Pharmacist Saida Mohamed peered from behind the glass windows at the counter at Lakes in the Seward neighborhood last week, skeptical.

There was no way she was going to participate in the Open Streets event on E. Franklin Avenue, she told Burhan “Scot Isqoox” Elmi.

“I can’t do Sundays. It’s my day off,” she said, adding that she needs the day to do laundry and cook.

Elmi, a Somali hired by the Seward Civic and Commerce Association to draw more East African businesses to the Aug. 21 event, was understanding but persistent. Open Streets is a great opportunity for local residents to learn of her pharmacy, he told Mohamed.

“You can hand out fliers about your pharmacy,” he said.

“Oh, all right!” Mohamed replied, managing to summon a smile. “If I can’t do the whole time, I will do two hours.”

Elmi has been walking the neighborhood, making his pitch to East African business owners. Only three or four participated in the Franklin Open Streets event last year.

The idea behind Open Streets is to bring together communities, melding small businesses and cultures, getting the locals walking, biking, skateboarding and shopping on an avenue that’s closed to motor vehicles for a few hours. But few of the East African businesses were aware of the event or how to get involved.

“Most of them don’t know what Open Streets is about,” he said.

Capitol Café, which Elmi owns, was one of the businesses that participated, serving his restaurant’s specialty, smoothies with mango and avocado, from a table on the street. He sees the event as a way to introduce Somali culture and products to the broader community.

“It’s about how can we, as East Africans, connect with mainstream Americans,” he said.

This year, he has hired a guitarist to play during the event and lined up Ahmed Ismail, a prominent figure in the local soccer community, to organize “street ball” soccer during the event.

Seeking diversity

The Open Streets idea began in Bogotá, Colombia, in the 1970s and has become popular in the United States in the last 10 to 15 years, says Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, which promotes bicycling and sponsors Open Streets.

It began in Minneapolis six years ago and draws about 65,000 people annually. The first event this summer was held June 5; seven more are planned around the city. Last year, Seward’s Open Streets drew only 4,500, partly because of a major downpour, he said.

Joe Buck, of Buck Brothers Construction and president of the Seward Civic and Commerce Association, said his group wants to be more diverse. The association is made up of 73 businesses, nonprofits and organizations, but includes only two that are East African.

“We decided to take a different approach and ask them to participate in Open Streets and to find out what their needs are,” Buck said.

Hillary Oppmann, association coordinator, said the group got $5,000 from the city of Minneapolis’ Great Streets program to increase East African and overall participation in its Open Streets event. The money has been used to hire two part-time organizers, Elmi and Deb Ervin. The funding will also help subsidize entertainment and Open Streets participation fees for some East African businesses who’d otherwise be unable to afford it. Fees run as low as $50, Elmi said.

Positive response

Reaction to Elmi’s outreach has been positive, but sometimes tentative.

When he approached Ekram Mumed, an immigrant from Ethiopia of Oromo descent, at Tobacco Plus, the shop she co-owns, she said, “That’s a good idea.”

Still, she couldn’t say she would participate. “I have to discuss with co-workers and partners,” she said.

Asse Kidane, who runs Rebecca’s Bakery and Café, participated in Open Streets in 2014 and 2015 and is sold on it.

Kidane is from Ethiopia, but lived in Italy for seven years and bakes Italian pastries.

“I wasn’t prepared the first year,” she said. “I ran out of bomboloni,” a deep-fried pastry with chocolate inside.

For this year’s Open Streets, Kidane is relying on her husband, Tesh, to mingle with participants.

“They stop, talk and eat,” Kidane said. “My husband is a good talker. This year we’ll sell.”


Twitter: @randyfurst