Location: Maplewood City Hall Wednesday February 14, 2012
Interviewee: Robert Harsh
Mia: Mr. Harsh can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Mr. Harsh: Well I have been a resident of Maplewood since the early 1960s. I came here from Washington D.C., I am a native of Iowa, I‘m married have two children and have lived in the same general area of Maplewood since the 1960s. I am a retired federal employee with the FBI. I have been very active in non-profit and church organizations. One of the non-profit groups is Mapledays which holds a community festival each year. I do lawn cutting and snow removal for senior citizens; plus give away scholarships for the high school kids and sponsor Boy Scout camps. I was on the Maplewood-Richmond Heights school board from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. Still very active in our church and attend most of the city council meetings to keep the church advised on what new establishments are developing within Maplewood. I have been on the Parks and Recreation board for several years here in Maplewood.
Mia: I’m sorry so you said you were raised in Maplewood?
Mr. Harsh: No I was raised in Iowa.
Mia: Ok so in the 1960s. If you don’t mind may I ask your age?
Mr. Harsh: No it’s alright I am 70.
Mia: So in the 1960s you were 30 or so? Just what brought you to Maplewood?
Mr. Harsh: I had a friend who also was working for the FBI and lived in Maplewood. When I transferred from Washington D.C. and came to Saint Louis I decided to choose Maplewood. It had a great school system at that time and the community was prospering with a small community style atmosphere.
Ann Marie: I noticed you said you were on the Board of Education for awhile; I am an education major and I was interested in what drew you to wanting to be on the school board? Was it children?
Mr. Harsh: I did we had two daughters in the school system and it got me involved with that. Like most school districts within the 1970s they were trying to make a transition from I would say college tech prep type classes where you would go to South County prep school; versus college prep and a lot of school districts were having a tight budget and were working with those. I knew you could not do both types of classes. We already had tech schools within the county my emphasis was on making sure the district provided college type classes; 4 years of english, math, science. With those kinds of programs and we were successful. Another gentleman had the same type of ideas I did and we just ensured and stressed to the superintendent that college prep idea.
Ann Marie: That was the type of direction you guys wanted to go?
Mr. Harsh: Yes
Mia: Just looking back its 2012 you have been here since the 1960s how would you compare life back then to how it is today within Maplewood itself? How has it changed and have you seen this as positive, negative change? What’s your take on it?
Mr. Harsh: I would see it as positive; very positive and this is not being critical of the administration back then. But if you want to talk about the city government it had a type of government with a Mayor and a council and each of those council members were a department head. Meaning one was in charge of the police department one was in charge of the fire department and whatever and whatever.
Mia: Rather than just having one person?
Mr. Harsh: Rather than having a city manager. Now city manager runs all the operations of the city and the city council now just provides direction and the city manger reports to the city council. The council does not have authority over any department. Back in the old days those were extremely powerful council people. But in my opinion they weren’t all professional leaders. So I think it was back in the early 1970s we changed to the type of government system we have now; with six council members and a Mayor that are elected and a city manager. You know it’s probably the same with the school district they expanded their number of board members because the state required it and it wasn’t a choice they had. The city government you know it was a huge business back then they had a 3 million dollar budget now it might be 30 million. You know it’s a professional staff that is in charge of every department and these are people that are professionals within every department. Like Rachelle who you’ve talked to.
Mia: It seems like when talking with the Mayor everyone is really intent on working together for the city. Like there are no competitions between the departments or political rivalry?
Mr. Harsh: You know they hired people with those credentials to stress the redevelopment within the city; that’s what Rachelle does. I don’t know if you talked to Anthony Trexler he is the assistant city manager and director of the public groups department and is in charge of the Parks Department which I am on also. I deal with him a lot and we have a lot of boards that are advisory which lets them know what the feelings of the citizens are.
Mia: So earlier in the interview you mentioned a lot of different organizations that you are a part of what has drawn you to be so active in the community and with community service?
Mr. Harsh: Well I was very active as a kid with community service and so were my parents. I guess it’s in the DNA to give back and through activities.
Mia: So do you see a correlation with the amount of time and what the citizens invest in their community is what they will get out of it?
Mr. Harsh: Oh yeah without any question and another thing about Maplewood is the population I think is around 9,000. And that’s really a small town atmosphere although we are big here in a metropolitan area. But it still maintains that little core of neighborhoods where people are active and involved. We have got a lot of churches within Maplewood there are probably 10 or 11 churches within Maplewood. That’s unbelievable you would think how can you have that many churches? But people come from everywhere to the different demonation of churches. But it’s still a small town atmosphere. I feel that way because I grew up in a small town.
Mia: Is that one of the reasons you’ve stayed here after so many moves? I’m sure you could have had the opportunity to move out of Maplewood or even back to Iowa
Mr. Harsh: Well no my family wouldn’t have gone with me though (laughs). I wanted to but you know the facilities and everything they were hoping for are right here in this little town. We have a state of the art school system here a library across the street my wife is on the Library Board. I mean it’s all new the school, pool, the recreation is all new. We have about nine different parks within Maplewood. Most cities have one or two. And if you see any of them (parks) if you go down to Deer Creek park they are state of the art in equipment and everything. You know the education system for college kids once they get through school for Saint Louis you can’t beat the public education. It’s a real growing spurt. At one time oh it was extremely attractive this was like to move here. I mean houses were going in the four block area I live by for about 420,000 dollars. Of course the market broke but that’s what houses were going for in this area and I’m talking about houses that at one time in the 1960s sold for 20,000 dollars. Because everybody wanted to move in towards the city because of gas prices people didn’t want to move to Arnold or Eureka. Or that far out people wanted to move in closer and these were all three story homes over in that area and it was just an extremely attractive to come to Maplewood. We (wife and I ) had no desire after we were established with the church and other activities to move.
Ann Marie: Saint Louis has so many Municipalities and different towns do you think that one of the things that makes Maplewood unique is that it still has the small town vibe?
Mr. Harsh: Well Saint Louis has what 93 different municipalities? I guess there are 90 some now. Well what makes Maplewood unique is its been successful; like all little towns within the area the center core coming out from the city were struggling financially everyone wanted to move out to Chesterfield or the far West County where the shopping centers were and so forth. They set well into the Galleria that pulled a lot of people out of these small little areas for shopping. I think that was a struggle for a lot of people.
Mia: I have one more question I’m sure you have grandkids what would you hope Maplewood to be like?
Mia: Do you have grandkids?
Mr. Harsh: Yes
Mia: What do you hope for Maplewood to be like or what do you see in the next 10, 20, 40, 50 years for the community?
Mr. Harsh: Well I would like to see it provide all the services that they should and could to the community. You know health, safety, fire, and those types of protections. Also to be aggressive in the retail market; you know shopping centers to make it convenient for people. One of the things I would really like to see we almost had it but the economy went to the pits was the Senior Center Retirement home down in Deer Creek plaza. We almost had that four years ago. Now the Retirement home is placed outside of Denver; but you know you don’t really need a retirement home to be a successful community. I hope that the city continues to grow and be civic minded. There doesn’t seem to be any strive for friction within the counsel that I can tell there seems to be…
Mia: A lot of solidarity
Mr. Harsh: Yeah! The current mayor Mr. White he use to be the chief of police here and before that he was assistant out in West County. It’s not like Maplewood went out of state and brought somebody in. Those type of things help if you have people that get along and our striving for the same goals; then that’s one of the things the council does they get together and set goals for the city. I’m not sure that was always the case probably back in the 1960s with the old style of government. That’s not being critical of that side of government; many municipalities still have it.
Mia: It works for some and not for others
Mr. Harsh: Yeah
Ann Marie: Wal-Mart and Sam’s club came to Maplewood how long ago?
Mr. Harsh: It’s been about 7 years at least?
Ann Marie: Do you think that’s was a good draw for the community financially? Do you think it was helpful for Wal-Mart to come?
Mr. Harsh: Financially there was no question that is a yes because it was a time when all municipalities were suffering an extreme amount. The income to their city was extremely low hardly any municipality was not having financial trouble and Maplewood was one of those and it was due to lack of revenue. Initially the company that was coming in was Cosco and then the city went through Wal-Mart. Coskco was the one going to build there but they did not have the financial ability to do that. Even though Maplewood was going to give them a TIF or tax increment finances. But Wal-Mart stepped up to the plate and said we can build it without a TIF which was a big boost for the city, saved them a lot of money. You know a lot of people are opposed to Wal-Mart, Sam’s club but they are what they are. I say if you don’t like them don’t shop at them. But without any question the city was able to benefit. Wal-Mart has been a huge supporter of the community. Not just financially but with all the other activities. The organization I belong to Mapledays the Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club give me all their reduced prices for our events I’m talking microwave oven, grills. You know stuff like that
Mia: So they’re really keen on investing in the community?
Mr. Harsh: Yeah we got that new place that’s going on at Deer Creek plaza whether that will make it I don’t know. But some people might rather see a Cosco go in or clothing store but it didn’t really bother me. A lot of people are so anti-union with Wal-Mart policies but I just say stay away.
Ann Marie: Yeah, if you don’t like it don’t shop at it
Mr. Harsh: And I don’t mean to be critical but it’s like if the street is rough out front don’t drive on it you know
Ann Marie: I was kind of wondering Maplewood has a lot of cool unique mom and pop shops and I think that is one thing that really draws people to a municipality. I was wondering personally what is one of your favorite Maplewood businesses and why?
Mr. Harsh: Well I’m very fond of those types of shops. My wife and I constantly were visitors of the University City loop so you know Cicero’s, Blueberry Hill that strip. The Bread Company because you know that use to be one of the few Bread Companies. And my wife and I use to go there about once or twice a week and I’m not trying to compare Manchester or Sutton (streets in Maplewood) with that area. But those type of shops are pretty similar in that they are specialty shops you know Maplewood has a lot of different boutique shops. And Maplewood has a lot of different restaurants a lot of little ones. You know we have Monarch at the corner of Manchester and Sutton which is rated number one restaurant in the whole Saint Louis County. It’s extremely expensive and Saturday night you pull up and see a line of limos. I volunteer at the Fox theatre and many of the performers go to Monarch afterward. You also have the other restaurants we have Jablan Whale and that was a hopping place you know I went there a lot it was a good fun place. Also other restaurants we have the Crow’s nest, Bugaloo’s, and it just goes all the way down. We’ve had a little turnover in restaurants. We’ve got the old restaurant at the corner called Tiffany’s diner. If you’re ever out drinking some night you’ll probably go in there at about 1:00 am (laughs) but it’s a typical old type diner that people go to.
Mia and Ann Marie: Sounds cool we’ll have to do some research
Mr. Harsh: Well we come home from the Fox on a Friday or Saturday night you come by Schafly’s and there’s a line of cars you can hardly find a parking spot. We have all the little coffee shops. Foundation Grounds that’s on Sutton and then there’s another one on Sutton. You know those are specialty shops that have been able to hang in there and stay solid. You know Schafly’s was a very big investment to come to Maplewood. Their building was an old grocery store and they came into Maplewood and the money Maplewood has received out of it has been big.
Mia and Ann Marie: When did they come to Maplewood?
Ann Marie: Was it the 1980s?
Mr. Harsh: I think it was the 90s I’m thinking the late 1990s maybe 2000. God this is 2012 every time you talk about a year you have to add 12 to it; it’s like woah! Schafly just really had the city going. I know the resale shop my church runs a couple of ladies at the boutique shops come in and get vintage clothes. We’ve got a lot of good clothes price tag still on them whatever and they come in and shop. They boutique ladies also bring us things they don’t sell in their shop. They will turn it around and give it to us.
Ann Marie: I need to go there! Is that on Manchester downtown area?
Mr. Harsh: It’s on Manchester and Flora. You know where the Quik trip is? You go past Monarch and its right across the street from Maplewood Methodist Church. It’s open on Thursday 9-3p.m. It’s where George Clooney made the movie.
Mia and Ann Marie: Oh really!!!
Mia: We were going to ask you about that. When did the tour Rachelle was telling us that a couple of the houses they had used in the film.
Ann Marie: Did you see George Clooney?
Mr. Harsh: Everyday. I and another gentleman provided security. We could not use the inside of the church during any of that time. (during film)
Mia: Just for like security?
Mr. Harsh: Well they didn’t want anyone in there because they were making a movie. They had lights, camera, and action going. We would basically do the prep work for them afterwards and before.
Mia: Were there Maplewood residents who were actually in the film?
Mr. Harsh: I don’t know of any Maplewood residents other than two children. They were from our church and they had to cast just like everybody else. They had the casting over at the Cheshire. Oh it was fun! You know these people they were you know where the Black Cat theatre is? That’s where the stars would set up their trailer. You know they had food trailers they fixed meals there and they would all take a break at lunchtime at the Black Cat. George didn’t he went and ate in his car. Everybody asked me which car he was in and we would take him in the back door.
Mia: Did you ever talk to him (George Clooney)
Mr. Harsh: No I never did. I had the opportunity too but I just didn’t want to impose that wasn’t my role. But yeah it was fun and it (the movie) brought a lot of lime-light to Maplewood. You know we had a movie before in Maplewood it was called Alice and a lot of people didn’t know that. But Alice was a movie about a young gal in the Chicago area who moved to Saint Louis and the movie depicted her in going back to school and making friends and that whole thing. They filmed in front of my house. They used the house right up front across the street but they closed off my street and Matthew Perry was in it. They used the parking lot up on Marietta as a station for everybody to meet and dress. But he (Matthew Perry) thought it was too far to go even though it was only a block and a half (laughs) so they asked if they could move the trailer (Matthew Perry’s) in front of my house and park it there. It’s a good movie too. But of course everybody would call the house and want to know if he’s there or whatever and could they come. Several times I would knock you know my daughter would bring her girlfriends and I would knock on the trailer door and he’d sign autographs for them and all that stuff. So the production people that I worked with there were also the same production people at our church. So I had some knowledge of who was who.
Ann Marie: Do you live in a historical house in Maplewood?
Mr. Harsh: Yes, almost all the houses in Maplewood were built earlier. There are almost no new houses in Maplewood. In this area here (by city hall) that are new but everything else if you go over there by that church there’s all 3 story homes that our very large and I just live a block from there.
Mia: How old is your house?
Mr. Harsh: It was built the one in the wedge was built in 1904 and were right across the street so you know probably 1920.
Ann Marie: Is your wife from Maplewood?
Mr. Harsh: No she was from Iowa also.
Ann Marie: You said you moved to Maplewood in the 1960s were you living in Maplewood when JFK visited?
Mr. Harsh: No
Mia: Just wondering because Rachelle and the Mayor mentioned that the whole community came out and it was a big thing. Was there anything else you wanted to add or any closing comments.
Mr. Harsh: I don’t know of anything. It’s just a really good little thriving area. It just really is. The school system is just it’s kind of like hidden in not knowing how good it is.
Mia: Like a gem.
Mr. Harsh: Yeah a lot of these homes at that time may have had 5 or 7 kids you know most homes today you’re lucky if they have two. And a lot of homes have what I like to call a trust baby which is a single guy or girl living in a house by a trust. So that why they live there. I have one right next to me that’s a three story house he just put a 140,000 dollar addition on it. Built what I call mancave or party house in the back and it’s a single guy. I got one across the street they live there by themselves. But there are several single or couples that just have these big homes in Maplewood.
Mia and Ann Marie: Thank you so much for helping us with our project we really appreciate it.
Mr. Harsh: Sure no problem.