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Windows, Boards, Resilience Line South Grand

Sign painted on boarded-up window at the Upcycle Exchange
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

When the big window in her craft shop on South Grand was covered with plywood on Tuesday, Autumn Wiggins wasn’t about to let a drab, blank canvas go to waste.

So some artist friends, Ken Wood and Andrew James, wielded a paint brush and a roller and soon, in stark black against a bright white background, the shop’s name, Upcycle Exchange, was there to proclaim that she was open for business – and that the new blackboard could be used as a place for others in the eclectic neighborhood to voice their views on the aftermath of Monday night’s demonstration.

After the announcement that a grand jury had declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, unruly crowds took to the streets in that north St. Louis County community and on South Grand as well. The city demonstration rekindled unrest from last month, when Vonderrit Myers Jr. was shot and killed by an off-duty city policeman in the Shaw neighborhood.

The march on South Grand was nowhere near as violent as that in Ferguson. But that relative lenience was little consolation to the shop owners who dealt Tuesday with broken windows, a lack of business and, in some cases, uncertainty over where things will go from here. On some window boards was painted the plaintive question: “Why? We need our jobs”

Wiggins said she had stuck around the shop Monday night and early Tuesday, watching to see how the crowd would behave as it move southward on Grand. A brick through the front door shattered the calm she had hoped would prevail. Now, she says, she’s not sure how to proceed.

“I think this is going to be a longer-term problem,” she said as Wood and James continued their art project.

One development that Wiggins and others affected by the demonstration could count on was word that small grants and low-interest loans would be available to help with expenses such as boarding up windows, lost merchandise and other damages. The St. Louis Development Corp. said about 20 businesses had windows broken and other damages.

The funds will come from a program titled Recovery St. Louis, an extension of the Small Business Relief Program that was established for Ferguson businesses after the initial unrest in August. The program was extended Tuesday to include businesses on South Grand between Interstate 44 and Gravois.

Sign painted on boarded-up window on South Grand
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Sign painted on boarded-up window on South Grand

A few of the businesses that the money is designed to help were closed Tuesday, and the odor of plywood was plentiful. But many more were open, gamely trying to carry on despite window damage or worse. Crowds at the restaurant Rooster remained healthy, even as an artist painted a peace sign, a fleur-de-lis and other designs on the boarded-up windows.

Christopher Shearman, president of the board of the South Grand Community Improvement District, said that the special nature of the neighborhood will help it get through the crisis.

"We had so many people out last night, showing their support for South Grand, for the neighborhood," he said on St. Louis On the Air Tuesday. "They were peacefully protesting, and then a handful of individuals took the opportunity to do some vandalism.

"We have a unique neighborhood. It's economically diverse. It's racially diverse. There are a lot of people from different backgrounds, but they take the time to empathize and to educate themselves."

He said he expects a stronger police presence Tuesday night, for officers to be "more present along the businesses to provide less of an opportunity for vandalism. Although it still hurts and it's frustrating, it tended to just be broken glass and vandalism."

And, Shearman said, many establishments were already showing signs of rebounding from Monday night's events.

"People are coming out," he said. "They're dining on South Grand. They're buying coffee. They're going out to eat. People are being very supportive of the neighborhood right now."

Not all businesses had such a robust customer base, though.

At Kim’s Hair Salon, owner Kim Pham stood in an empty shop a little after 11 a.m. She said her landlord had called her early Tuesday morning and told her to get down to the shop and see what had happened.

A few customers had canceled appointments in the morning, Pham said, but she wasn’t sure what was going to happen in the afternoon.

“What can we do?” she asked, adding that she planned to leave for her home early tonight. “People are calling to ask if it’s safe. I don’t want to scare away my clients.”

Nearby, Café Natasha appeared to be closed, with all of its windows covered in plywood. But inside, co-owner Natasha Bahrami said she was ready to serve any customers who came in for lunch or dinner, despite the damage done by Monday night’s crowd.

“They grabbed lids from trash cans and numerous rocks,” she said, explaining how glass was broken.

Hamishe Bahrami (left) and Natasha Bahrami, co-owners of Cafe Natasha
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Hamishe Bahrami (left) and Natasha Bahrami, co-owners of Cafe Natasha

“I don’t think it was like, oh, Café Natasha, they’re the bad ones. I just think we have a lot of windows.”

Bahrami said she lives nearby and heard gunshots as the crowd made its way down Grand. Even as the windows were being repaired Tuesday, she said, a car stopped and someone called out a not-too-subtle threat.

“They said, ‘I don’t know why you’re boarding up your windows,’” she said. “’We’re just going to do it again.”

At the vintage shop Parsimonia, owner Beth Styles said someone had sent her an Instagram photo of the store’s broken window about 1 a.m. She said for now, wooden boards will take the place of glass until after the Thanksgiving weekend.

She said she was surprised at the violent turn the march had taken.

“The way this neighborhood has reacted to this,” Styles said, “I felt people had been really communicative, between the police and the protest leaders. I left the story last night feeling pretty sure I didn’t have to worry about it.”

She said she had plans for a painted faux window display, to help restore a sense of business as usual.

Beth Styles of Parsimonia
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Beth Styles of Parsimonia

“I don’t know if it is about making it appear normal,” she said. “I think it is about trying to react in a way that is positive and productive and is loving and forgiving. I really think that is the best thing you can do when you are faced with something like this.”

Nothing was missing from the store, she added. “It was just someone who wanted to break a window.”

Looting did not appear to be the motive at the A.J.&R. Pawn Shop, either. There, owner Ronald Kuhn, who said the shop had been open for 40 years without seeing the kind of violence that erupted Monday night, said he was missing a crossbow and a couple of tools, but most of the wide array of merchandise remained untouched.

Asked what he thought had touched off the unrest, he shook his head and said he didn’t understand why it happened.

“I guess some people don’t need a reason,” he said.

Kuhn said he planned to spend the night at the shop, standing guard.

But back at her craft shop, the Upcycle Exchange, with its newly decorated plywood, Wiggins was more confident. She said she had not felt unsafe in the neighborhood before, and she did not expect that to change now.

“Not at all,” she said. “I’ve had way more people come and help me today than were gathered around my shop last night.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.