Can Minneapolis restore its ‘cultural districts’?

Councilmember Andrea Jenkins stands at the front of her door just after sunset looking out onto her neighborhood in South Minneapolis.
Photo by Abdi Mohamed

Revitalizing a historical Black presence

First of a three-part story

Plans around Minneapolis’ eight designated cultural districts are ramping up as city leaders plan to utilize these areas as part of their recovery strategy for last year’s civil unrest. The riots that ensued soon after the police murder of George Floyd led to millions of dollars in damages across the metro area, leaving Communities of Color reeling from the costs. Revitalized cultural districts could, city leaders believe, help restore what was lost in the destruction.

In August 2020, the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance that established eight new cultural districts in Minneapolis that fall along some of the city’s major corridors. These include 38th Street South, Cedar Ave. South, Central Ave., East Lake Street, Franklin Ave. East, West Broadway, and Lowry Ave. North. Since these areas are home to most of the city’s 

Communities of Color who have historically been left behind, city leaders have expressed their goal in targeting these districts as waypoints for resources to be distributed equitably. 

The cultural districts are also a part of the City of Minneapolis’s Comprehensive 2040 Plan, which aims to shape how the city will change and grow over the next two decades. Its theme is focused on reversing the systemic barriers that have been created by City policies that have made it difficult for Communities of Color to access housing, jobs, and commercial investment, leading to large to racial disparities. 

This three-part story focuses on one of these designated  areas, the 38th Street Cultural District. Stretching from Nicollet to Bloomington Ave., the area has become a key part of the recovery effort given its significant history. It was once home to a robust South Minneapolis Black community, and now city leaders hope to honor that legacy by ensuring the current community receives access to resources as they strive to rebuild with an equitable approach guiding their way.

Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins is spearheading the planning around the district after years of planning with community stakeholders. Councilmember Jenkins represents the 8th Ward, which includes the 38th Street Cultural District. 

The first efforts to revitalize this corridor date back to 2015 when former Ward 8 Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden hosted a series of events titled “The Future of East 38th Street.” She focused on efforts to identify development opportunities along the corridor and bring the district’s historically Black roots to the forefront. 

Jenkins was Glidden’s policy aide at the time. After her election to the council, she reignited that initiative in 2019 by creating THRIVE, a strategic development plan by the community in collaboration with the City. 

Since then, Councilmember Jenkins has continued meeting with community leaders, business owners, and stakeholders to expand on previous efforts to preserve the corridor’s rich history and revitalize the Southside community with strategic investment in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Jenkins and other local leaders put together a document that lays out their aims surrounding the corridor, starting with an emphasis on highlighting the city’s Black heritage and legacy. 

“It’s about business, it’s about development,” Jenkins said. “But it’s also about reestablishing the historical presence that African Americans had in this community for many, many years to make sure that we highlight that and restore that to make this the cultural district that it deserves to be.”

Uniting past and present

South Minneapolis was once a vibrant community of Black families, businesses, and community organizations. Between the 1930s and the 1970s there were dozens of Black-owned businesses along the 38th Street corridor, from dental offices to music venues. Many of the families living in this part of the South Side were a part of the Great Migration, when millions of Black Americans moved from the rural South to Northern urban areas in search of opportunity. 

Atum Azzahir is the chief executive officer of the Cultural Wellness Center, a community organization that connects health and heritage in an effort to drive change in Minneapolis. Azzahir, 78, has lived and worked on the South Side for over 40 years and is often referred to as Elder, a title that acknowledges her experience and status in the community. 

A mother of four sons, Azzahir moved to Minneapolis from Milwaukee in search of better opportunities. Prior to that she’d lived in Mississippi, where she was born. “I moved here to try to find a way to do what my mother and father had done,” she said. 

She recalled after arriving in Minnesota settling into the Southside neighborhood where Black families often interacted with one another and fostered a sense of community. “[There were] people who had so much more professionally and financially than we did, but we were all together in building the community fabric for our children.” 

Azzahir’s son, Anthony Taylor, also remembered his time growing up along the 38th Street corridor. His first memories in Minneapolis were of his time at local city parks and frequenting business hubs like 38th and 4th, where there were once over 20 Black-owned businesses.

Restaurants, a barbershop, and a record store were some of the businesses Taylor recalled passing in his youth. It’s hard not to see the neighborhood’s impact on him, now the senior vice president of equity outdoors at the YMCA and serving as a commissioner for the Metropolitan Council’s Parks and Open Space Commission. 

As an adult, Taylor has researched the history of his neighborhood to understand how it came about and was able to thrive despite the obstacles that the Black community faced. 

“The truth of the matter is again that this community originated because of the way that it was redlined,” Taylor said. “One of the things we have to think of with cultural districts is that they are created effectively because White communities deemed them as less valuable, and cultural communities move into them and create life.”

Part of Taylor’s efforts in researching the community’s history is to find new opportunities for investment and create the conditions for economic development once again on the South Side. 

Next week: More on the 38th Street Cultural District