she said.
The Fountain was one of the spearheads that helped turn the district into a vibrant, hipster-friendly spot.
They made it cool, and people came.
“You see every kind of person walking down the street, and we like that,” said Mary Clarke, who with her husband Jeff co-owns Mother Model Management.
The agency scouts, develops and manages fashion models; they take credit for discovering Ashton Kutcher and Karlie Kloss. An array of magazine covers featuring their models covers one long wall of their location on Locust Street.
They like the location so much, they live above their office.
“The longer we’re in the neighborhood, (and) the more it fills in, there is more of a creative feel. It’s very much a neighborhood feel,” Clarke said.
Emily Thomas owns Inked Beauty Bar and its offshoot next door, Inked Beauty Bar Duo. The Duo location is a hair salon, while the original Inked Beauty Bar specializes in permanent cosmetics, body art tattoos and permanent jewelry, along with spray tanning and teeth whitening.
She sees the CityPark soccer stadium, which opens this year, to be a potential game changer. It’s a short walk away, though that walk includes crossing busy Jefferson Avenue.
Midtown Alley is still a work in progress. A popular record store just closed, taking its inventory and sales online. Some spaces remain empty. One of the taller buildings is being renovated, with room for retail stores at street level and luxury condos on the upper floors.
The artistic and the retail meet in a gift boutique called Golden Gems, which designs nearly all of the products it sells.
The store offers mugs that say “Baddest Babe in the USA” and prints that read “No rest for the wicked.” It designs its own scents for candles and perfumes, pouring its own scented candles in the back of the building.
It also offers such books as “The Ex-Girlfriend of My Ex-Girlfriend is My Girlfriend” and smiley-face slippers.
“We sell anything that inspires the inner badass in people. We encourage everyone to take up space and live unapologetically and live life on your own terms,” said marketing and events coordinator Lo Dugan.
The store designs all of its products in-house. Sisters Amanda Helman and Susan Logsdon — she’s the one who creates the products — founded it in 2016. They opened their first store on Cherokee Street in 2018 and then moved to the bigger location on Locust Street in 2021.
“We knew that we wanted to keep the business in St. Louis, we knew that we wanted to be in an up-and-coming, vital neighborhood,” Dugan said.
“Logistically, the space met our needs, and the neighborhood was 100% the cherry on top.”