This spring’s weather has been unpredictable at best, but I was lucky the day I met Sherilyn Blair at her business on North Second Street. The sun shone through the clouds for the first time in days, and most brightly on the sign welcoming us to Historic Frenchtown “A National Historic Register District.” It turns out, this sign is on the side of the very business I had come to visit, Frenchtown Secret Garden. Since I was a little early, I realized from the sidewalk bench how much of Frenchtown I could see peeking down the street. The giant Lamborghini Gold Coast Athletic Centre on the east side of Second Street sits just behind Sherilyn’s shop, and looking around, I am reminded of all the businesses in this section of town I haven’t visited recently enough. Fortunately, the day was nice enough to wander.
First, I visited Driftwood Music next door to Sherilyn, which is actually owned and operated by her husband, Colin Blair, and Pete Buncher. It has only recently opened and is already gathering a lot of positive attention. At their Grand Opening in February, musicians and listeners packed the shop from open to close, celebrating the new store/venue/studio. Colin explains that he and Pete were ready to work for themselves, and are guided by a focus on the music. They sell, repair, teach lessons, and can educate you on any number of instruments including banjos, mandolins, fiddles, dulcimers, and guitars. They also turn the store into a venue to showcase musicians like themselves.
I quickly see a similar community emphasis when I enter Frenchtown Secret Garden. Sherilyn has prepared coffee roasted by local vendors, Course Coffee, and we have a seat at the DIY station in her shop. The first thing you notice in Sherilyn’s store (which used to be called “Crafty” in a different incarnation) is the variety of work by local artists–over 80 to be exact! And with the classes and workshops they host, they produce artists as well as sell artwork. Even the table where we sit is brimming with baubles, plants, containers, and earth to make your own creative décor. I feel like this is the creative spirit of Frenchtown.
While we’re talking, many guests come into the shop. Sherilyn warmly welcomes everyone and made the day of two young guests she invited to help feed the fish. Yes, in the corner of Frenchtown Secret Garden, there is a magical little fish pond that was created with the help of other Frenchtown business owners and residents. Naturally, the children were delighted to help, and Sherilyn’s natural engagement with her guests, listening to stories and serving coffee, is a delightful reflection of her neighborhood.
I know I’m going on about the details, but I see them as an accurate microcosm of the Frenchtown community culture. Over the course of a few hours, Sherilyn and I discuss the revitalization work that is going on in the community, and we are easily distracted; brainstorming of fun ways to further engage the public. Her main hope is to see more experiences like the one we just witnessed, only on a much bigger scale. It doesn’t have to be Sesame Street, she says, but we have all the building blocks of a cherished neighborhood. Like all of our St. Charles neighborhoods, Frenchtown has its own unique culture. Our community values, promotes, and honors our heritage. This is best evidenced by the Historic Frenchtown Association (HFA).
The non-profit organization describes itself as featuring “an up-and-coming antique and art district, a treasure trove of French-colonial-style architecture, with a vibrant small-town feeling.” Guests are welcomed to their website “whether you’re here to search for vintage goods and local handcrafted ware, to stroll through a neighborhood in search of beautifully preserved 19th century houses, to play and picnic at one of the nearby parks, or to connect with neighbors at a meeting or potluck – welcome!”
Easily accessible is the “Events Page” and lists of what to explore in the area, including 47 Frenchtown businesses and attractions! It’s a great reference for the many things to do in the neighborhood and I recommend you bookmark it. Sherilyn excitedly talks about the HFA meetings. As the current president, she has seen attendance grow so large in the last few years that they’ve had to relocate to a larger space in the Frenchtown Heritage Museum. These meetings sound like community potlucks, with a large group of people engaged in making their neighborhood even more attractive and recognized.
A persistent interest in revitalizing Frenchtown is motivating new and veteran residents alike. Sams Carpet Cleaners and Repairs has been in business for 33 years, and Susan Sams took some time to talk with me about her perspective on the Frenchtown revitalization. First and foremost, she stresses that revitalization is the word! There is no need for rehabilitation or recovery, as some synonyms may suggest. Not only is Frenchtown home to viable and vibrant businesses, its residents are proud of their home and history. Revitalization implies an addition of life and liveliness, not a lack thereof.
Susan not only has a strong historical bond with the community, she remains active in actualizing its potential for investment and improvement. Together with Sherilyn and some key City professionals, including Director of Community Development Bruce Evans, Director of Economic Development David Leezer, and President of the Greater St. Charles County Chamber of Commerce Scott Tate (to name only a few), a committee has formed to begin making more tangible steps towards progress.
At this point in our conversation, Susan brings up a study Sherilyn had emphasized – the 2003 HyettPalma Economic Enhancement Strategy. This survey of the community presents a clear evaluation of the neighborhood. It helps identify collective demographics, zones, and action items for the community, and helps plans become actions. The obvious problem is that it is severely outdated. Until a similar current study is conducted, the players involved are continuing to meet and strategize about how to continue uplifting their community. As well as, the committee is looking at The Loop, The Grove, and Cherokee as local models of inspiration for FrenchTown. There are none of these types of neighborhoods in this part of the St. Louis region. These neighborhoods promote diversity, creativity, and target to a different population.
Remember at the beginning of this article, I was sitting on a wrought iron bench on Second Street thinking about all the Frenchtown gems I miss out on. That feeling is much stronger now, and I begin making a list of all the places to see in Frenchtown. Before long, I’ve filled a day and then some. I’ll refer you again to the HFA website (www.historicfrenchtown.org). Not only is it easier to browse the pages (of Antique Galleries, Studios, Salons, Florists, Bridal Houses, Accommodations, Community Centers, Hiking Stores, Catering, Services, and more) yourself, you’ll also have more time to spend in the parks just off the Katy trail. As I said before, the Revitalization of Frenchtown is not antithetical to the current neighborhood culture. Rather, it is an embracing of the bohemian, modern, creative, and historical mélange that is Frenchtown St. Charles. Next time you’re having brunch at the Streets, enjoying one of St. Charles’ many festivals in Frontier Park, or having dinner on Main Street, ride the Trolley a few blocks further and browse Frenchtown. Like me, I’m sure you’ll begin planning your next trip before you’ve even left.