Rachelle Abrams and her business, Top Knotch Hair Salon, have been a fixture in the strip mall in the West Florissant neighborhood of Florissant county, Missouri, since 1997. So much so that during the unrest that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police, which happened a short five minutes down the road, it was nearby neighbors who came to check on her business while she was visiting relatives in Chicago.
They came by at the crack of dawn the day after the first night of unrest to take pictures of her storefront which they sent via text message, just so Abrams could be assured her business was okay. When she finally returned, she noticed a good Samaritan had mysteriously anointed the business door with the sign of a cross.
“I was like, who did this to my shop?” Abrams said. “I was about to wipe it off but then I noticed it’s oil. I said I know I’m not going crazy; these are crosses. I guess I feel blessed. So I’ll leave it right here.” Abrams loves the support she has received from the community, many of whom she calls customers and friends. But she admits that the recent unrest in nearby Ferguson, which is only about a five-minute drive up W. Florissant Avenue has her contemplating leaving the area all together. I asked if the police shooting and subsequent unrest affected business. Abrams told me there was some trepidation among her clients about coming into town.
“Most of my clients are working class people, so they come when they get off of work. I had a client who wore braids all summer call the other day and say, ‘I was going to come last week, but it’s too much going on up your way. I’m holding back until next week for things to die down.’ So, yes, it has definitely slowed things down around here.”
As much as she wants to blame the decline in business completely on what’s happening in Ferguson, Abrams said this summer already hadn’t been the greatest financially. Truthfully, business has been slow in the area for a while – at least since the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
In short, the rise of natural hair means less of a demand for Top Knotch’s specialties, which are perms, press and curls, and weaves. Technology, particularly instructional hair videos on YouTube, also slows down business. But what’s hurting Abrams’ salon more than the rise in the natural hair movement and hair vloggers is the changing demographic of the area.
Unlike Ferguson, which saw its population shift rapidly from predominately white in 1990 to predominately Black less than 10 years later, Florissant is slowly leaking its white residents, who continue to move further west. In 2000, whites made up 86.66 of the county, but today that number is at 68.9 percent. While Abrams she said enjoys having some color in the neighborhood (because “white people are not always nice”), diversity has not always spelled good news for business.
Abrams’ three-chair salon used to be the only Black beauty parlor in the strip mall. Today, there are two plus a barber shop. She’s the only chair in her salon now. It’s a problem of poor neighborhood planning, which she said is the result of poor leadership. Beside the super-saturation of similar businesses in the same area, she also mentioned the poor condition of the roads and commercial property, which remains empty.
“If you head west you don’t see a lot of us and that’s where it’s all nice and clean, but it is still all one county. So when you think of the fact that most of the population is over here and we’re ignored, after a while it kind of gets to you,” she said.
Abrams believes the protest in nearby Ferguson is as much a reflection of how people are treated in general as it is anger over Mike Brown’s death. She recalled an incident that occurred three years ago right in front of her shop when she was walking her last customer to their vehicle around midnight and a lone police officer pulled up, flashed a light in her face, and demanded identification.
She tried to explain that her ID was in her purse in the shop, which she owned. However the cop accused her of breaking into a business and conducting a drug transaction. Unlike other victims of alleged police brutality, Abrams didn’t let the incident go. Instead, she filed a complaint.
The incident, she said, was resolved with a meeting with the chief of police and an apology. Dellwood police department, which patrols the area around the strip mall, would later be dissolved and taken over by St. Louis county. Published reports say it was a matter of fiscal responsibility. However, Abrams is certain the numerous complaints against the department, including the one she levied, were part of it.
“I don’t understand anybody going to loot, but it was bound to happen. What I do understand,” Abrams said, “is educating yourself and going out to vote. We had a big election on August 5th and less than 25 percent of St. Louis county came out to vote.”
Lack of political participation, is also why the local Black school board superintendent was pushed out of his seat, Abrams believes. “Everybody is angry that a police officer is not indicted, well the prosecuting attorney is the one who determines who is indicted or not. We all know that he has a history of bias [against Black people], so why did we not vote when there was a Black woman running against him? That’s how these white people keep getting in.”
I asked if she thinks this shooting would wake the community to the value of the political process. Abrams shook her head in the negative. “I think that when it dies down, it’s a wrap and we’re going to go back to people doing what they usually do and accepting what is happening to them.”
Abrams said the final sign that it is time to move on from her business came with the tear gas she ingested as she sat stuck in traffic during the early night of the protest. That’s when then she knew that it was time to really think seriously about her last two years of college studies and plan for a new future.
“I really like math. But I don’t really want to teach. I just know that the industry is dying; things are changing so I need to do something different.”