St. Louis Neighborhood Spotlight: Cherokee Street

Thursday September 7, 2017

Call it a DIY street.

Pop-up beach bars and dumpster pool parties belie the undercurrent of vibrant energy that is Cherokee Street. Far from the ubiquitous confines of a suburban refuge, Cherokee street reflects an infusion of family-owned businesses and creative people who fully embrace the beatnik vibe that emanates. In fact, they’ve created it.

Art spaces, blank spaces, storefronts, parks, sides of buildings and even sidewalks are canvases for the artists, musicians and residents who eat, play, work, create and live on and around Cherokee Street. The fluctuating and energetic beat of the district is reflected daily on Facebook (CherokeeStreeUSA), Instagram (CherokeeStreet) and via a weekly street blog CherokeeStreetNews.com). Life is on the move here.

Cherokee Street is located approximately a seven-minute drive from downtown St. Louis. Its commercial importance started during the last decade of the 19th Century, due to the convenience of the new electric streetcar lines. Two branch lines of the Union Depot Railroad Company crossed at Cherokee and California Avenue creating a ready-made group of potential shoppers who attracted the first merchants, marking the beginning of the business district. The one-mile stretch of the street lies between Gravois and Lemp, crosses Jefferson Avenue and divides four neighborhoods — Benton Park West, Gravois Park, Benton Park and Marine Villa. Plenty of street parking and lot space is available.

You’ll know when you’re there. A 20-foot tall sculpture of an Indian, located at the corner of Cherokee and Jefferson, welcomes visitors in all its stately wonder. At that point, the Cherokee Stroll begins. To the left is Antique Row, a half-mile of antique and vintage clothing shops that have been in business for decades and cater to the quirky, surprise-me-type shopper. Whisk Bakery, a sustainable bakery, and the Mudhouse Coffee and Kitchen keeps visitors full with cupcakes, cookies, slingers, biscuits and gravy, and thick pieces of homemade French toast. Head across Jefferson to the other side of Cherokee Street, where art and food take center stage.

Paint splattered sidewalks are brilliant leave-behinds by artists showcasing their work at the many art galleries and incubators spaces. Murals, paintings and print art fill the window space of most of the storefronts, all housed in two- and three-storied historical brick buildings built in the 1900s. Art studios, galleries and creative incubators provide space for art of all types, much of it visible just by peeking in the windows. Nebula, St. Louis’ first co-working space is located here.

Beer aficionados might think they’ve tasted it all until they come across Earthbound Brewery, built atop the old beer caves that herald back to pre-Prohibition days. With a straight face, try to order the Fuzzy Pickles, Chicken and Waffle Blonde or Splash Party Saison from the bartender. Or, create your own take-home six-pack with one-of-a-kind beers at the STL Hop Shop.

A few doors down at Propaganda, patrons down a shot every night at 10 p.m. – on the dot. The “Hey Norm” Cheers-style Whiskey Ring is a bar that encourages a familial atmosphere, all the while serving up a rich list of whiskeys from all over the world. At The Juice, try a regular or alcohol-spiked juice of your choice. Too strong? Try one of more than 50 teas from around the world at Tea Topia, whose address reads like a Harry Potter station platform — 2619-1/2 Cherokee — because it’s housed in half a building and measures about 10 feet in width. Finish off the evening at The Palm Trees, St. Louis’ only Saudi Arabian Restaurant that serves Arabian coffee and dates with every meal.

Or, stroll on. Cherokee Street has the largest concentration of Latino owned and operated bakeries, restaurants, shops and groceries in St. Louis and it is their presence that creates the vibrant atmosphere. Four bakeries and nine restaurants serve up mounds of tacos, tortas, helados, and paletas all day long, just footsteps from one another. Two Mexican grocery stores satiate any craving. At Diana’s bakery, no donut, pastry or chicahuates is smaller than a saucer plate. Woe to those who have abstained from sweet fillings for the day. Give your taste buds a thrill and order one of the elephant ears, or manoplas, butter cookies dipped in chocolate and look like, you guessed it, the ear of a certain animal.  Or, try one of the humongous portions of the sweet Guava Taco, Borrachos, or Trainagulo de Queso.

While meandering down the street, take time to chat with the shopkeepers and residents, all of whom are thrilled to serve as the street’s unofficial tour guides, offering fun facts about the area’s history and architectural lore, as well as tips on where to eat, drink and dance. Or, take your own architectural tour and follow the historical placards on the buildings.

At Flowers and Weeds, a garden oasis, patrons can walk among the plants. Ask the owner to help create a bouquet to go. Neighborhood prides shines through at the STL Style House where every conceivable St. Louis-branded apparel item and poster can be found, including the official St. Louis flag. Identical twins and St. Louis dynamos STL Style owners, Jeff and Randy Vines, are unapologetically proud of their hometown, and will assist you in finding that perfect souvenir.

Listen as you walk  — the majority of restaurants and bars pipe their music out onto the street providing a daylong festive atmosphere. At any given time, step into one of the many bars or live music venues and listen to anything from hip-hop and jazz to Irish and swing. Fancy your own voice? Try open mic night at Foam, a barista’s paradise. Good with your feet? Casa Loma Ballroom offers a variety of dance lessons.

Art, music and food merge frequently at the bevy of festivals held on Cherokee Street. Now in its 16th year, the Cinco de Mayo: A Cherokee Street Festival, draws more than 50,000 attendees and features three stages of live music, authentic food and drinks, kid friendly activities, art and merchandise and nearly 100 vendors. Other events include Cherokee Street History Fair (May); Fiestas Patrias, or Mexican Independence Festival (September); Pu Fest (September); Nevermore Jazz Festival and Cherokee Street Jazz Crawl (November); Cherokee Print Bazaar (Dec. 2); and the Cherokee Antique Row Cookie Spree (Dec. 2-3).

Every April, Lo-Fi Cherokee, conceived in 2012 by filmmaker Bill Streeter, features 18 local bands and solo acts from new unknowns to veterans of the scene who play stripped-down version of their songs. Streeter and a series of production crews move from one location to the next capturing audio and video of the performances in the span of a single day. The event is free.

In May, IndiHop pairs Cherokee Street with The Grove, a nearby neighborhood in which participants can sample up to 50 different types of locally made brews inside 50 different venues in both neighborhoods. Enjoy entertainment by an assortment of live musicians.

Along your stroll, you’ll note that giving back to the community is a must for these residents and business owners, and they take it to the next level with what they do best  – art, food and music. Several nonprofits include: Pianos for People, which connects people who need pianos with pianos that need people; Bridge Bread is a social enterprise bakery that provides supportive employment for people without safe and stable housing; and Cherokee Street Reach is a youth arts and leadership program.

Ready to relax yet? Love Bank Park gives one a chance to unwind with its artfully colored picnic tables, makeshift basketball court, a game of Twister that is painted on the pavement, and even hopscotch. Bonfires there provide a natural gathering space for residents and patrons alike.

As for the pop-up beach bar and dumpster pool parties? Those were do-it-yourself events developed on a whim by local proprietors; every year brings new ideas.

Cherokee Street is alive and moving.

Fun facts:

  • Fred Wehrenberg opened his first movie theatre on Cherokee Street in 1906.
  • The Casa Loma Ballroom opened in 1940; prior to that is was the Show Boat Dance Hall.
  • Earliest of the variety “five and ten cent” stores in the area was that of F.W. Woolworth, opened in 1919.
  • C. Penny opened their store on Cherokee Street in 1946.
  • Other old-line merchants in the district were the Dau Furniture Company, the Western Auto Supply Company and Walgreen’s Drug Store.

 

 

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