November 20th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Golden Eggs

I was thinking, tonight in particular but off and on since Halloween, about the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs:
One day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. When he took it up it was as heavy as lead and he was going to throw it away, because he thought a trick had been played upon him. But he took it home on second thoughts, and soon found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find nothing. The Moral? Greed often over-reaches itself.
But tonight, it occurs to me to wonder, to be curious about something. So many fantasy authors have re-imagined or re-purposed Aesop's fables. I wonder if anybody has retold this tale in such a way that it was a wise faerie, or a wise old wizard, who tricked the man who owned the goose into killing it? After all, once the man who had the goose that laid the golden eggs had gotten rich, and once his neighbors had gotten well off from making and selling him the things he could suddenly now afford, would it be a good thing for him, or for them, or for anyone if the goose kept laying golden eggs? At best, it would be wildly inflationary. At worst, it could lead to wars of colonialism and conquest, like the ones the Spanish funded with their "golden goose," the captured treasures of the Incans and the Mayans. Once the man and his neighborhood have been raised out of poverty, maybe it's for the best that the goose die, and give the neighborhood some much needed stability.

I wonder all of this because they're shutting down, one by one, all of the dance clubs on Washington Avenue between 12th street and 22nd street. At first, I thought nothing of it, or very little. Clubs have been closing every year since Club 1227 trail-blazed that neighborhood 15 years ago. It was sometimes inevitable, sometimes a relief, occasionally no big deal, and often sad, but it was never The End. Once a property has been built out, its plumbing and safety systems brought up to code, and a late night liquor license granted for that property, it becomes too rare and valuable not to be snapped up, redecorated, and re-opened as a new club. All of that infrastructure is nearly impossible to replace; if there are going to be dance clubs at all in a city, it makes sense to keep putting them in the same places one after another. So I went to the end-of-everything big Halloween bash at Club Velvet, the oldest surviving dance club on that stretch of Washington, and I took it for granted that this was just another of those things. Somebody had gotten into money trouble, or legal trouble, or just gotten too old to want to keep running clubs, and the property was now on the block for another would-be club owner to snap up. But I found out on the ride down, from someone who knew the inside story, that it was much worse than that. And it was the subject of a long story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch entertainment section on the web now, scheduled for Sunday's paper: Kevin Johnson, "Who gets the next dance?"

In the years leading up to 1989, that stretch of Washington was, for all practical purposes, evacuated. It had only three visible businesses in something like a ten block stretch: the area's then-flagship used bookstore, a hat shop that was being kept alive single-handedly by St. Louis's black middle and upper middle class, and (if memory serves) a struggling auto parts wholesaler. Sixty years before that, when the city was twice its current population and when America still made things, that area had been a huge and busy manufacturing and retail area. The street was lined with warehouses with retail shops at street level. By the late 1980s, nearly all of those buildings were empty and boarded up, the province of only winos and hookers. Then some investors bought one of those buildings that was structurally sound but a total wreck on the interior, and opened it as what I still remember as the freakiest, weirdest club in my lifetime, Club 1227. The near-success of Club 1227 encouraged other would-be dance club owners to snap up warehouses between 12th and 22nd and try the same thing, including my personal favorite, the one I miss the most, a cyberpunk-themed industrial/techno club called The Other World.

Then, perhaps ten years later, real estate developers in St. Louis set out to duplicate the success of warehouse-loft condominiums that had happened in other cities. They tried this all over the city, but the only place it really caught on was along that stretch of Washington Avenue, in the buildings that hadn't yet been turned into dance clubs. There can not have been any reason to move there at the time other than to be near the only part of the city where things were "happening" at night. The nearest grocery store is miles away and has a history of gun violence on the property. There are no gas stations within a dozen miles. There are hardly any jobs left downtown to be near. The only nearby shopping areas are the already-sinking ship of the St. Louis Center mall, and the more-touristy-than-useful Union Station. The nearest restaurants were around ten blocks away, and only one or two of them had any evening hours. And even the few St. Louisans who might have put up with those inconveniences have never moved to an area with such scarce, rotten, and intermittently dangerous parking. No, people moved there because the clubs were the big draw. Living near the clubs, in lofts, made them feel hip and urbane, even if they never visited the clubs themselves or did so only occasionally.

But now, according to both of my sources, it's those loft-dwellers and their landlords who are shutting down the clubs. The people who bought those lofts ten years ago, and those buildings that might yet be converted, have gotten old. Living on the same block as a half dozen dance clubs no longer appeals to them. The landlords are terminating dance club leases as fast as they can, with plans to turn the spaces into retail now that there are enough residents to support retail shopping. My first thought was that they were killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, that the area was going to sink slowly back down the way the Central West End has been ever since intolerant newcomers drove out the gay culture that had rehabbed the neighborhood in the first place. But after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, maybe I was wrong about that. Maybe now that the neighborhood has been successfully gentrified, maybe the neighborhood no longer needs the cultural draw of half a dozen counter-cultural dance clubs to prop up the property values. Maybe they're right to feel that the neighborhood is better off with businesses in those spaces that are quieter and more stable, or even with empty storefronts, than they are now.

So it's definitely the end of an era, and even no more than I went down there myself, I'm going to miss it. But it may not be the death of the goose that lays the golden eggs. And if it is, maybe the people who live there are better off without that pesky, inflationary, destabilizing goose, after all.