Finding Community After the Stockley Verdict

Finding Community After the Stockley Verdict

On four hours of sleep, Elisheva Heit was on her way to the grand opening of her business, Flamenco Flowers, on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis. It was 9 a.m. the Sunday morning after midnight riots developed down Delmar in response to a judge’s verdict that Jason Stockley, a former white police officer, was not guilty in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man. The windows on Heit’s storefront had been broken, and she had been at the shop until 3 a.m. cleaning up to make sure everything was in tip-top shape for the grand opening. She lives five minutes away, and was ready to cut the big red ribbon despite the plywood-covered window display and anxiety-filled evening.

Flamenco Flowers

The entrance to Flamenco Flowers (Megan Stringer, 14 East)

Delmar Boulevard was unusually bustling at the early hour. Business owners and community members alike were out to sweep glass up off the sidewalk, paint murals over boarded-up windows and share Panera with business owners. As the sun rose, broken glass disappeared, swapped out for artwork and community.

The Delmar Loop community area is made up of mostly mom-and-pop local businesses, and recovering from the violence that night has been no small feat over the last two months. Among broken windows, damaged merchandise and frightened customers, owners are just now beginning to understand the impact on their revenue and the overall business climate of the neighborhood. While owners suffered emotionally, they spoke highly of their community support system.

“I had complete strangers that came – they helped, cleaned up and disappeared,” Heit said. “A couple of guys I actually made friends with. Now they come to the store all the time just to hang out. Just nice people who helped from the goodness of their heart.”

Although the shop opened in June, Heit had planned Sept. 17 for the grand opening months earlier. She didn’t want all the preparation to fall to the wayside over something she couldn’t control. The relationship between business owners and protesters has proven complex, as some want to support the movement but feel compromised by the violence.

The majority of protests following the Stockley verdict had been peaceful, with most of the violence occurring the weekend of Sept. 15 directly after the announcement. Based on their security footage, business owners on Delmar said a spin-off of the original, peaceful group had come out the evening of Sept. 16 when things turned violent. The University City Police Department released a statement saying the violent protesters were an offshoot of the original, peaceful protesters from that afternoon.

A total of 23 businesses sustained broken windows that night according to Mary Adams, executive director of the University City Chamber of Commerce, where The Delmar Loop is located. In total, 13 of those businesses spent over $7,000 in board-up costs alone, and 10 have yet to report their board-up costs. Board-up and replacement costs for businesses vary depending on their insurance, deductible, size and material of the windows.

broken glass in numbers

Infographic by Megan Stringer

Heit’s grand opening actually had a larger turnout than she would have expected, with the attention from the protests bringing people onto the streets again to sweep up. Many business owners said they made more sales than normal that Sunday – “sympathy sales,” as some coined it. Heit believes she benefited economically, but not all did. Most say it still wouldn’t be enough to balance out the cost of repair, not to mention the emotional toll.

Effects Around the Block

Blue Ocean sushi restaurant (6335 Delmar Blvd.) lost $10,000 in revenue the weekend of the violent protests, and that rose to $18,000 total by the first weekend in November, according to bar manager Tai Nalewaiko. The restaurant only had two windows blown out, but had kept them boarded up that whole time, waiting until they could appeal to their insurance for replacement. Many owners believe plywood windows kept customers away, particularly in places where atmosphere is important.

Subterranean Books (6275 Delmar Blvd.) down the street was also hit – literally, with a trash can lid through the window. By mid-afternoon on Friday, Nov. 3, the new windows were just going up, and the lettering wouldn’t be replaced until the following Monday.

Owner Kelly von Plonski said the bookstore saw more harm than good, as it has a high deductible on its insurance, but was still overwhelmed by the community support. She joined the band of other business owners leaving their beds late Saturday night creeping into morning, showing up with brooms and surprised to see others already there sweeping up the streets.

“I had just gotten home and I saw the live footage from the news, [they were] starting to come down Delmar,” von Plonski said. “Almost immediately the alarm company called, because the glass had broken in. I was already tying my shoes, because I knew I would have to come down here.”

Von Plonski, who has run the bookstore for 17 years, is accustomed to activism in The Delmar Loop, an area that sees a protest nearly every weekend, some say. However, this time was different – the protests weren’t new, but the damage was. After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, The Loop saw protests almost every day, but businesses never sustained damage in that area, according to locals and owners.

“If people are going to march anywhere, they always come to The Loop. It doesn’t matter what the issue is,” von Plonski said. “It’s not something we’ve never seen.”

Under the Arch-HEADER OP 2

A mural painted on one of the wooden window covers on Delmar (Megan Stringer, 14 East)

The Art of Protest and Peace

The community came out to help in other ways, too. Artists and nearby Washington University students painted murals over boarded-up windows, helping build optimism and color during the waiting period for new windows. The murals painted over the boarded-up windows were displayed and auctioned off following a panel discussion at nearby Fontbonne University, in an exhibit called “The Art of Protest and Peace.”

Anthony Borchardt, gallery director at Fontbonne, was asked to organize an exhibition related to the #StockleyVerdict demonstrations, and after driving down Delmar one day, he knew he had seen the exhibition already in place.

Sponsored by The Loop Special Business District, all proceeds from the auction will be disbursed among The Loop businesses for window replacement and other repair as a way of putting money back into the community.

Jeff Weintrop, owner of the Silver Lady jeweler (6364 Delmar Blvd.), had to replace two windows, putting him out around $3,000 before insurance. Like other storefronts, the plywood window art matched the business, reading “There is Always a Silver Lining” alongside images of the jewelry.

Weintrop saw a silver lining in the community outreach as other businesses did, and was happy to see the community support him. However, he felt frustrated at the same time, and believed the disruption distracted from the protesters’ goal.

“We had nothing to do with it, we’re just here,” Weintrop said. “You wanna protest, protest all you want, but there’s a time and a place for it. When it turns to vandalism, that’s not a protest anymore. Now you defeated your purpose.”

Across the street, Susan Bertino also felt conflicted. She said the daytime protests were peaceful, with children and “little old ladies” marching. “It’s a shame what happened afterwards.”

An art consultant at Compônere Gallery of Art, she had only been working there for about a month before eight windows were broken and 17 art pieces damaged or bruised.

“It happened about 10:17 at night,” Bertino said. “One of the clocks stopped ticking that was in the window at that time. I know I was watching the news at 10:12 at night, and I turned it off, and it happened about five minutes after that.”

Gallery owner and founder Eleanor D. W. Ruder came over right away, only to find a line of men guarding the broken window display from theft – her “guardian angels.”

After 31 years dealing in local art, many of the artists Ruder works with said not to worry about the damaged art. She reimbursed some of the artists, but kept a table in the corner with a sign: “Slightly Bruised Art, 50 percent off.”

A Letter of Solidarity

While many community members put their money where their mouth is after the protests, business owners who hadn’t been affected have joined in the conversation too. An open letter was created for “business owners who stand in solidarity with Stockley protesters” to sign.

“We recognize that glass can be replaced,” the letter reads. “Lives cannot be replaced, families do not eventually recover, and the fear of being murdered in the streets will haunt certain residents of our community forever.”

Eliza Coriell started the letter hoping for at least 20 signatures over the weekend – she got 46 by Monday, and the letter now has 157 business owners representing 150 businesses, she said.

Coriell, majority owner of The Crow’s Nest bar (7336 Manchester Rd.) in Maplewood just outside city limits, wanted to make protesters aware of local businesses who supported their effort. She said her own customer base wasn’t surprised by the letter, but knows not all businesses felt comfortable aligning themselves with what could be considered a political movement.

“Business owners – we’re the taxpayers, we’re the employers, and for right or wrong, we’re given a standing in the community that an individual might not have,” Coriell said. “If we have this stronger voice, we really need to be using it.”

Jarek Steele, co-owner of self-proclaimed “radical” bookstore Left Bank Books (399 N. Euclid Ave.), signed the letter without a thought, but realizes not all businesses are in a position to do so. Located in the Central West End neighborhood, Left Bank Books was founded out of the anti-war movement in the late ‘60s from a collective of Washington University students looking to provide “alternative” literature. The Central West End is about a 10-15 minute drive from the Delmar Loop area, and sits within St. Louis city limits.

Google Map Neighborhood 2

The route from Flamenco Flowers to Left Bank Books, courtesy of Google Maps.

“It made sense for us to support Black Lives Matter because that’s who we are. Our customers are these protesters, our families are these protesters, we are the protesters,” Steele said. “It’s our community, and we serve the community we’re in.”

The Central West End also saw a bout of violent protests and broken windows after the Stockley verdict was announced. Left Bank Books did not sustain any damage, which Steele believes was because it’s been around so long, and the business supports the movement in the first place. While Steele is a business owner and doesn’t particularly want disruption, the store prefers to look at the goal of disruption in a long view rather than a short one.

“The long view is that whenever our community does better, we do better. Everybody benefits from that,” Steele said. “If we have to disrupt something in the short term to get the longer view, I am in. A life matters way more than a broken window to me – I don’t want a broken window, but I would rather have a broken window than somebody die.”

The effects were visible the following morning. Steele recalls walking up to the store the next day, and seeing a thin layer of white powder spread over the T.S. Eliot statue out front.

Steele thought, “Who spray painted…oh wait, that’s not spray paint. That’s tear gas.”

TS Eliot Statue

A statue of T.S. Eliot in the Central West End, on Euclid Avenue and McPherson Avenue (Megan Stringer, 14 East)

Still Standing

Back on Delmar Boulevard, businesses are still recovering. Outside Flamenco Flowers, residents, both friends and strangers, gathered for noontime wine and dessert on Sunday, Sept. 17. They showed up to welcome Heit to The Loop, and to send a message to the greater St. Louis area.

“It’s unnecessary [the violence]. It’s a peaceful community, it’s a safe community,” Adams said. “We’re working really hard to let people know The Loop is open, and you wanna be here.”

Two months later, Delmar Boulevard continued to bustle with weekend visitors and neighbors, and many said business had settled back into normal. Some windows were still being replaced, but business owners were beginning to reconcile with the community.

“I love it – it was the dream of my life to have a business right here,” Heit said. “They weren’t gonna deter me so easily.”


Header photo by Megan Stringer

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly captioned the statue of T.S. Eliot at Demar in stead of Central West End. It has since been corrected.