Photo Essay: The Cedar’s West Bank Partners

The Cedar Cultural Center exists within a diverse ecosystem of arts organizations, performance spaces, restaurants, and cultural landmarks on the West Bank.  Home to the largest Somali community in the United States as well as a substantial student population due to the University of Minnesota and the nearby Augsburg College, the Cedar Riverside neighborhood is fertile ground for creativity and innovation.

The Cedar has traded, bartered, and partnered with many of our neighbors in our 28 years on the West Bank. In order to give a small glimpse into our community, I spoke with five of our Cedar partners: The Southern Theater, The Red Sea, West Bank Business Association, KFAI, and The Cedar Commons.

Anna Schultz, Marketing/Content Intern

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Damon Runnals of The Southern Theater

Q: What does The Southern Theater do as an organization?

A: The Southern’s building is 106 years old. It was founded as a theater here on the West Bank by Swedish immigrants, which I think really harkens to the fact that the West Bank has always been a home for immigrants.

The building has gone through a lot of changes over the years. Back in the 80’s it reemerged as a performing arts space and officially became The Southern Theater, a nonprofit, and that’s the organization we are today. We’ve had our ups and downs financially and we’re coming out of a pretty challenging time following 2011 when the organization almost closed, but we’ve come back!

Unlike a lot of performing arts spaces in town, we don’t make anything in-house. We partner with other groups to present their work. In 2016 we are hosting over 25 different organizations, presenting over 220 nights of performance, dance, music, and theater throughout the year. There’s a wide variety of stuff, from post-modern things to classics to youth performance. I think in a lot of ways we’re reflective of the community due to the different types of stuff that we offer.

Q: What specifically is your role at The Southern?

A: As Executive Director, my job is to keep the place running. I actually took over in 2011 as the only employee and in the last year and a half we have added a bunch of staff, which is great. Now my focus is managing that group of specialists and reporting to the board of directors. The big buckets that I oversee are the finances and the programming of the artists and the curation of the season.

Q: Can you explain your partnership with The Cedar?

A: As the Executive Director here at The Southern Theater, we are obviously long time neighbors of The Cedar. We have hosted a couple of music events for The Cedar when they’ve had some overflow and needed to find another venue. I also worked with (Cedar Director of Events) Mark Johnson for a couple years when I was on the board of the West Bank Business Association. Other than that, I’m just a fan of The Cedar and the work that they’re doing as fellow artists and compatriots on the West Bank.

Q: Can you speak to the Cedar Riverside as a community?

A: It’s always a really diverse and interesting group of people. I like how compressed and compact everything is here. Having such a rich and vibrant neighborhood in just a ten-minute walk from one end to the other is really nice. I obviously spend a lot of time on this end of the West Bank but I try to get down and see a lot of different stuff and all the different places. I love that there’s public transport nearby. I like a lot of the history and its preservation. The Southern is a 106 year old building, The Cedar’s an old building, Mixed Blood is an old building, the Theater in the Round, just thinking of West Bank arts organizations. There are all kinds of classic retail spaces and buildings.

Lastly, I think that being right next to the U of M creates a really interesting dynamic as a neighborhood. It’s a very residential and business place and we have this kind of youthful energy that is sitting right on our doorstep, getting infused in the businesses all the time, which is really cool.

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Russom Solomon, Owner of The Red Sea

Q: How did you come to be an owner of The Red Sea?

A: Now, almost fourteen years ago, my partner asked me to join because the previous owner was selling. I was looking for something to do on my own, without working for someone, so that’s how I got into the restaurant business. I didn’t know much about it so I had to learn everything when we started working.

Q: What specifically is your role at The Red Sea?

A: I manage booking, banking, communications, and correspondence. I also run the bar, multitasking, doing lots of things. When you’re a small business owner you have to step into every possible thing. You’re expected to be working all the time and have everything covered. Especially when income is limited, you have to make things work, put in the hours. When you own your own business you have a lot of independence but also a lot of responsibilities. You take work home. It’s not an 8-5 job, you’re always thinking about the business. Even if you’ve gone home, you’re still working.

Q: Can you explain your partnership with The Cedar?

A: We prepare food for The Cedar, for the artists, and I have a personal relationship with (Cedar Director of Events)) Mark Johnson through community issues. We are always working together in the community, and through the West Bank Business Association. That has been my connection with The Cedar and people working at The Cedar.

Q: Can you speak to the Cedar Riverside as a community?

A: The neighborhood is great. We have a great working relationship with other businesses; the bars here, the restaurants, the theaters. That makes it a nice area to work in. When you have a good working relationship with your neighbors, work is good.

We’re always trying to improve the perception of the neighborhood from visitors. That’s a challenge we deal with. I chair a safety committee in the neighborhood, I’ve been leading that committee for over 7 years now. We meet once a month. For the number of people living here, crime is very low, almost insignificant, but we get a bad rap for every small thing that happens. People can’t relate the number of people here, the types of crimes, the ratios. All of those things have to factor in and people don’t give us the benefit of the doubt. So, we’re always working to improve that image so that visitors feel comfortable when they come here.

The Cedar brings a lot of people, and we want them to feel welcome to the neighborhood so that they will venture out to other places as well, so that if they come out to a show they also go to the restaurants and the bars in this neighborhood. But for them to do that, they have to feel safe. But like I said, The Cedar is doing a good job of bringing a lot of people in to the neighborhood by booking very good shows, we are a smaller venue so we can’t be doing that. It’s good that they’re doing that, that they’re bringing people. In the future we would love to coordinate with everyone so that people coming in know what bars, restaurants are around, we have to refine that effort. So many people just come in and out and we want them to venture out, find something new. People are here, they’ve parked their car, why not venture out, and then hopefully come back.

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Jamie Schumacher of the West Bank Business Association, which is located in the same space at The Southern Theater.

Q: What does the WBBA do as an organization?

A: Basically we promote the area as a destination district. We’ve got a lot of amazing theaters, and we’ve got all of these amazing venues, but a lot of our businesses are at risk. I’ll back up a little bit more. We’ve got about 175, 180 businesses and over 90% of them are still small or independently owned, or they’re nonprofits. A lot of other neighborhoods in Minneapolis have seen a lot of displacement due to development. You see that happen in Stadium Village. They used to have numbers that were similar to ours, but now there are about five businesses left that are independently owned, which includes a couple of franchises. Here, we still have a lot of the businesses that make Minneapolis and our neighborhood unique.

We are working right now on implementing our long-term strategic plan. A couple summers ago we did a lot of one-on-one outreach with all of the businesses. We did translations, so that way we could have input from a lot of our new business owners, as well. One of the things business owners said as a concern was parking, but the number one issue was retention. As our neighborhood goes through these changes, we don’t want to see our small businesses displaced. We’re working to try to engage businesses and help them see the positive economic changes, so it’s not that they can’t afford to be here any more so they have to leave; it’s more like they’re doing well too and now they have extra customers. Everybody wins. It’s a rosy and optimistic vision, but that’s what we are working towards. We’re trying to do that through marketing the district as a destination, and through small business support.

For example, some of our restaurants didn’t have a website, so we helped build them a website. Right now we’re working on creating a website for the Somali Mall, helping them with branding and doing a logo. And what we’ve seen is that over the past three years, we’ve only lost one business. Brueggers closed and Starbucks expanded, which seemed like a corporate decision. And then we’ve had Humble Cup open, and we had Viking Bar reopen, which was great, and Bullwinkle’s is going to be reopening within a month or so. A lot of the new businesses that we’ve had coming in are also small businesses. We’ve had a couple businesses change ownership but they are still locally owned, small, and independent.

We feel like especially in a neighborhood with so much high-dollar development, that’s a big success story. In three years, we haven’t seen many business closures, and of the businesses we’ve had opening in the neighborhood, they’re also unique.

We also run programs. We used to run the West Bank Music Festival, now we’re running an event annually called the West Bank Crash Course, which is a week-long introduction to the neighborhood. We do different workshops and walking tours of the neighborhood.

The other thing is that we’re working on our long-term plan for Cedar Avenue. We were really involved in getting Cedar changed from a four-lane to a three-lane so it was more pedestrian friendly and ADA accessible. We’ve been doing neighborhood cleanups, in conjunction with our partners. We now know which parts of the neighborhood are problem areas for graffiti or high-volume trash and our long-term plan is to put art installations, gardens, or sometimes popups in the places that have the most traffic or trash. We’ve been doing the popups for a couple of years to inform long-term work, so over the next couple of years we want to put some more permanent installations on Cedar Avenue.

Q: What specifically is your role at the WBBA?

A: I am the Executive Director, but when you’re working for a small non-profit that means a little bit of everything. I do a lot of our grants. I do some of our program management.

One of the things that we’ve really been trying to do is be more proactive as a neighborhood. Our neighborhood has a really interesting political history and we’ve tended to be very reactive when it comes to things like city plans, or development. We’re really trying to have longevity in leadership among both our organization and our community partners to be a part of the planning process. We’re trying to be at the table for certain city conversations.

We were really involved with the Green Line Light Rail planning and the community engagement there, so that we weren’t just reacting to things coming from the county, we were informing the process. That’s one of our strategies in development aspects. We’re seeing people that are engaged with those decisions and helping make them instead of just being affected by them.

Q: Can you explain your partnership with The Cedar?

A: We work with The Cedar pretty closely on a number of projects. They’re one of our member organizations. About half of our member organizations are non-profits and we work with them on other community projects, as well. For The Cedar’s Plaza, they used one of our façade grants, which is a grant program we run for the City of Minneapolis. We also sit on the University District Alliance Board with The Cedar.

Mark Johnson  (Cedar Director of Events) serves on our board, he’s been on our board longer than I’ve been here and I’ve been here for almost five years. We also work pretty closely with (Executive Director) Adrienne Dorn. Before when she was the Development Director we wrote couple of joint grant proposals for different community initiatives, and we feel that their Midnimo program has been really successful in engaging the community.

There’s other little things. Zara and I have both sat on their review panel for the Cedar Commissions, we used to run the West Bank Music Festival and they used to help us with booking. We’ve worked with The Cedar in a hundred different ways!

Q: Can you speak to the Cedar Riverside as a community?

A: It’s everything. It’s a little bit of everything. I have a really mixed background. I grew up in Los Angeles, but I love this neighborhood because I get to work with nonprofits. I’m very aligned with that kind of transparent business model. The arts scene here is really active. I love working with the different music venues. I also have a background in the restaurant industry, with five/seven years working in California. It’s a little bit of everything.

One of the reasons that I moved to Minneapolis was the awesome things happening with the Green Line and Blue Line. It’s a mix of everything and it keeps me on my toes. It’s a weird job that keeps up all of my interests. I’m both being challenged and using my knowledge to help the neighborhood. I love everything about working here, it keeps me engaged, but it’s definitely got its challenges.

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KFAI‘s Executive Director Leah Honsky with the DJs of LatinoAltROCK!

Q: What does KFAI do as an organization?

A: We are a non-commercial community radio station, so we really are here to serve voices that don’t often get heard in mainstream media. Being here in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, we’re in a great place to be for that. Not only do we broadcast in English and Spanish, but we also carry broadcasts in Somali other East African languages. We serve communities all over the Twin Cities right here from our neighborhood.

Q: What specifically is your role at KFAI?

A: I am the General Manager, so I’m the Station Manager, and as we are a nonprofit I also serve as the Executive Director. So I’m in charge of a lot of stuff but I have really great people working here with me.

Q: Can you explain your partnership with The Cedar?

A: I think our first connection to The Cedar is that we’re next-door neighbors. We are right across the street from each other, and we both are champions and really big sources of multicultural and world music in the Twin Cities. KFAI and The Cedar have been really good partners for many, many decades.

Q: Can you speak to the Cedar Riverside as a community?

A: I love this neighborhood, I really, really do. It’s vibrant, it is multicultural, it has so much history. And the history that it has is what KFAI continues to work on, as far as political activism, and social activism, and civil rights, and really being that counterculture, the catalyst of change, is a great place to be. It’s fun.

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Rachel Svanoe, Coordinator of the Cedar Commons.

Q: What does Cedar Commons do as an organization?

A: Cedar Commons is a collaborative initiative of Augsburg College, so Augsburg rents and staffs the space. The initial purpose of Cedar Commons was to build collaboration between different parts of the college and the neighborhood community. A lot of what happens here now is about bringing together students and community members to learn together, to develop our capacities as change agents, and to do collaborative work together.

There are four programs that have evolved over the past two years based on the interests and passion of folks who have gotten involved. Those programs include an interfaith gathering that happens twice a month, which is about people coming together and learning across faith or spiritual communities, and a bi-weekly open mic, which is about expression and building confidence, each one connected to a different theme. The open mic is youth-centered but includes college students and others. There is also a mentorship program that two Augsburg students founded that brings together first-generation Augsburg students and high school students who live in Cedar Riverside to learn about college and leadership. And then we have an ongoing series of panel discussions where we’re inviting local leaders to come talk with youth and other young people nearby about their social justice work.

Really, it’s about building relationships, developing as leaders and doing work to strengthen our community.  The hope is that all of what happens here is tapping into and building on the leadership of those who are involved, and building relationships and connections that will lead to a more thriving community. It’s an initiative supported by Augsburg but everything that happens here is thanks to the students and community members that make it happen.

Q: What is your role at Cedar Commons?

A: A lot of my job is building relationships, building connections between different work that is happening at Augsburg and in Cedar Riverside. I help to support and facilitate the teams that run programs here, supervising the Augsburg students that work here and sustaining this as a space where, in addition to those ongoing programs, we also host neighborhood groups that are looking to do collaborative work, or connect with the Augsburg community. Any time a group is looking for a space to do that kind of work, we host them. I do the logistical support for those gatherings or meetings. And same with Augsburg folks, when they’re looking to do something in partnership with a neighborhood group or other off-campus partners, they’re encouraged to use this space. It is kind of an intersection space.

Q: Can you explain your partnership with The Cedar?

A: We have worked together a number of times to host events – mostly workshops or events with youth. A bunch of the youth that they end up connecting with are familiar with this space through other programming that happens here, especially the open mics. It’s kind of a neutral space to host a cool gathering. A lot of the time the focus is music or learning from an artist that The Cedar is hosting.

We have done a number of workshops where there is a performance and then learning together from whatever group is here for the residency. I think two times we have also partnered to host a community meal or celebration with one of the artists that was here.

It’s a cozy, kind of intimate space for people to be together and learn from each other, so when The Cedar has been looking to do something like that with their artists, and especially with youth, we have hosted those.

Q: Can you speak to the Cedar Riverside as a community?

A: I love the intersection of higher-ed institutions in a neighborhood community with a large number of residents. I know that a lot of the time relationships are not so healthy between huge institutions and neighborhood communities, but I love being at the intersection, finding opportunities for reciprocal partnership.

There’s tons of collaborative spirit here. There’s a lot of interest in learning and connecting and sharing food, at least from my little vantage point. There are a huge number of incredible youth who are taking on leadership roles in the community and I learn a ton from working with them.

This neighborhood has an incredible immigrant history of a few distinct, very different immigrant communities that have called Cedar Riverside home. This has been the place that has received them. There are a lot of tough barriers and tensions to navigate but there are also a lot of good people doing good work.