Con Mucho Gusto: Reaching Out to South Minneapolis' Latino Community

by Evan Reminick

Oct. 2003—For decades, the urban barnacles of Lake Street—its massage parlors, pimps, and drug dealers—made it the last place a tony magazine would look to feature the upbeat side of city life. Yet there it is: the July 2003 issue of Mpls. St. Paul showcases Lake Street as a “multicultural mosaic,” Minneapolis’ own “Little Mexico” with the city’s largest collection of Hispanic shops and eateries. A different kind of word is getting out, and it is clearly new immigrants who have made the difference.

The Latino community in south Minneapolis that has emerged over the last 10 years is widely credited for giving the neighborhoods of central Lake Street a much-needed sense of promise. Immigrant small business, with Latino enterprise at the forefront, has inspired major reinvestment, ending decades of stalled efforts to improve the beleaguered corridor. 

Road to the Future

Improvement has arrived as a surge of private investments and public initiatives. To lay the groundwork for redevelopment, Hennepin County has begun planning to rebuild the Lake Street roadway, the sidewalks, the utility poles—everything in between the storefronts on opposite sides of the street. This is neither the beginning nor the end of public-realm improvements slated for the area. 

Civic leaders sketch the Lake Street vision with bold strokes, searching for, in the words of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, “the Lake Street way” of glossing up the old dray horse of Minneapolis streets. Developers eye deals as giant as the million-square-foot Sears building on Lake and Chicago. Metro Transit intends to add more service—buses, light rail, even streetcars in the nearby Midtown Greenway.

The results promise to be, in the words of Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make Lake Street a vibrant and attractive corridor again.”

There are partnerships and coalitions and frameworks and initiatives and advisory committees. Amid all this, it may be the Latino community that has the most to gain and the most to lose.

A Brief History

The Latino community on Lake Street began to take shape in 1992, said Ramon Leon, director of the Latino Economic Development Center, when St. Stephen’s church on Clinton and 22nd Street first offered services en Español, touching off a relocation of Latinos from all over the metro to heart of south Minneapolis. 

In 1994 Me Gusta opened on Lake and 4th Avenue. Other enterprises followed—Hoy Dia Latina and Video Latino among them. People looking for a stake in America built a community amid a crime epidemic in the mid-1990s. Immigrants started businesses on blighted blocks, “places nobody wanted,” Leon said, leveraging growth on the other pillar of Latino life, the mercados—cooperative marketplaces whose independent vendors sell all the staples of life from meat to books. Today the Latino Economic Development Center counts more than 200 Latino-owned businesses in the Lake Street corridor, nearly all of which continue to be small businesses that cater to local traffic, though a few have become regional draws. 

Terms of Engagement

Many large institutional arms—among them the city, the county, the McKnight Foundation and the MCW Partnership—are reaching out to Latinos on Lake Street. Yet this key constituency remains a variable in the calculus of the corridor’s fortunes. Latino leaders describe their community as emerging but not rooted, interested in advancement but with a population largely disengaged from civic affairs. 

Manuel Gonzalez, owner of Manny’s Tortas, is president of El Mercado Central and the representative of the Latino Economic Development Center on the project advisory committee (PAC) for Lake Street reconstruction. Both he and Leon pull on the side of attaining greater representation for Latinos. But on the other side is a formidable opponent—the community’s general distrust of government. 

Gonzalez and Leon said local Latinos mainly want live their lives quietly and outside the realm of government, which they associate with harassment by law enforcement and the immigration service.

“ Most Latinos you’ll meet are busy just trying to survive,” said Gonzalez. “This is true of a lot of people, not just in our community. But average Latinos are less likely to look to government to improve their lives.” 

Building Bridges

Nevertheless, south Minneapolis’ Latino community has begun to assert itself in public affairs. Mayor Rybak held an Hispanic forum in September 2002 and again this May. For the past year, Leon has sat on the advisory committee for the Pilot Cities Initiative, a multi-million dollar effort led by the McKnight Foundation to strengthen existing structures in immigrant communities and create new growth opportunities in select cities nationwide, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. He has also participated in an ad hoc committee of the former Minneapolis Community Development Agency that explored opportunities to involve immigrants in development activities. Leon added that several Latinos are now members of neighborhood and business associations. 

This summer the Latino Economic Development Center was instrumental in the attempt by civic leaders, including members of the MCW Partnership, to woo an office of the Mexican consulate to Minneapolis. Both Gonzalez and his sister, Victoria (representing the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association), joined the PAC for Lake Street reconstruction.

In July, District 4 Commissioner McLaughlin met with several members of the Latino Economic Development Center to discuss the reconstruction project. This meeting was covered by the start-up newspaper Lazos Hispanos. In addition the newspaper La Prensa de Minnesota published two articles on Lake Street reconstruction and has dedicated a reporter to ongoing coverage of the story. 

Common Ground

On August 30, staff of the reconstruction project and members of the PAC joined Hennepin County Commissioners Gail Dorfman and Peter McLaughlin in a presentation to the membership of El Mercado Central. Financial issues like special assessments and economic assistance predominated the discussion. A second meeting at El Mercado Central is being planned to follow up on the intense interest expressed in the project.

Paula Gilbertson, chair of the Lake Street PAC, has been active in community initiatives in south Minneapolis for more than 20 years. As a board member of Lake Street Partners, a community development corporation, she has viewed the emergence of local immigrant communities with keen interest. 

“The big players have recognized the value of engaging immigrant groups to participate in community planning, but this kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight,” Gilbertson said. “There has to be a reason—and in this case, it’s the need to succeed in rebuilding the corridor. There also has to be a will to accommodate new sets of priorities, which is what we see being tested now.” 

Justo Garcia of Hennepin/Powderhorn Partners, a county agency focused on neighborhood services, asserted that appealing to the Latino community requires the appreciation that Main Street institutions and the Lake Street immigrant communities are organized differently. 

“The Lake Street revitalization that immigrants started can only accomplished with real organization,” said Garcia. “The leadership of government and business should recognize that it’s just not the same as the way they do things. Writing a couple press releases and holding a meeting during business hours needs to adapt to an approach like we saw this summer with the Lake Street meeting at El Mercado Central, where word goes out through the mercados and the meeting is held Saturday morning.”

Ultimately, said Ramon Leon, the interests of Latinos are the interests of the greater community and vice versa. 

He called outreach to Latinos a dual responsibility. 

“ A lot of policy is being made in the name of Latinos, but as yet we have had little influence on these actions,” said Leon. “Latinos need to raise their voice more than they are accustomed to doing, and the decision makers in the community need to really listen.

"What will keep Latinos in the Lake Street area? Will we be able to make larger investments here, or will be driven out by the very prosperity we helped to create? These are questions not just about us, but about the way the whole city will develop its potential. That’s when people will see that we can move forward together.”