Move up and move on: Hussein Samatar’s take on Riverside Plaza

I sat down with Hussein Samatar on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Mapps Coffee, across the street from the African Development Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Samatar is the director of the African Development Center (ADC), which he founded to help new immigrants adjust to Minneapolis and gain financial success. Samatar emigrated to Minneapolis 17 years ago from Somalia and is active in the Cedar-Riverside community. He was just elected to the Minneapolis Board of Education. 

Samatar began the interview commenting on the title of the Twin Cities Daily Planet's series on Riverside Towers: "High-rise ghettos or urban villages". He said the word ghetto is "extremely loaded and misplaced ... The term is being used towards people that are black. It is a racially loaded term. You do not hear it being used about white people in low-income communities. I really hope people will avoid it."

TC Daily Planet: Do you think there are any positive aspects to the Towers and what are they?

The social aspect of it is positive. When people live close to one another they have a social capital and they can help one another. For example, when people are new and they live in close proximity, they can help each other find English as a Second Language classes. When someone goes to work and they have children, they have someone else who can take care of their children. Without relying on the government, you are relying on your own social and family network to make a living. You are expected, when you make it, to help the community back. Again, this has been true for the Swedish in the past and Somali that are here now.

Do you think there are any negative aspects to the Towers and what are they?

I wouldn't call them negative but I would say there are challenges and living in very high density has its issues. Let me mention a few of these:

  • The high rises do not have a design with a lot of green space for the children. And we human beings are meant to be with nature.
  • Because of the way the high rises are designed they do not have a lot of resident and community space where they can have gatherings and social functions.
  • At this time there are a lot of services that this community does not have that they need. In the high rises you have children, youth, elderly, students, and in between. So when you are young, you have a different need. After school you need a lot of after school activities and the only center is the Brian Coyle Center, and this is not enough. Instead of the youth doing something constructive and beneficial, they will be on the streets because they don't know what to do.

We also need services for early childhood development. They need to be ready for kindergarten. Also, when the elderly are not employed and do not have spaces to gather and socialize they feel left out of community. As for government services, we don't have postal services or a local library. We have one small school.

Samatar continued to talk about the focus and goals of the immigrant community in the Riverside Towers.

I do not like to use the word immigrants. They are new Americans, because they are coming here and they are staying here.

My take is that the new Americans don't come here to live high-rise. They come here to live American. They come to live to be prosperous. And they are all aware, they believe as America believes, that their children will do better. They are not coming to live in high rises but they find themselves living in high rises because it is affordable. I know when people look at the high rises from outside they try to project their fears on these high rises as if the people who live there created them, as if they are the architect.

 I think the high rises are positive but can be a difficult place to live because sometimes they don't create a cohesive, diverse and cultural community because when one group is there another doesn't come.

So, what do I want to see? I want to see small, three to four story apartments, single housing family units, a lot of green space with a lot of amenities, and diversity.

Do you think this change you suggest would help foster more of a positive community and integration of people?

For me, the high rises are positive. They are what they are, what I'm saying   is they could be better. As far as I'm concerned it is affordable housing and that is needed. But what I'm finding is that the human condition is not meant to live in these tall high rises and should live with nature. Therefore I would suggest that would be a much better environment.

I would say that of the East African community that has lived here since 1992-1993, you wouldn't believe how many families that have moved to every corner of the state. That would imply they are becoming part of Minnesota, that they are integrated, and that they are starting businesses

Are they moving on and moving up? Yes. With all the small resources are they starting businesses? Yes. Are they going to school for themselves? Yes. Are their children attending universities? Yes.

There are 700 students attending the U of M at this time that have touched, lived, or seen the high rises. The high rises are a gateway to come to the United States. You start here, but don't stay long. Stay 3-4 years, and then move on.

So are you saying that the focus of the community should be to move up and move out?

Absolutely. It should be move up and move out. Up and on, you can quote me on that. Because that is the American story. That is the American way of life.


[Mr. Samatar is a very eloquent and informed man, with many insights to share. This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.]

High-rise ghettos or urban villages?
Are the Riverside Plaza and Seward high-rise apartment complexes, home to low-income residents for more than 35 years, "beyond merely shabby" and filled with crime? Or are they "a vital and fascinating mix of cultures ... a series of villages in the city with the opportunity to begin life in the United States among one's countrymen?" Our series highlights concerns and facts, featuring the voices and stories of people who live and work in the communities. Click here for links to all of the articles in the series.


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Riverside Plaza has been my home for nearly 18 years

I moved to Riverside Plaza to live in a one-bedroom apartment unit in 1993.  As soon as I graduated from University of Minnesota, I was placed in Section-8 housing due to my low income.  This has worked out nicely for me as I have chronic medical problems that keep me from working outside my home.

My friends are from both modest means; and, one's family business is valued at over $22 billion (USD), based in South America.  I have been a U.S. citizen all of my life, and spent my teenage years growing up in the "elite"  neighborhood of Kenwood/Lowry Hill.

I attended De La Salle High School on Nicollet Island (with honors), Macalester College in Saint Paul, a non-traditional boarding school in Norway, a school in a castle in Denmark, a language institute in Costa Rica, University of Minnesota (B.A. - History), and studied for my real estate exam at Kaplan Professional University in Saint Paul.

My dad is now a retired real estate attorney; and my step mom is a retired nurse anesthetist, having worked at several local hospitals during her time as a nurse.  I think she would make a great professor!

While in Norway, I sang for Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of South Africa, and later phoned to him and corresponded with him during and after his prostate surgery stay at a New York hospital in 1997.

Tutu was being recognized for his work against apartheid, and my school in Norway took part in activities to help him and his cause.

All of my friends and family consider my apartment to be cozy.  I finally convinced my mom that this is not a ghetto simply because Africans live here.  She was brought up as a racist.  My neighbors are great.  They take care of their children and often congregate on the grounds of Riverside Plaza in the spring, summer, and fall to sit and chat with their kids nearby.

I have gotten to know the security and resident services staff quite well over the past years.  The management staff are also very friendly and helpful.

Where there once was a high crime rate in the area, the management of this apartment complex, the Cedar-Riverside Safety Committee, and the Minneapolis Police Department's 1st Precinct have worked well together, and as single units, to bring down the rate of crime.

I don't think of Riverside Plaza as a shabby place at all -- except for the occasional resident who leaves trash near the trash door to be picked up by maintenance.

I've lived all over the world and can honestly say that this apartment complex, Riverside Plaza, is a peaceful  and comfortable place to live.  Owner, George Sherman, recently said to me that he is impressed by how well the residents are doing insofar as their intent to build a village within these buildings, surrounding a plaza atop the built in garage.  The lease is well-drawn, and interpreters from many languages are here to help the people who live here -- and who want to live here.

Currently, I am consulting with people about advertising five affiliate Internet businesses, hoping that they will take off sometime in the next few months.  I am also a Nichiren Buddhist, following wisdom handed down by 13th century Buddhist priest, Nichiren Daishonin of Japan.  See:  This practice has made all the difference in helping me adjust in a healthy way to my medical concerns.

Please don't pre-judge Riverside Plaza by its faded panels.  They will soon be repainted.  Please don't prejudge it, either, due to its location in proximity, and as ground zero to past acts of violence.  I find it to be a very nice place to live.  It was once a sheik place to live, and was featured on the CBS Television Network as a place where the main character of the situation-comedy lived.  I also believe that musician-extraordinaire, Prince, once live here, as I do, now.  It is a great place to start a family and a career.