A Conversation With The Innovator Behind St. Louis’ South Grand Fall Fest
With so much to see, hear, explore and taste, it’s perfectly easy to spend a whole day strolling the South Grand District, one of St. Louis’ most diverse and vibrant neighborhoods. Browse for secondhand literary treasure at Dunaway Books, shop timeless vintage threads at Parsimonia, grab a bowl of chicken adobo, Lebanese nachos or spiced lamb stew with injera at Guerilla Street Food, The Vine, or Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant. Then, pop into Gelateria del Leone for a scoop or three of handcrafted gelato and walk it off with a turn around Tower Grove Park.
This year’s upcoming South Grand Fall Fest on Saturday, Sept. 16, is an all-day event that will showcase everything the lively district has to offer. Restaurants and shops will feature new menu items and special sales, dozens of vendors will be selling vintage, handmade and boutique items, while Ritz Park will host entertainment, like hometown bands Androbeat and Blank Generation to keep the energy high.
With mainstays like activist hub MoKaBe’s Coffee House, and newer gems like all-vegan Lulu’s Local Eatery and fair-trade store Zee Bee Market, South Grand represents the kind of community feel that has always been one of St. Louis’ strengths—and is where the city is headed. Read on for our conversation with South Grand Community Improvement District executive director Rachel Witt about what gives the neighborhood its singular character, as well as the lineup of music, activities, sales and good eats to be found at South Grand Fall Fest 2017.
What’s unique about the South Grand district?
For starters, 14 different countries are represented within six blocks, and 22 of our businesses are immigrant-owned. We also embrace sustainability practices, with pervious concrete and rain gardens located throughout our district.
What can we expect at this year’s South Grand Fall Festival event?
We have a great lineup of entertainment from local school performances, dance companies and bands such as Androbeat, Blank Generation and Boomtown United. There will also be over 40 vendors selling vintage, handmade and boutique items, as well as South Grand businesses offering specials, sales and new items to their menu.
Your website states: “South Grand is the most diverse corridor in the St. Louis Region.” What do the South Grand Community Improvement District (SGCID) and South Grand Cultural Alliance (SGCA) do to support diversity in the community?
South Grand Cultural Alliance 501c(3) was formed to oversee events, public art, and marketing and branding of the district. The board is made up of residents and business owners, and the events are geared to make sure the community is represented. Collaboration is key, and South Grand is proud to partner with various organizations to make sure everyone is welcomed. We take great pride in our diverse community.
How do themes of collaboration and community tie into the Fall Festival event, in particular?
The goal of South Grand Fall Fest is to promote what makes the neighborhood great—which is the people, first and foremost. The event promotes local nonprofit organizations located within the surrounding neighborhoods, art organizations from the area which host our craft zone, and also local talent of handmade, vintage and boutique vendors and retailers. The event does not provide food vendors—rather, the goal is to get visitors walking the district, eating at our restaurants, shopping at the retail businesses, supporting vendors and enjoying our local entertainment.
We have gained a great reputation with the handmade community as being a reasonably priced event, as well as having good communication on placement and logistics of the event. The number of vendors has grown every year, and engagement from the community has grown as well.
How did you originally become involved with the South Grand community, and have you seen the neighborhood grow in your time as executive director of SGCID and SGCA?
I received my master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in local government and economic development, and during my time in graduate school I learned about business improvement districts. I really loved the concept, and the role they play for main streets. I had the ‘Ah ha!’ moment of, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Since then, I have worked for the district for over 11 years.
The business owners have become more cohesive since I’ve been working for the district. I always joke that my office is actually South Grand Boulevard. If I am not walking around talking with the business and property owners and building a relationship with the neighborhood, I am not doing my job. It is by being visible and engaging with the community that I can truly understand their needs.
The business owners always wanted a street festival, but it was never really the right time until four years ago, when Ritz Park—our outdoor event space—was completed to be the center for entertainment, and closing off the side streets for vendors instead of shutting down South Grand Boulevard was permitted. Having wider sidewalks from the Great Streets project made room for visitors to walk and engage with vendors. Ritz Park has become a focal point bringing the surrounding neighborhoods together.
What projects and events are SGCID and SGCA proud to have completed?
We’re proud of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments Great Streets Initiative, which was the catalyst that built the momentum of increasing investment, engagement and attracting businesses to the district; Ritz Park, of course, which has truly connected the neighborhood. The South Grand Fall Fest is also an achievement that brings not only the businesses together, but also the neighborhoods, by their involvement.
South Grand Fall Festival
Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017
Vendors, game zone hosted by the six
surrounding neighborhood associations
and craft zone 11am-6pm
This post has been brought to you in part by the mentioned business. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE growing.