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.
"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.
During the next decade, Edwards's projects leaped to a whole new level. In 2000, he opened The Pageant, a 33,000-square-foot state-of-the-art performance space farther down Delmar. (This was a particularly significant project: In building it, Edwards crossed the boundary from St. Louis County into the City of St. Louis itself – an area that other businesspeople had tended to view as too crime-ridden to cultivate.)
In 2003, he opened Pin-Up Bowl, a bowling alley and lounge in a historical building on The Loop. In 2009, he opened the Moonrise Hotel, a 125-room boutique luxury hotel on The Loop, within walking distance of The Pageant.
"I've never met Joe Edwards," one Loop-area property owner told McClellan after Edwards opened the Moonrise and nearby property values soared. "But he's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
And Edwards is not content to rest on his laurels. His next project, set to come to fruition in 2013, will be a re-creation of The Loop's trolley system, funded by $25 million in federal stimulus money. The 2.2-mile trolley track will connect The Loop to Forest Park – a popular city attraction. The hope is that the colorful transit link will bring a further flow of tourist dollars into The Loop.
But it's not just about money. As other small creative businesses – antique stores, a vintage clothing boutique, a bike shop, a flower shop – have been drawn to The Loop in the wake of Edwards's success, a whole new element of fun has come into the city. Edwards has brought "a certain inimitable, nonmanufacturable flavor" to St. Louis, wrote St. Louis Magazine editor Stephen Schenkenberg in 2009 when the magazine named Edwards "a St. Louis luminary."
Some of Edwards's genius, McClellan says, was simply in seeing what everyone else seemed to miss. Drawing on a cultural heritage that St. Louis itself did little to publicize, in the 1980s Edwards created the St. Louis Walk of Fame, a stretch of The Loop that honors Tennessee Williams, Miles Davis, Charles Lindbergh, and 120 or so other celebrated St. Louisans.
And when the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten that Chuck Berry was a devoted St. Louis resident, Edwards brought that fact to the fore and began hosting monthly concerts by Mr. Berry at Blueberry Hill. Those intimate sessions are a particular pleasure that only St. Louis can offer, McClellan points out. (He confesses that when he hears Berry sing "Roll Over Beethoven" he's apt to get tears in his eyes.)
Edwards has received honors and awards over the years from the St. Louis mayor's office, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, three St. Louis-based universities, most of the local press, and the Missouri House of Representatives. In 2007, he was delighted when the American Planning Association in Washington, D.C., named The Loop one of "10 Great Streets in America." "St. Louis didn't have that kind of street before Edwards," McClellan points out.
From Edwards's point of view, his greatest success may have been the return of his daughters. Both left St. Louis for college and ended up settling in New York City and Washington, D.C. But in recent years, both have returned to St. Louis and now find that they can have the kind of interesting urban life there that they once sought in other cities.
"This is what I hope for St. Louis," Edwards says. "We're now the kind of city our kids can eventually decide to come home to. But I hope we're on the way to becoming the kind of city that they never have to leave."
• Sign up to receive a weekly selection of practical and inspiring Change Agent articles by clicking here.