We have all known of the close-knit community a small town can nurture–“it takes a village” and all that. The phrase often heard is “everyone knows everyone.” Community life in a small town is a cohesive whole. Five years ago when talking with friends in one small town about my pending move to St. Louis, they couldn’t imagine doing so. In fact, they had a tinge of fear with only the thought of doing such a thing. They said they couldn’t leave their community where all their friends and family lived.
I moved to St. Louis, downtown St. Louis, bought a condo and moved in. I will have lived here for five years when October arrives. It has become my neighborhood, my community. This community is located on a stretch of Washington Avenue from approximately Tucker (12th Street) to 16th Street. The heart of the community is the 1400 block. People in this community live, work, and play here. There is a coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store, a gelateria, a judo establishment, a delicatessen, a dry cleaners, a fitness club, several restaurants, and pubs. These establishments are in street level spaces of six to ten floor, one-hundred-year-old former warehouses. The upper floors are condos and apartments.
The primary gathering place is often the coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store. Members of the community gather either at tables on the sidewalk or inside depending on the weather. Another place to connect is the gelateria, again, outside or inside.
The people who make up this community are varied, different, interesting. There is nothing homogenous about the community. In my building there is a young couple with two small children, one a preschooler and the other entered kindergarten this week, my next door neighbors. He paints houses, inside and out; she’s a student.
In the next block west another young couple–their all young around here–lives in a loft condo. I had seen them in the neighborhood, but it wasn’t until one evening last week that we get acquainted standing in front of Levine Hat store while I was out walking my dog, Paco. His wife has some Asian heritage. He is involved in graphic design and also dabbles in vinyl records. They enjoy traveling and we discovered we had both been enjoyed some time in Amsterdam in the same year recently.
A couple of days later, when in conversation with the graphic designer while I was drinking coffee at the gelateria, I mentioned something about the proprietor of the coffee shop-cum-urban convenience store was biking on the river trail with the older Asian gentleman who frequencies the coffee shop, the young man said, “He’s Japanese. He’s my wife’s father, my father-in-law.”
There is a criminal lawyer in my community who also mentors young lawyers and is an adjunct professor at a university in Atlanta, Georgia where I once lived. He meets with colleagues at the gelateria mapping out lawyer stuff.
Last Sunday, I ate lunch at a sidewalk restaurant about six blocks from the condo–under an umbrella while a soft rain fell all around me. On my walk home, about two blocks from my condo, I stopped for a conversation with a couple with whom I had a speaking relationship. Over the last few months I had watched the vacant southwest corner of Washington and 14th street change from weeds to a freshly paved parking lot, bright strips, and a credit card reader, no cash accepted. On this occasion, the owner and his wife were present. The installation of the new card reader had just been completed the previous day. We exchanged names and talked about the parking business, the economy in general, and living downtown. They are actually considering moving to our neighborhood from a suburb thirty miles out.
Tuesday, while drinking coffee and eating a scone at the gelateria, I picked up a word or two in a conversation across the room. My curiosity was piqued and I tried to capture the flow of words, but only caught a few, they were enough. A short while later, that conversation broke up but the gentleman whose words I had heard was free and standing off to the side. I walked over to him, introduced myself, and then asked if he had said something about a Christian and Missionary Alliance church. He said he had, so I followed up with, “So you know about the Dalat School.” The Dalat School is a Christian and Missionary Alliance boarding school for missionary kids and was located in Dalat, VietNam. In the middle of the VietNam War, just after the Tet Offensive took place in 1968, because of concerns about security the school was moved to Penang, Malaysia. I knew all about that; I had lived in Dalat shortly after the school had moved. The gentleman, whose conversation I had overheard, a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor, is from Longview, Texas, and in town visiting his son, the proprietor of the gelateria.
One afternoon late last week I encountered an acquaintance, the publisher of a monthly news sheet–well, several sheets stapled together into a booklet–advertising neighborhood businesses. He lives above the gelateria, I think. He also runs a shuttle service, an old school bus, between Washington Avenue restaurants in our neighborhood and Cardinals baseball games. And then, on the way home, I passed by the neighborhood dry cleaners and waived to the clerk inside. He has a Chihuahua-Dachshund dog just like mine and lives about twelve floors up in an apartment on 4th street that overlooks the Mississippi River and the Arch.
The point is that in this downtown, urban setting there is a neighborhood, a community where people know each other, there are family connections, and greetings pass from one to another while doing life. Everyone of the people I’ve mentioned I know by name. It’s like a small town in the heart of the city, life’s designs in the city.