The Seward Friendship Store sparks return of the co-op war

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Is a long awaited co-op grocery going to help or hurt a historical black neighborhood?

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A church in Minneapolis’ Bryant neighborhood.

Just a block away from Marjaan Sirdar’s little blue house, you’ll find what he calls “the black bible belt of South Minneapolis.” Four churches sit on four corners, surrounded by community gardens or inspirational signs. To my eyes, none seem fancy. Aging low-slung buildings amid the unglamorous but tidy homes of the Bryant neighborhood, itself pushed up against the brown walls of the Interstate that cuts the city in half.

In 2009, a tornado swept through the Bryant neighborhood and downed most of the trees along a large swath, so that walking down 4th Avenue today instills an eerie feeling of exposure. And for decades this has been an economically overlooked corner of town, one of the first African-American neighborhoods in a city historically hostile to racial and religious difference.

But things are starting to change. As the Star Tribune reported this week, after generations of decline, investors are beginning to take notice of 38th Street. The biggest new development is the Seward Co-op’s new “friendship store”, which is expanding from its famously hippie neighborhood two miles to the East. This summer, a new $11.5 million dollar store is rising on the site of an abandoned church. It will lure thousands of customers with organic vegetables and a deli counter sitting across the street from the Sabathani Community Center, right in the heart of Bryant.

For many people, the coming of the co-op is an unmitigated good, a long awaited quality grocery store in one of the city’s largest “food deserts.” But for Sirdar and other organizers, the new store is something else. It might be the neighborhood’s best chance to have an honest discussion about how development, race, and Minneapolis’ segregated culture are changing the city. But as construction continues, that chance might be slipping away.

Area churches

 

Two ways of looking at the Seward Friendship Store

Minneapolis is famous for being one of the most outwardly liberal cities in the country, balancing diversity and economic opportunity so that, compared to many fast-growing US metros, people can still afford to buy homes. And after decades of decline, the city is growing again. Hot neighborhoods like Uptown, the North Loop, and the Mill District are outpacing averages, and it’s not hard to find new apartments popping up all over town. In some areas, new construction create landscapes almost unrecognizable compared to just five years ago.

But the easy narrative of a Midwestern liberal economic engine has been shaken over the past few years by regular reminders of a cancer in the heart: our region has the worst racial inequalities in the country.

The Twin Cities has an undeniable geography of opportunity, education, jobs in the region, and it leaves people of color out in the proverbial cold. No other place in America, one of the most unequal countries in the Global North, offers such opportunity for white people and so little to the rest. And nowhere do these contrasts play out so vividly as in Minneapolis.

That inequality is why the new 38th Street store has raised so many questions. Led by the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization (CANDO), neighbors have spent the last year asking the Seward Co-op to negotiate a “community benefits agreement” (or CBA). Their demands offer a comprehensive list of ways that the Co-op might better benefit the neighborhood’s existing population, and begin to alleviate Minneapolis’ persistent inequality: needs-based discounts on food and membership, concrete goals for employment diversity, and living wages of $15 per hour.

[See a draft of the proposed Central Neighborhood Community Benefits Agreement: CANDO CBA.]

On the face of it both the Seward Co-op and CANDO want the same thing: for all the parties to sit down at the table and hash out an agreement. Spokespeople from both the Seward Co-op and CANDO told me (almost word for word) that a multi-party talk between neighborhood groups and the co-op administrators was their goal. According to an email from Seward, they are “committed to listening and responding to the community’s needs.”

But following a contentious April meeting, negotiations between the co-op and the community have broken down. The co-op’s official position is that they are going to re-visit the issue in the Spring of 2016, six months after the store is open. But for neighbors, that might be too late.

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38th Street South marks the border between the Bryant and Central neighborhoods. Photo by Kayla Steinberg.

 

A brief history of Bryant 

If you start asking people about the history of Bryant, people will always tell you the same thing: this is where Prince grew up.

And it makes sense that Bryant would be the famous backdrop for Purple Rain, because this little neighborhood has been a haven for Minneapolis’ African-American community for almost a century. For many years, along with areas around downtown, the homes in Bryant and Central were the only choices for people of color in Minneapolis. Living any where else was strictly limited by racist financing practices, real estate discrimination, and the threat of violence.

Redlining,” in particular, was the key way that race, class and geography tied themselves together across the American landscape. Dating back to the New Deal, Federal lenders fighting Depression-era foreclosures developed a ambitious but poisonous system of rating neighborhoods according to quality.

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Redlining maps of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

And it worked. Millions of Americans living in “blue neighborhoods” became eligible for low-interest mortgages which allowed millions of Americans to buy homes for the first time.

But race played a critical factor in determining which neighborhoods received loans. Racially diverse neighborhoods like Bryant (or Near North, Cedar-Riverside, or Stevens Square) were colored red, off limits for loans. Along with discriminatory realty practices and racial tensions, the policy meant that black Americans had little access to real estate wealth.

And if you look at a map of South Minneapolis today, the Bryant neighborhood still catches your eye. Compared to neighborhoods to the  South, East, and West, Bryant has a far higher percentage of people of color, higher unemployment, and lower income.

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Data and maps from Minnesota Compass.

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Data and maps from Minnesota Compass.

 

The co-op expansion era

Over the last decade, the Twin Cities’ co-ops have been in the midst of a generational change. The old style of cooperative store, where members were closely engaged with day-to-day operations and the place was stocked with volunteers, are endangered species in today’s more corporate environment.

(Protip: If you want to see the last of the old-school co-ops, head to Saint Paul’s Hampden Park.)

Watching Twin Cities co-ops change over the past 15 years has been a lesson in compromise, the tension between maintaining local control and ruthless competition from corporate stores like Whole Foods has meant that co-ops have become  more sophisticated about things like branding and supply lines. The latest trend has been a series of expansions, as long-tenured stores like the Wedge Co-op (the region’s largest) or Saint Paul’s Mississippi Market open new retail locations.

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Demonstrator  throwing rock amid protest over co-ops in the 70s.

But co-ops have been evolving for a long time. Craig Cox, a Minneapolis writer who lived in the Bryant neighborhood for years, literally wrote the book on the early days of co-ops in the Twin Cities.

“You have to understand that back in the 70s, it didn’t cost hardly anything to open a co-op,” Cox told me. “There was all sorts of retail space open in the city. A lot of mom and pop groceries had been going out of business, so you could get all the stuff you needed, like coolers, freezers, shelving, scales… It was very easily available and very cheap.”

In fact, the Bryant and Central neighborhoods once had a co-op of their own. By the 1970s, as the once thriving 38th Street business district fell on hard times, co-ops were an answer for struggling urban retail. And the diverse assortment of 70s-era co-ops ran the political gamut. Especially in this part of South Minneapolis, the idea of co-ops dovetailed with rising African-American political consciousness.

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The Bryant-Central Co-op in the 1970s.

“There were some folks organizing the Bryant-Central Co-Op in the early 70s who were very good political activists, good at mobilizing and galvanizing a politically-oriented base of folks to get involved in the co-op. That co-op was sort of the nexus for the 1975 co-op war,” Cox explained.

As Cox’s book explains, rival factions struggled to define whether or not co-ops would become politically organized. The situation became literally explosive in South Minneapolis, especially around the Seward and Bryant-Central co-ops.

“One of the leaders there, Moe Burton, was a former Black Panther organizer and a real leader in that community. Back at that time, the Marxist-Leninist folks really saw the Bryant-Central Co-op as a place where they could make a statement. And they tried and failed. As what happened with a lot of neighborhood co-ops, after that, people drifted away and it just went out of business,” Cox told me.

 

Co-op wars redux

The radical past adds an historic twist to today’s situation, with the Seward Co-op literally erecting its sign on 38th Street. As Cox says, “the hippies won.”

But today’s new struggle suggests that the tension between profit and politics is as alive as ever. In today’s co-ops, explicit politics is replaced by consumption. Customers and member-owners can browse for ideologies, choosing how engaged they want to be through labels while professional organizers with petitions are relegated to the street corner outside.

“If co-ops don’t grow and expand then it will be someone else, Cub or another conventional grocery store,” Tom Vogel told me when I asked him about the expansion plans.

Vogel is Seward’s Marketing Manager, and defends the amount of community outreach that the store has already done. After all, the co-op is member-owned, and unlike corporate groceries, decisions about supply chains and profit margins are made by a democratically elected board.

Right now, the current debate over the Seward expansion is at a stand-still. According to their press release, the official Seward position is that negotiations are on hold until after the store opens.

38th Street 

 

CANDO and the CBA

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The Seward construction site. Photo by Kayla Steinberg.

Negotiations about whether or not the new Seward Store will sign a CBA (community benefits agreement) have been going on for most of the past year. But they broke down after a meeting in late April, where neighbors from the Central and Bryant neighborhoods asked tough questions of Co-op spokespeople.

According to an email released to their employees (we received it from a source), Seward makes the following claims:

A group of activists from around the city attended and disrupted the meeting [on April 25th]. After this meeting the co-op and BNO both agreed that it was best if we put the conversation toward a shared vision and an MBA on hold until spring of 2016. Putting this MBA on hold also allows us to focus on two successful openings of our new businesses. As we draw closer to the opening of the Friendship store, we look forward to re-entering conversations regarding the development of an MBA for our Friendship store. In the meantime we are committed to listening and responding to the community’s needs.

[See original email: Seward Email May28]

That stance doesn’t sit well with Tina Burnside, who sits on the CANDO board.

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Tina Burnside. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

“CANDO and the Central neighborhood are interested in having things occur before the store is opened,” Burnside told me. “I don’t know what the issue is. Right now their position is that they‘re not going to enter into any type of agreement, and focus on opening the store. But the time to negotiate a CBA is now, not once the store opens.”

Once the store opens and thousands of people begin pouring onto 38th Street from all corners of the city, asking Seward to change will be much more of a challenge. But as things sit now, Bryant and Central neighbors don’t seem to have much leverage.

Officially, the Seward remains sympathetic to the Central Neighborhood’s concerns. During meetings last year, Seward released a comprehensive document with answers to the key questions raised during community meetings.

[See Seward Co-op’s Q & A document: Seward Q-A July 19.]

On gentrification, they say this:

“The topic of gentrification is a complex issue. The question of what is appropriate development is certainly an important topic in our neighborhoods. We are not interested in creating a situation wherein property values and rents make the community unaffordable. This issue is bigger than the co-op deciding to build in Bryant. At the root of this issue is the price of real estate and whether it goes up or down. Prices are driven more by interest rates and public policy. At the root of this issue is fundamentally an economy built on greed. We only need to look at the foreclosure crisis we all recently lived through as an illustration of our individual and collective vulnerability to the economic system.”

We believe that cooperatives are a solution, not a contributor, to this problem. Co-ops build community- owned wealth that is a positive anchor in the community in which they exist. […] Our intentions are not gentrification, but rather the improvement of access to healthy foods for current co-op members and the broader community residing in neighborhoods near the Friendship site. We intend to build a store that is warm and inviting to all.”

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The Seward construction site on 38th Street, with the Sabathani Community Center in the background. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

 

Getting beyond the gentrification paradox

The word “gentrification” gets thrown around a lot. It’s often difficult to tell exactly what people mean. Is it gentrification just because the neighborhood is changing? Because the city subsidizes a new bike lane, park, or housing development? Is the key to gentrification race, rising rents, or both?

For example, around the country, places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are notorious for being markers of profound neighborhood change. There’s even a term for it, the “whole foods effect”, which describes how high-end grocery options can radically change the fabric and flavor of neighborhoods. By bringing thousands of people from the surrounding whiter neighborhoods onto 38th Street, there’s no doubt that the Seward store will spur change.

With its overwhelming (but rapidly changing) white majority, gentrification debates in Minneapolis often center on how culture intertwines with economic opportunity.  It’s all too easy to create spaces where only wealthier white people feel welcome.

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Marjaan Sirdar. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

“A lot of pressure about redevelopment connects to this bigger issue of spaces for people of color in Minneapolis,” Marjaan Sindar told me. “We live in a time where populations of black and brown people are exploding, but spaces for black and brown people are diminishing.”

In the Twin Cities, for all our celebration of diversity, it’s hard to find places where black, white, and latino people amicably coexist. Some neighborhoods are better than others, but huge parts of the city remain socially segregated from each other.

“The bigger problem for me, as a person of color, [I] want to find recreational or social activities in places where black and brown people frequent. It’s impossible in this area. Black ownership of business is next to nothing in this area,” Marjaan told me.

“What do we see we see all these luxury apartments and condos erected everywhere,” Sirdar said. “Black and brown people want vibrant communities where we can have self determination, our own places and shops and, more than anything, places that create jobs and wealth and income for our communities.”

“At the same time, we want to keep our communities feeling like we belong here. Because as soon as we venture outside of black and brown communities, there’s this sense that it’s not welcoming,” Sirdar said.

Ten years ago, I lived in the Kingfield neighborhood, less than a mile from the location of the new store, just across the 35W freeway. Back then, the neighborhood was a mix of cultures. The corner of 38th and Nicollet offered everything from bodegas to cheap tacos to a Hardware Store and a Salvation Army.

Today, the old corner is more upscale, with places like Blackbird Café and (the brand new) Nighthawks. Standing in Kingfield today, you can feel the real estate pressure pressing up against the interstate, looking for the next affordable neighborhood. The workmanlike homes and low rents of Bryant and Central seem awfully vulnerable.

Marjaan Sirdar has seen the same changes.

“For me, I hang out on Nicollet now and there’s Pat’s Tap or Hola Arepa, and I’m often the only person of color eating or drinking there,” Sirdar told me. “There might be people of color working there, maybe one or two.”

“This co-op is a symptom of gentrification, as well as a force for gentrification,” Sirdar said. “And my point is that when black and brown folks have needs, where’s the city? Where’s development? Where are commercial developers and businesses saying ‘Hey, there’s a need. Let’s respond to that’”?

 

The future of Bryant

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Members of the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

The Seward story has no easy answers.What responsibility does a co-op grocery store, or any new development, have for its impact?

But the question I end up asking myself is that, if a cooperatively-owned grocery store that explicitly values social justice can’t agree to firm commitments about wages and minority hiring, then who will?

Given the long history of 38th Street as a center of Minneapolis’ African-American culture, the Seward expansion raises important questions about how social and economic segregation works in Minneapolis. Maybe there are ways to wrest a bit more control from our businesses and developers, and let capitalism feel its edges more clearly around issues like race and class.

To me, the key question for gentrification debates revolves not around whether a project is “good” or “bad,” but requires asking the follow-up question: “Good for who?” Who will benefit from the jobs and food at the new 38th Street store? Will it matter to the diverse majority of people in Central and Bryant?

Meanwhile construction continues at the new store. According to the Seward’s Tom Vogel, the exterior is “really coming along.” Work has begun installing interior walls, and soon they’ll be laying asphalt and landscaping  the parking lot. A hiring fair is set for August 16th, and hundreds of new employees will sign contracts.

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A meeting this week at CANDO to discuss the proposed Seward CBA. Photo by Bill Lindeke.

Store managers aren’t planning on signing any agreements with the surrounding neighborhoods before opening day. Organizers from CANDO met this week to brainstorm ways to raise attention to the issue. They’re planning on regular Sunday door knocks (meet every Sunday at Noon at CANDO’s main offices). They’re launching a Facebook campaign featuring the hashtags #CBAnow and #OwnersForCBA.

Lacking buy-in from the co-op officials or neighboring associations, getting firm agreements about minority hiring or low-income discounts seems like an uphill battle.

Opening day is set for October. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

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The Seward Friendship Store under construction. Photo by Kayla Steinberg.