By Evan Reminick
March 2004—"You see that building?” asked Hussein Samatar on a recent walk down Lake Street, pointing across 13th Avenue to a squat industrial building on the northeast corner.
It was is the kind of nondescript building you could pass by for years without noticing. There’s a sign up high for the Jimmy Jingle beverage service that, like the building itself, has that left-behind 1960s look of much of the old central Lake Street. At street level, a brown and yellow sign in a vaguely Arabesque script reads “Shingani Restaurant,” but a glance into the dim illumination behind the storefront windows revealed little about the nature of the place.
“There are seven Somali businesses in there,” Samatar said, illustrating the point he had been making during the bitter winter walk: south Minneapolis is the region’s largest center of African-owned business, yet this growing commercial base remains largely invisible to the untrained eye.
This building at 13th Ave. and Lake houses seven African-owned businesses.
Seeking Greater Visibility
Samatar is the executive director of the African Development Center (ADC), an organization providing business, housing and financial literacy services to the 150,000 native Africans in Minnesota, the majority of whom reside in the Twin Cities. The ADC has been organizing itself over the past year.
An offshoot of St. Paul’s Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), the ADC is pursuing the partnership model that has proven highly effective for the NDC and the Latino Economic Development Center, another NDC offshoot.
“We are not an organization that is focused on promoting our roots. We serve fellow Africans, but the goal is to create successful Americans among our numbers.”
The ADC’s mission statement is tied to a sense of belonging in the local community. One of the organization’s key goals is to “unleash the energy and vitality of emerging African immigrant communities to revitalize aging Lake Street as one of the best commercial corridors in the country.”
In the Shingani Restaurant and several other easy-to-overlook businesses, Samatar stopped to chat with friends and introduce himself in Somali to proprietors he had not met.
At one emporium inside the building at Lake and 13th, Samatar said, “This store has fine imported goods—Italian shoes, beautiful silks, fashionable clothing—but from the outside it looks a bit dumpy. The fact is that many African immigrants still carry a Third World mindset toward operating their businesses. I try to talk with the shop owner about this. I say, ‘Make a nice sign outside, put down new tile in the hall here,’ but he just shrugs the shoulders. In time, if we continue to press the case, the general level of sophistication will rise and the market for African-owned businesses will open up.”
Hussein Samatar (left) with Mustafa Ducoleh of Hamdi Restaurant at Chicago-Lake.
Investment and Trust
Samatar said the ADC will fill the organizational gap in the African business community, providing representation as well as training in hard skills and direct financial assistance. Much of the local African population, he said, arrived as refugees from lands devastated by corrupt and punishing totalitarian rule, and is understandably disinclined to accept help from anyone not in a trusted circle.
Likewise, he said, fallout from the September 11 attacks has severely injured relations between Somali immigrants, who are predominantly Muslim, and the general population of Minnesota.
Yet Samatar implores both sides that investments in African commerce will bear fruit for the community at large.
“We Africans are very capable people. We are a market economy people. We are naturals at it, we have been so for many hundreds of years,” he said.
“But as a whole, we are still strangers here, and we still lack the understanding to plan American businesses, find quality housing for our large families, participate in civic affairs and do the PR needed to raise our profile in the community. These abilities are all teachable, and in the African community you find very eager learners.”
African Identity, Latino Example
Samatar noted that 125 African-owned businesses, including 18 groceries and bakeries and nine restaurants, can be found in the Lake Street corridor. Further, he says, south Minneapolis is home to two suuqs, or marketplaces, that are as large or larger than El Mercado Central, the largest and best known of the local mercados.
Yet the prolific mural-work on buildings housing Latino businesses has had great success in identifying the corridor with Hispanic culture and commerce.
“Latinos have shown a great flair for reaching out to the broader market on Lake Street. There are many lessons for Africans in the trajectory of Latino business here,” said Samatar.
“We are concurrent waves of immigrants settling in many of the same neighborhoods, and while our cultures have very different identities, both place great value on family and on pooling resources.”
This ethnic synergy, peculiar to the Twin Cities, is being put to work at the heart of Lake Street, where the ADC, the Neighborhood Development Center and the Latino Economic Development Center are partners in developing the Global Marketplace inside the Midtown Exchange at the former Sears site. The Global Marketplace will be the largest public market in south Minneapolis and an incubator for ethnic entrepreneurship.
“I believe that, in time, Lake Street will be as famous for African culture as Latino culture,” Samatar said. “Looking farther down the road, Africans will be represented among the top movers and shakers of the region.”