FREE SPEECH ZONE | Once upon a time in Cedar-Riverside

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Children’s fairytales and cultural folktales often begin with “Once upon a time,” and they may be make-believe or legend. This is a true story. In the 1960s when my children were young and our family lived in Fridley, a northern suburb, in our first home, a beautiful three-bedroom split-level house with lovely landscaping and a large redwood-fenced backyard (the house had two fireplaces, two ovens, a dishwasher, laundry room with washer and dryer, and a family room), I would put the children in the car, roll up the windows and lock the doors, and drive to Cedar-Riverside so they could see old people and drunks staggering on the street. That’s true. We all looked alike on our block: white-skinned, young parents raising young children in their first homes. I wanted my children to know the world was bigger, broader, and more diverse than our block.

Cedar-Riverside at that time, especially along Washington Avenue, had many “flop houses,” cheap rooms rented for one night or a little longer, by the otherwise homeless, poor, and intoxicated. Little houses occupied by Scandinavian immigrants filled the area where Riverside Plaza now stands.

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Cedar-Riverside was a place to visit. I never thought I’d live there.

In the ‘70s, after the famous “Heller” battle to save Cedar-Riverside from becoming a sea of high-rises and my divorce (the two battles are not related), I moved into Cedar Square West, E Building, and began working at nearby St. Mary’s Hospital (now Fairview). In 1980, I moved into the “Barber Building,” across from The Viking Bar, where the auto repair parking lot is. The neighborhood was filled with artists, musicians, hippies, students, and many persons with mental illness and chemical dependency. Emigrated Asians from the Vietnam War found homes here, along with others who needed a fresh start. My fresh start began at the University of Minnesota, with a secretarial job in the College of Education and completing a B.A. degree at the same time. The area was fun and lively. The co-op New Riverside Café on the Cedar-Riverside corner, a flower stand across the street in front of the bank, a newspaper stand nearby, North Country grocery co-op up the street near Augsburg, and Mama D’s and Breakfast at Mama’s where Hard Times now stands. Theaters and bars kept entertainment hopping. During the day, folks stopped at Midwest Mountaineering, Edna’s Café, Chili Time, Depth of Field, Global Village, and other quaint shops. Snooze News kept folks informed about neighborhood politics, which was usually controversial, and local heroes played their colorful parts.

That was then, and this is now. This story has a happy ending.

I and a few other old-timers felt our neighborhood slipping away as the East African population expanded. East African cultures are very different from the former Cedar-Riverside (also known as the West Bank) that I and others knew. We sometimes felt like minorities—didn’t know their languages and habits, and definitely didn’t dress the same. I sarcastically told folks I lived in New Mogadishu, even though I had attended a Somali wedding reception and had a few Somali neighbors as friends. Then, I remembered that I had always wanted to join the Peace Corps and couldn’t leave my family to do that. I even went to a couple of Peace Corps meetings and had an application. Pow! Wow! Sis Boom Ba!

Magic happened. I didn’t have to join the Peace Corps and go to Africa, East Africa came to me. Now I can stay home, learn about African cultures, and make new friends from around the world. What an opportunity to live in Cedar-Riverside!