Thomas Crone

Thomas Crone (www.thomascrone.com) lives in the City of St. Louis, Mo., where he oversees a recently reborn corner bar, The Tick Tock Tavern (theticktock.com), while moonlighting, as so many bar managers do, as a freelance writer for several local publications and websites.

Paint Louis

Late every summer, a graffiti event takes place along St. Louis’ lengthy Mississippi River flood walls. Dubbed Paint Louis, the volunteer-led effort brings artists from around the Midwest to St. Louis, where they’re given a weekend pass to do as they please on short, defined stretches of those well marked walls. Last summer, though, something extra special occurred when monks touring in support of the Drepung Gomang Monastery arrived at the walls late one afternoon. Handling paint cans for the first time, the group assessed a short empty stretch assigned to another group, who’d finished for the day.

Sketching out the space with tentative streaks, two of the free-spirited and artistically inclined monks, Gyatso Thiksay and Jinpa Gyatso, painted a Tibetan flag on this rare, blank canvas of Paint Louis, as onlookers gathered. The pair gained confidence, it seemed, with each new can and color. Walking along the wall from hundreds of feet away, young people were amazed at the sight. One asked them, with both enthusiasm and complete seriousness, “Are you graffiti monks?”

In a move that neatly symbolized the impermanence of their sand mandala creations, the flood wall piece was painted over by the next morning, by graffiti writers who’d been previously granted that section of wall. If that buffing seemed bittersweet, it also symbolized the group’s gifts to St. Louisans over those two weeks. Their visit was transient, sometimes moving quickly from location to location, yet these small doses—both the planned and the spontaneous—brought their own inspirations.

Annually, rotating groups of Tibetan monks depart their in-exile monasteries, leaving their Indian homes to crisscross the United States with a small handful of goals. Most importantly, perhaps, they’re in the U.S. to spread the message of compassion and other tenets of their Buddhist faith. Key, too, is the need to raise money for their home bases in India, where their monasteries have resided since China’s takeover of Tibet in the 1950s. In the case of Drepung Gomang’s traveling monks, that means fundraising for a 3,000-person monastery, a heavy responsibility, but one that they bear with patience and grace, if limited English. 

The Drepung Gomang monks visiting the United States on that year-long Sacred Arts Tour were split into two traveling parties. With their U.S. efforts centrally based in Louisville, Ky., one group traveled the Western states, with the other, eight-man group tackling the East. Each group’s itinerary is ambitious, with individual cities visited for as little as a few days or as long as two weeks. St. Louis was a stopping point for the six monks tackling the Western portion of the U.S. The group fills almost every day with public appearances, with just scraps of time left over for personal (if collectively undertaken) exploration of the city.

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Headed up by their amiable leader, Geshi Tsewang Thinley, the six, along with an ever-present driver, undertook a variety of activities in St. Louis, while communally living in the home of a devoted Tibet supporter, Patty Maher. Over the course of their two-week stay, the group worked in a lot of contexts that are familiar to them, including the construction of two sand mandalas, which were each ritualistically swept apart after days of painstaking construction. For these public works, the monks displayed their skill at a pair of sympathetic homes: the Healing Arts Center, a hub of natural medicine practices and yoga, and Saint Louis University’s new home for international education, the Center for Global Citizenship.

At each location, the monks took turns working on the intricate peace mandalas, in between public lectures and gatherings. During those periods of intense, artistic effort, onlookers watched casually or observed intently, took photos and videos, and chatted with one another and with the monks during moments of rest. As is the custom, each mandala was destroyed by hand brooms and then taken to nearby water, featuring ceremonies enriched by chanting, horns and percussion. It’s hard to attend a sand mandala’s end without a touch of emotion, the message of life’s impermanence translated beautifully into this centuries-old artistic practice.

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In many cities, the monks are hosted by peaceniks who involve them in a relatively narrow set of experiences. In St. Louis, though, the group was surrounded by some freewheeling supporters, which led to a few moments of interesting blending with local communities.

They went to the St. Louis Zoo. They canoed the Mississippi River. They sang and chanted at the massive Festival of Nations, while also exploring the urban wonderland of the City Museum, a sprawling former shoe factory that’s been transformed into the area’s most lauded tourist attraction. They caught a Cardinals baseball game at Busch Stadium. And in their last public appearance in St. Louis, after a cooking workshop in the basement of a South St. Louis church, they opened a set for the city’s popular Grateful Dead tribute act, The Schwag, in front of that group’s hundreds of surprised, ultimately supportive fans. By the time the group left town, my own role in their visit had changed from observer to participant, helping them secure a few of the more freewheeling experiences.

In offering many different looks to the St. Louis community that housed, fed and supported them, they provided a glimpse into their own humanity. In their matching robes and with limited English-language skills, it takes a while to determine the individual personalities of the traveling party. But over time, small cracks in that first impression of unanimity arrive, as personalities emerge and the monks’ own curiosities begin to shine, their humanity more apparent with each day. It was clear in those who attacked the flood walls with paint cans and those who watched and cheered them on.

Graffiti Church

For good or ill—and surely the equation leans toward the latter—St. Louis is a region with more than her share of abandoned spaces. These emptied locations have arrived (and overstayed their welcome) for reasons familiar to other midwestern cities.

Entire industries disappeared, moving overseas or to more tax-lenient states around the US, leaving behind factories, warehouses and rail yards. White flight caused a profound, mid-century suburban shift in housing patterns, the St. Louis urban core altered for decades to come. With all those folks on the move, linchpin neighborhood services and amenities often followed; left behind were empty schools and bars, repair shops and restaurants, confectionaries and churches.

In a city with a deep, Catholic tradition, multiple Catholic parishes have shuttered, whether the actual church, or support structures, such as their affiliated schools, convents and rectories. A smattering of Lutheran, Baptist and other Christian churches have also been left behind in St. Louis, some humble, others gaudy, all suggesting a different, departed civic landscape.

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Individuals looking for a different way to experience the past have long explored these empty spaces. Recently, some friends and I visited a North City landmark, Bethlehem Lutheran Church. It once housed up to 1,400 congregants, in a building dating back to 1895. Designed by the architect Louis Wessbecher, the church had all the features typical of a grand building from that era, including beautiful, stained glass windows on nearly every side and a belltower visible for miles. Access was as simple as the step-through of a window, the church’s security long disregarded.

With the congregation shrinking, the building’s last church services were held a quarter-century back. The elements weren’t kind to Bethlehem Lutheran in the prevailing years, nor were all people. While weather caused the lion’s share of the damage, the ruination of the church was also accompanied by human touches, often in the form of spray paint. Present recently were huge pieces and quickie tags from members of various local graffiti crews (LD, OFB), along with independents. Some were subtle, like Moth’s “This is boring” phrase, jotted on the back of a weathered pew. Others were sizable, like the Ed Box tag dominating the mezzanine level’s front face. Bethlehem even featured the marks of local stencil artist Eye, who works in official, sanctioned roles around town; in this environment, a piano bore his unmistakable touch.

Michael R. Allen, the principal of Preservation Research Office, is a go-to source for St. Louisans looking for the background and context of the city’s rich architectural history. Traveling nationally for his work, he’s seen countless houses of worship in decay. Many bear the marks of graffiti writers, their messages ranging from the profound to the profane.

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Asked about the role of graffiti in these settings, Allen penned back: “Graffiti has been part of architectural history since the days of the Roman catacombs and earlier. The presence of graffiti is not insidious in itself, but a reminder of the passage of uses of buildings and coherence of place-based communities. No church building still tied to a living need or use would attract graffiti.

“Graffiti disturbs us because it forces us to confront our own neglect of the beautiful spaces of our ancestors,” he added. “Somehow, maybe with good reason, we failed to safeguard their temples. Yet the graffiti strangely gives these spaces a contemporary cultural life beyond simple destruction.”

The Banana Bike Brigade

At some point in the mid-’90s, multi-media artist Uriel Starbuck resettled in St. Louis, after time spent in Key West. Having already toyed with customized bicycles in Florida, he found himself teaching a paper-making workshop at the late Taproots School of the Arts, then a magnet for members of St. Louis’ bohemian culture. At Taproots, a pair of striking sisters took his course, and to sum up a somewhat complicated and pixie-dusted story, he used their muse-i-tude to create a different kind of bicycle club.

The Banana Bike Brigade’s armada began modestly enough, with a float dedicated to Neptune, along with a  complementary bicycle, outfitted as a mermaid. With a gleam in his eye, he says that the mermaid’s expression was one of mid-orgasm, and this added detail apparently intrigued the free-spirited sisters enough to join in, too. In time, the group began gaining more members. They added customized bikes as they went, won awards in parades all over St. Louis, threw large Mardi Gras balls and even sent 33 custom bikes to children in war-torn Bosnia. The growing group hit the road for trips to Houston and New Orleans, where one member, Jon Jung Echols, served jail time for illegally leading a spontaneous, permit-free parade—he was literally locked up for creating fun.

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While Echols says that the animals affixed to their bikes are “light as a feather,” in reality, they’re also oversized and occasionally awkward, calling for a Banana Biker to stay sharp during busy events (Echols, in particular, takes on some of the trickiest rides, like a camel and a giraffe, each of which are eye-popping members of the Banana Bike menagerie.). When riding, the group fan out into a wide loop, circling around a fixed point, such as the golf cart that centered their troupe during St. Louis’ giant Soulard Mardi Gras parade. Using pretty much the entirety of the street, the group’s members slap hands with the crowd, hoot-and-holler, generally make the event a little bit more special than it would be without their presence.

“The whole philosophy is to play for peace,” Echols says. “We all try to get that going, get your imagination going in that direction. But it can’t be a dangerous thing. You need to be able to see where you’re going, operate this thing so that there’s no meltdown or crackup, ‘cause there’s a wild potential for crazy, for a very bad accident. But being on the cycles is great.”

The intended effect works. Crowds eat up the scene that the BBB creates, whether it’s at a major parade, like the city’s pair of massive St. Patrick’s Day events, or a tiny town fair in some far-flung, rural edge of the St. Louis region. David Udell, a lifelong musician and five-year Brigade-r, says that there’s a definite message in the madness, no matter the audience.

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For Udell, the club’s become a family affair. His partner, Valerie McMeen Pennington, is one of the most-welcoming people involved; his son, Dylan, has also become a regular. He says that the Brigade’s membership requirements are relatively fluid and very much unofficial.

“People have asked (about that), like a friend of Dylan’s who wants to be in it now. It’s real easy to join if you’re a friend. And if you’re not, it’s probably not that hard, either,” Udell laughs. “I think you just have to party with somebody, really. The reason we do so much is that we kept showing up when it was 100 degrees out, going to those Father’s Day parades in some little town in Illinois. That really solidified our positions.”

“Not to make it sound totally pretentious, but it’s about spreading art,” Udell says. “We want to show how easy it is, which is the really cool thing about riding in small town. A teacher comes out and says, ‘we’re going to have our kids do this.’ And, for me personally, I want to get involved in my community, which is Soulard. I grew up in this neighborhood.”

Since the heady, early days, the group’s membership has risen-and-fallen-and-steadied. Today, about 15-20 members are the most active, engaging in the group’s main activity: parade riding. About half of that number take part in the group’s Tuesday night work sessions, when they repair bikes or construct paper mache animals for those bikes. There’s also a ton of socializing. On a recent Tuesday evening, the group painted a wall and one side of a door and, otherwise… well, they simply caught up on the last week’s worth of life.

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“Some come, some go,” says Echols of the group’s membership. “Some stick around, some stick around a lot longer. All that stuff changes. Babies are a big thing. You can’t take a baby out on a ride with the Banana Bike Brigade.”

This summer, they’ll head out to some of those rural rides, maybe six or eight of them, in total. By the fall, a few more will help wind down the annual riding, which closely matches the seasons: in the wintertime, the group rests, though the ideas never stop flowing. For example, at their recent painting party, the members were kicking around the idea of a Halloween party, which would be an invite-only affair, held in the tight confines of the Banana Bike’s colorful workshop.

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Amidst all those giant animal heads and bike wheels, some of the members are extroverts, crashing down on a worn couch, telling the stories of their life with obvious enthusiasm and openness. Others leave a little bit of mystery. Heather Bell, a newer(ish) member of the BBB is a social butterfly at rides and work sessions. But asked in many different iterations why she takes part, she’s a cagey interview subject, preferring to let others tackle the simple question of why these very different people get together to wear costumes and ride whimsical bicycles as a team.

On the morning after the work session, an e-mail arrives from Bell with the final word:

“I realize that I showed you, rather than told you, the answer to your question: the creative feeling, synesthesia of sorts that I experience with my BBBretheren. My career (profession, boards, conferences, students, etc.) demands so much of one side of me that I seek that ‘right-brained’ energy to balance out.”

Which she does with aplomb, dressed as cowgirl, riding an alligator.

 

The Magic Door

As with many of our world’s notable places, the discovery of The Magic Door came about by accident.

A friend of mine, Steven, is prone to buying and selling classic American cars. Along with hats and flasks and Apple products, big, ol’ hunks of Detroit Steel are one of his signatures. His trusted mechanic, a cool character named Jack, owns Central Garage, a mid-sized, old-school repair shop on Martin Luther King Drive. Jack’s is the only venue allowed to work on Steven’s vehicles. As one of several auto-centric businesses on the block, Central Garage’s service bay is accessed not from MLK, but from a v-shaped alley, itself backed by a large field of grass.

An outsider would be forgiven for looking at The Door’s immediate area and not seeing much beyond the obvious disinvestment. A St. Louisan, on the other hand, might look at it with too much dispassion, as one of those funky pockets routinely seen in our city’s core. This neighborhood’s weathered its share of challenges and the environment’s reflective of the many societal issues around it. Unfortunately, all of this makes St. Louis’ version of MLK not unlike most other MLK’s found in American cities. Efforts to revitalize have come and gone, with minor successes and plenty of turnaround issues lying ahead.

Helping Steven shuttle his latest prized vehicle up to Central Garage one day, my attention span was quickly taxed by the pair’s precise and enthusiastic discussions of a Buick Riviera’s engine; I’m not a car guy and find it difficult to pretend otherwise. After a minute’s courtesy listen, I spun on my heels and walked east, down the alleyway, camera in hand. After a decade of flitting around in various forms of “urban exploration,” I’ve learned that you don’t wander down a city alley without a camera or photo-enabled cell phone. ‘Cause you never know the day when you’ll come across something of interest, even significance. And on the damp, gray afternoon of December 4, 2012, I had one of those classic “yeah-boy” moments, delivered in the form of The Magic Door.

A narrow, empty lot sits between Central Garage and Howard Auto Body. Passing it absent-mindedly, I noticed a worn, wooden, sliding door ahead, the lower-half of which was tattooed by colorful, jaggedly-cut pieces of car exteriors. There was also an all-capped term, OTHA, pasted on the door with stick-on letters. Initially, I read it as “otha,” as in slang for “other.” This wouldn’t be my only miscalculation, but it was my first; it turned out that an Otha Howard owns both the building and the business. After a few days passed, I decided to show him the photo I’d taken of the door, which I’d been thinking about non-stop since, totally enthusiastic about starting a photo series there. This was my second miscalculation: Otha wouldn’t understand my enthusiasm, at least not early on.

We spoke. That ended weirdly, so I lurked nearby while he had another conversation. Then we spoke again. I got something that sounded like an “okay” from Otha to the use the door for photographs; I’d long been wanting to do a standing photo project, and this space was the one that seemed to mysteriously but clearly present itself as the proper location. Sure, the first conversation wasn’t going easily. But since St. Louis is, at essence, a small town clad in the skin of a big city, the first person to come up for a round of photos knew Otha; he talked for a few minutes with my friend Zach, who’s some type of distant relation. The earlier disconnect eased, just enough. It might’ve taken the better part of an hour, but I got the desired message: I was okayed to shoot, as long as “weird stuff” wasn’t involved. (That request’s mostly been honored.)

Reflecting on it later, I could actually understand the hesitation. As well as being a small town, St. Louis is a sprawling region of sharp delineations and artificial separations. Our City of St. Louis is a stand-alone county, while St. Louis County is made of 90 different cities, some of them just a few hundred residents deep. Nearly three-million people strong, St. Louisans don’t often blend well, either, the region sliced by real and imagined boundaries, based on race and class, in addition to our map’s million municipal lines. As a white photographer, turning up in a North City alleyway with an unpracticed speech about wanting to execute a nobody-gets-paid photo project, well… STL locals can dig the possible confusion.

And, as I was trying to tell Otha early on, I’m not even a real photographer. I’m a writer (well, a journalist), attempting to adapt to a media world in which print journalism refugees have to be photographers, videographers, multi-media “content producers.” Worse than that, I’m a project whore, seemingly unable to go a few weeks without a half-baked idea that seems doable in my brain, but winds up going haywire when exposed to the light and air of the real world.

The Magic Door’s been exposed to all the elements since that first shoot on December 8. There’ve been windy, sub-zero afternoons. Driving rainstorms. A pinch of early-summer heat. The vibe of the area’s been marked by the weather, true, but also by the passing humans (and animals).

On some afternoons, I’ve sat all alone in my pick-up, my confirmed subjects no-showing or forgetting our appointments altogether. Those moments are frustrating, sure, but have allowed me to soak in the atmosphere of the place. I’ve watched dozens of men pushing shopping carts full of metal to a  scrapyard ‘round the corner, forever-and-always reminding of me of our town’s own versions of Bubbles from “The Wire.” On another day, in the dead of winter, a huge crow sat on a nearby power line, cawing in the near-silence at a volume that seemed almost cartoonish. That was an eerie scene. Then there was the afternoon when two young men walked past.

They bent off course, sort of randomly. This caught my attention. Then, they walked towards me at a funny angle, slightly-too-close, considering the big space of the Central Garage parking pad. When one reached into his pocket, maybe 10-feet away, I won’t lie: my stomach tightened, my nerves fired. Then they walked right on by, slightly-too-close, yes, but with no ill intent. I relaxed, but immediately thought about my own role in the city’s longstanding passion play about where to go, with whom, and at what times.

I’d wanted an excuse to take pictures of people, not just things. And The Magic Door seemed the right place to frame that attempt. It’s been a great backdrop. It’s also been a place of strange synchronicities, random occurrences and some deepening friendships. The name, The Magic Door, was based in a moment of manufactured, whimsical “branding.” Somehow, it’s worked.