Annual Guide: The Best of St. Louis (Riverfront Times)
The Riverfront Times' "Best of St. Louis" issue has been published in many forms -- listicles, longform essays, questions. But the essence of the guide -- helping readers discover the amazing things that our region offers -- has remained steadfast year after year. It's obvious that something is working, since the delivery folks have to replenish the newsracks mere hours after filling them the first time. Vogue has its famous "September issue." We have ours, too.
The items below are just a few of my many contributions for the "Best of St. Louis" issues over the years. The paper's hottest annual issue features staff and reader picks in retail, attractions, outdoor life, personalities, civics and more. When my schedule allows it, I've also edited and fact-checked copy for some issues. This is one of my favorite annual projects to work on because it pushes me to remember what I love about this city.
Bylines usually aren't shown, but editors can verify that these items are mine.
Best Place for a Kitty Cuddle: Mauhaus Cafe
3101 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood, 314-384-CATS
You really, really want to adopt a cat, but it's just not in the cards right now. Maybe your landlord doesn't allow animals. Maybe your honey is allergic. Maybe you're not sure that you're responsible enough to fully care for another life. But, man, you need some feline friendship STAT. Luckily, Mauhaus is here to let the fur fly. As one of the only cat cafes in the Midwest, Mauhaus offers kitty lovers a safe space to snuggle with a dozen purrrrfectly sweet cats. Get to know Taylor, Lorelai and other new friends while enjoying coffee, pita and hummus, artisan cheeses and cupcakes. And though the cafe welcomes human buddies, the socializing area really caters to the cat crowd with its high kitty walkways and floor-to-ceiling climbing tree. To experience Mauhaus, book an hour online for just $10, or drop in (and wait quite a while for your turn) for $5. For those who can't host cats at home, Mauhaus certainly scratches an itch, but if you happen to fall in love with one special sweetheart and live in a space where kitty can thrive, you're in for a treat — you can apply during your visit to adopt a fur baby. All feline friends come from Stray Haven Rescue and are spayed/neutered, microchipped and up to date on their shots. Paws up for that!
Best Weekend Trip: Popeye Picnic
In St. Louis, we recognize achievements through fairly traditional means — a company award, a networking dinner, maybe even a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame if you're a really big deal or play sportzpuckball. But 90 minutes away, Chester, Illinois, puts the Gateway City to shame when it comes to honoring one of its own. Here, a polite golf clap simply won't do — not for Popeye the Sailor Man. Every year as tribute to the spinach-eating comic-strip character conceived by Chester-born E.C. Segar, residents shut down State Street for a weekend-long festival that's heavy on kitsch, nostalgia and fun. Naturally, there's a huge parade full of homemade floats, high school marching bands and roving Popeye characters running from the high school to the courthouse, but the Popeye Picnic offers even more opportunities to celebrate the town's favorite character. Run a 5K. Watch classic cartoons on inflatable screens. Hit up the Popeye museum memorably named Spinach Can Collectibles. Satiate that fair-food craving with greasy french fries and candy apples. Snuggle with your baby on carnival rides. Take in a magic show. Check out the wiener dog races. And if that's not enough, you can always explore the Popeye Character Trail, which starts with a giant Popeye statue near the Mississippi River in Segar Park and wanders throughout town to include love interest Olive Oyl, hamburger mooch Wimpy, villain Bluto and more, with additional statues unveiled every year during the Popeye Picnic. Join thousands of fans the weekend after Labor Day, and stay until you echo Chester's favorite son by saying, "That's all I can stands; I can't stands no more." Until next September, that is.
Best Place to Hear a Ghost Story: Missouri State Penitentiary
115 Lafayette Street, Jefferson City; 866-998-6998
Movies like Jailhouse Rock and The Shawshank Redemption provide a romanticized notion of what it means to be locked up, but let's be real — life in the "A" block is no treat. But for those who insist on faux cell time, might we suggest a trip to the Missouri State Penitentiary? Built in the 1830s when Missouri was still a relatively new state, the maximum security prison eventually became one of the largest in the country. Notable inmates include bank robber Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, anti-war activist Kate Richards O'Hare and James Earl Ray, who escaped and later assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. All of that history and more comes to life during the Pen's smorgasbord of tours, which generally run two to three hours and may be led by a former inmate or a knowledgeable narrative guide. We know these walls can talk, though, so we'd rather put our money on the offerings focused on paranormal experiences. Learn about the unusual occurrences that have spooked the Pen's guards or try to find Casper himself during evening sessions and even overnight ghost-hunting investigations. Camping out in the penitentiary during the witching hour will only set you back $100, and you'll have plenty of wow-inducing stories about the now-closed institution that used to be the oldest operating penal facility west of the Mississippi River.
Best Food Adventure: St. Louis Greek Festival
St. Louis isn't hurting for tasty Greek cuisine — you can find excellent gyros and saganaki at any number of sit-down restaurants and food trucks — but the St. Louis Greek Festival in the Central West End is a special treat no matter how much moussaka you've downed recently. Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2017, the Labor Day Weekend tradition offers cheap eats and plenty of entertainment. Inside St. Nicholas, parishioners bake and serve classic Greek dishes such as spanakopita, shish kabob and pastitsio, and their box of assorted pastries comes with the sweetest, most authentic baklava this side of Mykonos. Feast on the deliciousness while watching Greek folk dancers in the historic church's auditorium, or head outside to the taverna to grab a few bottles of Zeos beer and listen to musicians play songs from the homeland. There's a lot to take in, and first-timers may become a bit overwhelmed by the hubbub, so map out your strategy ahead of time online. Best advice of all might be to plan to visit this essential St. Louis festival more than once during the weekend; we guarantee that no two experiences will be exactly alike. For the love of Zeus, hundreds of thousands of revelers over an entire century can't be wrong. Opa!
Best Place to Meet Men: Powell Hall
Sure, a man who appreciates music is a catch, but a man who cosplays as a sword-swinging elf during a symphonic performance of beloved video-game themes is a downright gift. Since the introduction of its "Live at Powell Hall" series several years ago, the St. Louis Symphony is attracting a more diverse audience than ever, and many men who spew Star Wars trivia or know the Konami code are among them, thanks to concerts such as "The Music of John Williams" and "The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses." These well-rounded heroes tend to possess the boyfriend qualities most of us can only hope for: passion, deep intellect, humor and attention to detail, not to mention excellent way-finding abilities, thanks to years of navigating 8-bit maps. The best part: These men often attend with their friends, not their lovers, so you can fill up your heart container without fear. 718 North Grand Boulevard, St. Louis, 63103. 314-533-2500, www.stlsymphony.org.
75 Reasons to Love St. Louis: Because GlobalHack Is Putting the Midwest on the Map
Plenty of brilliant developers throughout St. Louis build fun apps for the hell of it. But what if those geniuses were charged with solving society's problems? And what if they were backed by some serious cash?
GlobalHack (911 Washington Avenue, Suite 657, 314-896-4225) challenges St. Louisans with both, aiming to elevate the Gateway City's stature as a haven for tech startups even while contributing answers to real issues that hold our city back. For 2016, GlobalHack is partnering with St. Patrick Center, compelling participants in a weekend-long hackathon to consider how new tech solutions can help agencies better serve the local homeless population.
To do this, the foundation and event bring together participants from all over the tech realm — engineers, designers and everyone in between — for lots and lots of coding, as well as crash courses in team building, critical thinking and business planning.
The "bettering humanity" angle is pretty sweet, but participants can get more than just warm fuzzies from putting their minds to work. During this year's hackathon, scheduled for October 21 to 23 at Chaifetz Arena, GlobalHack will award $1 million in cash prizes to the teams whose prototype software best advance real-world solutions. That's a huge step up from the $275,000 that's been awarded in total in GlobalHack's previous five events since 2013.
And a big cash infusion isn't the only increase GlobalHack is seeing in 2016. While hackathon divisions for youth, college and professional participants were already up and running, GlobalHack just launched a set of children's programs that give kids hands-on opportunities in computer science and encourage them to explore careers in the tech world. What good is a startup community without bodies to, well, start it up? GlobalHack founders and local entrepreneurs Drew Winship of Juristat, Travis Sheridan of Venture Cafe and Gabe Lozano of LockerDome know that a pipeline of eager, creative students is vital for sustaining an ecosystem of innovation, especially in the oft-overlooked Midwest. And with mentors and partners beside these youngsters, they just may be able to solve the intractable problems that scientists, businesses and politicians have failed to fix for decades.
75 Reasons to Love St. Louis: Because LaunchCode Is Tackling the Paucity of Women in Tech
"Why aren't there more women in computer science?"
The question has been weighing on hiring managers' minds in recent years as companies finally recognize that a diverse lineup of employees often leads to better products. Unfortunately, the answer isn't simple. Everything from marketing PCs specifically to boys in the 1980s to the subsequent absence of female representation in geek culture to flat-out sexism in a male-dominated field has contributed to a situation where women hold only 26 percent of computing-related jobs — and more than half leave those gigs mid-career for less technical, less toxic opportunities, according to a 2015 study from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
Enter CoderGirl, an initiative from the St. Louis tech nonprofit LaunchCode (4811 Delmar Boulevard) that's determined to address the gender gap in tech and create a pipeline of talented coders.
CoderGirl aims to change the stereotypical face of programming — admit it: when you hear "computer geek," you probably think of a white dude — by offering free training and networking opportunities to St. Louis women in a collaborative, non-toxic environment. Facilitated by education and community engagement manager Crystal Martin, CoderGirl participants of every skill level pair up with mentors to work on personal and professional coding projects without the hesitancy that women sometimes find in male-skewing learning spaces. Through a combination of weekly online classes and hands-on tinkering, these women build apps and programs that are both useful and creative.
The program is doing more than simply pulling women toward a traditionally male industry, though; it's also introducing even more diversity into that talent pipeline. CoderGirl's go-at-your-own-pace training has become immensely popular with women of color, women at both very young and advanced ages, and women from a variety of economic backgrounds — all of whom are traditionally underrepresented in the tech field and in hiring in general. Participants who successfully complete CoderGirl training at the LaunchCode Mentor Center may apply for LaunchCode apprenticeships with local big-name companies or explore other opportunities for full-time work in programming.
With dozens of women taking advantage of CoderGirl's skills training each week, we're betting that the next "women in tech" study will be a bit more encouraging.
75 Reasons to Love St. Louis: Because We're the Iowa of Presidential Debates
For the sixth consecutive election cycle — that's dating all the way back to the ascension of another candidate named Clinton, in 1992 — Washington University has been invited to host the center stage for one of the national election's most pivotal moments: a presidential or vice presidential debate. Overseen by the Commission on Presidential Debates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will duke it out on October 9 over everything from health care to social justice issues to that damn wall, all while being watched live by millions of citizens here and abroad.
What makes Wash U so desirable as a debate location? Is it the school's reputation for high-quality education and discourse? Perhaps it's because St. Louis is a busy city in the center of the country? Maybe the debate commissioners just really like hanging out near Forest Park?
While all of these reasons make sense to us, none of them is good enough for the Washington Post, which posted a bellyaching opinion piece last year decrying St. Louis' debate-hosting dominance. "Maybe it's time to give Wisconsin a shot," the piece argued.
Yeah, and maybe it's time Wisconsin developed schools that regularly rank higher on U.S. News & World Report's "Best Colleges" list (Washington University is No. 15 among national universities this year).
Until then, we'll happily accept hosting one of the most decisive events every four years and forcing the folks who will run our nation to consider flyover country for once. America, we're ready for our close-up.