After 20 years, we’re still seeking more ‘sense of place’
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
When I first set foot in Brentwood 20 years ago, I had three overall impressions of this place.
Rolling into town in the back seat of my realtor’s car, with her and my wife sitting up front, my three thoughts were What a convenient location! then It’s in our price range! followed by But where’s the downtown?
The location was great because I had just gotten a job in Clayton. The houses were affordable compared to the depressingly steep prices in Webster Groves and Kirkwood. But I was moving here from Liberty, Mo., with its old town square straight out of “Back to the Future.” Brentwood didn’t have a town square or, for that matter, any other obvious central gathering place. The historic Schnucks parking lot?
Location and price won out that day, as my wife and I bought a house on Bridgeport Avenue. We’ve since raised two sons here, from Busy Bees through BHS. Over the years I’ve come to know Brentwood on a much deeper level, but those three first impressions continue to hold true. They still represent two of our biggest strengths and perhaps our biggest challenge, our yin and yang, our John and Yoko.
The convenience of our location is indisputable. Brentwood is close to everything. When I hear someone say they’re moving out to Ellisville, DeSoto or wherever so they can “have more house,” I want to say “But you won’t spend time in your house, you’ll spend it in your car, then on your lawn mower.”
Of course, having location, location, location usually costs money, money, money. But of all the safe communities with good schools in this part of St. Louis County, Brentwood is one of the most affordable. We don’t have a lot of millionaires living here, but that has its benefits. For one thing, your kids won’t stand out for not having the very latest car and clothes. That will liberate them for loftier pursuits, like the latest iPhone.
I think this lack of status obsession, at least relative to some of the diva communities in the county, is one reason Brentwood chose “city of warmth” as its motto. (Also, it beat the runner-up: “City of Carl’s Drive-in.”) But what good is all our warmth if there’s no central gathering place for sharing it?
I’m not the only one with this concern. The company that gathered resident input for our 2006 comprehensive plan reported that “The city lacks a sense of place” and needs to “engage in more place-making” such as “streetscaping, community gateways [and] gathering places.” And just last year the company we hired to review the 2006 plan reported that residents “frequently … expressed frustration that the City does not have a more unique community identity.”
I’m glad our leaders seem to agree with this input. The sign and fountains at our north entrance are welcoming. Our parks are improving. The new sidewalk, curbs and old style lamp posts on Litzsinger Road are great. The free boat rides on Manchester Road are a nice touch.
So we can fix this. Yes, the two raging rivers of traffic on Manchester Road and Brentwood Boulevard slice us into four pieces. This being St. Louis County, it’s amazing each piece hasn’t formed its own government and police force. But Kirkwood somehow retains an identity and charm despite its congested main drag. I ride my bike there a lot and sit in the Kirkwood Station Plaza with its fountain, restaurants and gazebo. On summer evenings they have weekly band concerts. I sit there with a Kaldi’s coffee and a Cliff Bar and imagine something similar in Brentwood.
Now that I think of it, I also had a fourth overall impression of Brentwood on my first day here in 1996. As we drove south on Brentwood Boulevard I saw the sign DYNASTY DONUTS. I laughed and said to my wife, “Dynasty Donuts? Die Nasty Donuts?” She looked and laughed too. It seemed to be both a name and a promise.
Let’s do the same thing with “city of warmth.”