SOUTH GRAND – Protesters who marched through the South Grand business district on the night of Nov. 24, 2014, left a trail of broken glass, broken windows and worries that the incident might scare away customers.
But before the sun rose the next morning, politicians, civic leaders and businesses started organizing to fix the damage people could see and the district’s reputation that people couldn’t see.
Neighbors quickly arrived to clean up the damage and guard businesses until owners showed up. Donors contributed mounds of paint to spruce up drab-looking boards covering broken windows. An army of artists showed up to paint cheery-looking designs on those boards.
With that help, the businesses stayed open, and customers returned.
“I went to Rooster the very next day to have dinner with boarded-up windows,” said Stephen Conway, Mayor Lyda Krewson’s chief of staff. At the time, Conway was alderman for the 8th Ward, which included the east side of Grand Boulevard. Rooster is a European-style urban cafe at 3150 South Grand.
“It’s amazing what kind of community we have,” Rachel Witt, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District, later wrote in a report on the day’s events. Her organization is responsible for marketing and improving the area.
“It’s amazing what the love and support of a community can be when you bring people together with a paintbrush and paint,” Witt wrote.
Although customers quickly rallied around, business did go down after Christmas that year.
“It took a few years for South Grand to rebuild to be a successful business as we are today,” Witt said.
It was one more effect of the Ferguson protests.
The window-breaking came the same day that then-St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch announced that former Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Brown was unarmed when Wilson shot him on Aug. 9, 2014, unleashing sometimes-violent protests that went on for months in Ferguson.
Some protests with a Ferguson connection also came to the nearby Shaw neighborhood, after an off-duty St. Louis police officer working for a private security company shot a black man in that neighborhood on Oct. 8, 2014.
On Nov. 24, as parts of Ferguson burned, FOX-2 reported that peaceful protesters shut down Interstate 44 at Grand soon after 9:30 p.m. About an hour later, demonstrators marched to the South Grand business district.
“I still remember like it was yesterday,” Witt said. “I was up watching everything on the news. They were on the interstate. People eventually got off the interstate, and they were leaving.”
She went to sleep, not knowing how bad things would soon get. When she woke up early the next morning, she was aghast to see she had about 30 missed calls and text messages.
“People threw things into their windows. Their windows were broken,” Witt said. “I was not going to decide what we were going to do. It was going to be a group community decision.”
Witt contacted the aldermen who shared the district to ask them to attend a meeting at 7 a.m. with business and community leaders.
When Witt showed up on South Grand that morning, she saw broken windows, but she also saw volunteers who had gathered to clean up and fix the damage.
Despite the broken glass, “I was impressed how clean it was,” Witt said, offering one impression of what she saw. “Also, [there was] sadness in the business owners’ eyes: ‘Why us?’”
At the 7 a.m. meeting, the group decided that South Grand businesses should stay open as usual. They also asked the Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association to use a social media site it had created to raise money for repairs and window boards.
“Within an hour, we had over 100 artists signing up. And visitors and residents were dropping off paint supplies and money,” Witt said. “I couldn’t believe in an hour we had that many artists signed up. By the end of the day, we had more than 200 artists signed up. Within a day or two, all of the murals were complete.”
Altogether, windows at 18 businesses were broken, Witt said in a report.
One of the worst-affected businesses was Cafe Natasha, 3200 South Grand. Nine windows were broken out, said Natasha Bahrami, co-owner of Cafe Natasha. They were boarded up within the week. New glass went into the windows within three weeks.
As the artists worked, the St. Louis Development Corporation established a relief fund for the 18 businesses whose windows were damaged and spent the day talking with businesses. Between the St. Louis Development Corp. and web-based fundraisers, the cost of the damages was covered. And once the South Grand painting was done, the artists took the remaining paint to Ferguson.
Customers turned out in support of South Grand, Witt said.
“People from all over the city and county came out for weeks,” she said.
The only thing stolen was a bow and arrow from a pawn shop at Grand and Hartford Street.
One of the neighbors who helped after the window-breaking was Martin Casas, then-president of the Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association. Now the owner of Apotheosis Comics, at 3206 South Grand, he was at home on the night of Nov. 24 watching what was going on. He went out to help clean up the damage and secure the businesses.
There, he noticed something interesting: “None of the protesters were the ones who broke the windows,” he said. “The demonstrations were incredibly peaceful.”
Rather, it was a group of youths who tossed heavy trash can lids through windows like frisbees.
Conway said about 10 to 15 people had been responsible for the damage.
“In all of those protests, you had people blending in,” Conway said. “The vast number of the people, everybody’s got a reason to be there.”
The crowd dispersed after police used tear gas, Conway said. According to the Riverfront Times, some of that made its way to MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse, 3606 Arsenal Street, where people had gathered in a “safe space.”
Then-St. Louis police Chief Sam Dotson said the coffeehouse had been hit inadvertently, the Riverfront Times reported. But the paper said it had video evidence that city police officers had dropped tear gas canisters in front of the business. Mo Costello, owner of MoKaBe’s, declined to comment.
The next day, stores up and down South Grand were boarded up.
“We were able to marshal hundreds of people to come down,” Casas said.
In spite of the disruption, Casas located his business there two years ago.
“South Grand is one of the prominent shopping districts in the city of St. Louis,” he said. “It’s always been a very strong shopping district, so we knew it would be a good fit for our business.”
The morning after the demonstration, not all businesses could say that. A main task for Conway was to reassure merchants that the violence was an anomaly and that it was safe for them to stay. One way to do that was to eat at the Rooster that night, close to a boarded-up window.
Conway sought out business people on the east side, the area he represents.
“It was important to reassure these people that we’ve got ’em covered,” he said.
“All of the business owners were in kind of a state of panic,” said Catherine Gilbert Hamacher, who helped with the recovery. “It was Nov. 24. Small Business Saturday was two days away.”
That morning, “We just decided to see what what’s going on and what we could do.”
Then donations and painters started pouring in.
“It went all day,” Hamacher said. “It went until dark. It was pretty remarkable. It was a really inspiring day. That’s for sure.”