The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood has been a home to immigrants since waves of Scandanavians first arrived in the late 19th Century. Today, cultural diversity is still a hallmark, with Somalis, Koreans, Oromos and Vietnamese, among others, making up much of the population.
“Our neighborhood is like the United Nations. We have every ethnic group,” said Abia Ali, a Somali resident and a past neighborhood board member who is still active in the community.
Ali, who joined the West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC) board in November 2005, was part of a class of newcomers to the board who helped steer the organization’s focus to better reflect residents’ concerns. Among their priorities: reaching out to all residents, including recent immigrants.
The WBCC won a “Bridging Communities” grant in January 2007 from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. The $5,000 grant was one of six awarded by the center for neighborhood groups to reach out to non-English speaking immigrant residents.
“We tried to do what the grant was meant for: to try and make the coalition more appealing to immigrants,” said Jim Ruiz, who was president of the WBCC at the time and is still an active board member. The coalition learned that the task required more time and resources than the board had.
“We wanted to reach every ethnic group in the neighborhood,” Ruiz said. “That was too ambitious. We didn’t succeed doing what we wanted to do.”
The WBCC contacted Somali, Korean, Vietnamese, and Oromo organizations. They were able to connect with Korean and Somali groups but heard nothing back from the others.
From left to right: Korean elders Kom Soon Kim, Bok Son Pyun, and Choon Young Choi at the Korean Service Center in Cedar-Riverside.
Korean residents concerned about safety, services
In the Korean community, the board worked with with Yoonju Park, executive director of Cedar-Riverside’s Korean Service Center. Using the grant funding, the center and the WBCC surveyed a portion of Korean elders who live in the neighborhood. Their concerns included the safety and the accessibility of social services, Ruiz said.
Bok Son Pyun, who moved to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood from South Korea in 1972, said a major problem for her and other elderly Koreans was going to and from the post office. Both of the neighborhood’s post offices are far from where the elders live.
“This is the home of many new immigrants, and they have connections with family members in their own countries,” Park said.
Kom Soon Kim moved here in 1984 to care for her mother. She said without the U.S.’s welfare system she wouldn’t have been able to survive. Kim continues to live in Cedar-Riverside to be near the Korean Service Center but is concerned with increasing crime.
“Long ago this community was clean,” she said. “[Now] homeless people are coming into the buildings and messing around.”
Choon Young Choi was a school teacher in Korea before she moved here in 1975. “The economic situation was bad. I had two boys and a girl and wanted to come to this country for the opportunity,” Choi said. Now that her children are grown and off on their own, the Korean Service Center does a good job of taking care of her, she said. She said she felt safe being nearby, despite crime in the area.
Meet your Muslim neighbors
The WBCC had little success with Cedar Riverside’s Oromo and Vietnamese populations but are still working at uniting the wide array of immigrants living in the area.
“We’re still in process of meeting the CURA grant,” said Laura Silver, the current president of the WBCC. “What we’re doing now is . . . working on meeting with the Somali community.”
Silver said that the WBCC is planning a “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” event with Cedar-Riverside’s Dar al-Hijra mosque to connect with the Somali community.
Rasheed Nur is a Somali immigrant who lives in Cedar-Riverside. He fled Somalia in 1989 because of the civil war there and struggles to find money to pay rent. “I cannot get no American dreams,” Nur said. He said that many Somali youth, especially young men, were drawn to crime in order to make money.
“They think: … I don’t have no job, don’t have no felony, let me get one,” Nur said. He said Cedar-Riverside needs fewer bars and more activity centers for young children.
Abia Ali agrees. She said the WBCC is working on applying for another grant from the University and she hopes it will be used to improve opportunities for the area’s youth.
A history of immigrants
The loss of a major cultural center in the neighborhood motivated some residents to become more involved with the WBCC.
Dania Hall was built as a cultural center for Danish immigrants in 1886. It stood on Cedar Avenue and 5th Street for 113 years until it burned down in February 2000. Reduced to a blackened frame and uninsured by the city of Minneapolis, its ruins were disassembled. A commemorative monolith on an empty, grass-covered lot was all that remained.
The building was being remodeled when it burned down. The city’s plan was to make it a community center for Cedar-Riverside’s newest generation of immigrants. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 45 percent of the West Bank’s residents were foreign-born. At the time, only 9.9 percent of Minneapolis’ overall population was foreign-born.
In February 2005 the Nomad World Pub, just to the north, made a bid to buy the land from the city. They wanted to use it as a parking lot. Members of the West Bank Community Coalition made a motion to support the Nomad’s request. The motion was tabled for a later meeting. In March 2005 around 50 residents attended the WBCC board meeting to express disapproval of the parking lot plan. They encouraged the board to oppose the sale, and the city later denied the Nomad’s request.
Ali said the city did a poor job of informing West Bank residents of the Nomad’s plans. She said the WBCC board members who intended to approve the request were more attentive to the concerns of businesses than they were to the diverse swath of residents who lived there. Ali decided to run for the board in November 2005.
“It was an opportunity to participate and to speak up,” Ali said. She thought the old board could benefit from newer voices. With the help of Ali and other new members who helped save Dania Hall, the WBCC started giving more attention to the concerns of the area’s residents. The WBCC’s outreach budget was $2,000, so it was difficult before the grant.
Ali, Ruiz, and Silver said last year’s CURA grant allowed the WBCC to familiarize themselves with some of the local immigrant groups, and that was an important step in process of connecting with local immigrant groups. It gave them “an awareness of where we’re moving to,” Ali said.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Don’t give up the hope of change.”