The following essay was originally published in St. Louis Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
Cherokee Street is dangerous.
No, not in the cliché definition we see plastered all over the nightly news. It is dangerous to the status quo in St. Louis politics. Despite very little attention from City Hall, the street has rebounded from absentee landlordship to become a thriving, multicultural community. Scanning through national coverage of St. Louis, places such as the Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Art Museum, the Cardinals, and the Arch get much of the attention, and logically so, as they are large institutions with commensurate budgets. But it's Cherokee Street that should be getting into the headlines despite having a fraction of the finances of those other St. Louis icons.
In addition to being ignored by City Hall, Cherokee Street has rarely been the recipient of tax abatements of the quantity lavished on the Central Corridor. Nonetheless, the street thrives. I began to contemplate why this is; if tax subsidies are so necessary to spur development in the Central Corridor, then why did growth happen anyway in the Cherokee Corridor? Here are my observations, having watched the street mature over the past decade.
Individual initiative, without help or even in defiance of the political leadership in the neighborhood. Mexican Americans moved to Cherokee Street and began to open stores and restaurants, bringing life to a commercial corridor that was largely abandoned. Yet again, as has been shown over the past 250 years, this city has always been nourished with the blood of immigrants, and their contribution has been ignored for just about that length of time as well. It was Mexican Americans who built the first new buildings on Cherokee Street in decades.
Hard work, which tax incentives cannot replace. Look at the work required to renovate the Cherokee Brewery. Despite receiving no tax abatements, the Earthbound Beer team transformed a historic brewery building into a modern microbrewery. I was always amazed by the shear amount of grunt work required, particularly the summer that I witnessed a steady stream of dirt and rock pour out of a rickety but perfectly functional conveyer belt rising from the depths below. With the help of friends (including one who singlehandedly picked up giant blocks of discarded limestone), Earthbound cleared out a historic lagering cellar filled with rubble for a century. And unlike other big-ticket developments in the Central Corridor, Earthbound is now even attracting international attention.
A sense of purpose beyond profit. I'm not arguing that businesses should not worry about being fiscally solvent. Far from it. But I’ve discovered over the years that most people can smell a person who’s only in business for the money. When I walk into a place such as Blank Space (an event venue on Cherokee), I feel like I’m somewhere special, a place where there is community. When I walk into StL Style, I don't just see a custom T-shirt shop; I see a place where the Vines brothers and their staff have created a business that advocates for their community. When I walk into the Hop Shop or Teatopia, I feel like I’ve entered an oasis of calm in a bustling world. When I walk into Yaqui’s Pizza, I think about how the owner once bought his class ring in the same building decades ago.
It must be terribly confusing to the bigwigs in City Hall: a thriving community without the excessive use of tax incentives. Ironically, it made me think back to my days playing Sim City and how I, along with many others, used a cheat code that gave me free money. What did I do after getting the free money? I spent it recklessly because, after all, it was free money. The problem was that I built a city too quickly for tax revenues to catch up. Eventually, my little simulated city, awash with the electronic equivalent of subsidies, ran out of money. And I couldn’t keep using the cheat code to get more money, because the game's designers would trigger an earthquake if the cheat was used too much. I would be left high and dry, with a city that couldn’t pay for itself due to subsidized growth. And of course, that was right when my power plant blew up because it was 50 years old. I realized that the only way to win Sim City was slow, organic growth in which tax revenues matched development. It took more time, but it was ultimately more rewarding.
Sound familiar? Our city has given away close to $1 billion in tax subsidies for development that very well shouldn’t have occurred in the first place due to market demand. Or even worse, many projects would have done just fine without subsidies—and got them anyway. Your city is likely no different. Just like in Sim City, you can only raise taxes so high before people start leaving. St. Louis even has its own proverbial power plant that needs to be replaced; the estimates for updating the Convention Center are in the hundreds of millions. There is no money. No, really, there is no money.
Back to the first sentence of the article: Cherokee Street is dangerous. It is dangerous to those at City Hall who insist that we were obligated to give away hundreds of millions of tax dollars or our city would see no new development. Cherokee Street proves that when individuals are left alone to work hard, experiment and dream, real change and rebirth can occur. It must be incredibly humbling for politicians to hear that.
(Top photo source: Paul Sableman)