Demographically, it is preposterously uneven. There was the nook of the county where I went to prep school. I graduated in a wedding dress, attended debutante balls, and had a near-constant Frappuccino as part of my polo-khaki-skirt uniform.
And then there is the city itself. In my youth, it seemed dangerous and full of broken metal things. Buildings were abandoned, I was told it was unsafe, and I didn’t know anyone who actually lived there. It seemed to me that St. Louis was the greatest schism imaginable. The East held gang violence and puddles with needles, and the West was a Shirley Temple at the racquet club and an outing on horseback.
I sung the angsty-teen refrain of “I have to get out of this town.” But I didn’t do that. I went to college roughly four miles from my childhood home and stayed in a dormitory roughly two fire hydrants away from my elementary school.
What I really dug came at the end of my college experience. Finally, a porthole to another world spontaneously opened: The Actual City Of St. Louis.
With the advent of the City Museum and City Garden (and general re-building efforts), a diverse population has begun to creep into the downtown streets. In the summer, City Garden is alive with families. Kids can swim and play in a series of fountains and pools, there is plenty of green space for running around, and it’s an oddly artsy-hip retreat.
This isn’t an acid trip; it exists. If you’re just passing through St. Louis, the City Museum is truly the actual Number One must-see. Queer, not queer, whatever: fun. Eat Ted Drewes Frozen Custard after that.
Of course, there came a time when I’d transformed into a sort of Ani-wannabe, cargo-short-wearing, nose-ringed queer. And I got thirsty for a brand new part of the St. Louis fun:
When I could stop brooding and painting with watercolors long enough to leave my apartment, I would go to (what I considered) the epicenter of STL girlqueerness — MoKaBe’s Coffee House (3606 Arsenal Street)
Picture The Planet, and then take everything away, including the people, and replace it with everything that is the opposite of that. It’s Missouri! Neon lettering on the menus, a cigarette machine across from the bathroom, people doing crosswords at a long counter while chatting with baristas, potentially some blaring Alanis Morisette, and LESBIANS.
I could write fifty pages or a novel about MoKaBe’s and its bizarre fairy-tale-esque quality that sometimes brings to the life of Midwestern queers. I actually think I will. But I’ll give it to you later. MoKaBe’s (with plenty of good food choices) most exquisitely boasts a great Sunday brunch, full of veggie/vegan choices and traditional breakfast-y things.
If you’re moving to St. Louis, MoKaBe’s is a really excellent place to meet people who might be a lot like you or might not be anything like you. Lesbian owned and queer-ish-ly operated, it is a community-minded place for all kinds of people. Get a latte, and then look around:
You’re on SOUTH GRAND! It’s like someone drained Park Slope, Brooklyn of its inhabitants, left it abandoned for twelve years, and then attempted to re-populate with a slightly anarchist agenda!
In South City, check out:
Tower Grove Park (3196 S. Grand Blvd.) Home of Pride Festivities and a farmer’s market in the summer and Absolutli Goosed, which has phenomenal cocktails.
Basil Spice (3183 S. Grand Blvd.) has incredibly affordable and delicious Thai Food. Not gay, just good.
The best Ethiopian food (outside of Ethiopia, but otherwise internationally) is Meskerem (3210 S Grand Blvd.)
CBGB (3163 S. Grand Blvd.) This is not an illegal homage to the NYC hardcore punk-spot. Luckily, it breeds its own agenda. A front patio with heavy-graffiti picnic tables, a kick-ass bartender, shuffleboard, pinball, and a bathroom without stalls, just two face-to-face toilets with an ashtray between — CBGB can be a great way to spend an evening.
On the other side of Tower Grove Park is Sweet Art (2203 S. 39th Street), a vegan/vegetarian wonderbakery and cafe.
Mangia, Jade Room, and Upstairs Lounge are all good places to drink on South Grand, and though they are not specifically gay, the right night could mean a total uprising of asymmetrical haircut activity.
St. Louis goes wild for Pride. The parade goes down South Grand to Tower Grove Park, where there is a two-day festival of overheated fun. You will really not believe the amount of queerness that Pride pulls out of St. Louis and its surrounding regions.
The bars of The Grove have a bevy of activities for Pride Nights that include the White Party — an annual, expensive, dressed-in-all-white gathering of debauchery.
If you need to do some superqueer shopping and get something pierced, you should stop by TRX Custom Tattoo and Piercing (3207 S. Grand Blvd.). The artists are friendly and the art is both good and reasonably priced. The merchandise will probably not appeal to your mother.
Go down the road just a piece and land in Cherokee Street:
In the wake of the closed-down (haunted) Lemp Brewery is this new-ish hipster haven. My thoughts on gentrification aside, the up-and-coming-ness of this neighborhood has distinctive benefits for city business and life. Things left dormant for some time seem to be waking. There is actual social/political/ethnic diversity in the people who walk there, work there, and live there.
Check out: The slew of antique, vintage, and thrift stores, bookstores, St. Louis’s most authentic Mexican cuisine, and up-and-coming local artsy-craftsy places. You can get a tote bag with a map of the city! Or check out the Firecracker Press (2838 Cherokee Street) and bring home all sorts of sweet STL-inspired prints.
The Mud House (2101 Cherokee Street) has magnificent espresso and breakfast/lunch. It is surely gay-ish, and you’ll catch plenty of hip people taking their time with fancy beverages and enjoying the excellent outdoor space.
Then make sure to eat another spicy shrimp (or veggie) burrito at La Vallesana (The Taco Stand) (2801 Cherokee Street).
Black Bear Bakery (2639 Cherokee Street) is an anarchist house of baked goods and coffee is home to a delicious brunch. (But actually anarchist — worker owned and operated — so if you need artisan bread and you need it very quickly, you could end up in a pickle).
There are plenty of shows to catch on Cherokee. At Cranky Yellow (2847 Cherokee Street), an antique shop/performance space , or at Off Broadway (3509 Lemp Avenue), there are frequent events that span the known and bizarre.
Just north of Cherokee street, you’ll get to Benton Park and Soulard. Soulard is home to the biggest Mardi Gras outside of New Orleans, and one may catch the evidence year-round.
Shameless Grounds (2650 Sidney Street) is a Queer-ish Sex-Positive Coffee House with a Sex-Positive Library. Home to barrier-defying drag shows and delicious lunch. Seriously? Yes. The owners are lovely and community-oriented, and all shapes, types, and fetishes are welcome.
Soulard Farmer’s Market (730 Carroll Street) is a weekly semi-sheltered and seemingly ancient arrangement of goods of all sorts.
Keypers (2280 South Jefferson Avenue) seems to be a relic from another era. A piano bar: be prepared to be serenaded with show tunes.
One step closer to downtown and you’ll find The Grover! The Gayborhood! (A neighborhood with a cluster of supergay drinking places.)
Novak’s Bar and Grill (4121 Manchester) Probably the capital of lesbian drinking. Cited sometimes by locals as “the place you love to hate,” or “my abusive girlfriend,” it is the hubbub of Missouri lesbians of all ages. It is an expansive space with a large patio. If you have any (really any) hint of agoraphobia and it’s the weekend, do try one of Novak’s neighbors.
Handlebar (4127 Manchester) is right next-door. While it couldn’t be called a “gay bar,” it is certainly swarming with queers most nights of the week. It has a really lovely beer selection and back patio, delicious Russian-inspired food, and you may even catch a super-rad DJ.
Attitudes Nightclub (4100 Manchester) and Rehab (Yes, Rehab the bar) are across the street. You might run into what appear to be elementary-aged children at either of these places, but Attitudes is a good place to dance.
Also to consider:
Atomic Cowboy (4510 Manchester) is a HUGE bar with multiple spaces for musical performances. If you’re not caught in a web of weird feet at Swing Night, you very well may be in for a treat. Once a week is Fifty Cent Stag Night.
Sanctuaria (4198 Manchester) is for the refined palate. Not gay, but delicious.
Everest Cafe (4145 Manchester) is a Nepalese, Korean, and Indian smorgasbord for when you’re up for something other than the bar.
In the summer, you can catch the huge Shakespeare Festival; just below the beautiful Art Museum will be thousands of St. Louisans, gathered to hear that year’s choice play. (Also, it’s FREE). In midtown, you may find something big and shiny at the (fabulous) Fox Theatre, or a more innovative theatre experience at HotCity Theatre or Upstream Theatre.
Beale on Broadway is certainly Not Gay. But it is certainly not to be missed if you are interested in truly homegrown sound. Incredible blues artists rattle the walls of this petite shack nightly. With the river just yards away and freight trains rumbling overhead, you may have a sort of transcendence and merge with the history of this riverside city.
Left Bank Books (321 N. 10th Street) has a great collection of used, not used, queer and not queer books.
Crack Fox (1114 Olive Street) is a new-ish and lady-owned bar that explores the limits of fringe. Different each night, and also fun. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to check out BOYPOISON, “Dancing Riotously/Queering Cores,” the dance party (where all people are welcome). This occurs monthly at the Crack Fox. One of its organizers, Hulee, describes this new showdown as “A place where you can just look at the freaks of the city, enjoy that you are one, and dance all night long. Or watch people dance. Or don’t.”
Downtown, of course, is also home to the aforementioned City Museum and City Garden.
Maybe you’d be interested in seeing a game at the new-ish Busch Stadium, home of last year’s WORLD CHAMPIONS, the Cardinals. The Blues games are a good time. Football? Questionable.
Castlewood State Park
Castlewood State Park is about forty minutes from the city and a great place to have a truly Missouri-esque hike.
Laumeier Sculpture Park has tons of room to walk and explore some massive nature-meets-not-nature art. For some reason, queers seem to love sculptures in the woods. And for some reason, this wonderland is free of cost.
The Butterfly House is a sheltered reserve for our transformative insect-friends.
The Missouri Botanical Gardens is an art-and-plant delight that has monthly outdoor free jazz concerts in its scenic center.
The Riverfront. There is a central path that has been re-configured and is not trodden enough. It follows the St. Louis floodwall and levees for about eleven miles. It begins close to The Famous Arch and winds up to the North Side’s Riverfront Park. Sunrise is a good time for that.
Information and Resources For Your Well-Being
If one is moving to St. Louis, one could expect the following:
1. Cheap housing. Being a distinctly un-chic place to call home, St. Louis area housing is inexpensive. There was a point at which I was a “cocktail girl” at the Atomic Cowboy and paid my roommate in my weekend’s cash that I stowed in my sock drawer. We lived across from Tower Grove Park in a lovely duplex with a purple kitchen. Dream!
2. Disparity of income. St. Louis has incredibly fancy-ass residential areas that are accompanied by upscale shopping and racist police. Four miles away, you’ll find incredibly cheap housing, less-than-stellar public schools, and business that have been sitting unoccupied for fifteen years. Is this just the state of the world right now? Perhaps. It’s still distressing.
3. Friends. If you’re in the market, they will be there. After stints in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and a couple of foreign cities, I have felt the choking strain of “no one here knows me.” While I’m positive that there are open-minded, life-and-brain-changing people in these bigger places, I have yet to find a group as accessible as the St. Louis scene. There are a host of queer-ish groups, and hangin’ around the queer-ish places, you’re likely to find someone to chat with. It may actually be quite difficult to hide.
4. People saying “Be Safe.” St. Louis is no stranger to violent crime. For a while, it was the Murder Capital of the country. It was also ranked among the places with the most STDs and methamphetamine use. There are areas where it’s best to do just that: “Be Safe.” I wouldn’t argue that common sense can combat all danger, but it’s pretty palpable when you’re in a risky situation. The Grove neighborhood is a crime target because of the hundreds of young-ish, queer-ish, drunk-ish people wandering back to their cars at late hours. Leave the bar in a group. If you’re new to St. Louis and plan to walk around until you’re lost in the night, it’s certainly best to do that with a friend. North City has beautiful architecture and a couple of choice places to hang out, but has a reputation for its poverty and crime. If you meet/know someone familiar with the area, it is an interesting place to explore.
The St. Louis Gender Foundation, The LGBT Center of St. Louis, Southampton Healthcare Inc. and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri St. Louis Gender Foundation all have your back, so check them out if you’re headed to St. Louis.
You can also join the Confluence Crush Roller Derby, The Queerios Book Club (mostly internet-based), The St. Louis Frontrunners, or any number of activist groups. The LGBT scene has its (unfortunately common) divide between the lesbian/gay spots. As a queer girl, you’re likely to feel invited into a seedy/loving/slippery/incestuous family. A friend from the Bronx recently visited St. Louis, toured its gayness, and noted just how accepting the group was. There, she thought, people weren’t connected by the place where they lived, but by strong interpersonal bonds, acceptance, and a desire to “really just hang out.” There is a robust queer life to be had, which includes the trans community, though I imagine more merging is (hopefully) on its way.
Now that I go to grad school elsewhere, I miss the expansive nature of St. Louis. From the riverside path to the abandoned industry to the cows grazing next to my mother’s house, I love its pockets of treasures. When the PBR is cheaper than water, the arms of the queers are open, and the dancing doesn’t stop, it’s hard to remember a better place to be.