George Floyd legacy: What building back better means in Minneapolis



Former customers might regard the empty dirt lot where the Indian restaurant once stood as a burial plot for an immigrant’s dream. In 2008, eight years after moving to Minneapolis and a dozen after arriving in America, Ruhel Islam realized the aspiration he had carried with him from his native Bangladesh. Defying the Great Recession, he opened Gandhi Mahal in the Longfellow neighborhood on the city’s south side, his path through the economic gloom lit with energy and optimism.

Mr. Islam’s restaurant soon gained a loyal following and citywide reputation for its vibrant cuisine and inviting ambience. In the dead of winter, when all lies fallow on the Minnesota tundra, he harvested peppers, spinach, tomatoes, and herbs from an aquaponics garden he built in the basement. Praise for his chicken tikka masala, palak paneer, and other classic Indian dishes spread beyond Minneapolis, eliciting satiated raves from Guy Fieri, who visited Gandhi Mahal in 2016 for his Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

The restaurant’s success added to the gradual renaissance of Longfellow. The neighborhood of 5,000 residents, located a 10-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis, began to grow in size and diversity in the 1990s after stagnating for two decades as white residents departed for the suburbs. A steady flow of immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and South Asia settled in Longfellow and adjacent neighborhoods to raise families and re-imagine their future.

Why We Wrote This

A neighborhood in Minneapolis, heavily damaged during protests a year ago, is trying to rebuild in a way that embodies ideals of diversity and equality, potentially offering a new model for urban redevelopment.

Little reason existed for residents or business owners to wonder if the area’s revival would continue – until last May, when in the span of four days, a quarter century of progress went up in flames.

A bystander’s video captured Derek Chauvin, then a Minneapolis police officer, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as two other officers held him down and a fourth stood watch. Mr. Floyd’s death on Memorial Day ignited protests that exploded into riots, and as vandals wrought destruction across the city, their rage crested in Longfellow. 

The four officers worked out of the 3rd Precinct station, a block from Gandhi Mahal, and during the first two nights of unrest, Mr. Islam opened his space for medics to treat injured protesters. The next night, rioters set fire to the police building and dozens of businesses in Longfellow, and by dawn, his restaurant lay in ashes.

The grace he showed in the face of personal loss earned him recognition far beyond the renown of Gandhi Mahal. In a Facebook post that went viral the same morning, his teenage daughter, Hafsa, quoted him as saying, “Let my building burn, justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.”

Jacob Borden/Reuters/File

Protesters sit in front of the 3rd Precinct police station as they’re met by Minnesota state troopers during a protest against racial inequality on May 29, 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis.

His words resonate a year later as more than an expression of forgiveness. Mr. Islam has helped form a neighborhood collective called Longfellow Rising that intends to rebuild the triangular, three-block zone that included Gandhi Mahal to further elevate – and celebrate – the neighborhood’s racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity.

The initiative exemplifies a model of redevelopment known as inclusive design that emphasizes public involvement and community cohesion. The racial justice movement has drawn attention to the concept as cities attempt to redress chronic economic and social inequities between minority and white residents.

The nonprofit group in Minneapolis consists of business and landowners, faith leaders, economic developers, and other community partners inspired by dual desires to stave off gentrification and promote economic equity for people of color. The effort to transform an area known to locals as Downtown Longfellow will seek to support and attract minority business owners, expand affordable living options, and create public and private spaces that embody ideals of racial justice and social equality.

The conviction of Mr. Chauvin in April on charges of second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter defused the lingering unease in Minneapolis without resolving the racial disparities brought to light by last year’s upheaval. Mr. Islam describes Longfellow Rising as a chance to set an example for the city by rooting the neighborhood’s renewal in the soil of unity. In his view, rather than a mass grave of ruined ambitions, his empty lot and those nearby represent a community garden where a shared vision of hope will flourish. 

“We want people to come here to heal and grow through community, through art, through food,” he says. “I feel change happening, and I believe we can come up with something extraordinary.”

The protests that cascaded across Minneapolis revealed a solidarity between Longfellow’s merchants and residents. Downtown shopkeepers handed out bottled water and hand sanitizer to demonstrators and posted signs in windows calling for an end to racial injustice. Residents sought to keep watch over small businesses when riots erupted and later returned with brooms and trash bins to help store owners clear away debris and salvage belongings.

“This has long been an area where neighbors look out for each other. The unrest solidified that bond,” says Ingrid Rasmussen, lead pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and a member of Longfellow Rising’s board of directors. Church volunteers ran a distribution site to hand out food, clothing, and other donated goods for weeks after the disorder, and since early spring, Holy Trinity has flown a Black Lives Matter flag above its complex.

“There’s a sense we’ve never been so connected,” she says. “Out of tragedy has arisen a sense of responsibility to one another.”

“There’s a sense we’ve never been so connected. Out of tragedy has arisen a sense of responsibility to one another,” says Ingrid Rasmussen, lead pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

Rioters damaged or destroyed 1,500 businesses across Minneapolis and St. Paul, inflicting an estimated $500 million in losses. The casualty list in Longfellow ranged from grocery, drug, and department stores to cafes, coffee shops, and restaurants, along with the post office, a medical clinic, and an apartment building under construction.

The neighborhood’s downtown nestles in one crook of the intersection where Minnehaha Avenue meets Lake Street, a major commercial artery in South Minneapolis. Across the intersection, Target and a pair of grocery stores, Aldi and Cub Foods, have reopened since completing repairs. Construction has started on an AutoZone shop, a Wendy’s restaurant, and the apartment complex, all of which burned down last spring.

The recovery of corporate-owned businesses contrasts with the struggle of independent merchants to rebuild or finish repairs. The limited emergency funding provided by the city to small businesses in Minneapolis – about $7 million to date – forced many owners to pay for cleanup and removal of rubble. High construction costs and an uncertain economic climate jeopardize their ability to move forward.

“It’s been a disappointing response from city officials,” says Chris Montana, who with his wife, Shanelle, co-owns Du Nord Craft Spirits, five blocks from Longfellow’s downtown. Their warehouse flooded after vandals set a fire that tripped the sprinkler system. “We need allies. We need public officials to stick up for us.”

The state Legislature has proved less obliging than the city, with Republican lawmakers opposing a $300 million relief package for Twin Cities businesses, contending that Minneapolis officials mishandled the crisis a year ago. In the meantime, Longfellow has relied on its own resources and communal goodwill, much as occurred during the protests, when police pulled back as the neighborhood burned.

The Montanas established a recovery fund for Longfellow businesses that collected $750,000 in donations, and they distributed grants of $5,000 to $15,000 to dozens of recipients. The money enabled a Latino-owned barbershop in downtown to reopen and defrayed cleanup costs for a damaged restaurant run by a Somali family.

“But it’s nowhere near enough to meet the need,” says Mr. Montana, one of the country’s few Black distillery owners. He plans to launch a small-business incubator in the coming months to encourage minority ownership. “We want to see people of color running their own businesses and owning their own property. That’s how we can keep the neighborhood from gentrifying.”

Longfellow’s ethnic restaurants, tree-lined streets, and lower cost of living relative to most of Minneapolis had attracted a mix of young families, downtown workers, and retirees. The prospect of losing business owners of color who had nurtured the community’s reawakening surfaced as an early concern among neighborhood leaders after the protests.

Their initial conversations acted as a catharsis. In time, they recognized that the unwanted devastation and lack of city and state support presented an opportunity to recast the area’s destiny. 

The discussions that gave shape to Longfellow Rising yielded a governing principle that people of color would form the heart of the initiative and guide its progress. Meena Natarajan, artistic and executive director of Pangea World Theater and a member of the collective’s board, likens the work to mounting a stage production – with a community cast of thousands.

“The first question you always have to answer in theater is, ‘What does it mean to create a sense of belonging?’ You have to create shared understanding to build trust in one another,” she says.

The liberal reputation of Minneapolis shrouds historical disparities in income, education, and housing in a city where white residents make up 60% of the population of 440,000. Ms. Natarajan, who emigrated with her husband from India to the United States in 1987, considers Longfellow Rising an effort to interrupt a status quo that consigns people of color to the cultural and socioeconomic margins.

“I’m not interested in going back to ‘normal,’” she says. “I think we can build a better community, a better city.”

“I’m not interested in going back to ‘normal.’ I think we can build a better community, a better city,” says Meena Natarajan, executive director of the Pangea World Theater, standing in front of a door that the theater had built near a renewal project in the Longfellow neighborhood.

The coalition’s members joined forces to, in effect, hit “pause” on the typical redevelopment process that occurs in the wake of disaster and prioritizes reflexive replication of the past. The deliberate pace of planning has allowed the group to solicit and integrate public feedback and to focus beyond the coming year to the decades ahead.

The board hired a local design firm to assist with mapping out a new future for Downtown Longfellow by gathering ideas from residents, business owners, and other community members during a series of workshops this spring. The sessions served as a listening tour as participants dreamed out loud about resuscitating the area.

“So much about real estate tends to be, ‘You gotta act fast,’” says Jamie Schwesnedl, who co-owns Moon Palace Books, located a block from the barricaded, unoccupied police station. “That usually means you end up with a Subway shop, a cellphone store, a check-cashing place – maybe a Foot Locker if you’re lucky.” He explains that Longfellow Rising, instead of settling for “something that’s not terrible,” aspires to cultivate change on a generational scale.

“There’s this energy behind rebuilding and creating space for businesses owned by people of color and to have a cooperative approach,” says Mr. Schwesnedl, who serves on the coalition’s board. During last year’s protests, he rebuffed police officers who tried to commandeer his parking lot for use as a staging point, and he and his employees later posted a huge storefront sign that read “Abolish The Police.”

“This is a chance to build something in harmony with the memory of what happened here,” he says, “and to live the values of racial and social equality, not just talk about it.”

Longfellow Rising’s design plan strives to balance the version of downtown that fell to the flames with a new iteration that would rise from the ashes. The result could heal the neighborhood’s landscape and herald another renaissance.

Mr. Islam will rebuild Gandhi Mahal and add a food bank, an outdoor garden, and a shared community space to promote food justice and sustainable agriculture. Mr. Schwesnedl, who leases a pair of vacant lots next to his bookstore from his parents, will explore developing the properties with affordable housing and retail space for
minority-owned businesses.

Ms. Natarajan and Mr. Islam intend to collaborate on building a permanent home for Pangea World Theater on a lot adjacent to his restaurant where the offices of a nonprofit organization burned down. The multicultural theater company has earned acclaim for staging productions that examine themes of peace, human rights, and social justice, and Ms. Natarajan suggests that Pangea can provide emotional release for a community ruptured by collective trauma.

“What art gives us is an opportunity to come together to better understand each other,” she says, “and from that comes growth and compassion.” In that spirit, Longfellow Rising has commissioned a local Native American artist, Angela Two Stars, to conceive an interactive public artwork that will stand across from the police station. The tile installation will metamorphose from a cocoon into a butterfly over a period of months to symbolize the neighborhood’s ongoing transformation.

“Artists and the arts are a central force in the rebuilding of community,” Ms. Natarajan says. “People of color and communities of color are fighting to be heard, and we have the power to amplify those voices in our neighborhood.”

The coalition’s working proposal would establish a downtown plaza and other outdoor gathering spaces, improve pedestrian safety and access to public transit, and shift the area toward solar energy. The group’s emphasis on equity and sustainability wins praise from Minneapolis City Councilman Cam Gordon, who credits Longfellow’s business owners for persevering in the face of scarce public assistance following the riots.

“As a member of city government, it’s kind of unbelievable to me that we couldn’t do more to help them. I feel like we failed them,” says Mr. Gordon, whose ward includes Longfellow. He regards the nonprofit initiative as a possible blueprint for mending neighborhoods across the Twin Cities. “It’s a careful, thoughtful approach that shows local businesses and institutions can come together and be intentional about racial and social equality. It makes me hopeful.” 

The strategy of inclusive design has infused life into languishing neighborhoods in Dallas, Detroit, Oakland, and elsewhere. An alliance of residents, community activists, and city planners in Pittsburgh banded together more than a decade ago to save a predominantly Black neighborhood hollowed out by urban renewal. The group received a $30 million federal grant in 2014 to build 350 units of mixed-income housing.

The funding required for that kind of ambitious project explains, in part, why inclusive design remains rare. The economic inequities between minority and white residents in large cities parallel a similar imbalance in the business world that extends to access to bank loans.

The struggle to obtain capital thwarts minorities from owning businesses and property, and complicates their efforts to rebuild in the event of a calamity.

“There is no margin for most business owners of color,” says Henry Jiménez, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Center in St. Paul. “If you get wiped out, whether it’s by a hurricane or riots, rebuilding is extremely difficult.”

In Longfellow, where neighborhood leaders worry about gentrification sweeping away minority businesses, two factors enhance the prospects of rescuing the downtown. A handful of Longfellow Rising’s board members own their properties, and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church has offered to act as a short-term land bank.

The church’s willingness to hold on to properties for as long as 24 months will give more time to business and land owners to line up financing, reducing the threat of foreclosure. Ms. Rasmussen describes the rationale for the decision in simple terms.

“We want to build back together,” she says. “We’re neighbors.”

Ruhel Islam, owner of the Gandhi Mahal restaurant that was burned down a year ago, waves to neighbors passing in front of his takeout business, Curry in a Hurry, on April 21, 2021, in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Ade Alabi moved to Minneapolis more than 30 years ago to work as an engineer. The Nigerian émigré later tapped his life’s savings to enter the real estate business, and in January last year, he acquired a century-old brick building next to Gandhi Mahal for $2.8 million. The 32,000-square-foot space housed several minority-owned businesses, including a Latin nightclub, a Mexican restaurant, and a Spanish-language radio station.

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of public life, and two months later, police killed Mr. Floyd. The building burned to the ground the same night as Mr. Islam’s restaurant.

After several months of waiting in vain for city aid, Mr. Alabi relates, he spent almost $500,000 from an insurance payout of $3 million on demolition and cleanup services. He estimates the cost of rebuilding would exceed $9 million.

“It’s a difficult situation and you feel unsure what to do,” says Mr. Alabi, a Longfellow Rising board member. He recalls the large gatherings for weddings and quinceañeras – a traditional Latin American celebration to mark a girl’s 15th birthday – that filled his building’s banquet hall.

“Yes, you can sell. But this was a place so important to the Latino and Hispanic communities,” he says. “I want to bring that back, to have events that make people happy. I want businesses run by people of color that are for people of color. Would another owner want that?”

The lack of city assistance pits his best intentions against financial reality, and with the uncertain timeline of Longfellow Rising, his lot and others could remain vacant over the summer. The scenario concerns Melanie Majors, executive director of the Longfellow Community Council, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“People talk about the need to heal. But driving through a wasteland doesn’t help people feel better,” she says. The boarded-up 3rd Precinct station intensifies the ambient discomfort. “The thing sits there as a horrible reminder of what happened and why it happened, and nobody from the city is telling us what they’re planning to do. It’s an abdication of responsibility.”

Still, as the city’s long year draws to an end, there are glimmers of a new dawn. A private-public fund unveiled in April will funnel $30 million to damaged neighborhoods for redevelopment projects. The Lake Street Council, a nonprofit advocacy group for businesses along the thoroughfare, has distributed $8 million to hundreds of merchants and property owners from a recovery fund amassed through individual and corporate donations.

“All of Minneapolis is having a reckoning,” says Russ Adams, who manages the council’s recovery initiatives. “There’s a need for both urgency and patience.”

For Mr. Islam, who absorbed the demise of his restaurant with uncommon equanimity, staying busy eases his anxiety. A few months after Gandhi Mahal burned down, he opened Curry in a Hurry, a delivery and takeout spot. He has turned his frustration over the city’s sluggish response into motivation to revive his adopted neighborhood. He is determined to see Longfellow rising. 

“The city isn’t going to do it for us,” he says. “So we’ll do it and tell the city, ‘We did it.’”

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