The shop windows on Minneapolis’ Cedar Avenue have seen it all. Most of the bricks and wood holding them in place are a hundred years old, and some of the glass seems ancient. Generations ago, the one-and two-story shops along the street formed a contiguous row of windows and doors, each with its own realm of possibility, but today the old street exists in fragments. The blocks on the east side retained more of its walkable urban fabric than its opposite, which was decimated by 1970s urban renewal. But all in all, block by block, Cedar still retains its charm as a diverse shopping street in the old heart of Minneapolis.
These days, you could even say Cedar Avenue is thriving, and it’s hard to find vacant space. Just as it always has, the street is bursting with entrepreneurialism, most of it stemming from the neighborhood’s immigrant, East African communities.
For most white people who spend time in the neighborhood, myself included, many of the local Somali-focused shops have long seemed opaque. To my eyes, it can be hard to tell what’s happening on the other side of the doorway, or through the window crammed with shelves or used for storage.
Many East African business owners don’t use shop windows in the same way that European immigrants might have a century ago. For example, many of the Cedar Avenue window bays are used for storage or shelving or are simply left empty.
Now, the windows are being reimagined as part of an effort to spruce up Cedar’s careworn storefronts, and to give the street a more contemporary appeal to the hundred of folks who pass by every day.
Thanks to a new grant from the West Bank Business Association (WBBA), a decades-old organization aimed at cultivating community businesses, the old windows are getting a facelift this year. Long-time Twin Cities artist and organizer Joan Vorderbruggen has spent the last six months working with community businesses on Cedar Avenue to improve the old storefronts. Connecting with the mostly Somali-American entrepreneurs has posed a cultural challenge, but with new banners, logos, tapestries and art, Cedar Avenue is looking better these days than it has in many years.
Dressing up windows
“The West Bank is a rich historic gem,” Minneapolis artist Vorderbruggen told me.
Vorderbruggen is a long-time artist and organizer who’s spent years thinking about storefronts and street life, most recently in her work with the Hennepin Theatre Trust, where she ran its arts and public facing programs for over a decade. This time, Vorderbruggen was hired through a grant from the City of Minneapolis Great Streets program. Using about $30,000 of city funding, she and another local artist, Allen Christian, who runs the legendary House of Balls gallery, have been plying their craft on local windows and doors.
“It’s been really a huge creative challenge to think what can go here that’s aesthetically pleasing and culturally welcomed and helps promote this business and promote the pedestrian activity and looks good,” Vorderbruggen told me. “It’s been a huge nut to crack and it’s been fun.”
Vorderbruggen is not new to this process. A decade ago, she ran an innovative program called Artists in Storefronts that paired artists with shop owners to try and improve the streetscape and engagement between businesses and passers-by.
This time, the goal might be the same, but the process is slightly different.
For example, walking along Cedar south from Riverside Avenue, you come to an adult day care that serves Somali elders every day, offering meals and social activities for a dozen local people. Further down the street there’s a furniture shop, a fabric store, a grocery, a restaurant, another adult day care, and a shop that appears to be a work in progress.
In most of them, Vorderbruggen has been working in large and small ways, adding signs or curtains or artistic detail.
“People don’t realize that right behind that door is some of the best Somali food in the world,” Vorderbruggen tells me as we walk by, pointing to the entrance of Baarakallah Restaurant. “The owners, they’re busy. They work from the time they wake up ’til the time they go to bed.”
The new signs, with large images of sambusas, noodles, salad, and (of course) bananas, which are often served with Somali meals, call attention to the amazing food inside.
“Storefronts are culturally used differently, seen as something different than how we in our western capitalist society typically use them,” Vorderbruggen explained.
“They don’t want you to see in, they don’t want sunlight. They want privacy and a barrier. If you just had a wall, it would be better than a window,” she said.
Thus some of the artistic walls that Vorderbruggen has built, including a propped green wall that serves as a backdrop for the entrance of a daycare serving East African elders.
“The daughter who runs this day care said she wanted greenery, green walls, but no art, nothing else; I put up this eucalyptus and their logo and just cleaned everything,” says Vorderbruggen.
For nearly 150 years, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood has been the landing spot for newcomers to Minneapolis. Despite all the other things that have changed about Cedar Avenue, the thriving immigrant community has remained constant. The same shops that once hosted Swedish general stores, dozens of Minneapolis’ most rowdy bars, or venues for legendary musicians, have a new life today in the bustling immigrant businesses.
That’s why there’s a new mural going up an odd public space alley — Vorderbruggen calls it “the cut” — another part of WBBA’s work. A team of mural artists, City Mischief Murals, are painting a large depiction of the neighborhood, based on interviews with people from all parts of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Prominently featured, the Cedar Avenue shops are among the highlights, the cozy rows of two-story buildings that have stood the test of time.
Thanks to the work of Vorderbruggen and others at the WBBA, and the dozens of entrepreneurs that are bringing new life to the old Minneapolis street, the windows should be around for the next generation that follows, whoever they turn out to be.