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Continued: Seward won't let shootings steal corner

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 9, 2010 - 10:29 PM

The bright green awning went up this summer. The battered skeleton of a sign was replaced with a new one, and the faded stucco building got a fresh coat of paint and new lights.

Faysal Warfa wanted to make the small grocery store on the corner of 25th and Franklin more welcoming, not only to the large number of East African residents who live in the Minneapolis neighborhood, but to everyone who passed.

The store is one of four markets that catered to Africans along the avenue, and Warfa wanted this one to stand out. He competed for, and won, a $10,500 grant from Redesign Inc., a community development nonprofit, and the city to improve the facade of his business because, as he told a community newsletter in May, he had high hopes Seward would flourish.

"Business is good," he said at the time.

During the "Franklin Frolic" neighborhood promotion, Warfa and his partners even served free Somali baked goods to curious passersby, a friendly attempt to reach out to non-African customers.

To neighborhood leaders, Warfa's transformation of the corner was another sign of progress. Seward Co-op had moved and expanded to a sparkling new location. Worku Mindaye took over their old space and expanded his bakery. Koyi Too Sushi restaurant opened just a few weeks ago.

Then it happened.

"Triple homicide at 25th and Franklin," a tipster said. "You might want to get over there."

•••

In minutes, the corner had been transformed again, and a city that planned to celebrate a dramatic drop in murders the next day was reminded that our sense of peace is elusive and tenuous, often beyond our control.

Those who gathered nearby in the frozen darkness would not notice the new awning, only the body in the door, the pool of blood, the spattered window.

For the next few hours, The Corner became a surreal scene as the blue and red flashing lights of police cars flickered on the iced streets. Across the street, holiday twinkle lights still clung to a tree, illuminating a playground. As police began roping the area with tape, a young East African man stood behind me.

"My friend, he works in the store," said the man, shivering. "Do you know what happened?"

"No," I lied.

As word spread, Somalis and Ethiopians streamed into the area. Scores of taxis clogged the streets, and more than 200 people huddled in the parking lot of a day care center, their frozen breath dissipating like smoke above them. A television reporter began to practice his standup, "The city's first triple homicide in ... " and a man began to wail, a long, high-pitched cry. A woman behind a snow bank rocked, and prayed.

Before dawn, crime scene investigators arrived. A man waiting at the bus stop turned to see them through the plate glass, wearing blue latex gloves, as they appeared to reenact the crime. The "Open" sign continued to blink in the window while a soft snow fell, covering bloodstains on the sidewalk.

•••

The next night, hundreds gathered to memorialize the victims, Faysal's brother, Abdifatah Warfa, 28, his cousin, Mohamed Warfa and Anwar Mohammed, originally from Ethiopia. The message was clear: The neighborhood would not allow this flash of violence to disrupt the peace and progress it had made. (On Saturday, a 17-year-old was arrested in connection with the crimes, and police haven't ruled out more arrests.)

"[The murders were] so incredibly tragic, but we don't want to let it define us, and certainly don't want any one part of our community to feel that they are hurting alone," said Katya Pilling, associate director of Redesign Inc. "This is not about Somalis, this is an attack on our entire community."

Seward has long been a place of cordial respect between many distinct groups. Often, neighborhoods try to block low-income housing, but when the owner of Seward Towers near the market wanted to turn his complex into market-rate apartments, Seward fought to keep its immigrant neighbors. Residents paired with Common Bond Communities, an affordable housing nonprofit, to buy the property. In 2004, Common Bond added the Advantage Center, where residents, about 80 percent of them East African, can take classes or search for jobs, according to Deb Lande, director of community relations.

"The store was a mainstay, not for just our clients, but everybody in the neighborhood," said Lande. "We feel a deep sadness for this tragedy, but we hope it can be a catalyst for peace."

Photographer Wing Young Huie's studio is a block from the store. Huie has spent his life documenting the street life of urban immigrants in America, so this place felt right, he said. "It's very active, friendly," said Huie. "I've noticed in just the couple of days since it happened, there are small things, a sense that we're in it together. On the street someone will nod to you as if to say, 'I'm East African, and I'm OK.'"

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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