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Seven months after Floyd unrest, Lake Street business owners optimistic, anxious about rebuilding

With the desire to rebuild also comes concerns about gentrification.

Debris remains on the site after the building where Gandhi Mahal was located was destroyed, as owner Ruhel Islam awaits permits.
Debris remains on the site after the building where Gandhi Mahal was located was destroyed, as owner Ruhel Islam awaits permits.
MinnPost photo by Henry Pan

Abi Baires Amaya, the owner of Abi’s Cafe at Lake and Bloomington, looks forward to opening a much larger restaurant at the former Egg and I space near Lyn-Lake sometime next month. 

“It’s way bigger than what we have now,” Amaya, who goes by her middle name, said of the new space. With the support of her aunt, who lives in the Twin Cities, she moved here five years ago from the East Coast to open the restaurant, which serves Salvadoran cuisine. 

Like Amaya, many Lake Street business owners feel optimistic yet anxious about rebuilding seven months after unrest erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Amaya’s first location, which she plans to keep after the Lyn-Lake location opens, was among many businesses that suffered damage and looting. And Amaya was among many affected businesses who received money from insurance and the Lake Street Council, a nonprofit that supports business vitality along Lake Street, allowing her to purchase new restaurant equipment. She was also among many businesses receiving in-kind help, which for her included working with a broker to find space for her restaurant’s second location.  

Others that were underinsured or had their buildings completely destroyed have turned to crowdfunding or paid their own way to get back on their feet. Chicago Lake Family Dental, which serves mostly children, the uninsured, Medicaid recipients, Spanish and Somali speaking families, suffered $1.2 million in damages from looting and destruction. It was underinsured, so Dr. Ali Barbarawi, who owns the practice, is attempting to make up the difference through GoFundMe. Already closed at the onset of the pandemic last March to undergo COVID-related renovations, it won’t reopen until this coming March. 

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Just around the corner from Dr. Barbarawi’s practice, Abbi Elmi’s Hamdi Restaurant sits next to several lots still in ruins. “It’s like war in Syria,” Elmi said. His restaurant, while not destroyed, suffered $150,000 in damages from looting, most of which had to be paid for out of pocket because he could not wait on insurance. 

Like many of his neighbors, Elmi is frustrated at the lack of government help. FEMA rejected a disaster relief request from the state, ruling the costs, estimated at $500 million, were “within the capabilities of the local and state governments,” although the Small Business Administration offered disaster loans to affected businesses. 

The Minnesota Senate held an oversight hearing on how the unrest affected businesses, but the Legislature didn’t provide monetary assistance. The City of Minneapolis offered targeted low-interest loans, and also recently began to offer energy efficiency grants for affected businesses. They also pledge to pay for the contractors to remove debris at those lots where the Chicago Furniture Warehouse and Urban29 once were, as part of a program to help property owners demolish what’s left of their properties. Both businesses are now located in the Mall of America.

At the same time, business and neighborhood associations along Lake Street have been inundated with help from around the world, with the Lake Street Council raising $11 million alone. They are a part of the Twin Cities Community Rebuilding Coalition, which is coordinating with other local nonprofits and companies to provide in-kind assistance and supplies to businesses.  

The Neighborhood Development Center, which is part of the coalition, has also been working with Lake Street businesses to establish an online presence to give them a better chance at surviving. Shahir Ahmed, who runs their TechPak initiative through NDC, said, “What we realized even prior to the unrest was due to COVID and the first governor’s shutdown, many businesses did not have an online presence.” 

NDC budgeted $300,000 to purchase new cash registers, web hosting services, social media ads, as well as to provide training to entrepreneurs. 

The Lyndale Neighborhood Association, along with partner organizations that intersect at Lyndale and Lake, have also organized a fundraiser raising $90,000, $2,300 of which came from a GoFundMe campaign. The funds will soon be prioritized for distribution to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-owned businesses that suffered damage. 

The help offered to the community has been so overwhelming that Tabitha Montgomery, executive director of the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, said they will launch a new initiative next month to connect residents and business owners with resources to rebuild and take care of themselves, called Racial Equity and Community Health Twin Cities.

With the need to rebuild comes concerns about gentrification: Not only are construction costs high, but property owners and small business people often struggle to access the capital they need to rebuild. As a result, property owners could sell to developers who do have access to financing, and in turn, displace longtime businesses who can’t afford newer, more expensive retail spaces. “If [developers] build a building, they’ll want to recoup costs,” Lake Street Council Director Allison Sharkey said. “It’s very difficult [for small property owners] to get financing to be able to rebuild and ensuring space will be affordable like before will be a challenge.”

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To foster community-driven redevelopment that supports low-income BIPOC communities, the Lake Street Council will allocate $1.5 million from the fundraiser to local entrepreneurs, cooperatives, or nonprofits who wish to purchase buildings or destroyed properties as well as conceptualize redevelopment along the corridor. 

Others are confronting other challenges. “$1 million [from my insurance] is not enough to [re]build the whole building,” Gandhi Mahal restaurant and building owner Ruhel Islam said, adding he needed to demolish what was left and pay off his mortgage.

Islam is part of a group called Longfellow Rising, composed of business owners and community members who care about the business node at Lake Street, Minnehaha Avenue, and 27th Avenue. They meet weekly to envision how the area, referred to as Downtown Longfellow, should be rebuilt in a just and equitable manner. “We were neighbors and sharing space for years. Once the smoke cleared, it was natural to seek out our neighbors,” Lead Holy Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen said. 

Organizations and some business owners worry about what the impending trial of the four former officers involved in Floyd’s killing, set to begin in early March, will bring. “Who knows?” Elmi said. “I hope it doesn’t happen again.”

The outcome matters particularly to Amaya since she remembers Floyd from his work at Conga Latin Bistro and has an uncle who is a Minneapolis police officer. “[I] hope justice is served,” Amaya said. “I hope [the Minneapolis Police Department] hire people who love to do the work serving others and the community instead of coming in to rule like what [the officers who killed Floyd] did.”