In its final days in Minneapolis, the Lake Street Kmart was near the epicenter of unrest following George Floyd’s killing. Area businesses were destroyed by fire, while those that remained were looted and tagged with graffiti, including the Kmart. Originally scheduled to close on June 30 and in the midst of a liquidation sale, it closed a month earlier than planned.
Pastor Peter Wohler, who leads Whitter-based Source Ministries, sought to deter the “vulgar graffiti” on the building in the days after Floyd’s death. Through their work fighting poverty, human trafficking, homelessness, and substance abuse Source Ministries had developed a working relationship with Kmart, which led them to commission 18 murals — mostly painted on movable wood boards — in the hopes of starting a conversation on healing. Source paid for the murals, although a number of artists forwent payment.
Shortly after it assumed ownership of the Kmart building (including the murals) in July, the city leased part of the building to the U.S. Postal Service, whose two stations in South Minneapolis had been destroyed as part of the unrest following Floyd’s killing. Aside from those that were in the way of where doors facilitating Post Office operations were built, the murals were allowed to remain, said Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development spokesperson John Louis, citing the “time and energy that local artists and children put into creating those murals during a difficult time in the city” while adding that Wohler and the artists can remove them at any time.
One of the murals that remains was painted by 100 people at the direction of Melodee Strong, a northsider muralist who also teaches art at Franklin Middle School. “I feel very proud of it, but it’s not just about me, it’s about the community, we should all be proud of it,” Strong said, adding that it took a record five hours for the mural to be finished. “We were three months into the pandemic, and people were dying to get out and be with other people.”
Two other of the remaining murals were painted by Werm, a muralist based in Chicago who has also worked on projects with the Boston Celtics and Chance the Rapper. “I wanted to do something for the community,” he said. Werm’s pieces were painted directly onto the building’s facade over two weekends in June, and will be photographed and destroyed when the Kmart building is eventually demolished.
Ironically, the murals, mandated by Kmart management to not be violent, political, or reference Black Lives Matter, proved controversial. One depicting a black person hugging a police officer was removed soon after it was installed, but not until Wohler was assaulted by a group of people who demanded the mural be completely destroyed. Another group of predominantly artists of color, Creatives After Curfew, wasn’t allowed by Kmart management to paint the original idea for the mural because of the group’s reputation for creating politically provocative content.
Wohler also was criticized for bringing in mostly white artists to paint them. He hoped to have 80% of participating artists be people of color to reflect the surrounding neighborhood’s demographics, but ultimately ended up with 50%. Aside from Werm and two other muralists, all of them were based in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Wohler hopes to eventually exhibit the murals that were removed, which were painted on boards and are currently being stored. Source Ministries have also been approached by people hoping to reuse the boards for different projects.
One of them is Kenda Zellner-Smith, a native of south Minneapolis and graduate of Washburn High School who, along with Leesa Kelly, started the Save The Boards To Memorialize The Movement project to preserve the murals created in response to Floyd’s killing. “I want to remind people how tragic it was and how the community came together,” Zellner-Smith said. As of mid-November, she and Kelly have collected 537 boards and plan to exhibit them, along with black vendors, near where Floyd was killed to commemorate his death and legacy next year.
“What happened to George was all too familiar,” Zellner-Smith said. “There is a girl who is growing up without her dad. This cannot keep happening.”
Indeed, if Floyd hadn’t been killed by Minneapolis police officers, by now the Kmart would probably be bulldozed by the city, the expansive parking lot fenced off as city planners figure out how to reconnect the two sections of Nicollet Avenue severed for more than 40 years by the building. But with the remaining murals and the temporary Post Office, the building has become something else: a beacon of recovery.
Henry Pan is a south Minneapolis-based journalist, cartographer, and photographer who writes about transportation and the human experience.