In her makeup studio in the heart of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Sumaya Keynan painted a metallic shade onto a customer’s eyelids on a recent Saturday evening.
Keynan could have set up shop anywhere. But like so many Minnesota Somalis, she felt the pull of Cedar-Riverside — or “Little Mogadishu,” as the locals call it.
“We have so much history here,” she said. “We were raised in this neighborhood.”
The Somalis aren’t the first to feel that way about the half-square-mile area. In the mid-1800s, immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia were the first settlers, and for a time, the neighborhood had the highest concentration of Swedes in the state, according to the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. In fact, Cedar Avenue was nicknamed “Snoose Boulevard” — a reference to the moist powder tobacco many Swedes used.
Separated from the rest of Minneapolis by the Mississippi River and two freeways, the neighborhood operates like a self-sustaining village. “That’s allowed it to develop on its own and retain its character,” said Michael Tolan, of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.
Today, the Cedar-Riverside area is home to 8,000 residents — including a large Somali population. Even for those who don’t live there, the place has become a symbol for the Minnesota Somali community, the nation’s largest Somali diaspora.
“It has become the place where people congregate,” said Mohamud Noor, who lives next door to the iconic Riverside Plaza towers. “You get a sense of belonging. You don’t feel as if you’re an outsider. Everything that connects to the community happens here.”
There are many people and places that give it a distinctive vibe. We visited a few.
Dressing for success
Keynan, a University of Minnesota business major, is working at her grandmother’s clothing store on Cedar Avenue S., and has begun to give the place a makeover.
She’s filled the display window with elaborate wedding gowns and has set up a makeup studio in the back of the store, where she creates custom looks for brides and others seeking a glamorous look.
As a child, she spent hours hanging out and helping in the store. Today, Samiya Clothing Store and the surrounding neighborhood still feel like home — a place where relatives and friends often stop by and sit at the small bistro table inside the store, drinking tea and “storytelling,” Keynan said.
The store draws a diverse mix of customers. It has white sequined wedding gowns and jewel-colored, embroidered wedding dresses that are common at Somali weddings. There also are gold jewelry sets from Pakistan and abayas from Dubai.
For Keynan and others like her who grew up in Minnesota, the neighborhood is where they connect most to their ancestral roots. “The youth like me who are born in America who don’t know anything about Mogadishu, this is our little Mogadishu. This is the closest we have to Somalia.”
Everyone knows your name
Cars circled the parking lot outside the Starbucks on Riverside Avenue on a recent weekend, searching for a rare open space. Inside what’s commonly known as the “Somali Starbucks,” crowds of Somali men clustered together at tables, greeting one another with handshakes and hugs. They sipped coffee and tea, chatting in their native language, their laughter and animated voices echoing off the walls.
The discussions often turn into loud, friendly debates and usually are about one of three things — American and Minnesotan current events, what’s going on in Somalia and lifestyle issues, including everything from choosing a school for one’s children to car repair tips — explained Mohamoud Hassan, a regular at the coffeehouse who goes by the nickname “BBC.”
Back in Somalia, tea houses were the social halls. That scene has been replicated at the Somali Starbucks, which draws visitors from all over the Twin Cities. People come to get their fix for caffeine and community news, explained Hassan, a former Minnesota Senate candidate who also helped to resettle the first wave of Somali refugees in America in the early 1990s.
Someone looking for a lead on a job or a good deal on a used car will drop by the coffeehouse and ask around. “People get information from each other,” said Hassan, who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years. “They don’t go to Google. They go to each other. It’s word of mouth.”
Sometimes, he said, people come to the Starbucks to look for someone. In the Somali community, he explained, “if you haven’t seen someone for two weeks and you want to reach them, you come here and you find them.”
Jennifer Newcomb has been working as a barista at the Starbucks for a year. A student at nearby Augsburg College, she has gotten to know the regulars.
“I wouldn’t want to work at any other store,” she said, praising the lively atmosphere and how well she’s treated by her customers. “They’re some of the nicest people I’ve met in my entire life. I’ve had people say to me, ‘You’re part of our family.’ ”
Watching the scene unfold from her perch behind the bar, Newcomb described the Somali Starbucks as a staple of the neighborhood — a place to hang out with friends and unwind.
“A lot of Muslims don’t drink alcohol, so I always say this is the town bar,” she said.
“We have so much history here. We were raised in this neighborhood.”
It closes later than most other Starbucks in the Twin Cities, keeping the doors open until 11 p.m. to serve the many late-night coffee drinkers in the neighborhood. It stays open even later — until midnight — during Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from food and drink during daylight hours.
“When the sun goes down in Ramadan, it’s crazy here,” said Dan Hetzel, a longtime shift supervisor at the Somali Starbucks. “There are like 100 guys who show up. It’s a big old party in here.”
Tyran Comer runs a popular barber shop inside the bustling Riverside Mall – one of two Somali malls in the neighborhood.
He’s been at Banadir Barbers for four years, starting out as a barber and working his way up to owner.
Weekends are his busiest days, when kids are off from school. Most of them live in the neighborhood. They sit in chairs outside the tiny stall, watching basketball on the large-screen TV as they wait for their turn.
Comer and his team of barbers work quickly, their clippers buzzing. Shoppers wave at him as they pass by. Comer nods in return.
Before he started working in the Cedar-Riverside area he did not know much about the place or about the people who call it home, he said. But gradually, with each head of hair he cut, the more familiar he became.
“It’s a very friendly neighborhood once you know the people,” he said. “Everybody’s moving around trying to get their piece of the American dream. We just get a laugh or two at the barber shop every now and then.”
The beat goes on
Fadumo Ibrahim is the first Somali program manager of the Cedar Cultural Center. A neighborhood landmark, it has featured folk, jazz and global musical acts for nearly 30 years, drawing fans from all over the Twin Cities and beyond. Lately, the center has been bringing in Somali artists that appeal to audiences in the neighborhood.
“I call here home because I’m here almost 12 to 14 hours a day,” Ibrahim said of the area. “Home is where you’re interacting with the people and making a difference in your community.”
For her, Cedar-Riverside is a safe place where people greet one another on the street, and everyone’s an “auntie” or “uncle.”
And no one is an outcast.
“It doesn’t belong to the Somali community,” she said. “It belongs to all residents and people who live and work here.”