A lot on Lake Street sits empty where the Roberts Shoes building formerly stood. The Real Minneapolis, a nonprofit group, has launched a youth-run garden there. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Mary Claire Francois brushed multicolored paint into letters that read “MGM is Open” on a mural outside of Midtown Global Market on Lake Street in south Minneapolis as the city awaited a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial last week. 

Francois works with The Real Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that formed after Chauvin murdered George Floyd. Francois and her co-founders, two other women of color, want to build a new Minneapolis, one that reflects what residents desire and fosters opportunities for marginalized communities. 

“We really just want to bring the community into it and get them involved,” Francois said. 

The Real Minneapolis is one of many organizations working to help rebuild areas of the city that were devastated by civil unrest after Floyd’s murder.  Groups and individuals are working to fill the void in a way that gives more control to the diverse communities who live there, creates space for neighbors to gather, and is more environmentally sustainable.

Mary Claire Francois, a co-founder of the nonprofit organization The Real Minneapolis, works on a mural outside of Midtown Global Market on April 20. Photo by Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

Space for community 

The Real Minneapolis and local artist Simone Alexa are doing 10 pieces for a public art project called the Hope and Healing murals. It was commissioned by the Friends of Midtown Market, a nonprofit group supporting the mall that sells food and goods from across the globe. Francois, Alexa, and other group members worked on the murals in the early afternoon, before the verdict was announced on April 20.

“You guys are doing a great job!” a man driving past on Lake Street called out from his window at the painters. 

The Real Minneapolis also has launched a youth garden in a vacant lot at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue where it pays teenagers to maintain the space and mentor younger kids. The group planted and maintained flower baskets at businesses damaged during civil unrest and started the Hope Youth Center, which provides free education support and snacks for children who are distance learning. They have a more ambitious goal of creating a new community center in south Minneapolis that will serve as a gathering place and a hub for accessing resources and education. 

“We came together because we want positivity and hope and healing for Minneapolis,” co-founder and creative director Marni Lewis-Harvey said. 

Across Lake Street, a lone blue crane sits on a vacant lot where a U.S. Bank branch was destroyed in the unrest. The branch is rebuilding with a large community room for people in the neighborhood, according to Matt Kazinka, a senior strategic missions manager with the nonprofit Lake Street Council. 

Adding community rooms and public green space for new buildings “is on a lot of people’s minds,” Kazinka said. 

Lake Street Council has distributed about $6 million in cash to local businesses in the corridor, many of which are operated by immigrants. 

There’s no one story about where the recovery efforts stand today, Kazinka said. The unrest came on top of a COVID-19 pandemic that foisted new challenges onto small businesses everywhere. But local shops have been resilient. 

“We had a lot of fear in the first few months that this event would lead to a lot of vacancies,” Kazinka said. “But that is not what we’ve seen.” 

Local control

Hope Community is a nonprofit organization that has operated in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis for 44 years. It switched focused in the mid-1990s from shelter work to building stable affordable housing, community gardens, and organizing residents to help create the neighborhood they desired. 

Since then, the organization has developed 300 housing units, more than 70 percent designated as affordable. Their primary property is at the intersection of Franklin and Portland avenues. The group also maintains a robust community garden program. 

Hope associate director Will Delaney said the group learned early that whoever owns the land makes the decisions. He recommends investing as much as possible up front for nonprofits or philanthropic groups trying to purchase destroyed sites to ensure rents for stay low.

“We have to invest in community control of land as we think about rebuilding Lake Street or any of these places,” Delaney said. 

The City of Lakes Community Land Trust is one group investing in that type of control. The north Minneapolis-based nonprofit typically helps first time home buyers by acquiring land and holding it “in trust” while allowing people to purchase a home and raise equity. Because the trust owns the land, when the homeowner moves, the property continues to be affordable for the next buyer as opposed to being on the open market. 

The land trust has traditionally stuck to housing, but is developing its first commercial initiative with a city of Minneapolis-owned property at 19 East 26th Street, about four blocks north of Lake Street. 

Domonique Jones is the program director for the initiative. She said the group did a feasibility study, which found that African Americans and other people of color face discrimination and high prices when they try to rent commercial spaces. A persistent issue is that buildings are often owned by investors outside of the community, Jones said. With the recent unrest, there is a fear that properties near Lake Street will change hands and that outsiders will determine which types of businesses will go into the community, forcing out shops owned by immigrants and people of color. 

“They are always at risk of losing their space as gentrification happens,” Jones said. 

The commercial land trust initiative is processing applications for the 19 East 26th Street site. The goal is to attract a Black or person of color-owned businesses. The land trust will provide up to 40 percent of acquisition costs and help cover development expenses. The nonprofit would have rights to continue owning the property if the business decided to sell. 

The nonprofit is in the process of acquiring two more commercial sites in north Minneapolis, Jones said.  The group isn’t saying it has the solution to help people of color afford commercial space, she said, but is earnestly trying out this option. 

The Lake Street Council is also working to promote redevelopment that is conscious of existing communities. The group is preparing to issue predevelopment and acquisition grants to those thinking about building and developing on destroyed sites.

Grant recipients are required to submit an equitable development criteria checklist, which asks them to commit to a community engagement process. The applicants are encouraged to include sustainable features such as energy efficiency installations, green space with native plants, and community gardens. The process seeks to attract developers of color and projects that will create opportunities for diverse residents.  

Having a patchwork of local groups aiding redevelopment helps, Kazinka said, but significant financial aid from the state and federal government is needed to truly rebuild. 

“We’ve been left having to fend for ourselves,” he said. 

Building back greener

More than 50 Minneapolis businesses were destroyed and nearly 90 more suffered damage during the civil unrest after Floyd’s murder, according to a city assesment. Many immigrant owned businesses along Lake Street were hit in the unrest, including Somali eatery Qurxlow Restaurant and Chicago Lake Family Dental. 

Minneapolis has adjusted its Green Cost Share Program to help small businesses impacted by the unrest. The program was established in 2012, mainly to provide matching loans for dry cleaning businesses to upgrade their equipment to limit perchloroethylene, a cancer-causing pollutant, in their operations. 

When the city began rebuilding efforts, it decided to offer damaged properties higher matches, according to Mónica Romero, a small business community liaison for the city. The program typically provided a 20 percent match for up to $40,000 worth of improvements that decrease pollution or boost energy efficiency. For property hit by civil unrest, the city raised the rate to 40 percent. 

The city did not immediately have numbers available, but Romero said the potential cost savings from energy efficiency and the idea of becoming more environmentally friendly encouraged immigrant-owned businesses to apply. 

Minneapolis officials also helped environmental groups like MN350 and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light connect with property owners, Romero said. The groups are helping connect those buildings to community solar gardens that will help tenets save money and lower carbon emissions. 

The city has been fielding all kinds of requests from businesses hit by unrest and the pandemic, she said. The issue of how to build trust and encourage people to come back to local shops still needs to be resolved. 

“This year has been really up and down,” Romero said. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...