Though it covers less than one square mile of land in South Minneapolis, Longfellow is undeniably one of the most historic neighborhoods in the City of Lakes. A vital piece of that history, the cultural landmark known as the Coliseum Building, remains standing thanks to community members who view its preservation as a stand against injustice.
Named for the 19th-century poet whose epic “The Song of Hiawatha” chronicles the mythical adventures of its titular character and his young love Minnehaha, Longfellow lies within the ancestral lands of the Dakota people and was integral to indigenous trade routes along the Mississippi River.
The influence of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem is deeply entrenched in the neighborhood as two of its main avenues respectively bear the names of both the Ojibwe warrior and the Dakota “princess,” as do a multitude of other nearby landmarks.
Like much of Minneapolis around the turn of the 20th century, Longfellow was subject to racial housing covenants designed to keep it exclusively White. By the mid-1930s, pro-labor protests resulted in violence as dozens were injured and two killed during clashes with Minneapolis police.
Today, just a stone’s throw from the Little Earth community that represents nearly 40 tribal nations, Longfellow is recognized as a proud and progressive working-class neighborhood, rich in diversity and resilient in the face of its complicated history.
Saving the Coliseum
At the corner of East Lake Street and 27th Avenue South sits one of Longfellow’s most iconic structures, the Coliseum Building, which first opened its doors to the community in 1917. In the days following the murder of George Floyd, the Coliseum, just a block or so away from the Third Precinct headquarters of the Minneapolis Police Department, was severely damaged.
The Coliseum’s out-of-town proprietors made clear their intentions to raze the building, but some in the community had other ideas. Led by its Director of Property Development Taylor Smrikárova, Redesign, Inc. purchased the Coliseum, thus saving it from the wrecking ball and re-envisioning a brand new future for the space and its meaning to the neighborhood.
Phase One of the reclamation project was to wrap the base of the 85,000-square-foot building in vivid graphic design and evocative verse featuring some of the Twin Cities’ foremost visual and literary artists from the BIPOC community.
“When Redesign first approached me, I jumped at the chance to help,” explained Robyne Robinson, whose national firm, five X five art consultants, curated the call for artists that brought the project to fruition.
Robinson further noted that this display of public art is vital as it “adds to the resolute spirit, strength and legacy of the people of Longfellow.”
Approximately a year after Phase One was commissioned, the Coliseum’s new art was unveiled to the public Friday morning, July 8, 2022. During the presentation, Smrikárova acknowledged that this effort is part of “our stand” in the face of injustice and police violence.
She added that the “equitable redevelopment of the Coliseum Building will mark an important milestone in the history of Lake Street, the Longfellow neighborhood, the city of Minneapolis, and the State of Minnesota.”
Additional speakers included Tish Jones, founder and executive director of the St. Paul-based collective TruArtSpeaks, and Ward 2 Councilmember Robin Wonsley.
The colorful graphic designs that now adorn the Coliseum Building were created by artists Precious Wallace, Darren Hill, Emma Eubanks, and Noah Lawrence-Holder. Likewise, the written contributions came from poets Marcie Rendon and Isha Camara, along with the spoken word artist known as See More Perspective.
Rendon’s poem, titled “Even though you can’t see us, we never left,” contrasts the Emancipation Proclamation with another executive order from Abraham Lincoln that, on the day after Christmas 1862, authorized the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato—which remains the largest mass execution ever on American soil. Two more were hung in early 1863 as the remaining Dakota were exiled from the North Star State.
Phase Two of the project, which will renovate the interior of the building, is on track to start in the fall of 2022. Space will be dedicated to supporting Black and Indigenous creative artists as well as BIPOC-owned businesses and community organizations.
Building a legacy
In reflecting on the magnitude and meaning in all of this, Robinson observed that the reimagined Coliseum Building “gives hope, bestows respect, and appropriately acknowledges the experiences and the history of resistance in this community.”
She continued, “Most developers don’t consider the people that are already there. Those that are the heart and soul of a neighborhood. What is being done here with the Coliseum project is different. It is presenting Longfellow residents with emotional equity.”
Asked what the ultimate legacy of this project looks like to her, Robinson visualizes a grandparent who, while walking along Lake Street with their grandchildren, can point to the Coliseum Building and say, “I helped make that happen. To me, that’s what legacy is all about.”
The Coliseum Building is located at 2700 East Lake Street in Minneapolis.