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As Cherokee Street Faces Its Future, Crime Remains a Major Concern 

Even as businesses are thriving on Cherokee, the neighborhoods around it have seen a sharp increase in crime.

PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL

Even as businesses are thriving on Cherokee, the neighborhoods around it have seen a sharp increase in crime.

You can tell how long someone has lived in the Cherokee neighborhood by how they pronounce the street name. Newcomers punch the first syllable (as in "CHER-o-kee"). Lifers tend to lean on the back end ("cher-o-KEE").

Francis Rodriguez is a lifer. A restaurateur and artist with wintry stubble, Rodriguez has spent most of his 58 years on Cherokee and the surrounding grid of "state streets." He watched the area flourish in his youth, then hollow out by the 1990s. Now he is a pillar of its remarkable turnaround — a movement of which he is fiercely protective, especially lately.

Rodriguez embodies Cherokee's idiosyncrasy. Despite his Latino surname, he speaks no Spanish, but understands some German, having spent time in Europe as a child. His paternal ancestors were the native Yaqui people of Mexico. That explains why, when he quit teaching biology at Gateway High School to launch a wood-fired pizza joint on Cherokee in 2014, he named it "Yaquis."

Rodriguez is a kinetic man. He is quick to erupt in anger and just as quick to apologize. While many neighbors his age lean conservative, Rodriguez leans left. His pizzeria has emerged as an informal hub of progressive politics on the city's south side. It's where revelers at the Cinco de Mayo festival have bludgeoned piñatas of Donald Trump, and where former rapper Bruce Franks, Jr. stood atop the bar to celebrate his underdog win in last summer's statehouse race.

Liberal bona fides aside, Rodriguez is also a product of a rough-and-tumble ethos. He has zero patience for delinquency, and has been known to chase down purse-snatchers and to brandish a .22-caliber handgun in self-defense.

"Growing up in this area breeds a certain kind of toughness," he says.

But even he wasn't prepared for what occurred in the wee hours of Sunday, April 30.

click to enlarge Beckie Lewis and Francis Rodriguez own two businesses on Cherokee. They're concerned about crime after an April 30 shootout. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Beckie Lewis and Francis Rodriguez own two businesses on Cherokee. They're concerned about crime after an April 30 shootout.

Rodriguez lives above Yaquis with his wife, Beckie Lewis, and their daughter, now eighteen months old. Shortly before 1 a.m. on that date, he heard a commotion on the street below. Half a block east, the nightclub 2720 had just hosted a free eighteen-and-up EDM show. Scores of patrons were spilling out. An argument flared.

Rodriguez decided to get dressed and check on his staff. After lacing up his second shoe, he heard a loud BANG just outside. Then gunshots cracked up and down the street.

He raced to the rear of the apartment, where Lewis was now awake and trying to shield the baby on the floor. He rushed downstairs to Yaquis. Patrons were taking cover. At the entrance, a woman attempting to flee the gunfire got stuck in the doorway. Rodriguez pulled her in, then locked the front door.

And then, he remembers, he went into "a blind rage." He stalked out the back door and onto Iowa Avenue, where the crowd was scattering and shell casings littered the pavement.

It was over. At least 60 rounds had been fired — most, apparently, into the air. They were so loud, people heard them from a mile away. While nobody died, two went to the hospital with injuries, and one taco truck was left with a shattered window.

After the police arrived, Rodriguez walked back upstairs to take a breather. He stepped into his bathroom. He vomited. Neither he nor his wife slept the rest of that night.

He became more convinced than ever that Cherokee's bars and clubs were no place for minors — and he couldn't wait to give the local business association a piece of his mind.

"I know I'm a bully," he says. "I try to work against my darker nature. But when I have to put my baby on the floor, you motherfuckers are going to listen to me."

Over the past nine months, Cherokee Street — ground zero for the city's DIY art and nightlife scene — has suffered a rash of violence. The effect has been sobering. Those who brought about the street's cultural and political flowering did so organically, without a master plan or much interest from City Hall. But their work required a fertile soil of cheap real estate, which came mixed in with poverty and crime. They knew it was a tough place, but with investment, might get better. Now that crime is on the rise, Cherokee denizens want to protect what they've grown — but they'll have to make peace among themselves first.

It's not merely that stakeholders disagree on whether to address crime with a hard or soft approach — that is, incarceration versus conversation. There are also personal rifts that linger from the old political order being swept aside by younger upstarts.

Some of this is the inevitable result of gentrification, the process by which a once-abandoned neighborhood gets renewed. Yet on these blocks, textbook dichotomies don't hold. Nothing is as simple as old versus young, black versus white, or wealthy versus poor. Cherokee has become a complex web of personalities, all trying to pull their neighborhood to safer ground. They're just not pulling in the same direction.

click to enlarge A total of 86 new businesses have opened on Cherokee in the last year alone. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • A total of 86 new businesses have opened on Cherokee in the last year alone.

Francis Rodriguez has no direct memory of the grand sweep of Cherokee's past — how it grew from a grazing pasture in the 1800s to a commercial strip a century later. He never saw the electric streetcars rolling past Woolworth's after World War I, nor did he get to hear a young Frank Sinatra croon at the Casa Loma Ballroom in 1939.

But Rodriguez, born in 1958, did witness the tail end of that boom. He sold Globe-Democrat newspapers at crowded taverns in the late 1960s. He also participated in the tit-for-tat of old-school ward politics: His family helped campaign for local alderman Louis "Uncle Louie" Buckowitz, who in turn helped Rodriguez land a lifeguard job at public pools.

By the time Rodriguez graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1977, deindustrialization and white flight were draining American cities. Cherokee Street was not spared. East of Jefferson Avenue, some antique merchants managed to stay afloat. On the west side, most storefronts went dark, save the odd pharmacy or head shop selling bongs to suburban teens. Crack use, alcoholism, prostitution and homelessness became common. Things got bleak enough that even Rodriguez himself moved to Crestwood in 1993 and stayed there for many years.

But in the early aughts, there was a quiet rebirth. Hispanic entrepreneurs trickled in to sell groceries and tacos. Developers found architectural gems of red brick and restored them. Poor young artists, meanwhile, took advantage of low rents to set up galleries and play loud guitars.

Over the course of a decade, the steady stream of energy, dollars and foot traffic rose into a wave. In 2013, Cherokee saw 23 new establishments open. The next year, 22 followed, with 25 more in 2015 and an additional sixteen in 2016 — a total of 86 new businesses and nonprofits in just four years.

Among them was Yaquis, opened by Rodriguez, his wife and a third partner, Joe Timm, in 2014. Last September the trio opened a burger-slinging dive bar called the B-Side down the block. Rodriguez has poured most of his finances into these ventures — one reason among many he is so concerned about crime.

Rob Ludwig was badly beaten after his girlfriend tried to stop harassment of a young neighbor. - COURTESY OF ROB LUDWIG
  • COURTESY OF ROB LUDWIG
  • Rob Ludwig was badly beaten after his girlfriend tried to stop harassment of a young neighbor.

According to an RFT analysis of police data, there was a six percent increase citywide in reported "person crimes" (robberies, assaults, rapes and homicides) from 2012 through 2016. But in the four neighborhoods surrounding Cherokee Street — Gravois Park, Benton Park West, Benton Park and Marine Villa — that increase was 53 percent. And so far this year, such reports are up by a quarter over last year.

The bulk of these incidents have occurred in the state streets. Last September, the Post-Dispatch reported on groups of youths roving Gravois Park attacking people, sometimes at random. On September 25, nearly a dozen people mobbed 37-year-old Rob Ludwig and his girlfriend after she attempted to intervene in the harassment of a young neighbor on Virginia. They both had to be hospitalized; Ludwig suffered a brain bleed, two black eyes and even a blackened tongue.

The violence occasionally spills onto Cherokee proper. Online police maps show that 24 violent crimes, mostly assaults, have occurred on the street itself in the last six months.

Just steps off the main drag, two incidents even made the news. In October, a 64-year-old Vietnamese shopkeeper recovering from cancer was brutally mugged in an alley behind Cherokee while taking an afternoon walk. He ended up in critical condition. Then, on March 21, a man was shot in the shoulder at Cherokee and California Avenue during an apparent robbery.

Rodriguez was at Yaquis that night. He saw the police SUVs and walked up to the scene. He noticed with irritation how a streetlight was out, and how the property just north of the intersection lay in shadow. With his cell phone, he made a video, which he uploaded to Facebook under a caption decrying "absentee landlords."

"Look at this," he says in the clip, showing the dark lot. "No lights on.... I'm sick and tired of these people who own property down here and put as at peril. They need to take care of their shit down here."

He didn't know yet who owned the property. When he found out, his anger swelled.

click to enlarge Dan Guenther and Cara Spencer both toppled long-time pols to win their seats representing Cherokee Street on the Board of Aldermen. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Dan Guenther and Cara Spencer both toppled long-time pols to win their seats representing Cherokee Street on the Board of Aldermen.

The political winds have shifted abruptly on Cherokee Street: In just two years, voters have ousted three incumbent Democratic committee members, one state representative and two aldermen.

The latter change was key. If a city ward is a fiefdom, the alderman is its lord. He is the liaison to city services and can make life easy — or hard — for entrepreneurs. Cherokee Street has the misfortune of serving as a border between wards.

For more than a decade, that meant that in the central blocks, the north side of the street was represented by 9th Ward Alderman Ken Ortmann, while much of the south side fell under 20th Ward Alderman Craig Schmid. Both have been replaced by younger candidates.

The first domino to fall was Schmid. An attorney by trade, he was considered by many to be an assiduous caretaker, but also risk-averse and uneasy around Cherokee's weirder element. Challenged in the 2007 primary by artist Galen Gondolfi, Schmid and/or his allies sent voters a mailer linking Gondolfi to "communists, socialists, anarchists, vandals and graffiti 'artists.'" (In the old Cherokee, those words were slurs; today, they might describe your barista.)

Schmid and Ortmann "had the best of intentions," says Randy Vines, who with his twin brother Jeff opened the Style House apparel store on Schmid's part of Cherokee in 2010. "When they were elected, their sole goal was to preserve livability in a time of steep decline. But the hallmark of urban neighborhoods is they evolve. You cannot protect them from everybody and everything."

Schmid, for example, had long kept a moratorium on new bars. Under pressure, he lifted it in 2009, but lasted just one more term before losing in 2015 to Cara Spencer, a business analyst backed by the district's influential business association. Spencer rescued the Marquette Pool from a summer closure in her first few months, took on the payday lending industry and is even threatening a lawsuit over the city's plan to pay for $138 million of renovations at Scottrade Center. Her supporters point to her as proof that it's possible to take on the political establishment and win.

Others followed her lead: Last September, business owner (and Ferguson protester) Bruce Franks Jr., took down the neighborhood's longtime state representative, Penny Hubbard. Then in March, Dan Guenther, a pony-tailed organizer with the Benton Park Neighborhood Association, bested Ortmann in the 9th Ward.

Ortmann, whose family owns a Soulard dive bar, is a former U.S. Marine and classic south-city pol. Still smarting from his loss in May, he suggests he's been a victim of the street's very success.

"The millennials don't want to give me credit," he says. "I don't think they care how [Cherokee] got there, they weren't there through the hard times and the development that got done."

click to enlarge In the last two years, the old guard representing the neighborhood has lost seats on the Board of Alderman, the Democratic central committee and in the Missouri House of Representatives. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • In the last two years, the old guard representing the neighborhood has lost seats on the Board of Alderman, the Democratic central committee and in the Missouri House of Representatives.

The area's crime problem was very much on Ortmann's mind. Before losing the election, he used ward funds that he'd squirreled away to buy a $437,000 system of high-tech police security cameras at ten different intersections in the 9th Ward, including at two spots on Cherokee.

The cameras, which recognize license plates, help police quickly spot stolen cars — and apprehend their drivers. They're already active downtown, but they'll be something new for Cherokee. He expects them to start arriving next month. But Ortmann's project drew some grumbling online from younger residents, who worry about heavy-handed policing and its impact on young black residents.

Schmid, too, is finding part of his legacy under fire. It turns out that the "absentee landlord" who failed to light the old bank property at Cherokee and California — the landlord against whom Francis Rodriguez railed on Facebook — was the Gravois Park Neighborhood Association. And its members had acquired that property thanks to a sweetheart deal from Schmid.

According to a spokeswoman for the city's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), it was common in the mid-aughts for aldermen to acquire distressed properties using federal Community Development Block Grant funds, then gift those properties to constituents who promised to develop them. It was a way to subsidize renewal — or at least, that was the theory.

But renewal is not what happened at the old bank property.

Schmid did not return calls seeking comment. But the record shows that, in 2005, as part of a broader development plan for the area, Schmid used $20,000 in federal block grant funds to enable the LRA to buy the old Jefferson Heritage Bank property. He then arranged for the LRA to give it to his allies in the neighborhood association, a nonprofit that agreed in writing to "repair, fence and landscape [it] for [a] community center and retail facility." If they failed to do so within a year, the city reserved the right to reclaim the property.

click to enlarge The old bank property owned by the Gravois Park Neighborhood Association remains a dead zone in a neighborhood bustling with redevelopment and renewal.
  • The old bank property owned by the Gravois Park Neighborhood Association remains a dead zone in a neighborhood bustling with redevelopment and renewal.

A year went by, and the city never took it back. So from that point on, the association has owned it, free and clear. And today, even though it sits in the heart of a thriving commercial strip, the association has done very little with it.

According to city records, only one merchant has occupied the retail space, and only for a few years. The adjacent parking lot is nearly always chained off. Its drains have clogged, causing giant puddles to form after hard rain. Last autumn, neighbors complained to Alderwoman Spencer that criminals were taking advantage of the lot's darkness. She emailed the association's officers, concerned about the lack of "significant lighting."

"I am hoping you can update me on future plans for the site and perhaps a meeting with all involved can help us get on the same page," Spencer wrote.

Ten minutes later, she received a reply from Shirley Wallace. In the group's filings, Wallace is listed as treasurer, with an address of 2100 Cherokee. However, she doesn't own the antique business located there, much less the building it's in. In fact, public records show that Wallace is a St. Charles resident who owns no property or business in the neighborhood. Still, for more than a decade, she has continued to show up on Cherokee Street to oppose the newcomers at every turn — including Alderwoman Spencer.

Referring to the old bank property, Wallace wrote: "There has never been an incident there in more than ten years.... Significant lighting is not necessary. Our future plans are not your concern and do not require a meeting."

After the March 17 shooting, Spencer again emailed members of the association, and again, Wallace rebuffed her.

"There is a lot of empty property in the 20th ward part of Cherokee that could use your help," Wallace wrote. "We are doing just fine."

In the weeks that followed, though, the association quietly responded to its neighbors' concerns. They painted over graffiti, and set up a timed lighting system in the lot.

Secretary Dale Sweet acknowledges to the RFT that the property "has been a little under-utilized," and that they've discussed finding another retail tenant. But he insists it's their choice to make, adding, "America still has private property rights."

Gravois Park Neighborhood Association is a holdout from the days of Old Cherokee. It's not as young or dynamic as its nearby analogues, but it's not a shell organization either. Its members meet every month in the old bank office. They participate in National Night Out and a mentoring program through the city's juvenile court system. City records show they pay their property taxes.

Yet they also claim to speak for the neighborhood — for example, by making community impact statements in criminal cases. And they do that without ever holding open elections. (Both Wallace, the treasurer, and the new president, Daniel Petty, decline to speak to RFT.) In 2016, frustration over their closed elections even led to the creation of an offshoot Gravois Park group. It has since dissolved.

The group's isolation is not just cultural. The property that has everyone riled up actually lies in Benton Park West, not Gravois Park, and thanks to redistricting, it's no longer even part of the 20th Ward. It has become a physical symbol of everything that upsets Cherokee's new guard about the old one. They see it as a stubborn "no" in a neighborhood of "yes." Some even see it as publicly subsidized land speculation.

Abigail Vargas's family owns La Vallesana next door. Their corner eatery has grown from a small popsicle hut in 2003 to a large restaurant with two patios and a gazebo. She remembers asking the association twice about buying the bank property, but they told her it's not for sale.

"If they don't have a plan or something in mind, a lot of other people probably do," she says. In the meantime, she too expresses concern about criminals using the bank lot as an escape route. "They can hide back there."

Three weeks after the March 21 shooting, Francis Rodriguez and his wife Beckie Lewis attended the association's April meeting with some friends. They broached the topic of lighting in the lot.

"Our biggest problem as a business owner is crime," said Lewis. "We walk around here. There are no lights. This is a parking lot where people feel safe to deal drugs."

True or not, there was an undercurrent of political tension in her words. The neighborhood association had aligned with Schmid. Newer business owners like Lewis and Rodriguez had backed Spencer. So when Lewis segued from the topic of crime into questions about the association's funding, the exchange got heated.

"We lost our temper and the meeting just fell apart," Rodriguez said later. "You could see they weren't listening and they weren't going to move off center."

click to enlarge St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers Jazmon Garrett and Devin Jackson work the beat on Cherokee, trying to build relationships with residents. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers Jazmon Garrett and Devin Jackson work the beat on Cherokee, trying to build relationships with residents.

One of the thorniest security questions in this neighborhood is how much to involve the cops.

"There is a love-hate relationship with the police on Cherokee," says Anne McCullough, a spokeswoman for the business association, which is now controlled by the newcomers.

In some ways, the link with law enforcement is as strong as ever: 3rd District Captain Shawn Dace has brought back a pair of officers anchored to the street, even amidst staffing shortages. He says they have made inroads with local kids and helped some folks feel more comfortable speaking to the authorities (which may have contributed to the rise in reported incidents).

Yet some prefer to bypass the police. Cherokee resident Julia Ho, who is the founder of Solidarity Economy St. Louis, has advocated for a restorative justice program. In that scenario, people who commit low-level offenses could acknowledge their misdeeds and make amends outside the court system.

The idea found backers: the Cherokee Street Business Association voted to support it last fall, and even the court's juvenile division said it was on board. But a March 2017 launch date came and went; Ho says the project is on the backburner for lack of funding.

In any case, Ho believes Cherokee cannot police its way out of entrenched problems. For her, crime is a symptom of poverty, and "safety" has different meanings for different people. To a new shopkeeper, "safety" might mean threats on the sidewalk. But a block off the main drag, "safety" might describe the threat of rising rents.

McCullough agrees that newcomers to Cherokee should adopt a broad view — and temper expectations.

"While things can feel very personal, especially when gunshots are happening outside of your window, people need to recognize that gunshots have been happening outside of windows in this neighborhood for twenty years," she says. "It's disheartening for them to make it about them, and not about what they're moving into. It's not an easy fix."

But the crime doesn't come solely from people living in the neighborhood. In some cases, opportunists from elsewhere come to prey on unsuspecting Cherokee customers. And venues that allow an all-ages crowd make some neighbors nervous.

Kaveh Razani, who has been managing 2720 for the last year and a half (and Blank Space before that) welcomes teenagers to Cherokee. "I reject the notion that this street is for people above the age of 21," Razani says.

click to enlarge Kaveh Razani, who manages Blank Space and 2720, has had to defend his business practices from those who think teens have no place on Cherokee late at night. - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
  • PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
  • Kaveh Razani, who manages Blank Space and 2720, has had to defend his business practices from those who think teens have no place on Cherokee late at night.

Ever since bullets flew outside 2720 on April 30, he has had to defend his business practices. While Razani does feel responsible for security inside his clubs, he says he can't control what happens out on the street.

Down the block at Yaquis, Rodriguez disagrees. A career teaching high school convinced him, he says, that kids mature greatly between 18 and 21. Enforcement can't be 100 percent, indoors or on the street, so allowing teens close proximity to liquor is just courting disaster.

Rodriguez went to the Cherokee Station Business Association Meeting on May 18 to make himself heard on these points.

That evening, about 75 people gathered on the second floor of Nebula Co-working at Cherokee and Jefferson. In a humid event space scented with re-finished hardwood floors, the board addressed a crowd composed of dozens of shopkeepers, residents, two aldermen, one police captain, two dogs, and one baby.

For two hours, they hashed out what happened, how it felt, and possible fixes. One young woman fought back tears as she recalled the storm of bullets.

Seated at the back of the room, Rodriguez took his turn to speak. But when others jumped in, he grew frustrated and demanded more time. He began to bicker with three women across the room before losing his temper, shouting, and leaving in a huff (followed by a door slam).

And that wasn't even the finale.

At the end of the meeting, Pat Brannon, the proprietor of Casa Loma, raised hackles.

"I get asked to have rap shows," he said. "But I turn them down." He said rap promoters were not ideal business associates, and on top of that, "I know the type of person that's gonna come in. They're not gonna respect the Casa Loma."

Incredulous, Razani interrupted him: "Can I address the room? Do I need to respond to this?"

Meanwhile, Pacia Anderson sat at one of the tall tables, disgusted. A community organizer originally from Alton, she has lived in the Cherokee neighborhood since 2014. What she heard in Brannon's words was this: Black youth are the problem. She was offended.

She gathered her things to leave when the person next to her put his hand on her arm. It was state Representative Bruce Franks Jr. (D-St. Louis). A Ferguson protester and battle rapper, Franks won an upset victory last November against one of the city's old-guard political dynasties and now represents the area in Jefferson City.

"I got this," he whispered.

Franks made his way to the front and spoke. First, he noted all the rap and hip-hop shows he personally had played at Razani's clubs, without incident.

"You're right," he told Brannon. "It is the promoters. But it's not necessarily this genre of music or these types of people. Because the type of people that you're talking about is me. You've been over here for a long time. I have too.

"There's really no place in the world like Cherokee," he continued. "I really think we should concentrate on what solutions we could possibly give to 2720, help empower them, help to grow their business, as we help to grow every other business on Cherokee and within the surrounding area."

The crowd applauded — and seemed to exhale.

click to enlarge New businesses continue to open their doors on Cherokee just about every month. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • New businesses continue to open their doors on Cherokee just about every month.

A week later, Francis Rodriguez sits in Yaquis, dissatisfied. He had hoped for a consensus on a curfew for minors. Instead, he'd lost his temper.

As he runs through his policy argument again, the deeper reason for his behavior emerges: He is still traumatized by the shootings on April 30.

"It makes it hard for me to go to sleep," he finally says, after a pause. "I can't really go to sleep until I know people are out of our building and are safe. I'm afraid I'll go to sleep and somebody will walk in and kill them." He chokes up. "I couldn't live with myself then."

"Look," he continues. "There's a river of good will flowing down the middle of Cherokee in an otherwise hopeless place. If you're right on Cherokee, you can stick your toe in this river. You feel invigorated. The lights are on. People are drinking. People are happy."

He gestures south into the state streets.

"Walk down that way. There's no party. There's no flow down there." But he sees no alternative to effort and hope. He wants everyone in the state streets to feel the same hope for Cherokee that he feels — police stats and political grudges be damned.

"They aren't driving us off," he says of all the doubters and delinquents. "We have the high ground. Physically and morally. And in any pitched battle, if you have the high ground, you're normally the victor."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Pacia Anderson's background. She grew up in Alton, not Belleville, and moved to the Cherokee neighborhood in 2014. We regret any implication to the contrary.

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