Dai Thao stood in front of a burned-out strip mall off University Avenue, its storefronts boarded up and its neon signs stained with smoke. In the distance, the St. Paul City Council member could see a construction crane, still standing despite the destruction.
“Before COVID-19, it was booming,” Thao said. “There was a lot of energy, a lot of excitement here.”
Minneapolis was hit hardest when some of the protests following George Floyd’s killing turned violent, but the riots struck St. Paul, too. According to data compiled by the Star Tribune, 246 buildings in St. Paul sustained damage, from smashed windows to fires. Nearly 60% of those buildings are on University Avenue, a corridor defined by a mosaic of small businesses, many owned by people of color.
The close-knit neighborhoods surrounding University Avenue have sprung into action, first helping to board up storefronts and post “Black-owned business” signs to guard against vandalism, then returning to transform the beige plywood into brightly painted murals.
“Everything was so raw at that moment,” said Alex Smith, an artist who helped paint multiple murals along the corridor, including outside the Victoria Theater. “It felt like we really needed to heal.”
There’s hope that this moment will be a turning point for the area, which survived the construction of Interstate 94 and the Green Line only to be hit by a pandemic and violent unrest. But there’s also anxiety that the gentrification and displacement residents have long feared will arrive in a way they never expected — that speculators will descend on vacant buildings and empty lots and erase the diversity that’s been their strength.
“If we lose the Black-owned businesses, we lose the Vietnamese-owned businesses, we lose … the East African businesses, everything — what’s going to come in next?” said Sarah Nichols, who grew up in the Midway neighborhood and now lives in Rondo. “We need this to be an opportunity for community to build.”
Businesses face uncertainty
Just a few months ago, the neighborhoods surrounding University Avenue — Hamline-Midway, Union Park, Frogtown and Summit-University — were waiting for redevelopment stemming from the Allianz Field soccer stadium.
Now, the boarded-up storefronts make the area look like it’s bracing for a hurricane. In between, there are empty spaces where buildings are just gone — of 20 buildings that burned, four were completely destroyed, data show. Thao said state help will be needed to rebuild the area, especially considering the budget shortfall the city is facing due to COVID-19.
After watching on TV as the Midway Shopping Center off University Avenue went up in flames, Mary Lau and her family were ready to get to work and reopen Peking Garden, the restaurant they’ve operated there since 2006. Two GoFundMe pages raised more than $20,000 to support the restaurant and its employees, and customers even offered to help clean up.
Then, at the end of June, they learned their lease was being terminated and they had just a couple weeks to vacate.
The strip mall, home to chains such as Foot Locker and Great Clips as well as small businesses, will be demolished after sustaining significant fire and water damage, according to Rick Birdoff, principal and president of RD Management LLC, the New York-based property owner. Tenants got lease termination notices last week.
The damage has accelerated plans for redevelopment at the site, which will include commercial space that will be available to local tenants, Birdoff said.
“Our hope is what we rebuild there will be something the community can be proud of,” he said.
Va-Megn Thoj, executive director at Asian Economic Development Association, is skeptical that there will be space in the new development for the current businesses. Like other commercial renters along University Avenue, the survival of Midway Shopping Center tenants is uncertain, he said.
“It’s going to cost a lot for some of these businesses just to recover, and that in itself is potential displacement of these businesses, because they don’t have the cash to recover and reopen,” Thoj said. “Or if they do, they won’t be as strong as they were before.”
Building a stronger future
Nieeta Presley has been here before.
The executive director of the Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corp. has deep roots in Rondo, a historically Black neighborhood that was torn apart to make way for I-94. Decades later, she helped guide community members and business owners through the yearslong construction of the Green Line.
COVID-19 and the civil unrest have taken a toll on multiple businesses between two development corporation properties. But Presley is convinced that a focus on art and cultural identity will heal the community, and make it stronger.
“Let’s do something new and let’s do something greater than before,” she said. “Out of the sadness, strife, stress, there is an opportunity to envision and revision really what could be an inclusive community.”
As the plywood begins to come down along University, plans are forming to create an art exhibit with the murals, said Tyler Olsen-Highness, the executive director of the Victoria Theater Arts Center. Behind Gordon Parks High School, where windows were broken, there’s a park where Thao said he wants to see a sculpture symbolizing unity and peace.
“I guess the only thing that really keeps you going is hope,” Presley said. “Maybe today it’s stormy, but God promises a new day tomorrow.”
Staff writer Salma Loum contributed to this report.