Second Set: Blake Brokaw statue missing from Washington Ave.
There are lots of examples demonstrating why it’s a bad idea to memorialize people before they leave this mortal coil. Name a road after someone, attach a name to a building ... all of such things can backfire as a person’s failures, foibles and frailties enter the public record.
That said, there’s something wrong with a Washington Avenue that doesn’t somehow acknowledge the seminal role of Blake Brokaw.
Living today in Port Townsend, Wash., Brokaw quickly notes that other places existed along Washington, giving a sense of possibility in the early-to-mid ‘90s. Venues like 1227, Sanctuary and Cummel’s were around, at different points, along with complementary businesses like the 6th Floor Gallery, A. Amitin Books and the short-lived record store, Ultrasonic. But there wasn’t a real sense of cohesion. Enter Brokaw.
After a quick turn with the fun lunch spot Acme in 1995, Brokaw found a shotgun space near the corner of 14th and Washington in 1996, and began Tangerine for a modest $35,000. Well before the $17-million streetscape improvements and the “official” arrival of Wash Ave. as an entertainment district, Tangerine offered the block a destination, a lights-on-nightly landmark, with a vegetarian menu, late hours and fun drinks.
“When I first went down there,” Brokaw remembers, “I thought it would stay a fringe neighborhood. I never thought it’d come into what it is now, so gentrified. I never hoped it’d become as uncool as it is now. We attracted people who weren’t into the mainstream scene. I thought it would work with those people. And as I started opening more places, I did it because of the potential.”
Tangerine helped kick off the block’s renaissance, with revolving concepts that played with everything from trucker music to tiki nights to go-go dancers to ‘80s revivalism. A second venue, Deep Deep Cool, opened down the block in ‘98 and ran for about a year. It was a much bigger, multi-roomed, three-floor venue that included a huge pool hall, deejays and porch swing seating. When it closed, Brokaw went into a short period of retrenchment and concepting, before launching what might be the most-impressive run of single-operator club creation since the Gaslight Square days.
There was Lo (2000-04), a 40-capacity dance club that featured drum’n’bass and jungle. Drawing a diverse audience, Lo was a big-city club in a tiny package, one that could’ve easily passed for a room imported from any cosmopolitan city in the world. And who could forget the unisex bathrooms?
In 2001, Brokaw left the block to launch the Chocolate Bar in Lafayette Square, the funkier, original version of the room that still exists on Park Avenue. A date-night destination with deejays and a chill, casual vibe, Brokaw was early in understanding that chocolate was, in and of itself, a draw.
And in 2002, the Hungry Buddha opened in the space neighboring Tangerine, with another shotgun room turned into a Mongolian stir-fry restaurant. It drew an amazing group of regulars, from artists and musicians to lawyers and politicians. Wouldn’t be a lie to say that I ate 100 lunches there, enjoying most every one.
With all four rooms in operation into 2004, Brokaw shuttered Lo, the Buddha and Tangerine. There’s no question that a critical era in downtown’s organic development had ended.
Checking out the scene today
Last Friday evening, this old Washington Avenue veteran limped back to the district, after going literally years without being on the block for a weekend night’s fun. I asked along Nicole Young, who’s spent time as a downtown resident and worker and who was instrumental in the early efforts of Metropolis St. Louis, with lots of time invested in the now-retired Lot Music Festival. It’s pretty safe to say that if she hadn’t been around, I might’ve bounced after the first 20-minutes, so overwhelmed was I with the changes.
Making news lately, of course, is the street being closed to traffic in the later hours, and that was the case on Friday. Guards and cops were positioned along the perimeter, carding everyone going into what was billed as a festival zone. But the heart of the strip, Tucker-to-14th, is only part of the overall Washington Avenue experience, as the street action spills westward toward the City Museum and east to roughly 10th.
The range of concepts is interesting, to a degree. Five clubs were sampled for at least a round of drinks, and there’s some sense of variety on the block. The relatively dive-ish feel of Hair of the Dog can’t be confused with the ice bar/”white party” vibe of the upscale Shiver. Mosaic and the Dubliner are very different physically, with very different menus. But the crowds were simpatico: very young, very white and seemingly imported en masse.
The last space visited was unquestionably the most interesting, on various levels. Lola, at the corner of 14th and Washington, is two clubs in one, with a DJ side and a live music venue at the other end of a long corridor. At Lola, DJ Nune held down one end, with the neo-soul/funk of AJ & The Jiggawatts delighting dancers on the other. Unlike some of the rooms, where the audience didn’t appear to ever spike over 26, Lola’s crowd ran a touch older. And the racial diversity there was solidly refreshing. It was the only room we hit with a cover, $10, but worth it for the chance to experience an interesting, blended room.
The room we didn’t hit was Smash Bar, found in the physical manifestation of the old Tangerine/Buddha space, long since converted into one venue. Butcher paper lined the windows, indicating that another half-baked, ill-defined, curiously concepted party bar had gone to club heaven. Oh, well. Something new will be in there soon enough.
Whether I wind up going to the space is a good question. Not sure my nerves can handle another trip this decade.
It’s doubtful that many of the operators on Washington Avenue even remember the streetscape improvements, which literally tore off the pavement, dug up the sewers, brought down the lightposts, cut away the trees and utterly redefined the loft district in the early ‘00s. The project ran years to completion and the few businesses that tried to hang on through the physical changes were true civic soldiers, staying alive in a hostile environment.
Brokaw says, “I was very skeptical from the beginning, their being able to pull this off and not affect me. I was the only bar in the first phase of the development. It was just a disaster. They made all these promises and didn’t live up to them. We knew they wouldn’t. There was an orientation early on, in which they talked about having business open on one side of the street and then the other, which didn’t happen. It was a mess. A disaster. It didn’t end up increasing my business, at all. I was busier when it was still grimy and dingy. That could’ve been my fault, or their fault. But it was busier for me prior to the street work.”
Brokaw says his audiences varied by the year, as styles and tastes could change seasonally.
“It kind of depends on what year it was,” he remembers. “It was a pretty diverse crowd, a good cross-section. At one point, it was the people from the arts lofts. Then, it was people from the fringes and some college kids who were in the know and weren’t interested in the whole Top 40 thing to begin with. It turned out that we did get the people who wanted to be trendy. Especially on the weekends, it became a kinda scary, trendy to place to be. There were really only two types of clubs down there: the upscale dance clubs and mine.
“There weren’t that many cool places, at a given time,” he adds. “Karma was there for a while. And you had the Galaxy, which was rock’n’roll. I guess it was a one-stop place for people on the fringes at the time. But people who went to Velvet would never go to the Galaxy. And the people who’d go to Tangerine never would go to Cheetah.” And his attempts to bridge the scenes with Deep Cool? A sadly underwhelming response.
Saying that he had “a great time,” Brokaw doesn’t “regret any of it. Tangerine led me to some good connections with other developers and artists, or meeting somebody like Bob Cassilly. And I couldn’t have done any of it without people like Shawn Collins and Matthew McMullen running the day-to-day operations. I just never would’ve been able to do it.”
Today, Brokaw says he’s in Washington “hanging out and living very simply. Having all those places going at once, it was like living four times as hard as I should’ve. Whether, or not, I ever do that again, I doubt it. But it was a lot of fun at the time.”
Brokaw ends our phone call by asking about the street closures, the look of the block, the energy. He asks, specifically, how many venues are on the block. Though guessing, I tell him something like 17, or 18, if including the side streets.
There’s a quick burst of laughter on the other end of the line.
“Well, good for them,” he says, before pausing. “I hope they make it.”