Two and a half years ago, KETC/Channel 9 asked me to produce a new series called Rebuilding St. Louis. The concept was simple: we would follow the progress at a major city revitalization project from start to finish over the course of a year, culminating in a one-hour documentary. Short (90-second) pieces would show the project in progress throughout the year.
The revitalization of St. Louis is a big story, coming late to this city relative to many other cities, but gaining momentum quickly over the past few years. For many people in the station's viewing area, this is a story they would see only in their living rooms, and so I was pleased to get to show the progress in a neighborhood that many either had little knowledge of or had written off as lost to urban blight.
The area around Tower Grove Park certainly deserves a second look. The neighborhood has that elusive quality of "walkability," with shops, churches and a world-class park all within a tight radius. And the housing stock showcases the loss of the craftsmanship of 100 years ago.
That first year, the show focused on the renovation of The Capistrano, an apartment building at Utah Place and Gustine that had sat vacant and burned out for years, a blighted corner of an otherwise revitalizing neighborhood. Starting with the building's interior demolition, we were there for every phase of the project, documenting the complete rebuilding of the complex from 21 apartments into six luxury condominiums.
In public television, we normally go on video shoots as a two-person team: a cameraman and the producer. But for the early Capistrano shoots, I took two crew people so that we could all watch each other's backs. The three-story building had many places where a cameraman could take a step back and fall three floors (which were in the process of being removed and replaced), so I wasn't taking any chances.
It was incredible to watch the transformation of this complex over the 12 months we were there. But equally rewarding was telling the bigger story of neighborhood and city revitalization. Meeting and interviewing a nonagenarian couple who had lived in the neighborhood for more than 60 years, as well as younger people who had moved in only during the last decade, for me painted a much richer picture than simply the story of one building.
Another bonus for me in telling this story was the lead characters. The Capistrano project was a labor of love for developer Susie Gudermuth, who was known for rehabbing smaller projects throughout the Tower Grove South and Tower Grove Heights neighborhoods.
Gudermuth had renovated dozens of homes around the Utah Place block where she lives. She made an excellent central character, and as a producer, I was grateful for the personality that she lent the show. I was also thankful for Jim Groebl, the colorful and telegenic contractor who acted as our resident "Norm" (the narrator on This Old House) and lent real charm to the construction portion of the show.
As the year wore on, I realized that it was important to show that revitalization happening in the city wasn't limited to just one neighborhood or one area. We scouted other locations and found that in Old North St. Louis, an ambitious new construction project would soon be adding more homes along North Market Street. So we added this chapter to the documentary.
As the Capistrano project was winding down, I learned that the next Rebuilding St. Louis project had been selected: Gaslight Square, the former entertainment mecca in Midtown, was being cleared to make way for 70 new homes (the number would later grow to over 100 new homes as the project expanded). I was excited about the new challenge because of the area's rich history and high profile. The few remaining Gaslight Square buildings were crumbling, and this area of town was long overdue for revitalization.
From a television perspective, the biggest challenge of making a one-hour television show out of the Gaslight Square revitalization was the fact that new construction just isn't that exciting to watch; it lacks the kind of dramatic challenges that retrofitting an old building presents. So I knew that the construction itself was not going to be my hour. What made up for that, of course, was Gaslight Square's incredible and storied past, and the fact that many of the people who performed and hung out in the Square were still around.
As the year progressed, people would ask, "Did you talk to Jeanne Trevor?" or "Did you talk to Marty Bronson?" and I slowly but surely was able to answer in the affirmative. Every time I thought I had the story covered, someone else would come forward with interesting memories like Bob Rubright, who worked for the local business association as the Square was fading. In the show, he recounts how he had to negotiate with Laclede Gas to get the gaslights turned back on after the merchants failed to pay the bill.
Also added to this show was the story of the revival of the music of Gaslight Square, as Dan Warner of Webster Records (the store) and Gaslight Records (the label) unearthed many never-before-published tracks from Gaslight-era performers and, in cooperation with Norman Records, which had originally recorded them, released an album called "In the Afterglow." Tracks by Jeanne Trevor, Singleton Palmer, Clea Bradford, Marty Bronson, Quartet Tres Bien, and many more were included, and Channel 9 decided to partner with Gaslight Records to offer the CD as a thank-you gift to station members who pledged during the show's airing.
As a freelance producer, I am grateful to have had these rewarding assignments over the past two years, and to have had the privilege of producing shows that celebrate the city's revitalization. The station now has me moving on to new challenges; a health and wellness series called House Calls is in the works. I'm pleased that the station has increased its local programming so significantly in the last two years, and I'm glad that I could be part of telling such a positive story of the good news happening in St. Louis.
Margie Newman rouses rabble about downtown in her spare time; you know, when she's not hosting this month's Ciné16 or opening a show at Gallery Urbis Orbis.