By Bill Smith
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Feb. 14, 1993
Page 1F

SO MUCH about this place feels like a small town, things that make it feel as if it should be sitting in the middle of Missouri instead of in the middle of 2 1/2 million people.

There is the old yellow Schwinn that Gene Meyers still keeps parked against the red brick of the Tamm Avenue Pharmacy for deliveries. And the glass jar on the checkout counter stuffed with squares of banana and cherry and grape Laffy Taffy.

There is the giant pin oak that reaches high into the St. Louis sky back behind Andy Efthim's house on Louisville Avenue - the tree that Efthim's sister planted one Arbor Day some 50 years ago.

There is 18-year-old Thomas Roberts, who calls himself "a Dogtown Hoosier" and who was smeared one recent Sunday afternoon with the brown mud of the Franz Park football field.

"I don't know that I would ever want to live anywhere else," Roberts said as he sat with a group of friends along Glades Avenue. "This is where we all grew up. This is the only place I'm used to."

The city of St. Louis has given this neighborhood its own brochure, its own tour map and its own name. They call it Forest Park Southwest, but few of the people who live here know it by that name.

Most of them call it Dogtown.

"I'm Dogtown; that's what I tell people," said Ed Yamamoto, 28, who, six years ago, bought the same house on Wise Avenue where he grew up. "I guess we all say that. We all say we're Dogtown."

It remains, as it always has been, a heavily blue-collar Irish-Catholic community - a community of friendly neighborhood pubs and restaurants, strong pride and deep tradition.

St. Louis police officer Michael Johnson, who attended St. James School just a couple of blocks from where he now lives and works, said his three children now attend the same school.

At Lehman's Hardware, Steve Hamlin operates the same store that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather ran before him.

Efthim, a retired vending company employee, lives in the same home that his parents bought in 1923. Roots. Deep roots.

"This neighborhood is comfortable, like an old shoe," said Mary Cariaga, who has lived with her pet turtle, Oswald, on Louisville Avenue since 1947.

"I've got two brothers who want me to move out to Las Vegas," she said. "But I can't do that. It's too plastic. How can you make friends with people when there are 6 and 8-foot concrete walls between people?

"How can you say `good morning' to your neighbors?"

"I know everyone on this street," said Yamamoto, 28. "Everyone. "And I can tell you who used to live here and moved away. "My neighbor next door uses my lawnmower, and he mows my lawn. My barbecue pit stays at his house, and we take turns using it. "My best friend used to live next door; we were like blood and blood. Nothing could separate us."

There was a time when the Dogtown neighborhood was confined to the area immediately around Tamm Avenue, but local legend and time continue to push the boundaries east toward St. Louis Community College at Forest Park and west toward the city limits. Deeper and deeper into the Cheltenham, Franz Park and Hi-Pointe neighborhoods.

Even in the heart of the Hi-Pointe Neighborhood, so named because it is the highest point in the city, Hi-Pointe Cinema owner George James acknowledges he is a contributor to the Dogtown business association. "Dogtown seems to be inching farther and farther out every day," said James' wife, Georgia. The area, just south of Forest

By the late 19th century, Dogtown's giant factories were turning out some of the country's finest fire brick, tile and sewer pipe in the country.

When the World's Fair came 1904, Dogtown stood at the front door. in Many of the people who live there now say they can trace their families to the fair - like Efthim, whose father and uncles moved here from Albania specifically to work there.

"If it wasn't for the fair, I might still be tending sheep in the old country," he said.

Even before the fair there was the Forest Park Highlands, an amusement park with roller coasters, a dance hall and fun house that experienced a boom during the turn of the century and, again, after World War II. After parts of the park were destroyed by a fire in 1963, it became the site of the community college.

It seems as if it has always been like that here. Something dies; something else grows from the splinters and ashes.

When Scullin Steel, one of the area's biggest employers, shut its doors, it opened the way for construction of a half-mile-long, $52 million strip shopping center called St. Louis Marketplace, along Manchester Road. Once, brothers Joseph and Alex Failoni say, it was the Scullin workers who went into the family bar on Manchester to drink beer and eat their mother's chili. The plant is closed now, but the tavern and restaurant remains, now directly across from the shopping center and stores with names like Supermarket of Shoes and National Rent to Own.

"My heart has always been here," said Alex Failoni, whose mother and father started Failoni's in 1916, closed it nine years later and reopened it in the spring of 1933, shortly after the end of prohibition. His family lived in an apartment just above the bar. His father, a chipper at the steel company, died in Their photographs hang on the wall of the dining room, on the same wall as photos of Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton and wrestler Pat O'Connor.

"My playground was Manchester in the front and Waldemar in the back," Alex Failoni said.

"This has been my living," he said of the restaurant. "This has been my life."

Even though he is no longer involved in the restaurant, Joseph Failoni says he returns at least twice a week. "You leave, but you always come back," he said.

This is a neighborhood of autobody shops sprinkled out along the main thoroughfares, fast-food stops along Hampton Avenue, yards with perfect, chalk-white statues of the Virgin Mary standing in the center of little flower gardens.

It is the home of The Arena, that domed behemoth that has sat there along Oakland Avenue for 63 years but whose usefulness and life is almost done.

It is the home of St. James the Greater Parish and its beloved priest, Father Thomas Flynn, who died a year and a half ago. "He was," said Officer Johnson, "the epoxy who held this neighborhood together."

It is the site of the St. Patrick's Day parade, where the area's Irish-American and not-so-Irish-American gather each March to toast green beer and ride through Dogtown in the backs of pickup trucks taped with cardboard shamrocks.

Three years ago, the neighborhood was brought to the silver screen in the movie "White Palace." There are those who said it made the area look too beaten down, too seedy. There are others who thought the whole thing was a lot of fun.

Dogtown is the home of Bob Pierce, who left but came back three years ago to open a VCR repair shop on Tamm Avenue. He said he doubts if he will ever leave again.

There is the old, but there is also the new. New people, new shops, new restaurants. Especially new restaurants. New mixing with the old. Joyce's First Turn, Dogtown Bistro, Chuy's, Seamus McDaniel's. . . .

A new gazebo, new police substation, a new pride.

"Dogtown," Pierce said, letting it sit for a moment on his tongue. "I love that name. It's kind of got a bite to it."

Pierce, who has researched the origin of the name, said strangers were always asking him how the area came to be called Dogtown. The most popular story, he said, tells of how a group of pygmies who had set up a village at the World's Fair left the fairgrounds in the evenings in search of dog meat for their dinner table.

But Pierce said the origin of Dogtown predates the fair.

More likely, he said, the name came from the steel and clay workers who kept dogs to protect their families while they were away at work.

There is a strong bond to family in the area, and a strong tie to history.

At the McDonald's on Hampton, an entire wall is devoted to photographs of the World's Fair.

There is a movement under way to renovate the old Utah House, which was moved to the corner of Childress and Nashville avenues at the close of the fair.

Gene Meyers remembers when he started at the Tamm Avenue Pharmacy. That was 40 years ago. Comic books were a dime then.

"Not a lot has changed," he said. "We took the fountain out, and we put a couple of computers in."

But Kathy Kenneback still grabs the cigarettes off the top shelf with the same long-handled contraption they were using when Meyers arrived there.

The movies have changed, but the old Hi-Pointe still looks much as it did after it was remodeled in the 1960s.

At Lehman's, Steve Hamlin says he still sees many of the people who came in when he was a boy.

"Sometimes, somebody will come in here who knew my great-grandfather. He died in 1934.

"Eighty-four years we've been here. It does mean a lot."

"Mr. and Mrs. Lucia live there, in the yellow house," Ed Yamamota said, pointing up Wise Avenue. "Daisy lives in the blue house on the corner. I remember when they painted that house blue. A father painted it for his son when he made the major leagues. Blue was the color of his team. It was a surprise for him. That was a long time ago.

"Mrs. Fischer lives across the street.

"I have friends in the suburbs. I ask them the names of their neighbors, Most of the time, they don't know who their neighbors are."


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