Ask the people who live and work in north Minneapolis what they’d like to see on W. Broadway and they won’t hesitate to share their wish lists: a dry cleaner. A movie theater. A FedEx. A restaurant with cloth napkins.
“Some of the things you take for granted elsewhere, you just don’t have in north Minneapolis,” said Rob Hanson, executive director at the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition.
For years, W. Broadway has struggled to attract new businesses beyond strip malls and fast food joints. City leaders are aware of the needs and the ways in which a history of segregation made the commercial district what it is today. They’ve made efforts to revitalize the corridor with a plan to guide development and, recently, a grant program for public safety initiatives.
But community members say those efforts have produced few tangible results. With elections coming in November, City Council members from the North Side’s Fourth and Fifth wards are facing tough competition from candidates who say they want to lead not by deciding what the community needs but by listening to and supporting residents’ ideas.
Still, North Siders admit they’re not expecting much to change unless they make that change themselves — a strategy they see working slowly as local entrepreneurs and nonprofits gain traction.
“I feel like for years, people have just been pumping into north Minneapolis what they feel like north Minneapolis needs from an office somewhere else and not actually making contact,” said Sammy McDowell, owner of Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on W. Broadway. “If you want to make a change in a community, I think you need to be on the ground floor.”
Decades of loss
W. Broadway was once one of Minneapolis’ major commercial hubs, on par with Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue.
That changed as redlining and freeway construction cut off north Minneapolis from the rest of the city. Decades of isolation led longtime residents and business owners to move, leaving family homes and historic storefronts to be replaced with rental properties and strip malls.
In 2008, after two years of community input, the City Council adopted the West Broadway Alive plan as a guide for development there. But its effect has been limited, in part because city officials have allowed exemptions for specific projects, Hanson said.
“Right now, some people are still thinking that any development is good development,” he said.
Council Member Blong Yang, who represents the Fifth Ward and is running for re-election, measures success in developments on W. Broadway that he’s helped shepherd in, including a Walgreens store. But he said the city should be doing more to make resources like loans, grants or tax subsidies available to people who want to start small businesses on the North Side.
“The way that the city does development favors one type of person — it favors people with money, basically,” he said. “That’s the part that makes it really difficult for folks.”
Part of the challenge in attracting the kind of investment North Siders want lies in the persistent crime along W. Broadway.
Council President Barb Johnson, who’s represented the Fourth Ward for 20 years and is running for re-election, said she’s seen a lot of improvements in the past several years, thanks in part to city investments that saved and repurposed old buildings. But public safety remains a concern, she said, and she’s pushed for more surveillance.
“There’s a lot of small businesses on the corridor that rely on walk-in traffic, and people have to feel safe to park their car or get off the bus and then go into a place,” she said.
Mayor Betsy Hodges’ office recently spearheaded a grant program to fund community-led public safety efforts on W. Broadway. It’s faced criticism for being rushed, inaccessible and poorly funded.
Phillipe Cunningham, a Fourth Ward council candidate and staffer in the mayor’s office, admitted the process was flawed. But the important thing, he said, is the city is making an effort to involve residents whose input is rarely sought — and who, as a result, have little interest in local government.
“There’s just a lot of resentment here toward City Hall, period,” he said. “The sentiment here is that City Hall just doesn’t understand the North Side.”
Residents go their own way
For North Siders, the solution for W. Broadway might be one they create themselves, with new development anchored by neighborhood institutions such as Juxtaposition Arts and the Capri Theater.
Jeremiah Ellison, who is challenging Yang for the Fifth Ward council seat, grew up just off W. Broadway and said he remembers barber shops and restaurants that are no longer open but still shaped the corridor.
“How do we build off of what we already have?” he asked. “The people who have, throughout the years, made West Broadway into the commercial heart of the North Side need to be respected and honored and supported, especially as we’re looking forward to the future.”
In 2012, the Minneapolis Public Schools opened its $41.7 million headquarters on W. Broadway. Around the same time, locally owned restaurants started cropping up. In a part of town with more than three dozen fast food restaurants and just one grocery store, food has become central to the community’s vision for a revitalization.
Sammy’s Avenue Eatery opened in 2012 and quickly became the place for coffee meetings and weekday lunches. Down the street, a team of young people serve up coconut cornbread, tacos and fresh salads at Breaking Bread Cafe, an arm of food justice nonprofit Appetite for Change that opened in 2015.
“We have seen an increase in businesses that represent us, where we can go and eat and you know who Sammy is, you know who the founders of Appetite for Change are,” said Princess Titus, Appetite for Change co-founder.
More is on the way. Locals are working on a new community-run credit union as well as real estate investment cooperatives that would keep ownership in the community.
In the meantime, people are watching closely as plans for development, including market-rate apartments, take shape.
“I love the way that [West Broadway is] different, and I want it to stay different, but I want us to still have all the amenities that all other neighborhoods have,” McDowell said. “I want local people to own local stuff, and I want it to succeed.”