Granite City • Brenda Whitaker thought it necessary to explain that the sole patrons of the business she operates on the western edge of town were not totally representative of her customer base.
"If you'd been here a little earlier, you would have seen some steel-toed boots," she said, eyeing the group of self-described church ladies, their hair tightly bunned in a style that summoned a vision of Aunt Bea baking pies on reruns of the "Andy Griffith Show.''
Welcome to the Garden Gate Tea Room — the earthy retreat where Whitaker, a former steelworker, deftly juggles the world she left behind with the one she now occupies.
Dan Simmons, the president of United Steel Workers Local 1899, still remembers his reaction when Whitaker floated the idea of introducing chamomile to a shot-and-beer town.
"Yeah, right. In your dreams," Simmons recalls telling Whitaker.
To Simmons, the only thing more preposterous than swapping a station on the steel production line for the proprietorship of a tea room — in Granite City no less — was Whitaker's unbidden confidence that her former co-workers might actually frequent the place.
"We thought we'd all have to wear disguises," he said.
A decade later, Whitaker counts Simmons among the regulars who show up for lunch at the century-old temporary housing barracks for newly arrived European laborers on Niedringhaus Avenue, a building she painstakingly converted 10 years ago.
The occasional patronage of church ladies notwithstanding, the Garden Gate ventures far afield of the tea room stereotype.
The interior walls are the original recycled box car planks Whitaker restored during the transition from steelworker to business owner.
It was a period that found Whitaker spending eight or more hours a day renovating the barracks as a prelude to her swing shift at the mill.
The restoration completed, she adorned the walls with a smidgen of what Simmons calls the "foo-foo stuff" along with mementos and photos that tell the story of Granite City and the industry that defines it.
"I didn't want it to be all frilly and lace," Whitaker said. "That's not me. My base is the mill. I knew if it was too frilly, my steel buddies wouldn't come in."
If the unconventional and eclectic tea room is the mirror image of its proprietor, then Whitaker — for 15 years she labored a coiler on the "18-inch hot strip'' — is an unapologetic reflection of Granite City itself.
To an outsider, the unbridled devotion a native can summon for his or her hometown can be as intangible as the forces that unite a couple until death they do part.
'Turn their noses'
Making the case for Granite City, Mayor Ed Hagnauer maintains it's all a matter of perception.
"You ask people in Missouri or Edwardsville about Granite and they'll turn their noses up," said Hagnauer, also a lifelong resident. "A lot of that is because they have never been here."
If the good folks of Missouri and Edwardsville would take the time to look past the smokestacks, Whitaker said, they would find a middle-class town steeped in colorful heritage. The neighborhood where Whitaker makes her home and conducts business, for instance, was once dubbed "Hungary Hill" by the Hungarian steelworkers who put down roots there at the turn of the 20th century.
At the depths of the Great Depression, the name morphed into "Hungry Hill."
Since the 1950s, the west Granite neighborhood has been known as "Lincoln Place," a name chosen by the immigrant population to honor their adopted homeland.
In her capacity as government official, business owner and municipal cheerleader, Whitaker has not-so-quietly taken it upon herself to push the contours of Granite City future in a manner that veers sharply from Granite City past.
The center of her grand design is a dream of transforming the community into a mecca where "art meets industry."
As it happened a decade ago when she ran the prospect of a tea room past her 'steel buddies," it has not always been an easy sell.
"I never thought I'd see the day when we'd have different buildings downtown dedicated to art, galleries and artist work spaces," Hagnauer said.
But that was before one of Whitaker's pet projects, a downtown movie theater, opened this summer.
Or a Whitaker-inspired plan to perhaps locate a martini bar in one vacated business district building and a jazz and blues club in another began to look like more than a pipe dream.
Or before, especially, a temporary sculpture exhibit materialized earlier this year on an empty downtown lot.
Hagnauer said he now believes Whitaker, entranced by the arts since childhood visits to the St. Louis Art Museum, is on to something.
And he has good company.
"It's ripe," Noah Kirby said of the potential of turning Granite City into a destination for sculptors and those that gravitate toward outdoor sculpture as an art form.
Kirby is a senior sculpture lecturer with the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University.
Quietly and without fanfare, Kirby and fellow lecturer Ron Laboray have been transporting students across the river for more than a year now, drawn to Granite City by the abundance of a material held near and dear by sculptors: scrap steel.
Sculptors, Kirby explained, take the view that "rust is life."
From that perspective, he pointed out, there's a lot of life in the community of 30,000 that lies 16 minutes northeast of downtown St. Louis via the McKinley Bridge.
His goal: "Make Granite City a center where sculptors from around the country will want to come to work."
The idea is not as far-fetched as it may sound, said Amy Tongay, a senior designer with Trivers & Associates, a St. Louis architectural and urban planning firm.
The prototype, Tongay said, is Paducah, Ky., another industrial riverfront town, as an example of the transformative power of art on a community.
Once a forgotten backwater, Paducah now markets itself throughout the mid-South as a destination for "art, rhythm and rivers."
Granite City "is definitely a blue-collar town," Tongay said. "But it has real potential in its urban edge."
She agrees with Kirby and Hagnauer that no one is better suited to move that potential out of the starting blocks than the former steelworker who 10 years ago believed a dilapidated barracks on Niedringhaus Avenue could actually flourish as a tea room.
"A tremendously creative person is never afraid to make a daydream become a reality," Kirby said. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who believes so much in her community."
Whatever doubts Belleville resident Tongay had about the ability of Granite City to reposition itself as something other than an industrial town evaporated when she attended the formal dedication of the movie theater.
"I don't consider myself an emotional person," Tongay said. "But hearing all those steelworkers cheering, that was pretty cool."
Whitaker, also in attendance, took notice of the applause.
In fact, she hears it growing louder every day.
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