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Economy & Business

Cherokee Street's destiny could be determined by surrounding neighborhoods

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Brent Jones | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Cherokee Street developed a reputation in recent years as a creative and cultural hotspot, buoyed by a diverse and eclectic mix of businesses.

But while many are optimistic about the business district's future, some feel it needs to be more responsive to residents in surrounding neighborhoods.

Take, for example, Rita Ford. The president of the Gravois Park Neighborhood Association said Cherokee Street used to be more family-oriented, especially with stores like J.C. Penney and Walgreen's.

With the exception of some Mexican restaurants along Cherokee Street, she said, that family-friendly feeling is slipping away a bit.

"It used to be you walk down there and you would see families going shopping," Ford said. "I mean a family, I’m not talking about a bunch of adults going to get a drink. I don’t have anything against drinking – I’ve done my share of that in my younger days. But I don’t see that any more. I just don’t.

"I would like to see more retail on Cherokee Street that are more family-friendly places," she added. "There is a lot of money that could be spent right here in the neighborhood if they had more retail shops."

Cherokee Street encountered some "growing pains" in the plast few years, including disagreements between business owners and residents. And the four neighborhoods that encompass Cherokee Street -- Benton Park, Benton Park West, Gravois Park and Marine Villa -- still grapple with crime, population loss and economic hardships. And while statistics show encouraging trends, challenges remain.

Some say the destiny of the district is intertwined with the health of the surrounding neighborhoods.

"Probably going 15 years ago, people would ask me: Which needs to come first – revitalization of Cherokee Street or the surrounding neighborhoods?" said Alderman Craig Schmid, D-20th Ward. "And my answer always was yes. Because they both have to happen at the same time. They’re inextricably linked."

Above all else, some of the district’s biggest fans say businesses and residents must work together – and communicate – to succeed.

“I use the term symbiotic and I use it for a reason,” said Barbara Potts, the neighborhood stabilization officer for the 20th Ward. “The fact of the matter is the business district needs the residential areas to succeed. And the residential areas need the business district to succeed. If you want to stabilize neighborhoods, that has to happen. You’ve got to have that relationship.”

Growing pains

As in other emerging shopping areas, the relationship between the commercial business owners on Cherokee Street and the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods hasn’t always been smooth.

In recent years, business owners of Cherokee Street have had numerous disputes with government officials. Some disagreements dealt with public art, others had to do with what to do with vacant lots.

Some business owners were upset by restrictions on businesses that serve alcohol, including restrictions that they serve a certain amount of food. Those restrictions went away in 2009 after the Board of Aldermen approved a bill excluding a three-block stretch of Cherokee Street from any restrictions.

Schmid said, "The street has matured, as has the experience. So we’re just going along. So some of those things aren’t necessary anymore."

Schmid, who rankled some business owners in the past with his support for restrictions on liquor establishments. added, "There are no conditions other than making sure you don’t have a crazy place."

Minerva Lopez, a leader within St. Louis' Hispanic business community, said local government “views us with kind eyes because after all we’re establishing businesses in the city with revenue generated for the city.”

But still, she said, “the processes are very arcane and obsolete.”

Galen Gondolfi -- who ran against Schmid in 2007 -- said his former opponent possesses a "conservative-minded base" that's very loyal and vocal, especially in their opposition to bars.

"We’re talking about evangelical. To the extent that when they door-knocked during my campaign, they said I was going to open a saloon on every corner," said Gondolfi, who runs Fort Gondo and is the chief communications officer for Justine Petersen, a nonprofit to assist people of low and moderate income.

Alderman Ken Ortmann -- a bar owner who said he'd be a "hypocrite" if he had approved a liquor moratorium -- said the drinking establishments that have opened up recently have been on good behavior.

"It’s part of growing. But you work with it," said Ortmann, D-9th Ward. "When somebody gets out of line, then you work with them or you slap their hand to get them back in line. We do have laws that we have to follow. If I have a party at my house or do something right here, you still have to follow the law. ... You’re still responsible for your customers when they’re outside your door."

(Both Schmid and Ortmann have been wary of businesses that sell package liquor.)

Ford was one of the people concerned about the impact of bars on residents. She said some of the businesses "got to remember that residents live here."

"Some of the people who have businesses on Cherokee Street don’t live in Gravois Park or Benton Park West," she added. "We don’t want to be the ones that suffer with the sores after they go home to University City or Lemay or Clayton or wherever they live. And if you want to invest down here, you’ve got to act like you live next door to one of these businesses."

For her part, Potts said problems between the residents and businesses occurred due to a lack of communication. That, she said, is not uncommon in up-and-coming neighborhoods attached to a growing commercial district.

“When they bring the residents in on some of the planning, I think it turns out to be a very good relationship. What’s happened generally is when there’s a disconnect in communication, then you start getting this power play for the situation,” Potts said. “But I think they have really improved on that a great deal. Not just where the business district is concerned as far as the neighborhood, but also where the neighborhood is concerned with the business district. But there were growing pains, I’m not going to lie to you.”

For instance, Potts said that she had to take some business owners to task for playing music too loud on weeknights. She added when “you’ve got a lot of residents that work the next day, they’re not going to be real happy about that.”

“We’ve had to bring a couple of the businesses in and have chats like them. Like ‘hey, come on. Let’s be real about this,’” she said.

Potts said developers Jason Deem and William Lieberman have been very helpful in easing concerns between neighbors and businesses.

"That’s what it takes. They got to keep going. You can’t stop," Potts said. "You have to keep working on both the business district and the neighborhoods at the same time. Will Lieberman and Jason Deem and I, we have an open communication. If they see something in the neighborhood that concerns them, they’re on the phone with me." 

Benton Park Neighborhood Association President Linda Hennigh said one positive step was the business district hiring a part-time liaison -- Anne McCollugh -- between companies and residents. McCollugh told the Beacon she tries to attend as many neighborhood association meetings as possible to discuss upcoming events and new businesses. She also said she contributes to Benton Park West's newsletter.

"All of the new businesses coming into the street, they always go to the neighborhood association that it falls into and asks for support from them," McCollugh said. "So it's actual businessowners going to each of the neighborhoods a lot of the times telling them what they're doing, getting them excited about the businesses and getting their support."

Hennigh also said concerns about bars causing trouble are also beginning to dissipate, as evidenced by the development of several upscale establishments.

“When I moved there, there was a history of bars that had trouble. They caused trouble or were involved in trouble,” Hennigh said. “So it was really difficult for anybody to get a bar open or some place that served alcohol. But that’s totally turned around. We have several liquor licenses that have already been achieved. We had the Fortune Teller bar just open.

“Those people who remember the past are beginning to let loose,” she added “And usually it was the government officials – like the aldermen – who have that long memory. Because they’ve been aldermen for a long time, they’ve seen the bad.”

Vines said, “By and large most of the governmental entities that we’ve had to go to have been helpful.” But he noted that the “fragmentation” of Cherokee Street “is both a hindrance and an opportunity.”

“It does allow for some checks and balances so that no single alderman or business district can exert all the power,” Randy Vines said. “There is some sharing of oversight on the street. And that can be really helpful. It can also be really annoying sometimes, too, because the different organizations don’t necessarily agree on things."

Jeff Vines, Randy's brother, added that the fragmentation “kind of gives Cherokee its character, too.”

“There are so many different entities, it doesn’t just have one brand,” Jeff Vines said. “It’s just a hodgepodge of whatever. I think Anne McCollough – who’s the Cherokee Street liaison – said it best. Cherokee’s brand is that we don’t have a brand.”

Ford, though, said incoming businesses need to be considerate.

"If you’re going to invest in the neighborhood, you’ve got to be part of that neighborhood as well," Ford said. "You’ve got to link to it. And if you’re not linking to it and being part of it, just put yourself in that position. Would you want this next door to you? It’s not all about the money. It’s about quality. Quality of life. And to me, that’s very, very important."

Schmid said sometimes somebody "has to nudge them and say ‘if you want all of your freedom, then maybe you need to know what you’re doing is infringing upon others.’

"Which is why I’m upfront. I’m just an upfront kind of person," Schmid said. "I’d rather say ‘OK, what are some things that we’d do throughout the operation? Have you thought about whether you want to have cameras? Or do you want to have off-duty security? Or you’re not going to have live entertainment, so you’re not going to need it.’ But other people would prefer to be less structured than that. And sometimes it has to be after the fact."

Worrying signs?

The neighborhoods that make up Cherokee Street are low and middle income. U.S. Census figures show that people within the 63118 ZIP code – which encompasses all four neighborhoods – have a median income of $28,797. That’s below the city's overall median income of $34,402.

"What’s left here are the bones of what could be a successful commercial district. But the dynamics have changed so much. The demographics have changed so much," Randy Vines said. "So how do you strike a balance between what the creative folks and creative energy are accomplishing here and the needs of the residents of the community? Which is a largely low-income, distressed surrounding neighborhood. There’s no real easy answer to that question."

All four neighborhoods lost population from 2000 to 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. And while vacant housing units have declined in Benton Park during that time period, they’ve increased in Gravois Park and Benton Park West.

Gondolfi said the national recession hit some neighborhoods around Cherokee Street particularly hard.

"You have investment properties, specifically for families, that for whatever reason went into foreclosure," Gondolfi said. "There are instances, even over here on Michigan, where there are four four-families in a row – which essentially constitutes a block -- vacant. It’s really sad. I will say that wasn’t the case as recently as five or six years ago.

"As we all know, in terms of the housing crisis, low- to moderate-income areas were hit the worst. And we’re living to tell about it around here. As you know, all this stuff – and I’m sure other people have talked about this – it’s systemic," he added. "It links to the idea of our school system infrastructure, things of that nature. And so, there is no quick and easy fix."

Added Schmid: "We started to cook with some of the rehabs occurring and the whole market went south."

"It’s like that game where you have 10 people and only eight chairs," Schmid said. "We ended up with a lot of people not having any place to sit down and they lost their property." 

Michael Allen of the Preservation Research Office talks about Cherokee Street.

The state of neighborhoods around Cherokee Street is worrying for Michael Allen, executive director of the Preservation Research Office. In an interview at his office at Nebula Coworking near Cherokee Street, he said he is especially concerned by a glut of vacant properties in Gravois Park. If “Gravois Park doesn’t stabilize, I don’t think Cherokee Street will feel safe or stay safe or stay viable or stay a place people really want to come spend time in.”

He said he’s concerned there’s a “disconnect between Cherokee Street and the neighborhoods around it.”

“What I’m seeing is this wonderful organic growth in the commercial district, but this increasing disconnect of what’s happening, especially on the south side of that commercial district,” Allen said. “It’s really a situation that is in a long term a major liability for Cherokee Street. You’ve got a very poor African-American community to the south that is not really being served by the new businesses that are coming in – the bake shops, the art galleries. They don’t provide neighborhood goods and services.”

(For his part, Gondolfi noted that a building that used to be occupied by a bank is now an arts space, which, he said, "is very telling of the transition.")

Schmid said some parts of Cherokee Street are "not readily identifiable by neighbors as the place to go for everything you need."

"A street and a neighborhood has to be sustainable over time and has to attract and be attractive to a whole bunch of folks from cradle to grave," said Schmid. "And so, there’s a time in one’s life where you want to go out and just be free spirited and party all night long. And then there’s another time when you want to be able go in and get school clothes for your kids. And then there’s going to be other times when you’re looking for pharmaceuticals and other things as one become more seasoned in life.

"Quite honestly, I don’t necessarily think that an arts and entertainment without more is sustainable," he added. 

Todd Swanstrom, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said what’s happening in Cherokee Street is not unusual. Across the nation, he said, “there’s been a great deal of this revival of pedestrian-friendly retail districts in older urban areas.”

But he added: “It does require you to have some income in the area. If you have very low density of population and a very low-income population, it’s very hard to develop retail.”

“It’s kind of a chicken and egg question. You need residents to have walkable retail. But you need walkable retail to get residents,” Swanstrom said. “One of the major reasons somebody would want to live in the city in older neighborhoods is because they can walk places. Hopefully, they have things like parks and there’s also the important question of schools – a very important question.”

Gondolfi said much has changed since he first arrived 12 years ago. And some of that, he said, is somewhat of a mixed blessing.

"There are a couple things that happened, both good and bad. On one hand, we’ve had significant reinvestment in the thoroughfare," Gondolfi said. "Which is a great thing. Cherokee Street, in my 12 years, has definitely witnessed significant reinvestment, which is an exciting thing. There have been definitely new businesses opening, as well as businesses that have closed. I mean turnover is also quite significant. We went through a recession."

What's been lost, Gondolfi said, are some "some anchors and staples of the community." That includes Globe drug store, the Hat Mart, Proper Shoe Store and Empire Diner.

"So one thing I actually really miss at 12 years removed is the absence of long-established businesses," Gondolfi said. "And I’m not pointing any fingers at why that happened. Businesses have their life cycle. That said, I sometimes think this new interest in Cherokee was also transacting and investing in established businesses to keep them going."

Ford does see some promising signs. She gave the example of a Cherokee Street business owner who decided to rent in Gravois Park -- which, she said, could lead to her buying property.

And she's seen other good signs as well.

"The growth of this neighborhood is going to take a while," Ford said. "But there’s some development going on. Even now, with the economy being what it is, I see development. I drive around and see the rehabbing of homes. And I’m really impressed with that. It gives me a lot of hope to know that.

"Of course, don’t get me wrong. We still do have a lot of empty buildings," she added. "But we have some people coming in, taking over some of these buildings. They’re gutting them out and renting them and getting some good neighbors. To me, that’s important."

The crime question

Crime is one of the factors that prompted Lopez to describe her business as “up and down.”

“I’ve been broken into three times,” Lopez said. “But by the same token, there are certain times of the year that I do really good business. It’s a balancing act. It’s not ever been the same. It’s never been all business or all bad. And in the process of getting a business going and making things happen I established relationships.”

Lopez's tale isn't necessarily unique. 

Crime hasn't gone away in the neighborhoods around Cherokee Street. Gravois Park, for instance, had five murders in 2012, compared to four in 2011.

There were 50 total robberies and 79 aggravated assaults in 2012, as well as 114 burglaries. Benton Park had 19 robberies during that same time period, while Benton Park West had 31.

But there are signs of improvement. According to statistics from the St. Louis Police Department, the total number of crimes in the four neighborhoods encompassing Cherokee Street declined from 2011 to 2012.

Gravois Park had 570 total crimes in 2012, down from 822 in 2011. Last year’s figures are down sharply from the 977 total crimes in the neighborhood in 2005.

Benton Park and Benton Park West experienced declines in total amounts of crimes during the same time period analyzed. Marine Villa’s total crime was down as well – 285 in 2012 compared to 374 in 2011.

Ortmann said government leaders made a conscious effort to snuff out “bad behavior.”

“When I acquired part of Marine Villa, the first thing I did was very aggressively go after any bad behavior. Any behavior – drugs, prostitutes, the total package,” Ortmann said. “I don’t care where they go, as long as they go out of the 9th Ward. I do care because I want them out of the city. But I’m not going to put up with them.”

Schmid was quick to point out "when you’re a crime victim, crime is at 100 percent." The neighborhoods around Cherokee Street, he said for the most part, are doing exactly what they need to do – plus much more.

That's especially the case in Gravois Park, where community leaders like Ford have stepped up efforts to fight crime.

"They have their neighborhood accountability board. They work with youth as soon as they start to stray off the path," Schmid said. "They go to court through their court watch program working with the judges and prosecuting attorneys and the police. They have mobile patrol. All of those kinds of things – including the infusion of investment on Cherokee Street and other places that I’m seeing in the housing markets – impact how much crime there is." 

Ford said many Gravois Park residents attended a class called COPS -- which she said stands for Citizens on Patrol. She said neighborhood residents' assertive attitude to disturbances -- and a "really good" 3rd District police team -- are leading to good results.

"We are on our jobs -- we report, report, report if we find something that has not been done," Ford said. "We will go as far to take a picture, e-mail to them or what have you. We're adept on that. And you have to do that, especially when you've got so much rental property. It lets the landlords and residents and homeowners know that somebody's watching out for this junk out here because somebody reported it.

"If you do nothing, you won't get anything done," she added. "I'm very proud of our COPS program. I'm very proud of that." 

For her part, Jennifer Shriner -- the program coordinator for the Community, Arts and Movement Project and a Cherokee Street resident -- says she feels safe living and working in the district.

“I feel very comfortable personally because I get to know my neighbors,” Shriner said. “And I greet people and say hello. And they know who I am. There is crime, just like any city. You have to have your wits about you and not be foolish. If you leave a bunch of change in your car or a bunch of stuff out, somebody may walk by and decide they want that.

“But that’s anywhere,” she added. “My experience in walking around and talking to people is that they’re very nice. They’re very willing to talk and participate in things.”

Reaching out

Some organizations and businesses interviewed by the Beacon say they’ve made concerted effort to reach out to residents.

Lopez’s WasabiNet, for instance, provides low-cost or free internet access along Cherokee Street. That, she said, helps low-income residents in the neighborhoods look for work, educate their children and stay connected.

“Back in the day, or four or five years ago when we established this, basic internet service was $30 a month,” Lopez said. “And you’re talking about an up-and-coming neighborhood where the average resident makes minimum wage – if not a little bit more. But then on that minimum wage, they have to support a household of children and what have you. We’re able to bring in a service that bridges a digital divide for many, gives them internet access 24/7.”

Shriner said her organization provides “free workshops for people in the neighborhood and people in the surrounding areas to come and create something.” That, she said, can be empowering – especially for neighborhood children.

“Whether it’s decorating their bike or making a costume or a mask. It just depends on what people want to do,” Shriner said. “Then everybody feels empowered that way. You don’t have to pay a certain amount to participate. You can bring your creativity and whatever’s special to you. Whether it’s singing and dancing or musical instruments or art-making, you can bring all those things and participate.”

CAMP organizes the People's Joy Parade, a fixture of Cherokee Street's Cinco De Mayo celebration

Shriner’s work at CAMP, she said, helps “encourage that openness and dialogue and try to move past some of those very real disconnects that exists.”

Jeff Vines mentioned that numerous business -- including his own -- are in constant contact with residents.

"While outward appearances might suggest that we’re one of those hipster businesses that cater to white hipsters, we do a lot of business with people who live in the neighborhood," Jeff Vines said. "Everybody needs t-shirts printed, we do that. The neighborhood kids love to get shirts here. The same goes for a lot of businesses on the street."

To the future

So where does Cherokee Street go next?

Randy Vines said he would like to see a pharmacy and a bank  set up shop. That sentiment was echoed by several people interviewed by the Beacon.

And both he and Deem also would like to see ordinances against street performers and mobile vendors relaxed.

"Cherokee will continue to grow quickly, organically and unpredictably for the foreseeable future," Deem said. "I hope that in 10 years Cherokee is still experimenting. That's what keeps things interesting.  I hope that as the street continues to grow that it can remain a strong forward-thinking independent community that pushes the envelope in St. Louis in terms of progressive thinking and creativity."

Allen said, “My most optimistic sort of vision is the success of the business district will lead to enough activity on Cherokee Street where people would actually feel safe walking to those places from a house or an apartment.”

But he added it might be wise to start a community development corporation to empower the Gravois Park and Benton Park West neighborhoods.

“I really see the solution coming from starting a community development corporation that is really focused on those two sides – Benton Park West and Gravois Park,” Allen said. “And Cherokee Street boosters … will be the first to say they don’t have the resources to go in and tackle Gravois Park’s problems when their hands are full trying to get these storefronts occupied and trying to get these buildings on Cherokee rehabbed, which is more than a full-time job.”

(Schmid noted that Gravois Park is already part of Dutchtown's community housing development corporation. "We elected a long time ago not to have a whole bunch of smaller groups," he added.)

Gondolfi said that Cherokee Street's future will be tied to the rest of the local economy.

"Cherokee doesn’t exist within an economic vacuum. It’s still related to larger systems, if you will," he said. "And my understanding for the forecast for the St. Louis economy is it’s steady, but not growing. I think those who have lower expectations of a profit margin, if you will, will always find comfort in Cherokee. And those people are already here. I think we have people reinvesting in the community who are comfortable with their 'rate of return.' So I do think that’s fairly optimistic."

He said though that Cherokee could remain viable even through an economic downturn, mainly due to the kinds of people attracted to the area.

"We all know that 'bohemian' types or young types may have different expectations than those who are essentially making upper-middle class dollars," he said.

Whatever the future brings, Randy Vines said Cherokee Street will always maintain a “different” feel than other commercial districts.

And that, he said, is fine with him.

“We could set all kind of Pollyannaish goals for Cherokee Street. And the truth is, I don’t think it’s ever going to be arrived in the same way that the Loop is,” he said. “It’s going to appeal to a slightly different, more off-beat audience than more well-known neighborhoods in the city that are closer to highways and give suburbanites easier access.

“Cherokee is kind of its own thing,” he added. "And I think everybody wants it to be like that.”

See Part 1: Cherokee Street dares to be a different type of commercial hub

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