If Lake Street could talk

One of the cultural hubs of Minneapolis is rebuilding after the riots, but some fear that outside investment will accelerate the neighbourhood’s descent into gentrification.

Two months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police and the protests that followed, we visit the city of Minneapolis to speak to the individuals and collectives calling for action, lobbying for change and rebuilding the city brick by brick with the goal of a positive and inclusive future. Dive into a day of stories that look at the activism, music and culture bursting forth from the city.

In Minneapolis, East Lake Street means many things to many people. As a commercial corridor that runs through the heart of the city and is lined with dozens of blocks of businesses overwhelmingly owned by Black and Brown people – many of them immigrants – the street is a cultural hub for many popular restaurants and grocery stores. It also serves as the center of the city’s Spanish-speaking community, with many Latinx people residing in residential areas that adjoin the street. From popping into one of the street’s hole-in-the-wall taquerias like Pineda Tacos for a bite to eat or spending an afternoon sampling beverages at its Eastlake Brewery, the street is one of Minneapolis’s most diverse districts. When the police killing of George Floyd triggered a period of social uprising due to the unjust treatment of Black people at the hands of police, businesses along East Lake were particularly hard-hit.

Elias Usso, the owner of Seward Pharmacy, said that his storefront was basically destroyed” in one night back in late May, with looters removing a safe and most of the pharmacy’s medication. Usso lives only a few blocks from Cup Foods, the corner store where George Floyd was killed, and he says he doesn’t mind that his store paid the price for justice.” (The officers involved in Floyd’s arrest have been charged and await trial.)

Now, as Usso struggles to reopen and rebuild in the face of a pandemic – there is also a shortage of medication in the area – he says that there’s only one source of funding he trusts to deliver on its promises: the Lake Street Council’s Recovery Fund. Organised by a nonprofit that includes several local business owners on its advisory board, Usso says that he’s applied for a grant from the fund, which received over $7.5 million in donations by late June.

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As a map put together by the Star Tribune reveals, damaged businesses are clustered largely around Lake Street. Even now, months after the nights of unrest, many sections of the street still bear scars in the form of ripped awnings or blown-out windows, with plywood as far as the eye can see. Though state lawmakers have proposed competing plans to provide direct aid to helping small businesses rebuild, nothing concrete has passed yet. (The Democrat’s $300 million PROMISE Act did clear the state’s House of Representatives, but it has yet to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.) While Usso says he’s trying to keep an open mind about possible help from the government, he describes their efforts as nothing but lip service so far.” However, that’s nothing new to business owners in the Lake Street neighbourhood, Usso says. They’re used to relying on each other for support in the face of systemic discrimination.

Like many business owners in the East Lake Street neighbourhood, Usso worries that a government-funded injection of capital could accelerate gentrification, which has changed the face of Minneapolis in recent years. As a project by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban & Region Affairs reveals, residents of South Minneapolis have noted significant changes over the past decade. One resident quoted in that project feared that their West Phillips neighbourhood – which stretches from Lake Street north towards downtown Minneapolis – would become the next Uptown,” a neighbourhood that has become synonymous with the city’s encroaching gentrification.

At a rally to cancel rent and mortgages organised by local activist groups on Lake Street this past week, longtime local resident Andre Friedman echoed these concerns, stating that he believes that the neighbourhood has already suffered the effects of gentrification. He fears that the impact of the Covid-19 crisis will further push residents and businesses out of the area, particularly if Minnesota Governor Tim Walz doesn’t extend an executive order preventing evictions past its July 13th deadline. He points to the mixed-use Midtown Exchange building as a prime example, calling it a tourist zone.”

The city failed us, the mayor failed us. But we’re immigrants, right? That’s just how it works.”

Elias Usso, owner of Seward Pharmacy

There may be a global market in there, but it’s not really affordable for people who actually live in this neighbourhood,” he says. That’s to bring tourists to South Minneapolis, so that high-end retailers will want to build here on Lake Street, and that’s gentrification in action.”

Having opened his business only late last year, Usso is a relative newcomer to Minneapolis, but he describes the feeling of community as nothing he’s ever experienced. When Usso and his wife were looking for funding to open the pharmacy last year, no bank would offer them a loan – a problem faced by many Black-owned businesses – which led them to accept one from the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD), a nonprofit located right in the neighbourhood. This is the experience of a ton of people on Lake Street,” Usso says. We got a fraction of what we needed…These corporations like Starbucks can get millions of dollars to open a store in the same location. Because of this, we have more faith in Lake Street’s nonprofit organisations to distribute funds, rather than government bureaucracy.”

Since Usso and other business owners in the area are skeptical that the state will provide meaningful support in the recovery effort, they’re considering taking action themselves. According to Usso, several of the business owners have discussed potentially pooling together a large investment to purchase an entire building to house locations for some beloved minority-owned businesses in the area, such as the popular craft distillery Du Nord Craft Spirits. (As last week’s protest reflected, unhoused people gathering around the neighbourhood are also experiencing a period of acute distress, after those living in a Sheraton hotel were forcibly evicted by the hotel’s owner. Since then, community members have focused their efforts on supporting a sanctuary in nearby Powderhorn Park, where many of those unhoused individuals are now residing.)

For now, stakeholders in the neighbourhood are hoping that the support of nonprofits like MCCD and the Lake Street Council will prevent developers from swooping in and buying up these damaged properties and changing the face of one of the city’s most vital cultural hubs. It’s not hard to see why some fear that the street could follow in the path of Minneapolis’s Uptown, with its monolithic Apple Store and chain clothing retailers like H&M and Urban Outfitters. The west portion of Lake Street that borders on Uptown – popularly known as Lyn-Lake – has become increasingly upscale in recent years, with the addition of multiple breweries and several chain gyms, including an Anytime Fitness.

Do we have the power to stop them from doing that? I don’t know, but we’re going to try,” Usso says. “…You do have to wonder, if this level of destruction had happened in [Twin Cities suburb] Edina, would they have let it get that bad? I don’t think so,” he adds. I wonder what the response would be. We feel that the government has an interest in gentrifying this area, and they’re acting that way. The city failed us, the mayor failed us. But we’re immigrants, right? That’s just how it works.”

Donations can be made to help restore Seward Pharmacy here.


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