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Nice try, St. Louis

The residents are polite, but the city hosting the World Series isn't quite world-class

ST. LOUIS -- At a cafe table at the City Museum, a mind-bender of an institution that looks like something Maurice Sendak might have designed after a weekend at Pee-Wee Herman's playhouse, three St. Louisans gathered last weekend to talk about their city.

The topic of conversation: With the World Series about to shift here, what should New Englanders and the rest of the nation know about their city? Besides a passion for baseball, what makes St. Louis distinctive and appealing, if not, as the museum setting hinted, underratedly surreal?

The three were Richard Callow, a public-relations specialist with strong Massachusetts ties; his partner Barbara Geisman, the deputy mayor in charge of downtown development; and Christine Bertelson, editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Geisman and Bertelson are native St. Louisans. Callow moved here in the early 1990s and has everyone who matters in the city programmed on speed-dial.

The reporter who joined them had just come from a tour of the Budweiser brewery, a local landmark that looks like something Thomas Jefferson might have designed after a weekend at Moe's with Homer Simpson. The brewery tour, while not uninteresting, had largely substantiated what one St. Louisan had said earlier that day about Anheuser-Busch, a corporate bellwether in this suds-washed city: great company, lousy beer. He was eager to partake of commentary that did not involve the care and feeding of Clydesdales and beechwood aging.

Among the trio at the museum cafe, the consensus seemed to be that while their city is a great place to live -- with rich musical and sporting traditions, a relatively low cost of living, an absence of traffic problems, and a strong commitment to reclaim its architectural heritage by preserving and restoring classic buildings -- St. Louis still lacks more than simply top-shelf starting pitching.

Much as Boston is famously envious of New York (current baseball teams excepted), they said, St. Louis has self-esteem issues with Chicago (see: baseball reference), issues that, like Boston's own municipal insecurities, are often exaggerated or misplaced.

If it's possible to be nice to a fault, they agreed, St. Louisans are nicely flawed. They don't set cars aflame after their team wins a pennant-clinching baseball game. They like and vote for Democrats, even if rural Missourians tend not to. They may not live in New York or Los Angeles, but their shoulders are unencumbered by chips.

As for that holy Hub trinity of politics, sports, and revenge, it too applies to St. Louis, sort of, only nobody here gets the ''revenge" part. Which has both good and bad implications, it seems.

''Missing from the equation? Absolutely," said Callow, a Boston College graduate who worked on congressman Chester Atkins's staff in the 1980s.

''People here really like being nice," offered Bertelson. ''It's not an act." In the next breath, she called the city ''kind of dull."

Callow looked horrified. ''No," he corrected. ''Earnest."

''All right," she said. ''Earnest."

Chicago, Bertelson continued, is ''way out of our class. It's a real city with a real sense of self."

''That's because we're nice and not smug," said Callow.

Geisman chimed in. ''What we're trying to do is recreate the market for city real estate," she said, as young couples and empty-nesters are lured back to the city by areas such as the Loft District, where vacant commercial buildings are being converted into attractive (and affordable) urban residencies. The adjoining City Museum, an amazing amalgam of found objects and custom-built structures, is another example of how St. Louis, a city without much inherent celebrity wattage, is raising its hipness quotient.

Sculptor Bob Cassily, the museum's proprietor and prime architect, joined the conversation. He bought the 750,000-square-foot property 11 years ago, Cassily said, and through ''compulsive-building syndrome" has steadily expanded it -- without much regard for local ordinances but with little interference by city authorities, either. In fact, the museum has become a coveted party venue for all sorts of Establishment types, including the St. Louis Cardinals and Major League Baseball, which hosted last night's World Series kickoff party there.

''It was successful right away and keeps getting better," Cassily said of the museum, built on the site of an abandoned shoe factory where Tennessee Williams once toiled.

A reporter spending 72 hours in the Gateway City prior to tonight's game found much more to see and sample. Among other things he learned:

Rap superstar Nelly, who grew up here and maintains a home base in the area, holds the single-string record (257) at Pin-Up Bowl, a tenpins-and-martini joint located in the Loop district, cradle of the local counterculture.

If all the Budweiser cans manufactured yearly were stacked end to end, they'd form a chain 31 million miles long. And if all those cans were aimed into outer space, many discerning beer drinkers would not be troubled whatsoever.

Not only beer but bowling originated with the ancient Egyptians, according to a display at the International Bowling Hall of Fame, situated near Busch Stadium. Henry VIII was a bowling nut (so was Anne Boleyn). Folklore has it priests in the Middle Ages who had ''not lived holy lives" spent eternity bowling. Which could be worse when one imagines the alternatives, could it not?

Chuck Berry's recording of ''Johnny B. Goode" -- Berry is another native son who has done pretty well for himself -- was part of a collection stored on the 1977 Voyager Space Probe, whose mission was to ''reach out to the universe with the best of our culture." To which his fellow countrymen say: Mission accomplished.

William Burroughs, Beat icon and ''Naked Lunch" author, was a cub reporter for the Post-Dispatch in the 1930s.

Niceness has its limits, even in St. Louis. In a Post-Dispatch editorial last weekend (not written by Bertelson) about facing Boston in the Series, the paper noted, ''Comparisons are odious, but what the heck. They have Ted Williams. We have Stan Musial, head and body still in tandem." Ouch!

Toasted ravioli, a local specialty, is delicious. However, a steady diet of the stuff will produce a waistline akin to that of Cardinals relief pitcher Ray King.

Though they just suffered through one of the worst sports weekends in St. Louis history -- not only did the Cardinals drop two to the Red Sox, but the Rams lost Sunday to the hapless Miami Dolphins -- St. Louisans remain almost inhumanly friendly to visitors, even those from Boston. Two of the most companionable tour guides the city has to offer are Joe Bonwich, restaurant critic and food writer for the Post-Dispatch, and Sarah Fuhrmann, a former Associated Press reporter who now works for an Internet marketing and PR firm.

Bonwich took a reporter on a tour of St. Louis neighborhoods Friday evening. In the Delmar Boulevard Loop district, where a Walk of Fame honors scores of famous St. Louisans (T.S. Eliot, Miles Davis, Betty Grable, sex researchers Masters and Johnson), he introduced Joe Edwards, owner of the restaurant Blueberry Hill.

Edwards opened the bar and eatery in 1972, filling it with a collection of pop-culture artifacts that would impress Smithsonian curators -- everything from Beatles memorabilia to 1950s TV kitsch. A major force in transforming the area from civic eyesore to thriving commercial center, Edwards boasted that his native city had evolved into ''one of the most vibrant arts and entertainment, shopping, and restaurant Meccas in the Midwest."

A feeling of inferiority toward Chicago? Edwards and Bonwich were not buying that.

''The biggest thing," Edwards said, ''is we're not only the gateway to the West but to the North-South axis, too. Eastern cities think we're a small town. But look at the music and literature that's come out of here, from Scott Joplin to Miles Davis to Chuck Berry."

Said Bonwich, like Edwards a St. Louis native, ''People always thought this was a great place to raise a family, but there wasn't much going on here culturally. I don't think that's true now. We've got everything from hip-hop culture to a world-class symphony. Plus you can get anyplace in 20 minutes. And park."

Berry plays at Blueberry Hill whenever he's in town, Edwards noted, in a downstairs performance venue called the Duck Room. The room boasts several photos of the legendary rocker doing -- what else? -- the duck walk.

''The duck walk in the Duck Room," sighed Edwards. ''What could be cooler than that?"

Not much, come to think of it.

Fuhrmann, another native with Boston connections (she went to Tufts), proposed a Saturday morning excursion to the Hill district, the Italian-American neighborhood where Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up. A diehard Cards fan, Fuhrmann wore a bright red ''ROLEN" jersey for the outing. St. Louis, she said, is a ''small town in disguise."

Steering her companion into John Viviano & Sons, a venerable Italian market with bocce sets and expresso makers in the front window, Fuhrmann proceeded to draw several parallels between St. Louis and Boston.

''They're both old, pioneer, Catholic cities with strong labor bases," she said. ''They're both trying to reinvent themselves through new industries like biotech. But Boston has been far more successful so far."

''One reason sports -- particularly baseball -- is so popular in St. Louis is we've been good at it, better than in most endeavors," Fuhrmann said.

Over a burger and beer at O'Connell's Pub, another legendary local watering hole, Fuhrmann echoed a theme voiced constantly around this city, one transcending its baseball team and the Cards' current predicament, which could make the next few days particularly painful around here.

St. Louisans ''underestimate themselves and apologize for their city, even when they don't need to," Fuhrmann said. ''What we should say is, 'No, we're not Chicago -- we can actually get someplace in 10 minutes.' People ought to be really happy, and a lot of them aren't."

Game 3, happily or otherwise, arrives tonight.

And if Chuck Berry isn't invited to sing the national anthem before one of these home games, it will be St. Louis's loss as much as ours. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached by email at jkahn@globe.com.

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