“There’s a lot of history on this block,” said Judy Pruitt as she sat amongst the guests of Diversity Gallery’s grand re-opening on North Sarah Saturday afternoon. “A lot of black business history.”
“We used to play in that park right over there,” Pruitt said as she and other guests talked about the drug store and strip of businesses that used to line the block “all the way down to Easton” (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive).
For them – and Diversity’s owner, Leslie Christian-Wilson – the event was a full-circle moment.
After 13 years of residing comfortably in the hotspot of the Delmar Loop, Christian-Wilson took the brave step of being among the first wave of proprietors to populate the newly redeveloped area in North City.
“I could have stayed in the Loop – Joe Edwards was phenomenal,” Christian-Wilson said. “He wanted me to stay. But I decided, ‘If not me, then who?’ We have to get back in here and build our communities back up.”
Diversity Gallery is one of the more recognizable businesses to take up shop in the 1000 block of North Sarah. The historical area has undergone an extreme makeover thanks to McCormack-Baron-Salazar. Their North Sarah redevelopment includes live-to-work units – where the front of the establishments are for retail and/or business services and the back is for residential dwelling – and blocks of mixed-income housing.
Christian-Wilson packed up and left her prime retail real estate to bring Diversity –equal parts boutique, natural hair salon and natural hair product one-stop shop – back to her roots.
“It was really like coming home,” she said.
Christian-Wilson went to Cole Elementary School. She has her own fond memories of going to fish market – as well as stopping in and out of the many businesses along the way – with her grandfather on the very block where her business is housed.
She also spoke of the Comet Theatre and Comet Grill – places that the more seasoned guests of her opening house knew very well.
“Moving here is also empowering, because for my aunts and my mother it sparks nostalgia and pride. It’s like, ‘We used to walk this area, and now my niece or my daughter has a business here.’’
Her hope is to make Diversity Gallery the Sephora for natural hair products in St. Louis.
“Anybody can sell those products, but I try to give you knowledge about those products,” Christian Wilson said. “I look at your hair and tell you what products work best. For me, it’s not selling you a product, it’s helping you with a lifestyle.”
She has also woven fashion and accessories into the inventory over the years.
“Wherever I go, whether it’s New York, L.A., Jamaica, I try to bring back pieces that speak to me to offer it to my clientele,” Christian-Wilson said.
“I want people to know that Diversity Gallery is a reflection of them. I don’t try to alienate any culture of people, but I do want to stand strong for my own. I want Diversity to be a reflection of what it is they want to see.”
Her vision is parallel to her hopes for her new business community.
“It takes a village – and we have to be that village for our businesses,” Christian-Wilson said. “I want us to be that catalyst to be okay with ourselves and in our communities.”
She excited about all of her new neighbor business owners that have either already joined her on Sarah or are on their way. They include home-health businesses, a male mentoring organization, an organic grocery store and a graphic design logo business.
“My plea is that I get the support of our people to show that we can grow the economics within our own community. We’re the only race who doesn’t do it,” Christian-Wilson said.
“I hope to see other black businesses come together and make the North Sarah District the black business Mecca that it once was. I want to see Diversity Gallery and all of the other businesses that have come here to return this area to what it was and have people excited about shopping in this area again.”
Diversity Gallery is now located at 1010 N. Sarah. For more information on hours, products and services offered, call (314) 721-3361 or visit www.diversitygallerystlouis.com.