Last Friday in Cedar Riverside, neighborhood small business owners gathered to make their voices heard in a civic forum on long-term planning. It was just another day in the life of public access TV: a meeting in a gym – neighborhood people, city staff, the ward’s city council member – a slide show, some speeches.
Yet those in the room felt something new and hopeful was happening. ADC presented results of the first market survey assessing the background and priorities of immigrant entrepreneurs in Minnesota’s most African business district. The event was part of ADC’s participation in the Great Streets Neighborhood Business District Program, a coordinated effort by the City of Minneapolis and community partners, including ADC, to help businesses develop and succeed along commercial corridors throughout the city.
The upshot of the survey is that the concerns of this community of transplants from the opposite side of the world were far from exotic. Many of those present, following the statistical pattern the survey uncovered, had owned their businesses for several years. Nearly half lived in Cedar Riverside as well. They wanted the neighborhood to command the public resources it needed to solve persistent inner-city problems. Until Friday evening, however, the local African business community had been invisible in the civic process. So that evening marked a step toward increased participation by immigrants and refugees from Africa, who have worked hard to learn a new culture, establish themselves economically, and, now, figure in Minneapolis’ long-term economic development.
Safety was the prevalent concern, followed by the shortage of parking. Nothing new there. Yet the meeting was very cordial and you could feel an energy growing that accompanies the joy of discovery. City officials who had to that point viewed the immigrant entrepreneurs impersonally, as a statistical phenomenon, looked into the faces and heard the experiences of the gathered individuals and understood that they were people who wanted to help. And the same with my fellow Africans who could now see relevance to their lives in the role of local government policy makers. We all left there feeing something new was possible to bring economic progress to the plucky but hard-worn Cedar Riverside area.
An hour later, a young Somali man, 18 years old, a kid really, was gunned down a block away, in public. This of course was Friday night’s headline news from the neighborhood. Though this much has not yet been fully reported in the media, the young man was an innocent, mistaken for someone else who was the target of a grudge. The victim was known to nearly all of us in the close-knit Somali community. He was the youngest son of one of the first African entrepreneurs in the neighborhood, a former owner of the West Bank Grocery. The current owner of this same business had contributed much of the East African food we had enjoyed at the meeting.
We had talked about safety. We had left feeling that we’d accomplished something. Now we are mourning.
ADC is focused on economic development. As its director, I try to be careful to use my visibility to advocate financial opportunities and leave commentary on social issues, on tragedies such as occurred Friday, to others.
But if we are to learn the lesson of Friday’s hopeful moments before they are forgotten or obscured by familiar resignation, I feel that it’s more important than ever to declare that we Africans are horrified at this killing, particularly so because the gunman is also believed to be one of our own. This is not how we Africans see ourselves, we who are so many of us refugees from lawless, senseless violence.
During the Great Streets meeting in the Bryan Coyle Center gym, Mohamud Ahmed, the current owner of the West Bank Grocery, used his brief turn at the microphone to talk not about the importance of accessible loan capital or the challenges of doing business in Cedar Riverside, but about the need for business success to produce better education in the community of immigrants.
The victim, as has been reported, had aspired to attend college. The sort of ignorance that ended his life simmers in a stew of economic malaise. It’s where the missions of the economic developer and the social advocate are intertwined. The conditions that led to the death of Abdullahi Awil Abdi are a terribly complicated problem, one that inner cities across America struggle with. But they’re also the font of the classic American story of upward mobility: escaping poverty and oppression though industry and optimism.
This is where the Africans of Cedar Riverside are today: trying, really trying hard, to achieve economic success in the shadows of the Cedar Towers, where other young African men languish, beset by their seeming lack of prospects and easily drawn into the underworld. It was this very underworld that the community expressed concern about to city officials on Friday, hoping to change the calculus of resource allocation for economic development.
We Africans are like you. We want better. Like you, and perhaps even more so, we can’t get there alone when facing loiterers and thugs and the conditions that attract them and the poor perceptions that linger in their wake. We are ready as residents, as businesspeople, as neighbors, to be part of the solution for Cedar Riverside. Let us not waste the modest start we made in the moments before the gunfire.
Hussein Samatar is the executive director of the African Development Center of Minnesota, 1808 Riverside Avenue, Suite 200, Minneapolis, MN 55454