Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fr. Biondi's Theft of 20 North Starts KEEP ST. LOUIS FREE!

The best bar St. Louis ever had was a small place at the western edge of St. Louis University called Twenty North. It was owned by the lead singer of the band Jake's Leg, Randy Furrer, and the band played there every thursday and friday. The place was perfect for the music Jake's Leg played and the crowd they drew. Since the band had played at that bar for 20 years, a steady stream of people who were no longer regular bar or concert goers would stop by each week to say hi and hear the band one more time. I don't know what it was, but there was some very special mystique about the physical bar and the regulars who showed up each week. The place was pure heaven for me and I love it dearly.

So I was very glad when Randy asked me to do something about the 20 North exterior. Randy knew I worked on old buildings but probably had no idea what a perfectionistic restorationist I could be when working on a building I feel specially devoted to. I powerwashed the exterior walls, tuckpointed them, then applied a clear glue and sealer that would make the walls a solid, tight basis for paint. Then the hard part started: decoration and colors.

I wanted the coloration and decoration to be a perfect statement of the bar. We played around with tie-dye (Jake's leg is a Dead band) and every combination of color, hand lettering and decoration scheme and techinque imaginable. I would buy paint sample quarts from Paint Supply and brush on 3 foot by 3 foot squares of various bright colors. Nothing seemed just right. Finally, Randy stood back from the wall of samples and declared that the patchwork of colors looked cool. He suggested giving every bar patron a 3'x 3' section of the bar to paint in their own bright color. I agreed that the concept was cool, but said that wasn't a practical way to paint the whole bar.

One thursday afternoon, just before a Jake's Leg show, I felt I had hit on a pefect color for the front of the bar, a sort of bright peach. I painted a large section of wall over the front door with this new color. It seemed like such a clear, joyful color in the blazing summer sun, much like Jake's Leg's music. Perhaps the sun was getting to me and I should have realized that many would find the color too bright. When I walked into the bar that evening for a Jake's Leg show, the bartender from across the bar pointed his finger at me, yelling, "If you paint this bar that color, I will hunt you down to the very ends of the Earth, and I will kill you! And I will kill you!" That proved an effective veto of my color choice.

Eventually Randy chose a simple scheme of colors that worked well together and that everyone liked, or could live with. The front of the bar was a beautiful chrome green possible only in a stock color. A stock color is a factory ground color that is more pure and bright than any one can mix in a paint store. The bar looked great. I charged Randy more than he would have liked for my time but less than I needed to charge. It was for me a labor of love. I had to have been working on that exterior a full month, maybe longer, and everyone at St. Louis University had to have seen us working and our wall of trials and colors.

Not long after this, Randy got the bad news. Father Biondi and St. Louis University had gotten 20 North declared blighted and were taking it by eminent domain. Randy found out thru a call from a lawyer who offered his services after having read of Biondi's blighting action in the newspaper. I remember Randy standing outside his bar in shock saying, "They are going to take my ******* bar!"

Father Biondi with help from St. Louis Board of Alderman was eventually able to force Randy to sell the bar to Saint Louis University. Randy rented another city bar, Magees, that later listed itself in the white pages as "Magee's 20 in Exile" But the relocation never really worked. The bar wasn't nearly so well suited to the band or the crowd. And you just can't relocate so much mystique and history.

Biondi claimed he need the 20 North land for an art museum. But that art museum never got built. I drove past the old 20 North site today and it is now just an iron fence and grass. I suspect that Biondi just wanted to clean up SLU's perimeter all along. Back then I didn't know how to fight back against this sort of territorial aggression of a tyrant like Biondi. We 20 Northers back then were clueless how to fight such eminent domain. Today our group would have had a fair chance of stopping Biondi.

What Biondi did to 20 North seems to me like an eminent domain abuse cousin of what Kurt Odenwald tried to do on a much larger scale to county bars. Odenwald wanted County bars to be zones hostile to smokers and Biondi preferred 20 North as a tidily fenced boundary of Saint Louis University. What the owners wanted did not matter. We were happily able to fight Odenwald back, but sadly 20 North is now so much grass and a bitter learning experience. Really, for me, Biondi's theft of a bar was the start of larger campaign for freedom and property rights in St. Louis. At least some good has come out of evil.