When I move to a new area, I become a cheerleader. I try to convince everyone I know, including myself, that the place I live is the best place in town. The theory of buyer behavior that says people convince themselves of the value of their purchases after the fact would describe me perfectly. I may have been on the fence about buying in the Cooper neighborhood — and greater Longfellow area — when we were house shopping, but that day after closing in September of 2003, I was telling everyone how they had to move there too. Longfellow was the best neighborhood in America!
The private me was more conflicted. When I drove the stretch of Lake Street between Hiawatha and West River Parkway by myself those first few months, sometimes I didn’t know what to think. Check out the major thoroughfare in any neighborhood, and the people, the businesses, the activity, and even the physical attributes of the street itself say a lot. When I drove down East Lake in 2003, I went by good and I went by bad.
There was Molly Quinn’s Irish Bar and there was a pawn shop. There was the Blue Moon Cafe and there were vacant buildings. There was Brackett Park and all its new amenities, and there were beat-up sidewalks.
Having lived in other nonaffluent neighborhoods in Minneapolis, the rational city-dweller in me knew that Lake Street was not nearly as dangerous or run-down as its stereotype. I loved the city, and I loved the idea of staying in town for a long time, but I grew up in a small town. When I thought about raising a family here, growing up and going to school in the city was simply beyond my experience. Would my future children have it better than me, worse, or would it just be different?
Once we were there a few months, I started to sense the neighborhood’s direction. The tattoo shop rehabbed its building for a renter and turned it into the coolest combination tattoo shop/beauty shop in town. West River Commons was being built, then burned down, then was built again. And then the news came that Lake Street itself was being rebuilt. I was finding out there was a lot to get excited about.
Not that there haven’t been casualties. Molly Quinn’s moved 10 blocks west, then closed, victims of road construction and smoking bans. And as the local business owners told it in the newspapers, the construction would claim more. Very few business people had good things to say about rebuilding Lake Street, last improved in 1954. They said there would be no return on investment. They said it wasn’t worth it.
But it is worth it. New roads make a neighborhood look nice, and it seems stupid, but if it looks nice, it feels nice. Places that feel nice attract people and businesses and homeowners, and places that look run-down do not. Businesses near new sidewalks draw neighborhood people who walk, and their word-of-mouth draws the out-of-neighborhood people who drive. The path that leads from the new street to the new sale is intangible, and cannot be mapped on a balance sheet or a timeline, but it is most certainly there.
Business owners are not wrong to feel how they do. It’s hard to deny that the improvements have been put on the backs of businesses, and the residents are getting a relatively free piggy-back ride. Everyone wants new stuff, but when the check arrives, no one wants to pay. Well, businesses are paying. They’re paying a lot. Who could blame them for feeling like the city is making them pay to gentrify themselves out of existence? A new Lake Street with higher taxes and higher property values makes it harder for the little guys and more attractive to corporations. Bigger businesses with deeper pockets will most certainly move in, to what extent we don’t know.
Right now I’m trying to be honest with myself by admitting that I’m benefiting without paying. Then I ask myself a few questions — do I value these local businesses? Do I like that I can buy my favorite Caribbean hot sauce locally? Is there value in being able to browse a quirky record store even though I don’t own a turntable? Do I want businesses like that to be there when the new sidewalks are lit with new street lights, or are Rainbow Foods and Best Buy satisfying alternatives?
There are no right or wrong answers. Some residents will answer no, and that’s their right. Many will say yes. Many people in Minneapolis care about local ownership and local owners who keep their money in the community. Many people want more choice than Starbucks and McDonald’s and Wal-Mart can provide. Some of us just don’t want to return to the days when friends from London have to ship us our hot sauce.
So with that in mind, here’s my shameless call to support some of my favorite local businesses on East Lake: Get your coffee at the Blue Moon Cafe; your spicy Caribbean sauces at Tropic World grocery store; your vintage vinyl and other oddities at Hymie’s Records; and your tacos and beer at El Norteno. These businesses and others are literally in the trenches during road construction. If you like the idea of a new Lake Street, don’t let these businesses and others get buried underneath it.