Entrepreneur Joe Edwards helps make St. Louis vibrant again
By restoring buildings and activity to a historic St. Louis neighborhood Joe Edwards has become a powerful force for civic good.
Every once in a rare while comes a chance to meet American royalty. If you are in Massachusetts, you might encounter a Kennedy. In New York it could be a Rockefeller. But in St. Louis it would have to be Joe Edwards.Skip to next paragraph
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"In this city, Joe Edwards is a prince," says Ray Hartmann, founder of Riverfront Times, the city's alternative newspaper, and a journalist who has covered the city for decades. "Or at least he's the closest thing that we've got."
The soft-spoken Mr. Edwards, who sports a ponytail and seems most at ease in faded jeans, actually looks more like a vintage rocker than a potentate of any kind.
But according to many of his grateful fellow St. Louisans, Edwards has been a powerful force for civic good. "It's hard to give anybody single-handed credit for something this big," Mr. Hartmann says, "but [Edwards] is largely responsible for saving one of the most historic parts of the city."
It all began in 1972, when Edwards, fresh out of Duke University, moved back to his hometown of St. Louis. Casting about for a career, he decided to bank on his love of music and opened Blueberry Hill, a small restaurant and bar that featured live performances. For his venture he chose a storefront on Delmar Boulevard, a retail area that locals call "The Loop" (named for the trolley that once used to turn around there).
Back in the 1920s and '30s The Loop was an elegant shopping street, and up through the '50s it remained a major draw for young St. Louisans, featuring movie theaters, soda fountains, a night club, and a record store.
But by the early 1970s the street had become a ghost town. About half The Loop's storefronts were vacant or boarded up, and crime was rampant. Edwards remembers sweeping up debris and broken glass in front of Blueberry Hill each morning and feeling despair.
"Within a week of opening Blueberry Hill I realized that I wouldn't make it if the neighborhood didn't make it," he says.
And so began his campaign of gentle persuasion. "I talked to other residents, to city hall, to the police," Edwards says. He reminded them of what many seemed to have forgotten – that The Loop was a valuable asset, graced with appealing architecture and a rich history. He formed The Loop Special Business District and served on committees that worked on issues from lighting to sanitation to flower planters to security.
But Edwards's best move was to become a success. "The business establishment has been willing to listen to him because he's been so successful," says Bill McClellan, a columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper. "He's an unusual combination – a hippie-visionary-business type."
Part of what drove Edwards, however, was simply love – love for his hometown. St. Louis is a special place, Edwards says. "The architecture is phenomenal, and the scale of the city is human. You can get anywhere in 20 minutes."
It didn't make sense to him that neither residents nor outsiders were getting full enjoyment out of a city that seemed to be so full of potential – and he wanted to turn that attitude around.
Blueberry Hill began to do just that, drawing patrons from around the city; and as it did, Edwards continued expanding. Today, Blueberry Hill occupies four storefronts combined into one – a total of 10,000 square feet – and does a lively business seven days a week.
As Blueberry Hill thrived, so did the little neighborhood – thanks to constant vigilance by Edwards. "Joe guarded [The Loop] like a mother hen," Mr. McClellan says.
In 1995, Edwards woke up one morning, picked up the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and saw an image that "pierced my heart," he says. The Tivoli, The Loop's elegant 1924 movie theater, had gone out of business and was up for sale.
Within four weeks, Edwards had raised cash by taking out a loan on Blueberry Hill and had become the Tivoli's new owner. It was a decision motivated by sentiment, not business sense. "I just wanted to get it into safe hands," he says.
Once he had the theater under his protection, Edwards and his wife spent $2 million to return it – in every detail – to its 1924 splendor. He then turned it over to Landmark Theatres to run as an art-house movie theater – making the place a draw for a crowd of smart creative types from all over the St. Louis area.
Making a Difference