Keepin' It Real

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

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.

Lawyer Dan Friedson, pushing for community-based development that blends Cherokee's traditions with immigrant ambitions, family-owned businesses and volunteered expertise.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lawyer Dan Friedson, pushing for community-based development that blends Cherokee's traditions with immigrant ambitions, family-owned businesses and volunteered expertise.
Wehrenberg's old movie palace, its top a reminder of Cherokee's past, its bottom hawking day labor and loans.
Jennifer Silverberg
Wehrenberg's old movie palace, its top a reminder of Cherokee's past, its bottom hawking day labor and loans.

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.

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