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After Thursday's shootings, close-knit Cherokee Street community rallies

Three local beer companies -- Schlafly, Four Hands and Civil Life Brewing Company -- provided drinks for Friday's fundraiser. Other local companies, neighborhood associations and ordinary residents also pitched in to help.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Jason Deem met a tourist from Brooklyn on Thursday, he saw Anne McCullough – Cherokee Street’s liaison – apologize that a high-profile shooting was the man's first impression of the eclectic business district.

The tourist, he said, perhaps offered a farsighted take on the situation.

“He said ‘my impression is this is a community that is able to handle a crisis with a very strong community,’” said Deem, a prominent Cherokee Street developer. “It’s not just internal. It’s something that’s recognized by others who are out here, too. I think it may even bring people closer together.”

In the wake of Thursday’s shootings that left four people dead at the Cherokee Place Business Incubator, those who work in and live around Cherokee Street have a unified message: The south St. Louis business district isn’t dangerous. Thursday's shootings were an isolated incident. And the already close-knit community is united even more.

“It’s a tragic incident and it’s a tragic thing that happened,” Deem said. “But it’s unfortunate to see national media attention on Cherokee Street on something like this. However, one of the things that has really shown through is the strong sense of community down here and everybody’s overwhelming sense of support for each other.”

The shootings brought local, national and international media attention on the business district. Minerva Lopez, the owner of a soccer apparel store called Gooolll, said it even made the news in Mexico, especially since Cherokee Street is a major business center for the Latino community.  

The shooting also prompted the close-knit community to come together on Friday evening for a barbecue and fundraiser outside the Fortune Teller Bar. Money raised at the event will help the families of victims, some of whom were members of the Somali immigrant community.

And before the rally, Mayor Francis Slay and members of the Board of Aldermen visited businesses in the district, which encompass four neighborhoods that some hope will grow along with Cherokee Street’s popularity.

Noting that he had fully expected “people to kind of stay away from Cherokee,” STL Style owner Randy Vines said his T-shirt store experienced one of the busiest Fridays in terms of walk-in business.

He added he’s been “overwhelmed with the positive show of solidarity that people on Cherokee and also customers far and wide in St. Louis and beyond have demonstrated in the wake of this tragedy.

“It shouldn’t happen anywhere. But it does,” said Vines, who along with his brother Jeff owns a shop on Cherokee Street. “It could have easily happened in any suburb or even rural America. It unfortunately happened here on Cherokee Street. And so I think Cherokee has an added layer of challenges associated with that because the city and its urban neighborhoods are already stigmatized somewhat. So it’s just another obstacle to convince people that this is a safe neighborhood and we’re open for business and we’re welcoming and rolling out the red carpet for patrons.

“I believe that we will be stronger. I know it sounds kind of cliché,” he added. “But just seeing how people have responded so far, I have no doubt that this is a resilient community that is ready to show its resolve.”

Residents flock to fundraiser

Friday’s barbecue and fundraiser had people jam-packed on the sidewalk in front of the Fortune Teller Bar, an upscale tavern own by Sam Coffey. The event had a community-like feel, with attendees casually chatting with each other while chowing down on Mexican food and sipping on a cold beverage.

The robust turnout enthused Coffey, who also owns First Punch Film Production and the Factory.

“It makes me really proud to be a St. Louisan every time the neighborhood comes together like this,” Coffey said. “I don’t want to say that I’m shocked. But I’m thrilled. It’s just amazing to live in a community where an event happens and like so many people come to you asking ‘what can I do?’”

Carlos Dominguez dishes out hot food to attendees.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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Carlos Dominguez dishes out hot food to attendees.and ordinary residents also pitched in to help.

Local companies, neighborhood associations and ordinary residents contributed food, drink and sweets to the event, Coffey said. The proceeds will be given to the International Institute, he added, and then distributed to the three families affected by the shootings.

“We’re just trying to show anybody who’s willing to listen that I don’t care what kind of violence you bring to this street – which could have happened anywhere,” Coffey said, “we’re a strong community. An event like this is not going to be a nail in our coffin. We’re going to continue to grow.”

Others at the event expressed similar sentiments. Will Conway – the owner of Will’s Copy Connection – said it was “awesome how everybody comes together in a situation and crisis.”

“I feel that Cherokee is a strong community,” Conway said. “It has a strong community that sticks together. And because of this isolated incident, we’re still not giving up. So we’re going to keep pushing until this street becomes one of the finest streets in America.”

Will Conway, center, talks with people at the fundraiser.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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Will Conway, center, talks with people at the fundraiser.

Kristen Gassel added that Cherokee Street is kind of like “a family, it always has been.”

“People support one another and always come out in support of one another,” said Gassel, the owner of the St. Louis Curio Shop. “We’re not going to let an incident that literally could have happened anywhere stop us from what we’re doing. We want people to remember that this place is a decent place to come down to. This is not representative of Cherokee Street.”

Lopez -- a leader in the region’s Hispanic business community – said Thursday’s shootings was “one of those things that put the community to the test.”

“We either come forward and support and unite – moreso than we are right now – and show the world that we’re here to stay and we’re going to make this happen,” Lopez said.

Lopez said that many business owners came to work earlier than usual today. And she said business at her shop was “decent.” 

“I think this tragic,” Lopez said. “But we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing. There’s no other way to do it.”

Daniel Huck – who lives around Cherokee Street – said he “feels for the families.”  And Michael Bishop – who owns a web development company on Cherokee Street – said that “Cherokee is like a thousand people trying to make an awesome thing change.”

“And like one person screwing it up, that’s what it feels like,” Bishop said. “But what happened yesterday had nothing to do with Cherokee. That could have happened anywhere. It’s not a Cherokee thing.”

Taking stock of violence

St. Louis Police officials have said that Ahmed Dirir, the co-owner of a home health-care company, shot and killed three of his employees -- Khadra Muse, Seaeed Abdulla and Bernice Solomon-Redd – at the Cherokee Street Place Business Incubator. Police said Dirir then committed suicide.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press have reported that Dirir was reeling from a divorce and had financial problems.

Galen Gondolfi – a longtime Cherokee Street resident and owner of the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts – told the Beacon that it’s apparent “what happened on Cherokee … can be likened to a domestic dispute.”

“One thing to glean from that is that it’s not indicative of reckless violence on Cherokee Street,” said Gondolfi, the communications director for Justine Petersen. “Four people dead in an office is very different from a drive-by. I’m by no means saying that there’s any upside to this. I’m merely saying we really need to be cognizant of what it means and what impact it really has on Cherokee. I just think it communicates the fact that Cherokee isn’t any less safe.”

He went onto say that “all we need to do is look at headlines elsewhere and to see that this is happening everywhere and anywhere -- and actually, socioeconomically across the board.”

A small memorial was created in front of the Cherokee Street Place Incubator.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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A small memorial was created in front of the Cherokee Street Place Incubator.

“I want to say as recent as four or five years ago, we had a domestic dispute that ended in two people dying on Compton just a block off of Cherokee. It involved a man killing his wife with a hammer,” Gondolfi said. “And again, I think domestic violence that’s an issue everywhere. And it doesn’t have a link to its proximity to Cherokee Street. Nor is Cherokee Street a hotbed of domestic violence.”

Statistics from the St. Louis Police Department show that the total number of crimes in the four neighborhoods that encompass Cherokee Street – Benton Park, Benton Park West, Gravois Park and Marine Villa – have declined in recent years. Residents of Gravois Park, for instance, have drawn rave reviews in recent years for actively reporting and fighting crime in the neighborhood.

While the surrounding neighborhoods were hit hard by the economic collapse, boosters of Cherokee Street say that the business district's popularity could attract people to rehab and invest in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Vines said that police came into his store while he was in Cleveland and remarked how quiet the street has been in recent months.

“It’s kind of nice that they think crime is down,” Vines said. “And then this thing happens and it takes everyone’s breath away.

“It’s a sobering reality. You rarely hear people say ‘this can’t happen here.’ Because we all know better,” he added. “It does happen. It happens in rural cities and towns and suburbs and obviously in urban areas, too.”

If there’s anything to learn from Thursday’s shootings, said Alderman Craig Schmid, D-20th Ward, it’s to be cognizant of the “triggering things, so that if people see those maybe we can prevent this sort of senseless situation from happening.”

“The other thing happens in the employment situation, where people sometimes see indicators as well,” said Schmid, who along with Alderman Ken Ortmann, D-20th Ward, represents Cherokee Street in the Board of Aldermen. “So far, we haven’t learned some of those behind the scenes kind of things. This seems to be a combination of those – where it would be family and an employment kind of situation.”

While those interviewed by the Beacon say few would try to extrapolate any broader conclusions about crime on Cherokee Street based on Thursday’s shootings, Gondolfi did say, “One fear is if you Google Cherokee Street now, perhaps in the top three to five hits it’s something referencing the homicide.

“And that’s an unfortunate reality in terms of its linkage and association with the street,” Gondolfi said. “But I’m very much convinced that we’ll move forward. We’ll get over this. And to be quite honest, there’s crime throughout the city. And not that this is just another case, but I don’t think this should be branded with Cherokee.”

Thursday's shootings occurred after a number of other violent incidents around St. Louis. Seventeen people were shot throughout the city earlier in the week, while a Bhutanese immigrant was shot and killed recently at a 7-Eleven. A number of people -- including Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward -- rallied in front of St. Louis City Hall Friday to commemorate the victims of gun violence.

“I don’t ever want to come across as minimizing the severity and how serious it is,” Vines said. “Just like random street crimes and gang violence and all that, you have heard in recent years a huge uptick in this kind of massacre. And it’s very unsettling and something needs to be done. I don’t know what the solution is and you always protect everybody from everything. But we’d be remiss to say there isn’t a crime issue in the city. Any murder of anyone is too many.”

Deem said the incident is “out-of-context” for Cherokee Street. And he said visitors shouldn’t feel any trepidation about visiting.

“It’s not reflective of the neighborhood and it’s not reflective of the safety and the security of the neighborhood for sure,” Deem said. “We’ve made a lot of strides down here in terms of security and we’ve got a great working relationship with the police. So yeah, exactly kind of echoing what you said. It’s just exactly what it was – an isolated incident.”

'Cherokee Strong'

Some members of the Cherokee Street community see Thursday’s shootings as a catalyst for bringing an already tight-knit community even closer together.

Many have already adopted the motto "Cherokee Strong" in response. Vines told the Beacon that his company will be printing off bumper stickers with that slogan.

He went onto say that he'd “like to believe in the spirit of humanity in general -- but I feel like all of that is magnified by what’s on Cherokee Street.”

Michael Allen – the director of the Preservation Research Office – said the reaction to Thursday’s shootings is “one of those moments where really the scope and breadth of community are revealed.”

“It shows how many people are invested in Cherokee Street and each other on Cherokee Street,” said Allen, who works at Nebula Coworking and has taken an interest in the development and evolution of the business district. “It’s been really great to see people turning out concerned about the situation.”

Schmid said "it's awful that it has to happen under such circumstances, but sometime it does cause people to recognize what they truly do have.

"And we need to cherish that and we need to protect that,” he added. “And we need to continue to work on the surrounding neighborhood as well altogether."

Added Ortmann, who represents the Cherokee Place Business Incubator at the Board of Aldermen, said: “It happened and people will deal with it and will continue to positively progress.”

Bishop noted that the “Cherokee Strong” term might be appropriate, given the level of the community’s response.

“It almost feels like anytime you go through a rough patch with somebody, like you’re instantly stronger afterward,” Bishop said. “I’m pretty certain that the community will get to know each other a bit more and people will come out and just be happy to be here. Kind of spit back in the face of it.”

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