Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cherokee Street Blues

Cherokee Street is one of the storied streets of St. Louis. Over the years it has maintained its focus as one of the city's neighborhood commercial corridors. It runs from the old Lemp Brewery on the east to Gravois on the west. In between, it's a narrow commercial strip, lined with historic buildings, shops, and apartments.

Over the past ten years or so, it has become one of the city's emerging creative areas. Today it is an eclectic mix of ethnic restaurants, small business creative entrepreneurs, and residents. Mostly, it's a group of passionate, dedicated people working together to make the area a better place to live and work.

The greater part of Cherokee Street is shared between the 9th and 20th wards, all of which may change after the next aldermanic ward redistricting. The reason for the change is population losses in the city. The 2010 census showed about an 8% loss in city population, heaviest in the north, but generally pretty even throughout. The net result in terms of ward redistricting will likely be a pulling south of ward boundaries.

So why call this post "Cherokee Street Blues"? Because the blues are about suffering, and we all know there is a lot of pain in St. Louis. The process of ward redistricting is no different. For many, it will cause lots of pain and indigestion.

Since the census was released, there's been a lot of pain expressed about the city's loss of people. Maybe "St. Louis Blues" is another song waiting to be rewritten. A rap version maybe? Whether it's ragtime, blues, or rap, St. Louis is a place of creativity, art, and - yes - pain; and, even though people here don't like it: change.

Most of the city's historic population losses have happened north. In fact, Cherokee Street's 20th ward was formerly part of North City, around the intersection of Kingsighway and West Florissant roads. The ward was moved to south city in the last redistricting of aldermanic wards, and was designated an "opportunity ward" for the election of an African American alderman.

The old northside 20th ward seat had long been held by an African American alderman, and in order to move the ward south, without violating the Voting Rights Act, the city needed to draw a new ward boundary where an African American candidate stood a good chance of being elected. The new southside 20th ward was created, and, since 2000, a white alderman has been elected in the strongly black ward - twice.

In the meantime, north city continues to lose population. According to the 2010 census, since 2000, some northside wards have lost over 20% of their populations. There's no doubt that the next aldermanic ward redistricting will create more pain. Loss of wards in north city creates much concern, as does potential loss of African American elected officials. The new census is foreshadowing of more St. Louis change. As city and regional residents, our challenge is how we move forward.

The first things cited when it comes to city population loss are high crime and lousy schools. There are lots of other reasons, but those two are almost always at the top of the list. Families with school age children move out and people living in high crime neighborhoods leave. In some parts of St. Louis city, population losses have created huge vacancy.

On March 19th, NextSTL is presenting "Open/Closed", a conference on vacant land in St. Louis. The conference will bring together a variety of community leaders and regular St. Louisans to discuss the challenges and opportunties of vacancy in St. Louis.

Thinking back on the challenges causing vacancy, add jobs to the top of the list. With abundant vacant land, shouldn't St. Louis be able to create affordable, attractive site locations for new employment?

What about education? Building on St. Louis' standing as one of the top bio-tech centers in the country, are there ways to connect local institutions, such as our strong universities and biotech companies, with young people in St. Louis to leverage underutilized urban land into opportunities in the emerging fields of green urban agriculture and the green economy? These are some of the ideas which will be explored at the Open/Closed conference.

Heading back down to Cherokee Street, the creative energy will continue. It too shows population losses, but the built environment of the area remains largely intact. Its population losses are not immediately evident, and are more a result of a reduction in household size and number. Old four-family flats might now house one family and a studio or home office. Raw numbers of population loss make headlines, but they do not tell the whole story. As in so much of St. Louis, there are interesting nuances below the surface.

The blues can be slow with lots of pain, or upbeat and filled with hope - like when Chuck Berry and an electric guitar transformed the blues into rock and roll. So whether it's a new version of the St. Louis Blues or the still unwritten Cherokee Street Blues, the way the songs come out will be based on the way we work together. We have the resources. It's up to us to make the best good with them.

1 comment:

Machelle said...

Great post; hope you keep us informed of the changes. I'll be reading.
Have a great one,