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Government, Politics & Issues

Cherokee Street dares to be different kind of commercial hub

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2013 - Nicole Cortes felt the "pull" of Cherokee Street when she was looking for a home.

Cortes, an immigration attorney with the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project said she was attracted to "the diversity and the eclectic mix of small businesses" in the south St. Louis commercial hub. She was also heartened by the area's affordable property — and demographic diversity.

"I would describe it as a very interesting and stimulating, eclectic, diverse neighborhood," Cortes said. "It’s a very urban neighborhood with families that have been around for generations, mixed together with a wonderful, vibrant Latino community both in the residences and also very much in the businesses. And then what I see on at least our end of Cherokee is a third piece of a sort of hipster, artsy community as well."

Cortes eventually purchased a home on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009. She isn't the only person who took notice of Cherokee Street's appeal.

The last decade brought about a burst of development along Cherokee Street, beyond its antiques row, primarily because of the development on the west side of Jefferson Avenue. That stretch of Cherokee has earned a reputation as a creative hotspot for youthful entrepreneurs, artists and Hispanic businesspeople.

The street’s boosters believe that the district could become the city's most diverse shopping district. But they also realize that Cherokee Street faces several challenges, ranging from filling storefronts and bringing in new businessess as well as improving relationships with the surrounding neighborhoods — Benton Park, Benton Park West, Gravois Park and Marine Villa, which have also faced crime, economic downturn and growing pains for years.

Businesses and neighborhoods must work together for them both to succeed, says Cherokee's biggest fans.

"That unique flavor that Cherokee Street offers that you really don’t find in other city neighborhoods is a very organic kind of revitalization, starting from the grassroots level on up," said Randy Vines, who runs STL Style House.

"It’s a fascinating case. Everybody I think is kind of intrigued by it. It’s like, what happened here? I go down there; I think it is fun. You get some good food, go to a coffee shop, take in the art scene,” said Todd Swanstrom, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Swanstrom, who researches community development, said that those interested in how up-and-coming communities develop should pay close attention to Cherokee Street's future.

"It’s complicated and fragile," he said. "Frankly, I wish there were more comprehensive city and foundation and other support for these kinds of areas. Sometimes we pay a lot of attention to downtown and the Cardinals stadium and not as much to these things."

But, he added, "these things are very important."

Diversity exemplified

For those invested in the success of Cherokee Street, the area’s diversity is its calling card.

After all, few parts of the city can boast authentic Mexican eateries, delectable bakeries, avant garde record stores, vegan ice cream shops, upscale bars and trendy coffee shops all within walking distance.

By the time this article is published, a new restaurant specializing in creative waffle dishes — Melt — is expected to be open for business on Cherokee Street.

Cherokee Street is also an artistic haven, offering up art galleries, dancing establishments and contemporary music venues. Eye-catching sculptures and quizzical murals dot the mile-and-a-half long street.

Unlike the city's other commercial districts, Cherokee Street has few franchises. Businessowners on the street say no major foundation or city initiative has spurred its progress. In part, that may be because the district is divided among four neighborhoods and between two aldermen – Ken Ortmann, D-9th Ward, and Craig Schmid, D-20th Ward. 

Vines, who owns the St. Louis-centric clothing depot with his brother Jeff, said the fact that no single civic or government body exclusively controls Cherokee Street's destiny is a plus.

"There’s not one single vision or master plan that’s driving the rejuvenation," said Vines in an interview at his 3159 Cherokee St. business. "It’s really the individual business owners, residents and just the multitude of different types of amenities that are here that just kind of works. It’s a rare combination."

Cherokee Street’s diversity isn’t limited to its shops.

The 20th Ward, which includes Gravois Park and parts of Marine Villa, is primarily African American. The 9th Ward, including Benton Park, Benton Park West and parts of Marine Villa, is split almost evenly between blacks and whites.

The wards are also home to many of the city's Latinos. About 1,657 Hispanic residents live in either the 9th or the 20th wards. The neighboring 25th Ward is home to the most Latino residents in the entire city, at 1,114.

That concentration of Latino residents may be why Cherokee Street became the de facto home for the city’s Hispanic business community. 

Minerva Lopez, a native of San Diego, opened her soccer apparel store — affectionately named Gooolll — in the mid-2000s after moving to St. Louis from San Diego.

In an interview with the Beacon at Don Carlos restaurant near California Street, Lopez described Cherokee Street as "ethnically diverse, but amicably." She said the residents are "not divisive," adding that everybody gets along well.

(Lopez estimates that the St. Louis metro area has at least 80,000 Latino residents, maybe more. "The census numbers are never accurate because for the most part it’s undocumented people," she said. "And they’re not reported.")

When she first visited the area in the 2000s, Lopez said she "couldn't believe" Cherokee "was in such detrimental state and there were so many empty storefronts." Since she started her business, she says the Latino-owned businesses have flourished.

"We’re very secure about the fact that we’re already established," Lopez said. "This entire intersection — which is the busiest commercial intersection in the district — is owned and run by Latinos. We’re here to stay."

Since her shop is seasonal, Lopez is involved in other projects throughout the year. That includes organizing the Mexican Independence Day Festival, participating in the Cherokee Street Latino Business Owners Association and assisting in running a low-cost internet service called WasabiNet. Cortes noted that people from around the region flood Cherokee Street for festivals — and to have Sunday lunches at the district's Mexican restaurants.

Like Vines, Lopez said, Cherokee Street’s "super eclectic" nature is part of its appeal. It’s a place where a person "can find anything and everything."

“We really support and welcome the fact that we — pardon the redundancy —  support unique businesses," Lopez said. "I think we would be very disenchanted if a franchise came to the street and took over something. They’re all individually owned businesses."Galen Gondolfi, the founder of the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts, has been a resident of Cherokee Street for 12 years. He's chief communications officer for the nonprofit Justine Petersen, which aims to provide low and moderate income individuals with access to credit. 

Gondolfi observed that Cherokee Street's current composition of businesses is something of a reversal from past decades.

"The really interesting thing is that Cherokee had a Walgreen’s at one point as well," said Gondolfi, noting that the old Walgreen's will be the new Luminary Center for the Performing Arts. "Cherokee once even had a Subway, which is a really curious thing. One thing that I think is really exciting is that there seems to be complete consensus on independent small businesses, which is really exciting.

"That said, we actually come from a history on Cherokee where as recent as 20 years ago or 15 years ago, there was a Subway. And then before that, there were many chains," he added. "There was J.C. Penney. There were dime stores and such that were national chains."

'Cherokee’s bad'

It wasn't too long ago that Cherokee Street had a reputation for gloom and despair, rather than vegan ice cream and tacos.

In fact, Jason Deem — a developer in the Cherokee Street business community — said that the atmosphere was much different when he arrived 10 years ago.

"Ten years ago, there were a lot more vacant buildings and a general sense of despair and skepticism that Cherokee west of Jefferson would make a comeback," Deem said in an e-mail to the Beacon. "Galen Gondofi's Fort Gondo was a bright spot on a dark street.  Prostitutes prostituted and the sound of gunshots was frequent."

Gondolfi said within the first 48 hours of moving into Cherokee, he was broken into twice. He witnessed people selling heroin on the corner of his street. He also recounted when he was held up at gunpoint while moving a refrigerator.

Cherokee Street’s reputation as "unsafe" is still remembered by longtime city residents, such as Ortmann.

"Before I was elected, there was an incident — I think it was at Illinois and Cherokee — where a lady came in and got robbed. And the idiot shot her and killed her," said Ortmann. "Something like that just sticks onto a street: 'Cherokee’s bad, Cherokee’s bad, Cherokee’s bad.’ I still hear that some people who haven’t been there for a long time have a negative impression — when actually, it’s not like that anymore at all."

Over the years, Cherokee Street’s fortunes have waxed and waned. Back in the late 1890s, two branch lines of electric street cars crossed at California Avenue and Cherokee Street. And it wasn't long before that junction spurred on a bustling and prosperous commercial district.

When the 20th century arrived, according to the Cherokee Street Business Association, the thoroughfare was packed with saloons, groceries, barber shops, shoe stores, cleaners, tailors, druggists, and dentists. The street also had many entertainment venues, including one of Fred Wehrenberg’s first theaters.

"Historically, Cherokee Street was the downtown of the south side," STL Style co-owner Randy Vines said. "It was a thriving streetcar shopping district, a destination for people all over the city who wanted to avoid the crowds of downtown St. Louis. Back in the heyday, they could come to Cherokee Street and get all the department stores and dime stores and a real shopping experience."But the district's fortunes declined in the later parts of the 20th century. For the longest time, Ortmann said, many properties on Cherokee Street were owned by people who were either inattentive or uncreative.

While he said “antiques row” — the part of Cherokee Street east of Jefferson Avenue — always had a following, the same couldn’t be said of the eastern part of the commercial district.

"Part of that was the people that owned [property] back in the day … acquired a lot of the buildings cheap and held onto them or whiteboxed them, but didn’t really do what I would call a gut rehab or a solid rehab,” Ortmann said. "They just fixed it up enough to pass an occupancy test. A lot of people don’t really understand, but a lot of times it’s bare minimum code. You know the code isn’t a Cadillac. It’s a bare minimum of what is basically safe.”

Some of the owners, he added, pushed to get various social services to set up shop in their buildings.

“They wanted to get the government check, the five-year contract and they didn’t have to do anything,” he said. “Because the way they did the lease was the tenant is responsible for anything.”

Showcasing promise

But even 10 years ago, Cherokee Street had promise, Deem said.

"The street had appeal and a genuine sense of community. Neighbors looked out for each other.  The beautiful historic building stock was better preserved than in most St. Louis business districts that had experienced a similar decline," Deem said. "The growing concentration of Mexican restaurants and grocery stores at California and Cherokee were an anchor for the street and a destination for downtowners looking for a lunch escape from the office. At the same time a small but growing underground arts and music scene was starting to take shape."

For Benton Park West Neighborhood Association President Linda Hennigh, Deem is "largely responsible" for the neighborhood's turnaround. Others interviewed by the Beacon also credit developer Will Liebermann for how the district took shape.

"As a historic developer, he has been working on Cherokee for nine to 10 years and brings in businesses that promote the street and neighborhood," Hennigh said.

Added Schmid: ;"There are some people — Jason and Will Liebermann and others — who are making major investments in the street. And that’s always helpful obviously." 

Deem said there were other structural and cultural factors at play in the district's resurgence.

"Embracing diversity, creativity, arts and culture has helped attract a unique and diverse mix of independently owned businesses to Cherokee," Deem said. "The low cost to rent a storefront and start a business has also contributed to the growth of unique businesses.  Space is affordable so people are less afraid to experiment with a business model that would be too much of a risk to try elsewhere."

Gondolfi said that property in and around Cherokee Street is inexpensive and the rents are competitive. He also said some businessowners come in with a somewhat different mindset than in other commercial districts.

"Growth looks pretty static for the near future. How does that translate to the Cherokee area? I will say this much. We are possibly in an alternative economy down here for a couple of reasons," Gondolfi said. "Expectations are different, which is a great thing. I do think some people are interested in taking risks and aren’t looking at a large profit margin or looking at a profit margin comparable to elsewhere."

Both Ortmann and Schmid say that clamping down on crime is one reason the district became more attractive, although crime is still a concern in the four neighborhoods that make up Cherokee Street.

Both Ortmann and Hennigh also pointed to the removal of Bradford pear trees as another reason for Cherokee Street’s turnaround.

While the trees were aesthetically pleasing, Ortmann said they also produced unintended consequences.

Bradford Pears are very leafy. They don’t grow high enough, so they block the light. So at night time, it’s very dark and it appears to be unsafe,” Ortmann said. “I mean, it’s more than just beautification. Bradford pears are beautiful trees. But when you’ve got commercial or stores, you want customers, They have to feel safe.”

When the trees were removed, Ortmann said people that owned property “were looking at their buildings and saying ‘oh my gosh, I’ve got a lot of work to do.’”

“We have beautiful architecture. So that plan helped out in a lot of ways,” Ortmann said. “For one thing, the safety factor is why the trees went. With the lighting, you can see. It’s much safer than what it was.”  

Kids on the street

Ortmann said that the eclectic offerings of Cherokee Street are about more than just revenue for businesses -- they're about building population.

"The game plan I had in the back of my mind is getting the younger kids there on Cherokee Street," Ortmann said. "Once they get there and the business survives and they survive in what they’re doing, then the next thing is they’re going to start looking at buildings. Some are going to have money, some of them aren’t. Some of them are going to have, how do you say it, parents’ money to help the investment. But they may get that four-family or that two-family with the intent of converting the two-family into one." 

"But getting the kids on the street and getting the interest, you have to have something, that attraction to keep them going," he added.

Gondolfi said that the question of "does housing follow business" is one of the great questions of urban planning circles.

"I will say as recent as this afternoon, I had somebody tell me that their friend is looking for a house near Cherokee because they like the offerings on Cherokee Street," Gondolfi said. "So that’s an indication — at least in that limited example — of Cherokee attracting homeowners. Of course, the reverse is true. If there were people living here, they could actually provide a customer base for businesses on Cherokee and then more could obviously be viable."

Swanstrom said the emergence of a strong commercial district could end up being mutually beneficial for the nearby neighborhoods.

“If you can get outsiders to come in, that’s pumping money into the area. And that’s kind of an export economy where you are literally paying for local jobs and local real estate from external funding. So that’s very beneficial to the neighborhood,” Swanstrom said. “What you get, if you get local people using it, is import substitution. In other words, people are not going to somewhere else to buy things. You’re not importing goods into the neighborhood — you’re actually selling them or producing them there.”

Schmid, however, has a bit of a different view than Ortmann.

"If you’re a young person who wants to be a free spirit, you’re looking at what’s trending. You’re going to go someplace where it’s happening. And that’s generally not going to be happening after a few years, because it’s not the newest, greatest, awesomest thing," Schmid said. "I think it expresses where it goes from here, which is trying to look at those areas like kids clothing, women’s clothing, daily needs. That’s stuff that they’re going to be excited about during the day and still let their hair down at night and have a good time. But just doing the one thing is not necessarily sustainable." 

Hennigh — who works for an insurance company and is a developer of several buildings in Benton Park West — said she sees signs things are changing.

"We’re starting to get a little bit more of a white population because of Cherokee Street and the surrounding neighborhoods. When I first moved here … it was the first time I heard the word ‘gentrification.’ I had to look it up in a dictionary,” Hennigh said. "Now I can see that is probably happening a little bit in Benton Park and some of the surrounding neighborhoods.

"I’m hoping that we can maintain a pretty good balance without chasing people out of their homes," she added.

Lopez, though, said some gentrification may be helpful.

"Some smaller-owned shops and people who do not own property may not see gentrification as benevolently as others do," Lopez said. "But what I can tell you is that with the gentrification has come a nicer, kinder, more affluent population to the street. And that supports the business."

And Jeff Vines — Randy Vines' brother -— doesn't see the potential growth of Cherokee Street pushing out lower-income residents.

"If you look in Cherokee Street, for every occupied storefront, there’s a vacant one. There’s plenty of room for growth without displacing anyone," Jeff Vines said. "No one’s been priced out. If there’s a need for something and a certain type of business, I think the door is wide open."

For her part, Cortes said Cherokee Street and the surrounding neighborhoods provide her with everything she wanted.

"I’m not saying that I’m above wanting something that’s nice. But I also wanted to live in a nice home that was affordable to me and that was surrounding by things I want to be surrounded by," Cortes said. "Which is not other people in nice homes. And not necessarily people that look like me or act like me or do the same things that I do."

"I think it’s the kind of place where someone like myself and my husband can kind of access all of those things that we’re looking for," she added. "Whereas some of those neighborhoods you get some of those things and not the other." 

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