Keepin' It Real

Cherokee Street is trying to reclaim its working-class heritage. But the power brokers have made their peace with poverty.

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'.

Peaceful Antique Row, which used to be the shabby side of Cherokee.
Jennifer Silverberg
Peaceful Antique Row, which used to be the shabby side of Cherokee.

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.

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