Keepin' It Real

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

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.

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.

"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?"

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