Keepin' It Real

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

"Yeah," he says, and the energy's back, full throttle. "We're going to have classes and an art gallery. We've got these really beautiful watercolors of the Cinderella Building and the Carniceria and Globe Drug and the Cherokee Indian...."

Back at Taqueria Azteca, Patricia Garcia clears away the remnants of a burrito and wipes the red-plaid tablecloth, scrubbing twice over a salsa stain before picking up the tip. Two stubble-bearded German-Americans sit down, looking as if they've worked hard all their lives and don't want to anymore. A young woman finishes her guacamole and reaches for a Spanish-language newspaper, bending close to read the news of another world.

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.

Garcia and her husband, Jos Garcia, rent the taqueria space from R.L. Jones, but they hope someday to own a big restaurant. "This is going to be the future for our kids," they say, unaware that they are the official future of Cherokee -- along with the other Mexican restaurants, the cinnamon-dusted El Chico Bakery, the thick scallops of cactus and shopping bags of dried chili peppers at the Carniceria grocery, the ostrich and crocodile boots at La Mexicana, the salsa music piped onto the sidewalk. Members of the Cherokee Business Association talk eagerly about Cherokee as a barrio, wax sentimental about the immigrant work ethic, court the Cinco de Mayo Festival.

"That's fine -- bring the Hispanics here -- but this is not going to fix the place," says Ahmed Abusharbain, owner of Liberty Wireless and several other properties on Cherokee. Dressed in a silky black-and-white houndstooth shirt, he greets every patron with deliberate respect and does his best to make the street safe. The other day, he stepped into a cloud of whiskey fumes to pull away a guy who was pawing a young woman, and now he's donating one of the fixer-uppers he just bought to the police as a substation. "We do the best we can," he says, his black eyes soft with worry, "but the society out there, that's on them." This summer, Abusharbain watched wryly as the Cherokee Business Association, desperate for Lower Cherokee stability, spent $3,000 to install the same old-fashioned light standards. They couldn't afford the actual lights, so they hung flower baskets instead. "Who's going to smell the flowers if nobody's coming?" he bursts. "What we need is security!"

A Palestinian from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Abusharbain started working in a tiny grocery store on Cherokee in 1993. Eventually he bought the store. He now owns several others -- including a building purchased from R.L. Jones. But when he tried to convince Lloyd Jones to improve the street, he says, Jones just reminded him that Cherokee was never going to be West County.

Jones has been furious with him, Abusharbain says, ever since he joined with other business owners to block the HDC rental. Loyalties severed, Jones turned around and rented a building to one of Abusharbain's competitors. "So I'll drop my prices and the other guy will drop his and I'll drop mine again, and then I'll end up saying goodbye to Cherokee Street," Abusharbain says with a shrug.

He talks often about selling, but he doesn't want to. Like many other proprietors on Cherokee Street, he feels a strange, magnetic sort of loyalty to the street, and he's held by what it could be. "We the business owners need to get more involved," he urges the others. "Forget about the landlords; sometimes the landlords are somewhere else. As business owners, we need to move a little better together."

"Don't put me on the board 'cause I'm black," mutters Rick Joiner, owner of the Special Occasion Barber and Beauty Salon and the new, already disenchanted vice president of the Cherokee Business Association. "I'm tired of Lloyd bickering with Sandy [Cohen] and vice versa. And we all know Pat [Brannon] is in Lloyd's pocket." Joiner shaves a customer's head as he talks, leaving licks of shaving cream all over the man's gleaming bald skull. Joiner wipes them off absently. "Those guys just want to see who can get the most property on the street."

Joiner rolls his eyes over the new flowerpots; he'd rather see some of the district's special tax money used for cable TV commercials promoting area businesses. He's been working on his proposal -- even coaxing "the guy at the bodega" to translate a petition into Spanish -- but he doesn't have a lot of hope. "Everybody's interested, but they don't go to the meetings. Word on the street is, 'They're just going to do what they want to anyway.'"

Joiner shows up early for July's 8 a.m. meeting, fumbles with the coffeepot and powdered cream, waits to make his point. First, neighborhood-stabilization officer Barb Potts announces that she's gotten property owner Billy Yee cited, and "he's not happy with me." There's a brief report from the two bicycle cops everyone on the street adores because they've made a noticeable, albeit drop-in-the-bucket, difference. Jose Garcia reports efforts to set up a nonprofit for Cinco de Mayo and register it on Cherokee Street. "Just make it a big fiesta for everybody," urges Alfredo Otero, owner of the Mexican Western-wear shop. "I don't want competition."

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