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Can Minneapolis's coolest street be saved?

Ruhel Islam stayed at Gandi Mahal until a fire in a neighboring building reached the gas line.

Ruhel Islam stayed at Gandi Mahal until a fire in a neighboring building reached the gas line. Susan Du

I.

On the corner of East Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, Sharon Sayles Belton stared down the cultural corridor that had been the beating heart of Minneapolis.

This was the area the former mayor was elected to represent on the City Council in the 1980s. The adjoining communities of Powderhorn and Phillips are some of the most diverse in Minnesota, low-income but entreprenurial. And so Lake Street had been an arcade of small shops and mom-and-pop eateries, an incubator of immigrant dreams. Over the years, it also became one of the last authentically cool places left in the rapidly developing city, where culture held its ground against corporate retail and formulaic luxury apartments.

Earlier this summer, protests against Minneapolis police officers’ killing of George Floyd exploded into arson and looting along Lake Street, laying waste to priceless infrastructure that Sayles Belton had fought for as a city official.

Casualties of the unrest included desperately needed affordable housing, grocery stores, and health clinics. Once-vibrant blocks were reduced to a charred wasteland of twisted metal. There was the surface parking lot that Sayles Belton and her girlfriends cleaned until their work gloves burst. And there was the popular Chicago-Lake Liquors, whose owner waved her in to look at the dregs of his store after everything of value had been stolen.

These days, there are signs that Lake Street is repairing itself. Cub Foods erected a temporary grocery tent in its parking lot while it rebuilt. The trashed Walgreens on Lake Street and 31st Avenue opened a mobile unit so residents no longer had to bus as far as Bloomington for medication. Artists painted murals on plywood-plastered storefronts.

Even with $2 million in donations, Kelly Drummer says MIGIZI is far from ready to rebuild.

Even with $2 million in donations, Kelly Drummer says MIGIZI is far from ready to rebuild. Susan Du

Across the street from the Midtown Global Market, in the lot where the Roberts Shoes artist colony once stood, someone had put together a picnic table, a modest arrangement of raw two-by-fours—not much to look at, but a gesture of trying.

Traversing gullies in the sidewalk, jaw swaddled in a floral mask, the former mayor recalled how the neighborhood pooled its resources to buy and refurbish two houses near Oakland Avenue for the original Harriet Tubman Shelter for Battered Women. How there’d once been an abandoned building on 30th Avenue where sex workers solicited johns, in full view of kids lined up to catch the bus for school.

“When we first started working on the revitalization of Lake Street, the whole corridor from Nicollet all the way to Chicago, this whole corridor was filled with prostitution, drugs, massage parlors, dirty bookstores, all that crap,” says Sayles Belton. “That’s what I inherited. And that’s also what we, working together with these neighborhoods, ran out of our community so that we could have the opportunity to have”—she gestures up at the curly pink sign of La Michoacana Purepecha—“ice cream!”

It was also in her term that the Sears catalog distribution center for the entire upper Midwest closed down, costing the neighborhood thousands of jobs. The empty Midtown Exchange building was a crossroads, literally and figuratively, as prime a moment for community-led rehabilitation as it was a temptation for speculative developers.

So Sayles Belton called up the late billionaire Carl Pohlad of the Minnesota Twins. She sold him a vision of Lake Street uplifting immigrant entrepreneurs, and got him to buy the building for the city. Today, it’s the Midtown Global Market, a vibrant chimera of food stalls, shopping, and mixed-income apartments.

As business districts go, Lake Street can’t compare to the economic engine of downtown, with its glassy maze of skyscrapers, but it did generate enough commerce to sustain a sense of place with a rhythm and a pulse.

That’s changed now. On the other side of I-35W is a scorched post office. Rows of small businesses, many of them Black-, indigenous-, and immigrant-owned, are destroyed.

“Everything they were hoping to benefit from, and we wanted them to benefit from, they’ll be behind the eight ball,” Sayles Belton says. As a former city planner, she can’t divorce fact from the frustration of walking among the ruins of her own hard work.

To start anew, Lake Street must again court major outside investment. To rebuild and maintain its character, it would have to attract the attention of a specific kind of money that understands the ideology of the area—what it’s done for new Americans since the turn of the 20th century, how much fight it’s got left.

“It’s all a part of the history of the people living here, working-class people, low-income people, just saying, ‘We can do better, we know how to fight for what we want, and all we need is somebody to listen.’”

II.

In 1881, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad laid tracks on what is now the Midtown Greenway bicycle highway. It brought manufacturing and industry, which pulled development into the southeast stretch of the city. Then came the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue bridge, which spanned the Mississippi River, marrying Minneapolis and St. Paul.

By the early 1900s, a streetcar network stitched city neighborhoods together, and an influx of Scandinavians and Greeks showed up, looking for jobs in the milling industry. They landed on Lake Street, opening shops, building churches and mutual aid societies like the Sons of Norway and Gustavus Adolphus Hall (now La Poblanita Taqueria), designed “to demonstrate that Swedes were substantial citizens.”

When Lake Street was new, cars were just starting to be mass produced. Auto lots up and down the street displayed the Model T. But with suburbanization came the decline of urban neighborhoods. After 1945, the G.I. Bill permitted white veterans to elevate themselves by going to college and taking out mortgages, while Jim Crow laws barred Black veterans from making use of those same benefits.

Minneapolis’s streetcars were dismantled by 1954, furthering urban decline. Lake Street aged. Porn theaters like the Rialto and the Avalon moved into the neighborhood and drove down its value. When I-35W was built, it neglected to include access ramps to Lake Street, despite residents’ hard-fought campaign to increase movement to the area. Construction crews had just begun building those ramps, 50 years on, when Lake Street caught fire this summer.

Former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton watched decades of transformation shaken in a single week.

Former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton watched decades of transformation shaken in a single week.

Decades of disinvestment meant commercial buildings stayed small and cheap to rent. When Mexicans and Central Americans arrived, followed by Somalis and other East African people, Lake Street reprised the role it had played for prior waves of European immigrants.

Cara Letofsky, a former Met Council member and local historian, chokes up as she tries to explain what sets it apart.

“Every time someone opens a small business, it’s their livelihood. It’s their dream. And that’s what Lake Street gets to be for people, over and over again,” she says. “That’s what we need to keep our eye on when we think about the rebuilding and what comes next, that it still remains that opportunity for people.”

III.

In 2010, Maria Gali purchased a rundown building at 29th and Cedar, one abandoned more than a decade and inhabited by squatters, with plans to open a childcare center. It took five years to clean up the facilities and secure business loans—no easy task for a Mexican immigrant in a low-income neighborhood that had been written off as unlikely to pay tuition, Gali says.

Lenders who specifically gave to childcare startups didn’t buy her business plan. The only financier that would back her dream of teaching multiculturalism and earth stewardship was the local BMO Harris Bank. An underwriter of many immigrant-owned businesses, it was recently trashed by protesters decrying capitalism.

Today, Circulos de Amigos looks after about 60 small children, down from its pre-COVID enrollment of 80. When the riots swept Lake Street, Gali sent everyone home. She watched people setting fires and smashing windows on remote security cameras until she felt overwhelmed by helplessness and sought anxiety meds for the first time in her life.

For now, Luis Ortiz doesn’t mind moving barricades around his business.

For now, Luis Ortiz doesn’t mind moving barricades around his business.

Ultimately, the center was spared damage. But the children weren’t. They returned to school asking, “If somebody does something bad, do they get shot?” and “Can we kill police?”

Gali and her daughter Tania Riviera broached the topic with a clip from Sesame Street and Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano. They made protest signs and led the students on a miniature sidewalk peace march, chanting, “We are the same, we need respect, we are children, we love everybody!”

Afterward, baseline levels of drugs and prostitution—which longtime residents tolerated—suddenly became untenable, the women say. Dealers congregated behind Circulos de Amigos in large groups of 20 or more, attracting buyers from all over. The neighborhood was inundated with open sex, gunshots, needle use, and discarded crack pipes. They could no longer take the children on walks along the Greenway, and couldn’t use their outdoor classroom, an open-ended play area, because strangers often camped there.

“Everyone passes the ball,” says Riviera. “The police pass it on to the city council woman. The city council woman passes it to the judges. We understand all the injustice and inequities that have been done in the criminal justice system. It’s just, how can repeat offenders be let out so often to return to the same neighborhoods, to continue to terrorize them, and also taint the youth?”

Neighbor Jeremy Gray bought a house on Lake and 18th Avenue after the Great Recession. The homeowners on his block hail from all over the world. Many have children around the same age who spend summers biking together up and down 18th.

This year, drugs overran the neighborhood. Groups of people would walk up from the Greenway, go to the Stop and Shop gas station to buy pipes and baggies, and leave trash in the street. Dealers sat atop cars, handing product to drivers who’d barrel off at 50 mph. Conflicts among them spilled into neighbors’ yards. One day a car charged into a group sitting on the retaining wall in front of a house with three young children inside. Confrontation begat retaliation. Someone threw a rock through Gray’s window, raining broken glass across the living room while his family watched TV. They did the same to an apartment unit at the opposite end of the street.

His sons have become fairly desensitized to the scene, Gray says. He’d let them out to play if there were just three or four dealers on the street, but not when there were six or seven.

Jeremy Gray’s block took acting against drug dealers into its own hands.

Jeremy Gray’s block took acting against drug dealers into its own hands.

Amid calls to dismantle the Minneapolis Police this summer, police units that investigated narcotics complaints with undercover work and search warrants ceased operation, according to emails that Kali Pliego, an MPD civilian crime prevention specialist, sent to residents. Beat cops who were supposed to drop in on businesses and get to know community members quit “proactive policing.” They were only allowed to respond to pressing 911 calls.

“You all need to take charge of this situation. There is nobody ‘out there’ who will swoop in and save the day for you. 911 responders in acute situations, yes... but long term solutions have to be organic. I am truly sorry to have to say this to you,” wrote Pliego.

She also gave the residents of 18th Avenue some context about their drug dealers. They’re a group that’s moved from block to block—from 15th to Bloomington to 16th—for more than a year. They stay as long as their intimidation works, but leave once residents organize and make it too hard for them to do their business.

Things came to a head when a neighbor’s teenage daughter was mugged at gunpoint. About 50 people gathered on the Greenway bridge for an emergency meeting. Some were veterans. They wore long guns on their backs and pistols on their hips. Once the crowd reached critical mass, they made an impromptu decision to march down the street and push the drug dealers out. Nearby Capouch Iron Works donated large metal cattle gates, which were installed at both ends of the street, blocking traffic from all but immediate residents.

Luis Ortiz, owner of the New People’s Community Garage auto shop on 18th, says constantly having to move the barricades back and forth makes his business marginally harder, but he doesn’t fault the neighbors for taking security into their own hands.

In prior years, he’d call police about drug dealing right in front of his shop, but all they’d do was drive through with their bullhorns. The dealers would leave, then circle back. Recently, a customer dropped off a truck after hours, only to have its windows smashed and stereo extracted.

“After the mess happening on Lake Street, it was like 20 to 30 people from the moment I opened. When I leave, I leave, but the neighbors deal with it all night,” Ortiz says. “They have kids, and I really felt bad for them because the kids come out to play, and they have to turn around with the people working there in front of their house. It was no life.”

Neighbors formed an armed night patrol. They built gravel speed bumps in the street without the city’s permission, and took time off work to guard their block around the clock. By and by, the drug dealers disappeared from 18th. But then conflicts arose around who would be leader, and who was putting more skin on the line for the comfort of all. The disagreements threatened the sustainability of the whole arrangement.

The dealers eventually reconvened on 17th Avenue. Residents on both blocks are desperate for a solution.

Angelique Morgan, who lives on 17th, attended a recent neighborhood meeting held in a vacant lot on 18th with council member Alondra Cano.

She said she was tired of sequestering her children behind her house as dozens of dealers teemed in front, trafficking Native American women, her people. She doesn’t want them criminalized. She wants humane treatment for those suffering from addiction. But she also needs relief for her immediate neighbors, who are mostly women, elderly, and youth. They need 18th Avenue’s help to confront the rampant drug dealing and prostitution, Morgan says.

“Every time I came down here [looking for help], somebody had an attitude, somebody looked at me like I was a criminal, somebody looked at me like I was dirty,” she admonished the people of 18th. “We need to come together as a community. We need to help each other out.”

Afterward, Morgan exchanged numbers with neighbors, who offered to move the nonfunctioning mobile police camera on 18th a block over. City staff plan to change some local streets into one-ways, and provide trash bags and gloves for residents to clean their neighborhood. The parks department has been asked to trim the trees, which would allow streetlight to flood in at night.

Other makeshift barricades began to proliferate through the neighborhood as block by block, upstart residents closed off streets. The result: piecemeal gated communities, some created without democratic input, unmanned and inaccessible to emergency vehicles and Metro Mobility.

“Neighborhoods should deal with crises by not causing other crises, by not limiting and infringing other people's rights,” said A.C., who has lived in the area since the 1970s, and declined to give his full name. “Individuals on certain blocks are saying, ‘We’re going to clean up our block by putting it on your block.’ The dealers are still dealing and the users are still using. These are valid concerns. However, it seems like it's a red herring just to control their neighborhood now and create this sort of cul-de-sac world in the cities.”

Some neighbors, having had enough, are putting their houses up for sale. Gray doesn’t want to run away.

“I don’t want to leave everybody here, just up and, ‘I’m done.’ This is my home,” he says. “But at the same time, even if I did leave, who would buy it? Why would anyone want to come here? So even if by some miracle I could sell the place, it wouldn’t be enough to buy a house anywhere else.”

Gali is also conflicted. Lake Street has been her home for nearly 20 years. The neighborhood has always suffered from a degree of neglect, and now she hears conspiracy theories about how the destruction was timed to clear out resident businesses in favor of mass redevelopment. She doesn’t put much stock in those murmurings. At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine how many small businesses would rebuild, particularly those that were uninsured, with some owners lacking social security documentation and therefore ineligible for federal funding.

Sometimes she tells her daughter they have no choice but to move. But then again, could Circulos de Amigos find success anywhere else? Their families are generous, compassionate people who value social justice, diversity, and nature, Gali says. They like seeing children play with natural resources in their outdoor classroom, building with water and sand, getting muddy in the summer, just being kids.

“I love the neighborhood. The people here in south Minneapolis are the people I want to work with. I don’t think we can make it with our philosophy in Minnetonka, for example,” Gali says. “So we are still here, but we are fighting back.”

IV.

Once the smoke settled, about a dozen people were federally charged with rioting and arson based on surveillance footage and social media. They include a Minneapolis man allegedly setting fire to a St. Paul car rental agency, and two men from St. Paul being prosecuted for torching the Minneapolis 3rd police precinct building. The others came from Brainerd, Brooklyn Park, Maplewood, Monticello, Ramsey, Rochester, Rosemount, Staples, Wayzata, and Galesburg, Illinois.

Despite the statewide origins of the accused, the Minnesota Legislature denied state funding to help the Twin Cities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency snubbed Gov. Tim Walz when he requested $15 million toward rebuilding Lake Street. President Donald Trump said, during a recent visit to Mankato, that the aid was rejected as “punishment for being stupid because they could have stopped that if they let the police do what they’re trained to do.”

Lake Street Council, the area’s business association, quickly raised more than $10 million from corporations and individual donors to distribute as grants. Thomson Reuters, where former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton now serves as VP of Partnerships and Alliances, committed $1 million to rebuilding and other basic needs.

But it’s nowhere near enough. More than 1,500 buildings in the Twin Cities were hit, totaling more than $500 million in damage. That number doesn’t include inventory and job loss or the cost to rebuild, which will be significantly higher.

Parts of Lake Street remain a wasteland because demolition alone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, with insurance typically covering just a small portion.

If Lake Street businesses had savings after three months of COVID-19, they certainly don’t have any now, says Lake Street Council president Allison Sharkey.

When the pandemic hit, many restaurants saw the writing on the wall and made the financial call to close rather than lose money. Contrarily, most of Lake Street’s mom-and-pops stayed open through sheer force of will. Many had invested their life savings, chosen to pay staff in lieu of keeping up with insurance premiums, and were entirely uncovered when their shops caught fire.

Sharkey says one troubling outcome may be that building owners—just to break even after rebuilding—will double the rent and displace longtime tenants. “At the same time, I’m concerned about the opposite effect, that there may be disinvestment, that people won’t be able to fully demolish and rebuild, and that it may sit there vacant and blighted. I feel like this could go either way, that it might change block by block.”

Saving Lake Street requires galvanizing a hodge-podge of independent property owners around a shared understanding of what the area means to people, an idea that grows bleaker every day that the mountains of debris remain. According to business filings, most building owners are identified only as LLCs. The Lake Street Council knows many of the people behind them, but others are total mysteries.

The Lake Street Council is working with the City of Lakes Community Land Trust to forestall displacement of resident businesses. The land trust was formed to help preserve affordable housing, and recently expanded its scope to help minority-owned businesses purchase affordable commercial real estate. They plan to survey Lake Street’s property owners and build a fund dedicated to buying up properties before predatory developers descend and gentrify the area.

Program director Domonique Jones hopes property owners won’t make sudden moves to sell. Insurance could tide them over for a time. They can begin to rebuild. They might hold on to their land to see who can offer the best deal as time passes. The hope is that an economy depressed by COVID-19 will deflate the market for large upscale developments.

V.

Before the riots, the intersection of Lake Street and 27th Avenue was a quiet peninsula of small businesses in owner-occupied buildings.

On the corner was the Odd Fellows building, just acquired by Ade Alabi in January. It had been home to Addis Ababa Ethiopian restaurant, El Nuevo Rodeo, and a MoneyGram, all reduced to rubble. Next door was Gandhi Mahal, a sustainable-sourcing restaurant pioneer that had a reputation for hosting nonprofit fundraisers for free, and MIGIZI, the Native American youth development center that had just raised $1.6 million to build a sweeping new headquarters full of modern accoutrements.

During the riots, the American Indian Movement showed up to protect the area. Gandhi Mahal fed protest medics. Nevertheless, looters kept running in and out of the nearby money exchange. That building caught fire. The wind blew south. Once the post office lit up, business owners armed with fire extinguishers were no match for the conflagration pressing in from all sides.

“We’re all like deer in headlights,” says Kelly Drummer, the executive director of MIGIZI. Over the past few months, she raised $2 million from 20,000 new donors around the world who were touched by their story as it appeared in the New York Times and Indian Country Today. Yet it will cost $3 million more just to repair what they had.

“There has to be a major effort all the way around, to have a call out to investors that want to see small businesses here. Or it’s going to be where we can’t afford to rebuild, our land is vacant for years and years until we say, ‘Well, we give up because we can’t raise the money.’ And then it goes into the hands of the people that land has tended to always go to, these large LLCs, corporations, people that own a lot of properties because they have the money to invest. Someone could swoop in and say, ‘Hey, who can’t rebuild?’ And they’ll offer you a price, and that’s what happens, over and over again.”

Despite this summer’s unrest, MIGIZI still managed to train dozens of young people in their journalism and green energy programs, paying them nearly $15 an hour. They’re temporarily working out of the American Indian Center on Franklin.

One weekday afternoon, Drummer returned to MIGIZI. As she unlocked the door and gingerly walked inside, glass shards punctured the foam soles of her sandals. The space had the feel of what used to be an open concept studio, flooded with soft white light in lieu of a roof. Someone had stolen the refrigerator from what was left of the community kitchen. Discarded clothing suggested people had broken in to live there. In the back, a soundproof recording room once held brand new computers. A row of individual study rooms lined one wall.

No one ever used those, Drummer admits. After an agonizingly isolating pandemic, the kids want to sit together more than ever. When they rebuild, they’ll do without some of those frivolities.

Some of the nonprofit’s elder staff are having a terrible time moving on from the most beautiful home they ever had. Drummer draws motivation from the promises she’s made that they’ll have it all again.

“This has been the most challenging time in my personal and professional life,” she says. “But it’s just as the elders said, ‘You’re supposed to do this,’ and so I know I can do it. If you don’t have a vision of what it could be, or hope that it’s going to be okay, then you really don’t have anything.”

Drummer’s neighbor Ruhel Islam has the same idea. In the depths of the gutted Gandhi Mahal, he sees a blank canvas where he will draw his dream, and try to get it perfect the second time around. He’s always pined for rooftop solar panels and better ventilation in the basement, where his aquaponics operation created far too much humidity for comfort. Those things weren’t possible in his aging building.

The night the block caught fire, Islam stayed with Gandhi Mahal until the fire reached the gas line and neighbors pleaded with him to flee with his life. In the morning, his daughter called and broke the news that everything was gone, all the art he’d brought over from Bangladesh, his grandfather’s photographs.

Islam grows quiet when the memories resurface. He doesn’t want to revisit. He just wants to rebuild.

He has since rented a new space at 3025 E. Franklin Ave., the slightly dilapidated site of the former Chef Shack. One of the first things Islam did was install a new tandoori oven. He and his family are scrubbing and remodeling for a September opening.

Gandhi Mahal’s placeholder will be called Curry in a Hurry, a quick-bite operation designed for pandemic dining. It’ll serve spicy food to clear the nasopharyngeal passageway, ginger tea to keep the immune system strong. Islam wants to commission a mural along the east-facing wall, depicting a phoenix clutching takeout in one talon and chai tea in the other.

As he works, old customers drive by and honk.

Islam recalls that when he was a little boy in Bangladesh, ground zero for climate change, the rising seas would flood entire villages year after year. As soon as the waters receded, people would run out to the rice paddies, rebuilding and regrowing in order to harvest as much food as they could before the next disaster.

“So yes, we treat it as a blessing, and we look forward to doing it again,” he says. “A lot of things are gone. They cannot come back, but we have to be strong. That is our mission and vision, to dream a big dream.”