The opening of the Green Line light rail this summer will not only inaugurate a long-awaited transportation corridor for St. Paul and Minneapolis, but will also foster cultural hot spots along the corridor showcasing local diversity, bringing communities closer together, and boosting economic opportunities.
The rail line’s 11-mile route along the Central Corridor from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis travels through some of the region’s most distinct cultural districts, including:
1. Little Mekong, home to many Southeast Asian immigrants and businesses (Western Avenue Station).
2. Rondo, Saint Paul’s traditional African-American hub (Victoria Street Station).
3. Little Africa, a growing cluster of immigrant businesses (Snelling Avenue Station).
4. The Creative Enterprise Zone, the new name for a longstanding community of artists and artisans (Raymond Avenue and Westgate stations).
5. Prospect Park, a neighborhood between St. Paul and the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus that hosts many student, faculty, and cultural institutions such as the Textile Center (Prospect Park Station).
6. The West Bank, another campus neighborhood known for its theater, live music, unique restaurants, and large Somali population (West Bank Station).
“Each of these districts represents a part of the richness of the Twin Cities,” says Kathy Mouacheupao, Cultural Corridor Coordinator for the Local Initiative Support Corporation-Twin Cities (LISC). “We know that arts and culture connects people, so we want to maximize the opportunity of the light rail for strengthening culture in these neighborhoods in order to leverage economic development.”
That’s the mission of LISC’s Central Corridor as a Cultural Corridor (C4) Program: to help community groups conceive and carry out cultural projects highlighting their unique assets, as well as creating locally owned businesses and job opportunities for neighborhood residents.
“There’s a tension around gentrification in the Central Corridor,” Mouacheupao explains. “We are interested in doing work with a community, not to a community. We believe in supporting the artistic identity of the people living there, not moving in a bunch of hipsters and moving everyone else out.”
Lisa Tabor, who founded Culture Brokers to promote cultural inclusivity and is involved with the African-American Leadership Forum, says, “It’s an important and sophisticated way of thinking to invest in people at the same time you are investing in transit so residents don’t have to leave.”
The C4 program supports six community-led organizations along the Green Line with training, technical assistance, and direct grants for planning and implementing programs, as well as crafting a joint strategy to draw attention to the cultural assets found along the corridor as a whole.
What C4-funded groups are working on
Asian Economic Development Organization (AEDA): Little Mekong is already a center of Southeast Asian culture in Saint Paul with restaurants, groceries, nonprofit organizations, and a large immigrant population. AEDA has big plans to add regular arts events, a traditional Asian Night Market, a public plaza, new housing, aesthetic and pedestrian improvements, and a Pan Asian Cultural Center featuring a theater for the Mu Performing Arts company.
Rondo Arts and Culture Heritage Business District: The construction of I-94 ripped out the commercial center of Rondo, St. Paul’s African-American cultural hub, but it did not kill the community’s spirit. An inspiring initiative from the Aurora Saint Anthony Neighborhood Business Corporation seeks to regenerate an economically vital business district that will showcase African-American culture for the entire region.
African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS-MN): African immigrants have opened 20 restaurants, shops, and other businesses in the area around Snelling Avenue and University Avenue in St. Paul. C4 has given a planning grant to AEDS for cultural events to stimulate more businesses and customers. AEDS director Gene Gelgelu states, “Our interest is to revitalize the area with entrepreneurship and economic development. Everyone will be able to taste and smell and see and hear and feel Africa.”
Creative Enterprise Zone: This district straddling University Avenue on the West edge of St. Paul is already thriving with artists, graphic designers, potters, architects, writers, toymakers, costume designers, artisans, and unique light industrial businesses such as Midwest Floating Island, which recycles used carpets into habitat for marine animals in ecological restoration projects as far away as New Zealand. Saint Anthony Park Community Council launched the Creative Enterprise Zone Action Team to better connect artists and artisans with one another so they can discover opportunities for sharing space, trading ideas, pursuing opportunities together and generally looking out for one another as rents in the neighborhood likely rise.
Prospect Park 2020: This group’s ambitious plans to turn a straggling industrial district on the north side of Prospect Park Station into a pioneer of sustainable 21st Century living includes a strong emphasis on the arts, crafts, and design.
West Bank Business Association: The West Bank’s business association is accentuating the West Bank’s image as an arts center through stronger marketing and adding more visual arts to its plentiful music and theater offerings.
“Our vision is that people all over the region will think of riding the Green Line for fun, stopping to see all that’s going on around these stations,” says C4’s Kathy Mouacheupao. Dining in Little Mekong, enjoying the lively street life and cafes of Rondo, shopping for gifts in Little Africa’s shops and artisans’ studios in the Creative Enterprise Zone, touring the Textile Center and Surly Brewing Company in Prospect Park, seeing a play or music show on the West Bank.
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.
Jay Walljasper, author of “The Great Neighborhood Book,” is the editor of OnTheCommons.org. He writes, speaks, consults and strategizes about enriching urban and community life. Walljasper lives and bikes in the Kingfield neighborhood of Minneapolis.