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  • Cherokee Street Evolution

    Posted on April 6th, 2009 Toby Weiss 10 comments
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    Cherokee Street, between Gravois and Jefferson Avenues
    South St. Louis, MO

    The Cherokee Street Open House felt a bit like a debutante ball, but rather than debuting young ladies into society it was more like grand dames getting their groove back after a messy divorce.  So actually, it was more like a Cougar Coronation… Anyhoo, the old broad is back, much like “Hello Dolly, ” wherein they bridge the gap, fellas and find her an empty lap, fellas ‘cos Cherokee Street will never go away again.

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    The Cherokee business district was a major retail hub that sprung up around the electric street car lines. Come the cancellation of the street cars in the late 1950s, Cherokee worked on accommodating buses and cars, but as population fled the city, this district was left high and dry. Here’s a good history of the rise and leveling off of the district.

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    Come the 1980s-90s, things got a bit bleak and seedy. The vast majority of old guard retail died off, retired or moved to the county.  New business moved in to old spaces, but not at the same pace as vacancies, so the district took on the look of a period piece movie set after filming had ended. But this faded grandeur offered up its own charms.

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    The retail architecture chatted about its past as you walked by, and even if you weren’t listening closely, you still got the gist of what it used to be.

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    During the near-desolate 1990s, I spent a lot of time at Hammond’s Books, Record Exchange, Salvation Army, and both the Globe Drug and Globe Variety stores. In 2009, gloriously, only Record Exchange and Globe Variety are gone (the former relocated, the latter retired), while the others remain, to be joined by heaping handfuls of new and unique businesses.

    (A magical history tour of Globe Drug will be coming up shortly.)

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    It’s pure delight to have new proprietors walk over the terrazzo thresholds of past shopkeepers and prop their wares into the same display windows. It’s both an appreciation and continuation of a grand tradition.

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    Talking in sweeping generalizations, key South City business hubs were vacated by whites and left floundering until two groups unaffected by the weight of its history came along: immigrants and young people.

    Think Bosnians bringing Bevo Mill back to life, or Asians injecting flavor into the South Grand business district. In both cases, it’s a group of foreign people settling into an old American city, noticing the near-empty spots of high density business and residential similar to their homeland, noticing how cheap the real estate is and noticing that it’s theirs for the taking.

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    With optimistic foreign energy percolating, the young and adventurous come along to bask in the freedom from mall culture, and a new “frontier town” blossoms. And so it went with Cherokee Street and the large Mexican population blooming in St. Louis City.  They took advantage of the ready-made space, and now the young and adventurous native entrepeneurs are filling in the gaps with shops and unique concepts that perfectly compliment the veterans in the area. Here’s a brief smorgasboard of the variety of the area.

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    So, on one deliciously sunny spring day, Cherokee Street proprietors opened up their doors for a massive meet-and-greet party, a genius way to distill and bottle the new essence of the district, letting visitors drink until drunk on the goodwill of possibility.

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    Pianos tinkled and aquatic fairies twinkled, and all was right in South St. Louis.  Cherokee Street has set the bar high for civic pride, education (the historic plaques on the buildings are frickin’ brilliant) and uplift by osmosis.  Their brand of Open House is a model I hope other burroughs of the city will adopt to embrace and elevate what makes St. Louis City so vibrant.

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    As the sun set on the day, a loop paraphrasing Dr. Suess kept on in my brain:  “and to think that I saw it on Cherokee Street.”   Click here to see more photos ot the Cherokee Open House.

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    10 Responses to “Cherokee Street Evolution”

    1. Thanks for the great story. Makes me want to go have lunch at Shangri-La and take a walk.

    2. I love how you’ve documented the entrance-way tiles with the stores’ names. Such charming moments when people cared about the small details.

    3. Wow, look at all that terrazzo! Y’know, South Street in Philly is one of my favorite shopping districts, mainly for its scale: Streets just wide enough to not be intimidating for pedestrians, trees planted by the curbs, a lot of eras of commercial architecture (and remodeling) represented…and the closest thing StL has to it, scale-wise, is this portion of Cherokee. I know I’ve told you this before, Toby, but your readers might not know: About fifteen years ago, Gap Inc. was so convinced (by whom, I don’t know) that Cherokee was going to become a “hot” retail district that they actually drew up plans for a Banana Republic. While it would be nice if our town had a big-name chain store (other than, ahem, Macy’s) that opened onto an urban sidewalk instead of an indoor mall, I do believe I prefer Cherokee’s grassroots revival.

    4. Richard Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” outlines how neighborhoods awaken when artists move into a depressed area to take advantage of low rents. Coffee shops follow…coffee shop conversation among artists is noticed by budding hipsters. Rehabbers, attracted to the reputation of shabby hipness come in, put a vigorous spit-shine on the situation that may cause real-estate prices to rise and rubs the artists back out.
      Still, they leave a neighborhood that for a while, at least, coddles the reputation of the creative spirit where commerce thrives. All this glamor comes crashing down when chain stores move in; beware the Loop!
      Cherokee Street appears to be at the end of it’s first trimester in this cycle. Let’s hope the second trimester is endless.

    5. Great pictures! I love those trash cans! (first picture)

    6. Lovely! I visited Cherokee just two or three weekends ago for the Binge & Purge opening. I’d never before hit Apop–yow! I could probably pass an entire day wandering there. And of course, just down the street lies Dana Smith’s City Art Supply, and my weakness for shops like that almost equals my weakness for book and record shops…

    7. Great photos Toby! I don’t think I realized how many of those deep entry storefronts there are on Cherokee.

    8. steve carosello

      Toby,

      This was the perfect piece to herald the (currently erratic) arrival of Spring in St. Louis. I know there will be many more such events in the near future. City Art Supply, for one, has regular events regardless of season.

      Documenting the original entryways of each business beautifully documents the link between past and present. In an earlier time, such permanence announced “Here to stay” – a feat probably managed for many decades.

      Aside to Darren: South Street is, truly, “the hippest street in town”!

    9. [...] Toby Weiss also blogged about the happenings and the neighborhood in general on B.E.L.T. , with some killer pictures of the retail architecture on the street: “Cherokee Street Evolution.” [...]

    10. I love the last line, “and to think that I saw it on Cherokee Street”! We bought a house on the side of C-street closest to the art studios, the Archive etc, 4 years ago. Suffice to say, living on C-street is anything but boring and uneventful. Between gunshots, cool art, community outreach centers like CAMP, the derelicts, ambulances, funky-community parades, great local music venues, great local owned mom and pop shops, the best Mexican food anywhere in St Louis, I will always have that phrase stuck in my head. I think it might just spread. Great article.

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