Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on W. Broadway in north Minneapolis sits in one of the hardest-hit areas of the civil unrest that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.
The cafe’s picture windows were untouched, in part because a group of neighbors stood guard outside. Now the windows offer a clear view of the brightly colored walls of Juxtaposition Arts across the street, but also of a marred U.S. Bank building that remains closed.
West Broadway, like E. Lake Street in Minneapolis and parts of W. University Avenue in St. Paul, caught heavy damage during the unrest. The destroyed, defaced or shuttered buildings are a physical reminder of the work that is still left to do for the Twin Cities to rebuild.
For many businesses owned by Black and Indigenous people and people of color, the double whammy of the unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic added to struggles they already faced because of the discrimination and disparities that have long plagued the metro area. Now these businesses are rebuilding with the help of the philanthropic community, city leaders, community members and artists. Key to that work is addressing systemic racism.
For a recent Friday morning interview, cafe owner Sammy McDowell took a break from making soup for the weekend, when customers flock to his two storefronts in north and northeast Minneapolis. He also has a burgeoning catering business and side projects such as providing breakfast for kids from low-income families.
McDowell has always given back to the community. During the unrest, Sammy’s became an ad hoc mutual-aid spot, where neighbors could get groceries, clothes and other essential supplies.
“We became the grocery store, pantry, food giveaway space,” McDowell said. “We did that for almost a month.”
The eatery provided solace, too, something it has been doing all along. “We’ve always tried to be that space for people to come and vent and let it all out, and leave with a different perspective,” McDowell said.
Now McDowell has seen that care toward the community come back to him. His business has gotten support from the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), an organization based in north Minneapolis.
“When everything started going crazy, they stepped up and called us, and made sure we were OK,” McDowell said. “They told us about every opportunity they knew about. Not only did they tell me about it, they did a lot of the paperwork and footwork. They were proactive in getting us PPP funding, and shuffling through all that mumbo-jumbo.”
A new coalition
Warren McLean, NEON’s president, said the organization has disbursed about $1.8 million in grants and loans to businesses in north Minneapolis. Much of those resources have been used to keep businesses afloat following the initial impact of Minnesota’s stay-at-home orders this past spring. “It was survival,” McLean said. “It was meeting their rent payments, paying employees, things like that.”
NEON works closely with other North Side businesses and nonprofits coordinating relief efforts, such as the West Broadway Area Coalition, the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance, the Mortenson Family Foundation and TRI Construction. NEON is also part of the Twin Cities Community Rebuilding Coalition. That coalition brings together community and economic development groups, nonprofit organizations and city leaders to address the needs of businesses and organizations affected by the turmoil of 2020 in a way that prioritizes businesses owned by people of color.
One huge barrier for such businesses has been discrimination in lending, according to Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association, based on University Avenue in St. Paul in an area they’ve helped rebrand as Little Mekong.
“Historically, we know that lending has been racist,” Thoj said. “I know many people, in many different positions of leadership, are talking about addressing systemic racism. But the bottom line is that they haven’t really owned up to the fact that lending, whether it’s government or private, is always stacked up against minority-owned businesses.”
According to Thoj, factors that need to be addressed include lending criteria for minority owners. “Lending will have to be less punitive,” he said. “And I think lending needs to look at more than just a credit score, and how much capital someone has already in order to access a loan.”
Creating future wealth
That’s one reason why the Hamline Midway Coalition is focused on wealth-building. “Many of these minority- and immigrant-owned businesses have opened in buildings that offered cheap rent,” said Director Kate Mudge. “These building owners are not always responsive to their tenant needs.”
In partnership with African Development Solutions, philanthropic groups and city leaders like St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali, the Hamline coalition is focused on helping business owners buy their own building through a cooperative model.
That idea is taking hold in Minneapolis, as well, through groups such as City of Lakes Community Land Trust. One of the land trust’s most recent ventures focuses on opening up space for businesses to build wealth by buying the properties they occupy.
According to Domonique Jones, a program director at City of Lakes, business owners of color are a major focus in the initiative. “Now there’s a big focus on commercial development and community development and anti-displacement,” Jones said.
Of course, those were priorities even before George Floyd’s death.
“It hasn’t changed a lot for us,” Jones said. “It has pushed our movement along.”