Increased security or increased alienation? Shooting exposes underlying tensions on Cherokee Street
On April 30, Francis Rodriguez, the owner of Yaquis on Cherokee, was drawn to his apartment window by a commotion outside on Cherokee Street. Rodriguez lives above the pizza parlor and, as shots rang out, he and his wife dropped to the floor. After a pause, he ran downstairs to check on the restaurant, where people didn’t immediately recognize the sound of gunfire.
“They're still playing music in here. They didn't hear the shots upstairs that are right outside the door,” he said. “But just as I open up the back door from our apartment and hear people start raising the alarm in here [Yaquis] and so people started screaming and falling onto the floor.”
The shooting came after a fight erupted just west of 2720 Cherokee, a concert venue nearby. Two young men were wounded but no one died.
In the following weeks, the violence left some residents shaken. The shooting raised underlying tensions as community members tried to sort out racial, economic and cultural frustrations in one of St. Louis’s popular neighborhoods. These frictions and conversations highlight how the Cherokee Street area is a microcosm of the larger city. From economic disparity to racial tension, business development to safety concerns — these are the issues diverse communities have to reckon with.
Since the shooting, information and rumors have spread through social media and by word of mouth. Some people thought the shooting initially occurred inside the music venue (after the shooting began one shooter entered the building and fired out from that location). Others thought the shots were fired from a car. Some said the police collected more than 40 bullet casings. Others said more than 60 shots were fired. Some shrugged, familiar with violence in a city that’s already reported more than 80 homicides this year. Police declined to supply St. Louis Public Radio with specific information beyond an incident report because the shooting investigations are ongoing.
Immediately after the shooting, Kaveh Razani, a partner in 2720 Cherokee and the vice president of the Cherokee Station Business Association, took to a Facebook group to provide as much of an explanation as he could.
Differing roles, diverging viewpoints
For some, primarily business owners like Rodriguez, the shooting was a wake-up call — a clear indication that steps need to be taken to improve the safety for Cherokee Street residents, patrons and property.
For Pacia Anderson, the response to the shooting could have far graver consequences for the neighborhood than the shooting itself. She runs Cherokee Street Reach, a youth arts and education program, along with Basil Kincaid, Shea Brown and Eric Prospect White.
Cherokee Street Reach is heavily invested in the residential area around the Cherokee Street Business District, communities made of primarily working-class black and Latino families. The group has thrown parties, hosted events and, recently, worked with volunteers who erected playground equipment at Gravois Park.
Anderson said the outcry over the shooting is tinged with racial, economic and cultural overtones that expose tension between some of the newer business owners and longtime residents. Her main concern is that cries for increased security will lead to further alienation of the black and Latino families who have defined the neighborhood in recent decades.
“I would hate for people to look at one incident out of the thousands of events that this place has had and mark not an entire street, but an entire group of people of color as dangerous,” she said.
The idea of increased police presence and security raises questions of safety for some members of the community because of the history of racial bias between police and communities of color.
Beyond new vs. old
These concerns aren’t new. In recent years, the neighborhood has come to be known for its arts community and venues and a growing number of specialty stores. With that attention came criticisms of gentrification and a lack of support for people already living in the area. Eric Prospect White said black-owned businesses were around long before newer businesses came to cash in on the street’s growing popularity.
“These are places where people go pay their phone bill. These are places where people go get food. Places that are largely supported by the surrounding communities,” he said. “They're not for nightlife, they're not for entertainment. They're for basic survival.”
Racial tension became a flash point during a regularly scheduled safety meeting in late May, which aimed to address the shooting. Several meeting attendees stressed that there was more love in the room than hate, and that there’s a strong will to come together to address concerns about safety and the neighborhood’s public perception. Yet the tension between business owners and community members was obvious.
At one point, Rodriquez accused the business district of attempting to “normalize” the shooting and “sweep it under the rug,” while providing a lack of security during nighttime events. Another business owner called for increased police security. According to Cherokee Street Business District meeting minutes, one Cherokee Street business owner said he no longer holds rap shows and equated them with fostering violence. It was a comment several meeting attendees, including Anderson, perceived as racist.
“To say that you don't think that Cherokee Street should allow this [hip-hop], you're basically saying, ‘Let's remove an entire culture,’” Anderson said.
Who is heard?
For Anderson, the meeting exemplified the divide between business owners and residents. She said business owners’ concerns are listened to, while residents' concerns go unaddressed.
“They [business owners] were able to be emotional about it in ways that, depending on your social status or your socio-economic status, you would not be able to do,” she said. “There were several of us in the room who would not have been able to stand up and yell in the face at the president of the Cherokee Street Business District. And that wasn't lost on a lot of people in the room.”
But, like many things on Cherokee Street, it’s not simple. Rodriguez said he understands the disparity in the neighborhood. He’s Latino and grew up a few blocks from Yaquis. While rehabbing the building where Yaquis now exists, he experienced casual racism from passersby who stopped in to comment on the work he and his brothers were doing.
“They would say, ‘Oh, boy. You guys gotta to get Mexicans to do this work. And we're like, ‘Dude, we are are the Mexicans doing the work,’” Rodriguez said.
Even though his business isn’t that old, Rodriquez said he understands how longtime residents may feel toward newer businesses.
“You come down here on a Friday night and it's mostly white folks down here in Cherokee,” he said. “If you've been walking by this area for three, four or five years, getting off the bus and walking home, now you're not participating in that damn party are you? You don't feel like you're a part of it.”
But he’s not sure what to do about it, other than hire people from the neighborhood, people who might just be getting off that bus. When it comes down to it, he said, he believes violence is a direct threat to his family, patrons and business. And he said he has a right to increased protection.
Shared neighborhood, different communities
White said an over-attentiveness to security comes from not connecting with the already established residential community.
“Out of the gate, I think, it’s fear. I think it's too many people are afraid of other people who have totally different backgrounds than themselves — and are scared to actually make those connections with a different person,” White said.
Combating that fear is part of Anne McCullough’s job as Cherokee Street Liaison. She said the neighborhood’s willingness to struggle with these questions makes it attractive to many.
“You know, it's just a reflection of different values coming to a head and people of different values living together. I mean, I think that's really important,” She said. “And I think a lot of people want to be a part of that, even if it's more difficult.”
Some steps have been taken in response to the April shooting. 2720 Cherokee’s owners have committed to improving security during certain events. After the initial safety meeting, the Cherokee Street Business District developed a non-discrimination policy to address concerns that the association favored certain businesses.
At a second meeting that addressed the shooting, a social worker also presented information about free social services and counseling resources for people in need. But the long-term effects of the shooting have yet to play out between neighborhood residents and community members.
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