Cherokee Street's personality splits at Jefferson Avenue.
To the east, the street is shabby genteel: a slightly batty old lady who's lost her inheritance but still manages to adhere to the proprieties, secure her hatpins, powder her nose.
To the west, Cherokee's a ghetto-fabulous teenager pulled in 100 directions, stuffing his face with warm tortillas, vibrating to hip-hop, hatching a business plan, checking out the latest Vietnamese porn, chillin'.
At the Jefferson intersection, a wooden Indian stands guard. Splinters poke through the fading paint on his face, but the lines around his eyes and nose are carved deep, his expression noble. His right hand is up, palm out, as if to say, How.
How has this crazy street survived?
How is it ever going to heal?
The Indian stands on Jefferson's noisy west side, 5 feet above eye level on a pedestal, in air throbbing with incense and cilantro and sweaty hope. He stands on the west side, but he gazes east, toward the shady peace of Lower Cherokee's Antique Row. There, the atmosphere is old Boston, the eccentricities tame, the sidewalks ghostly quiet. A car slides up to the welcoming, unmetered curb across the street from Fellenz Antiques. A woman in white linen emerges, hunting vintage hardware for her Chesterfield manse. She found the place on eBay.
Three blocks east, the sun shoots rainbows into the beveled teardrop Billy Joe Faulkenberry is wiring to a three-tiered chandelier. Not only does Billy Joe own a business and several buildings on Cherokee, he lives here, ensconced amid the Virgin Marys, beer steins, veiled hats and rose Depression glass of St. Louis' past. More than half a dozen Antique Row shop owners live above or beside their businesses. They know everybody on the street -- love lives, niche markets, peccadilloes -- and if glass breaks or a drunk yells, they're out on the sidewalk in a flash.
In the whirlwind across Jefferson, glass breaks too often to be noticed. Rance Miner saved up to buy his SuperNatural Styles beauty salon, and he, too, lives above -- surrounded by vacancies, chain stores and rentals. By 9 a.m., people are milling about out front, waiting for a bus, or a friend, or a chance. A guy sits on Miner's stoop, eyes at half mast, waiting for the Jefferson Currency Exchange next door to open. "It's not too bad, just $13 extra for a payday loan," he tells a passerby. "Sometimes you need that $50 fast." The door clicks open, and he lopes through an empty room to the teller's window on the back wall.
His friend's across the street at the Rent-A-Center, wandering through a sea of overstuffed sofas. Here, a man with dreams instead of credit can buy an old-model, used Dell computer for 21 monthly payments of $100 or a scratched, used minidryer for 91 payments of $9.99 a week.
Next to the Rent-A-Center is a Family Dollar, with a probation-and-parole office upstairs. Across Jefferson, the old Sarko Building is rented by a low-income health clinic. Upper Cherokee's old anchors -- J.C. Penney, Walgreens, Payless Shoe Source, Western Auto -- have all left. The old Jammie's Nail Salon is vacant, its plywood armor pried away from the brick, absentee landlord Billy Yee nowhere in sight. Down the street, a city health officer stands in front of another Yee property, its windows wide open to the rats and pigeons. "My goal is to have it condemned," he mutters.
This is Upper Cherokee, whose glory years ended just two decades ago.
Maudlin after beers at Little Gam's Tavern, grizzled South Siders reminisce about the days when Upper Cherokee was "the Galleria of the city." Trolley cars glided alongside flagship clothing stores; parents brought duck-footed kids to the Proper Shoe Store and consoled them with chocolate malts at Woolworth's. Wehrenberg built its first movie palace here, the Cinderella, creamy yellowed stone topped with a frieze of Corinthian columns, arches and medallions.
To this day, the Cinderella's roofline looks like Paris. But at street level, the new owners -- Lloyd and Ramona Jones, with their buddy Pat Brannon -- have painted the facade the too-bright white of a plastic picket fence. Next they hung molded navy awnings over the new tenants, among them a day-labor agency and a loanmaker. The next block west is filled by the old Woolworth's, dark and empty, a handwritten "Available" sign taped to its huge, smeary display window.
Attorney Dan Friedson, whose passion is community economic development on Upper Cherokee, jotted possibilities for the old Woolworth's building in his journal: "law offices, doctors' offices, food court, boutiques, sports-themed restaurant, bank, computer store, Foot Locker or Payless, homework-help center, art-supply store, literacy center, baby-clothes store, GED school, gym with exercise machines, Zany Brainy." Exhausted, he scrawled a final entry: "Wishing well." Friedson sees this building as the key to Cherokee's future because it's such a strong reminder of Cherokee's past. Neighbor kids drank cherry Slurpees there, old ladies bought plastic rain bonnets, friends met to shop. "People miss it," he says, "and they want it back."
Instead, their street's new "anchors" are three huge rental centers, an array of social-service agencies and a handful of wireless stores and head shops.
And Lower Cherokee is selling antiques to Mary Engelbreit.
Twenty years ago, Lower Cherokee was the embarrassment, a low-rent corridor where people stored and sometimes sold junk furniture. Then rents skidded so far down that people started buying their buildings and rehabbing them. "We wanted to join [Upper Cherokee], and they didn't want anything to do with us," recalls Jovanka Hammond, proprietress of the hunter-green Hammond's Antiques & Books. Her boxer, Maxine, snuffles at her knee, and Hammond reaches absently into a glass jar and pulls out a Milk-Bone. "I was the first one to renovate a building," she continues, "and people resented it. They said we were gentrifying. But the street got steadily better."
One spin of perception's mirror, and the "junk shops" were antique shops. Freshly tuckpointed brick houses separated the storefronts, softening the streetscape. The city threw in money for neat brass doorplates, wrought-iron fences and historical plaques, dignifying the old taverns and rowhouses. Business owners collaborated on a brochure, bragging that this wasn't some Disneyland restoration. Cherokee's Antique Row was the real thing.
As Lower Cherokee morphed into Antique Row, the buildings to the west of Jefferson started to empty. But these were larger commercial buildings, and they were bought up by absentee landlords and developers such as R.L. Jones Properties.
R.L. Jones. In other words, Lloyd and Ramona Jones. The couple who either saved Upper Cherokee or destroyed it.
The Joneses bought up as many buildings as they could, paying as little as $5,000 for some and investing maybe another $1,000 in improvements. Then they put "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs in the windows and waited.
Sometimes they made a killing. Sometimes they got burned.
Along the way, they perfected their pragmatism: Cherokee Street was never going to be West County, was never going to be South Grand. Fill the buildings with tenants who will pay the rent on time. Let the tenants share the burden of capital improvement. Keep your shirt.
Cherokee Street watched the Joneses' signs go up; watched their RLJ Construction trucks trundle down the street, doing maintenance and repair jobs; watched Lloyd and Ramona's interests grow and dominate. Two years ago, the couple still owned 19 storefronts in a three-block stretch. People couldn't criticize -- this was capitalist America, and the Joneses were shrewd commercial developers, trying to shore up the street and pull some profit from the chaos of poverty. They were risking their own money at a time when the city's old commercial districts were losing to suburban malls. And it wasn't easy to find independent business owners willing to run the gantlet of city restrictions, lead paint, higher crime and insufficient parking.
The Joneses dealt fairly with tenants who knew the game and paid the rent. In return, they expected loyalty. They blustered their agenda at the Cherokee Business Association meetings -- green-eyed Lloyd venting his hot temper and Ramona, 10 years younger and charming, nudging him to calm down. Maybe she thought no one would realize what everybody on the street already whispered, that she was the real force to reckon with. In any event, they steered all the important committees, and when the other members resisted their plans, they hired Gary Feder, the lawyer who'd been working for the Cherokee Business Association, to represent their own interests at City Hall.
Then they went home to their South County ranch house -- their pool and two fireplaces, their sailboats, their time-share condo in Colorado.
For Cherokee's immigrants and fledgling entrepreneurs, such disinterested property management was disheartening. But for Lloyd and Ramona, it was business as usual. They've bought properties in Pine Lawn, on North Broadway and West Florissant, in Crystal City and in East St. Louis and Godfrey, Ill. They know how to let a desperate city court their investments, offering them dowries of façade-improvement money and tax abatement.
What they don't know how to do is convince the people on Cherokee to stop dreaming, that this is the best it's gonna get.
Cherokee's entrepreneurs are struggling with a business plan for the district that hasn't been revised since 1980. In today's urban landscape, drained dry by suburban malls, the plan's retail-only restrictions are ludicrous, and so is the ban on liquor. The only places allowed to sell alcohol are the grandfathered Globe Drug and the St. Louis Casa Loma Ballroom; smaller business owners' proposals for dinner restaurants and nightclubs continue to bounce off brick walls. Yet when the Joneses tried to rewrite that 1980 plan, their immediate goal was to push the Human Development Corp. -- a social-service agency that, by plan, should have been restricted to a second floor -- into a first-floor storefront. Countering the Joneses' self-interest with their own, shop owners dug in their heels: Poor people looking for help just wasn't the kind of pedestrian traffic their businesses needed.
After the HDC effort failed, the Joneses filed suit against the city of St. Louis for a similar rule change: They wanted one of their tenants, Grace Hill Neighborhood Services, to be able to expand their clinic (which had already sneaked into a first-floor space) by wrapping around the corner at the entrance to Antique Row. The antique sellers rose up in arms: They'd fought too hard to stabilize their half of Cherokee to let one landlord's business interests destroy it.
The suit's still pending, but Antique Row stands united -- and the Upper Cherokee business district stands in shreds. There's one alderman for the north side of the street and another for the south side, both about to change with redistricting; there's a district manager at the St. Louis Development Corp. who used to focus only on Cherokee Street but whose responsibilities elsewhere have quadrupled; there's a quagmire of regulations. Only metered street parking is available, so a potential investor can't tour the street without returning to find a ticket under his wiper blade. Real power rests with the two lord-of-the-manor families, the Joneses and the Cohens, and though neither will comment about their plans, they feud like the Hatfields and McCoys.
The Joneses control the Cherokee Business Association. Sandy Cohen, owner of the two Globe Drug stores, sends one of his managers to the meetings but removes himself from all public debate. It's the Cohen family that owns the street's prize white elephant, the old Woolworth's building, and they've run through at least four real-estate agents trying to sell it. Pat Brannon, president of the Cherokee Business Association, says the Joneses wanted to buy it but that the feud held strong.
With his curly blond hair and thin, mobile features, Brannon looks like a freshly showered Gene Wilder. There's a funny, sensitive niceness about him; he really seems to care about three generations' dancing together at the Casa Loma, the new African-American businesses, the Hispanic festival. He dreams of a shuttle that would run all the way up Cherokee to Grand, an international bazaar that would bring the old Woolworth's back to life. People like Pat Brannon when he's not with the Joneses.
But he's always with the Joneses.
He grew up with Lloyd; they went to grade school and Central High together on the North Side. When Lloyd started wheeling and dealing, he bought Cherokee's pride, the famous Casa Loma Ballroom -- biggest dance floor in the city, scuffed with good times since 1927 -- and when the current tenants left, he sold it to his old friend Pat Brannon. For the past nine years, term limits notwithstanding, Brannon's been president of the Cherokee Business Association, and the Joneses have been its officers.
Brannon also sells real estate through Ramona, who acts as his broker, and he's bought several Cherokee properties with the couple. He knows the other storeowners resent their ways, but he simplifies the clash as "the haves versus the have-nots." And he defends R.L. Jones at every opportunity: "They've dumped a ton of money into this street, and they're pretty discouraged now. We're fighting antiquated thinking." And "Three rental centers? Well, it brings street traffic -- and a lot of businesses do car studies." And "Social services? If there's a need for it in the area, give 'em a chance. It's kind of like the rental stores: If they want to come in, fix a building up, pay taxes -- if they make it, fine; if not, what have we lost? The building's fixed up. It's better than going vacant."
Locals aren't convinced -- especially when they see "For Rent" signs that suggest ideal tenants and end the list with "pawnbroker." "There are worse things than empty storefronts," a neighbor snaps. "I'd rather live next to a vacant commercial strip than one stuffed with sleazy businesses pushed by speculators. How are you going to get a nice little restaurant or bookstore to go in next to E-Z Kash Today Check Cashing and Get It Now You Dumb Sucker?"
Sweating on the airless second floor of one of Lloyd Jones's biggest buildings, 2720 Cherokee St., shop owner Maria Thomas shoves a caved-in gray-floral sofa into a nubby blue-plaid one with wood sticking out the back. "This is all his furniture," she says. "Mine's '50s and antiques, real wood -- ain't no pressed wood." Pressing every curve flat to squeeze through the aisle of furniture, she walks over to a harvest-gold stove. "His, too," she says. "He filled three of eight booth areas with Hide-A-Beds and bedroom sets and a couch and a recliner and tables, and he brought in stoves and refrigerators and dishwashers -- repossessed, like. He wanted me to sell it for him." One hand goes on her hip. "I said, 'Lloyd, I already have furniture. Furniture is not a problem.'"
Thomas fell in love with pretty furniture as a child. She apprenticed with an upholsterer and went into business for herself, poured everything she had into it and soon outgrew her Washington Avenue workspace. When she found the cavernous space on Cherokee this spring, she couldn't believe her luck. "I was so excited to finally have room to display my furniture," she says, trailing her fingers along the corrugated edge of a packing box. She's supposed to be orchestrating the removal of the four tractor-trailer loads of furniture she brought here two months ago. But her heart's not in it.
She stacks a few lampshades, then jumps up again, goes in search of the first lease Lloyd Jones offered her. By its terms, she was to erect a fire escape, at her own cost, should the authorities require it; she was to buy $1 million worth of insurance and list Lloyd and Ramona as an additional insured party; she was to maintain and repair the old freight elevator (RLJ Construction would do it and send her the bill), as well as the water pipes, sewers, drains, furnace and sprinkler system. "I said, 'Why would I be responsible for the sprinkler system? I don't know if it works now!'" she exclaims. "He said, 'Well, you might hang things on it.'"
She swings the door of the elevator shut and sends it plummeting to the basement. Glares into the room that was pitch-black on her first tour of the place. Swipes in the air at stalactites of water-rotted ceiling tile. "I wrote a list of about six things that were obvious, like the sink that pulled away from the wall so the water just dripped down, and I said I was willing to help so the building could pass inspection," she says. "He said, 'You can do this, this and this,' and put checkmarks next to every item."
She signed a slightly revised lease on April 23 and spent the next two months arguing for the rent-to-own arrangement she'd expected, worrying about repairs, moving her stuff in and trying to get Jones to move his furniture back out. She had no time to do any upholstery, and she hadn't set aside enough money. So when she met with Jones in May, she didn't bring her rent check.
On June 1, the Joneses' lawyer drafted a letter threatening eviction and mandatory damages of double the rent. In July, they took Thomas to court. "The judge said if I'd put the money in escrow and given them a letter saying they had 30 days to get the furniture out, I'd have been within the law," she sighs. "But, hell."
Dan Friedson shrugs off his lawyer suitcoat, runs a finger through his short curly black hair and starts walking the street. He begins near Jefferson and heads west, passes the leopardskin and neon-green thigh-highs in the window of the T-Shirt Headquarters Boutique without a glance. Calls a broken-Spanish greeting to Oscar, the soccer-mad busboy at Taqueria Azteca. Notes the jagged hole in one of Piano World's full-length windows, the "Why?" somebody scrawled on the plywood.
Inside, past the new shrill police-whistle motion detector, locked doors and siren doorbell, owner Lynn Bullock rolls the "Beer Barrel Polka" into a player piano he's just restored. "Oh there's music and there's dancing, and lots of sweet romancing," he sings, a sweet past flooding the room. As soon as his landlord, Lloyd Jones, gets the leaky ceiling fixed, Bullock can polish his masterpieces for display.
A few doors down, the old Brick Oven's closed for renovation. Friedson walks in anyway. He shakes hands with owner Hassan Rahaman, and the two men pull each other into a hug. Originally from Trinidad, Rahaman grew up in St. Louis and remembers coming to Cherokee as a kid. "This is back when the city was still split racially," he tells Friedson, "but during the daytime everybody would be down here shopping. Come nighttime, everybody of color split."
After years of renting, Rahaman has just closed on his building. Now he's hoping to take the Brick Oven upscale, create a Caribbean "Calypso Café." He'll keep his signs, though -- "No hating," "No begging," "No violence" -- and he'll still give the neighbor kids cheese fries when they do their homework. Friedson's glad to hear it. "The great oppressor of the neighborhood is a 14-year-old kid who smokes pot and doesn't have anything to do," he remarks, and they segue from the community's social needs to its financial ones. "When you have chain businesses, that money goes whoosh through a black hole to Delaware," says Friedson, waving his arm wide. "The only thing the community gets out of it is a minimum-wage job that's not paying the rent."
He takes a copy of Rahaman's new menu and walks on. Passes Ngamsom's, which sells studded-leather lingerie, bongs, South Park one-hitters, knives, viciously pointed metal stars and penny candy for the kids. Passes saffron-robed monks sweeping their sidewalk. Turns in at Larry and Brenda Madsen's daycare center, where a small boy opens the door with grave formality. Brenda emerges from the next room, the rainbow she painted on the windows streaming color over her brown skin. "Larry's upstairs cooking hotdogs," she grins, jouncing a toddler to the other arm. "Come into the office, will you? We've got one more question about those forms." Friedson gives the Madsens free and patient legal advice and promises to return soon for hotdogs. He needs to reach his destination.
At 2851 Cherokee, he pulls out a key, takes one look at the battered door and walks around back instead, crunching glass under his leather shoes without breaking stride. He pries away the plywood that masquerades as a back door and steps into an empty room. Immediately he ducks: The light fixtures' long metal bars, half unscrewed, dangle toward the floor at a 45-degree angle. Two porcelain commodes sit demurely in the corner. Clean squares of paint above the doorway indicate the standard Cherokee theft -- remove all ornate wood trim before ripping out the copper pipe.
This is the building he talked developer Manuel Seguro into donating as an entrepreneurial center.
"It's actually in pretty good condition," insists Friedson, who throws out energy like a souped-up Camaro at a stoplight. "Usually you need a 30-yard Dumpster." He points to the lavender walls -- soon to be eggshell -- where he'll hang Marilynne Bradley's pure, clear, bright watercolors of Cherokee Street. He'll start with his favorite, the Cherokee wooden Indian, painted from below to hint at superiority.
In the middle of the gallery, Friedson wants a round table, big enough for seven students and two presenters. He's already incorporated a nonprofit, Sound Basics, to teach legal and financial literacy to area residents, close the "information gap" between landlords and tenants, teach capitalism and the culture of ownership, help people start daycare homes or music businesses. "Lloyd and Ramona are intelligent businesspeople," he says, "but they're not exactly social visionaries. You don't develop a community just by playing by the rules. It takes getting to know people."
Friedson first learned about community economic development in law school, when he watched his Pittsburgh landlord put on a bulletproof vest and walk her dog past the drug dealers. "When somebody put up graffiti, we got it down in 24 hours. When they put it up again, we got it down in 24 hours. When they put it up again, we got it down in 24 hours. The key is persistence, not these damned neighborhood-association bitchfests."
Friedson finished law school here, at Washington University, and after a constrained year at a silk-stocking firm, he became director of what was then called the South Side Community Business and Technology Center. He couldn't create the intended business incubator, though, because the building had "$800,000 worth of pigeonshit damage." Instead, he launched "an incubator without walls," and he spent hours walking the neighborhood, trying to find out "what it wanted to become." He saw a clash between traditional capitalism and cultures based on opposing values. But he also saw recurring structures that seemed sustainable: the daycare home with a couple living above; the two- or four-family flat, owner-occupied and rented; the business whose owner lives upstairs. Always, the key was ownership, and the respect and care that came with it.
"Cherokee Street's been a working-class neighborhood since the 1860s," he points out. "It needs its heritage back as a place for working-class folks to live well, a place for immigrants to come, settle, start a business and succeed." The respect that once held the street together has slipped, and the absentee ownership has increased, but immigrant ambition still burns, and there's more diversity than ever. Professionals in mansard-roofed mansions share alleys with people who throw their trash next to the Dumpster. South Side classics such as Globe Drug and the Casa Loma Ballroom sit amid bodegas, Asian groceries and soul-food snack bars dishing tripe and fried okra. An old leather-cheeked black guy tells an old white guy how hard it was to come up here from Jackson, Miss.; the white guy grunts in sympathy, and the two walk on together, friends since their memories blurred.
Cherokee streams with interracial friendships. But the stream's lined with hate because, in the minds of some white South Siders, the recent economic decline is chain-linked to the African-Americans who've moved in from the North Side, looking for peace and quiet. The old-timers are making slow peace with "barrio," but they'll resist "ghetto" until they die.
Friedson battles the blind fears daily, convinced that much of Cherokee's hope rests with African-American entrepreneurs such as Kenamen Bettis, a COCA artist-in-residence and business teacher who sells African shea butter, jewelry and custom clothing at Aboriginals; and Dunkor Imani, owner of Ghetto Koool Stuff, who sells thug books, hip-hop CDs and "getting-over" books for people just out of prison and does "some educating" along the way, talking with customers about better ways to live. Imani defines "ghetto-fabulous" with the melodic precision of a poet: "Fashion and gear and music that's cutting-edge, that might be considered gaudy somewhere else. Every little pocket of society has its own code. St. Louis has its own feel -- the way we talk, the way we roll our R's: 'errybody'; 'pirckle' for "pickle." And for better or worse, it's urban. When you live in the inner city, you feel, like, 'OK, I need something that is going to distinguish me.' So a word that would be derogatory, we make it positive. And it's spreadin'. White kids are ghetto-fabulous now."
Friedson leaves such conversations pumped, his mind on what Imani calls "that risin' tide raising all boats." Then he goes to City Hall and finds out that people there are wondering about his credibility -- who is this Friedson guy who knows everybody on the street, why's he hanging out? Maybe he should wear a suit more often, they whisper. He sputters about this for a minute -- but, like Cherokee Street itself, his moods change fluidly. "Understanding the community means understanding the human beings who are here," he finally says, shrugging. "Cherokee Street's raw. Nobody's hiding what they're doing on Cherokee Street. Nobody's afraid of being busted for being themselves. And there's a huge supply of culture right here -- Vietnamese, Hispanic, African and Egyptian and ghetto-fabulous. People need to embrace and own that culture. No hating, no blocking. Keep it real."
Revved again, he runs outside to feed the parking meter. "You think the street's going to get better?" he asks a clerk from a nearby business who's feeding hers.
"One hopes," she replies. "One has a tendency to lose hope, though." They kvetch for a minute about inspectors who "only cite the ones they can find," about city officials who don't even wait till the paint's dry before throwing violations at a new business, about those nice black gates they got on Lower Cherokee, and why not up here? "You have dreams," she says, "you wait for the street to come back. Eventually you just get worn down." Her eyes go distant as she looks east, toward Jefferson. Then she turns back to 2851. "So you're the one going in there?"
"Yeah," he says, and the energy's back, full throttle. "We're going to have classes and an art gallery. We've got these really beautiful watercolors of the Cinderella Building and the Carniceria and Globe Drug and the Cherokee Indian...."
Back at Taqueria Azteca, Patricia Garcia clears away the remnants of a burrito and wipes the red-plaid tablecloth, scrubbing twice over a salsa stain before picking up the tip. Two stubble-bearded German-Americans sit down, looking as if they've worked hard all their lives and don't want to anymore. A young woman finishes her guacamole and reaches for a Spanish-language newspaper, bending close to read the news of another world.
Garcia and her husband, Jos Garcia, rent the taqueria space from R.L. Jones, but they hope someday to own a big restaurant. "This is going to be the future for our kids," they say, unaware that they are the official future of Cherokee -- along with the other Mexican restaurants, the cinnamon-dusted El Chico Bakery, the thick scallops of cactus and shopping bags of dried chili peppers at the Carniceria grocery, the ostrich and crocodile boots at La Mexicana, the salsa music piped onto the sidewalk. Members of the Cherokee Business Association talk eagerly about Cherokee as a barrio, wax sentimental about the immigrant work ethic, court the Cinco de Mayo Festival.
"That's fine -- bring the Hispanics here -- but this is not going to fix the place," says Ahmed Abusharbain, owner of Liberty Wireless and several other properties on Cherokee. Dressed in a silky black-and-white houndstooth shirt, he greets every patron with deliberate respect and does his best to make the street safe. The other day, he stepped into a cloud of whiskey fumes to pull away a guy who was pawing a young woman, and now he's donating one of the fixer-uppers he just bought to the police as a substation. "We do the best we can," he says, his black eyes soft with worry, "but the society out there, that's on them." This summer, Abusharbain watched wryly as the Cherokee Business Association, desperate for Lower Cherokee stability, spent $3,000 to install the same old-fashioned light standards. They couldn't afford the actual lights, so they hung flower baskets instead. "Who's going to smell the flowers if nobody's coming?" he bursts. "What we need is security!"
A Palestinian from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Abusharbain started working in a tiny grocery store on Cherokee in 1993. Eventually he bought the store. He now owns several others -- including a building purchased from R.L. Jones. But when he tried to convince Lloyd Jones to improve the street, he says, Jones just reminded him that Cherokee was never going to be West County.
Jones has been furious with him, Abusharbain says, ever since he joined with other business owners to block the HDC rental. Loyalties severed, Jones turned around and rented a building to one of Abusharbain's competitors. "So I'll drop my prices and the other guy will drop his and I'll drop mine again, and then I'll end up saying goodbye to Cherokee Street," Abusharbain says with a shrug.
He talks often about selling, but he doesn't want to. Like many other proprietors on Cherokee Street, he feels a strange, magnetic sort of loyalty to the street, and he's held by what it could be. "We the business owners need to get more involved," he urges the others. "Forget about the landlords; sometimes the landlords are somewhere else. As business owners, we need to move a little better together."
"Don't put me on the board 'cause I'm black," mutters Rick Joiner, owner of the Special Occasion Barber and Beauty Salon and the new, already disenchanted vice president of the Cherokee Business Association. "I'm tired of Lloyd bickering with Sandy [Cohen] and vice versa. And we all know Pat [Brannon] is in Lloyd's pocket." Joiner shaves a customer's head as he talks, leaving licks of shaving cream all over the man's gleaming bald skull. Joiner wipes them off absently. "Those guys just want to see who can get the most property on the street."
Joiner rolls his eyes over the new flowerpots; he'd rather see some of the district's special tax money used for cable TV commercials promoting area businesses. He's been working on his proposal -- even coaxing "the guy at the bodega" to translate a petition into Spanish -- but he doesn't have a lot of hope. "Everybody's interested, but they don't go to the meetings. Word on the street is, 'They're just going to do what they want to anyway.'"
Joiner shows up early for July's 8 a.m. meeting, fumbles with the coffeepot and powdered cream, waits to make his point. First, neighborhood-stabilization officer Barb Potts announces that she's gotten property owner Billy Yee cited, and "he's not happy with me." There's a brief report from the two bicycle cops everyone on the street adores because they've made a noticeable, albeit drop-in-the-bucket, difference. Jose Garcia reports efforts to set up a nonprofit for Cinco de Mayo and register it on Cherokee Street. "Just make it a big fiesta for everybody," urges Alfredo Otero, owner of the Mexican Western-wear shop. "I don't want competition."
Joiner seizes his chance, takes a deep breath, proposes the cable-TV commercials. He's told to look into the costs.
At the end of the meeting, somebody brings up the weatherbeaten Indian. "I submitted a bid to Lloyd and Ramona several months ago about painting it," Rance Miner says wearily. "It's out of my hands." People fuss about what kind of paint's needed and say the Indian's only been there about 15 years. "It was grant money," recalls Rick Ruzicka, manager of Globe Drug. "We ended up doing the Indian because otherwise we were going to lose the money."
Cherokee's Indian was a last-ditch improvisation, yet the newest entrepreneurs, hungry for a symbol, see his worn face as a promise of urban tolerance. They talk about the Indian's foreshadowing the street's internationalism; they emphasize the need for people of all races to get along, make Cherokee a South Side version of the University City Loop.
"It's a lot going on on that strip," says hip-hop musician Christopher Greenlee, a.k.a. Pookie. His CD Keep It Real was inspired by Cherokee Street and shepherded by Friedson. Now track 11 is playing on the radio -- Friedson nearly cut himself shaving when he heard "I Make It Hot" advertising London & Sons chicken wings.
"Those tortillas smell real good," continues Greenlee, unfazed by fame. "And you can feel comfortable on Cherokee Street. Everybody speaks to everybody, not just passing them up looking at them but 'Whassup, how you doing, where you going?' On Cherokee, it's not 'Look what I got,' it's 'If you ain't got what I got, I'ma hook you up.'"
He falls silent for a minute. "Sometimes I feel that Cherokee Street can be a little better than it is," he confides suddenly. "Some of those buildings that are just sitting there? You could do a lot with them. Competition's cool at times, but I like to see everybody working together."