Keepin' It Real

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

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."

Dunkor Imani, who moved his store from the Loop to Cherokee: "I did a lot of growing up over here, so it was important to me to get back."
Jennifer Silverberg
Dunkor Imani, who moved his store from the Loop to Cherokee: "I did a lot of growing up over here, so it was important to me to get back."
One of the barrio's beloved: Hector Moran, owner of Las Carnitas
Jennifer Silverberg
One of the barrio's beloved: Hector Moran, owner of Las Carnitas

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.

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