Keepin' It Real

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

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.

Rick Joiner, owner of the Special Occasions Salon, says he's about to give up on the Cherokee Business Association and run for alderman instead.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rick Joiner, owner of the Special Occasions Salon, says he's about to give up on the Cherokee Business Association and run for alderman instead.
Kenamen Bettis, owner of Aboriginals, thinks Cherokee's internationalism will be good for his kids -- and everyone else's.
Jennifer Silverberg
Kenamen Bettis, owner of Aboriginals, thinks Cherokee's internationalism will be good for his kids -- and everyone else's.

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.'"

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