Art, food, coffee, and conversation were some of the things shared on our Friday, June 17th Little Africa Tour for the final stakeholders celebration of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC). The celebration marked the close of the CCFC after 9 years of investing in organizations that support cultural districts along the Green Line; their goal was to protect and uplift communities during Green Line construction and implementation. The CCFC supported the effort of cultural nodes such as Little Africa. Our tour showcased all the ways Little Africa has grown in the past decade.
As part of the day-long final celebration, stakeholders had the option of touring one of the cultural districts in which they’d invested: the Innovation District (Prospect Park Station), Creative Enterprise Zone (Raymond Ave Station), Hamline Station, or Little Africa (Snelling Ave Station). We were so happy that Little Africa was a popular choice!
The tour kicked off at the Southern Theater, where 27 CCFC “tourists” were presented with goody bags filled with snacks and tea from Little Africa businesses. Gene Gelgelu, AEDS Executive Director, and Lula Saleh, AEDS arts organizer, guided the group onto the Green Line LRT where they departed for Snelling Ave. Station. At Snelling Ave, guests were introduced to 3 Little Africa tour guides: Lori Greene, Mosaic on a Stick founder and muralist; Genet Abate, musician, and Ayano Jiru, writer.
Our first stop was Star Food, a coop-style grocery, deli, enjera manufacturer, and barber shop. Guests toured the store aisles as Ayano Jiru talked about the different products available. Lula described the cultural importance of enjera, a spongy, sour pancake traditionally made from a grain called teff and commonly eaten with East African meals.
Stepping outside and just around the corner, guests were wowed by Berbere, a mosaic mural designed and installed by Lori Greene. Lori talked about the mural and the importance of women in African cultures. Ayano pointed out items on the mural which were of particular importance to the Oromo, one of the cultures of Ethiopia.
The next stops along the tour were Dahabshiil Market and Addis Market. Dahabshiil (the name means “Goldsmith” in Somali) carries a variety of Somali foods and spices: 90% of clientele are Somali. Addis (the name means “new” in Amharic) carries more Ethiopian-oriented products. Elsa, the owner, passed around a big basket of qolo, a traditional East African snack of roasted barley and mixed with peanuts or chickpeas. Genet Abate then described some of the items available in the store including tuaf, a cultural candle made of long cotton rope mixed in wax. Tuaf is used for special occasions, such as holidays or Ethiopian Orthodox church ceremonies.
Walking just outside these markets brought guests to Braided, a Little Africa mural designed by artist Greta McLain for the Midway Mural Project. Freweini Sium, owner of the neighboring Sunshine Beauty Salon, spoke about the importance of hair and braiding to East African culture. While creating the mural, McLain mentored 2 African artists, Sara Endalew and Hanna Gashaw: both women were extremely excited about being a part of this project, and said it helped build their skills and confidence as artists.
Turning the corner, guides led the group into Fasika Restaurant where guests were greeted with the smells and tastes of Ethiopian cuisine. Genet explained that “Fasika” means “Easter celebration” in Amharic, a celebration which always includes lots of food, fun, and family. The buffet included enjera and a variety of Ethiopian wats, or stews. While silverware was provided, Gene lifted up his hand and encouraged guests to eat as Ethiopians do—with a “natural fork.”
After good food and conversation, guests were led to Sabrina Coffee for a traditional East African coffee ceremony. More delicious snacks—qolo, popcorn, sambusas, and homemade bread—were passed around as Karima Omer, owner of Sabrina Coffee, prepared coffee in the traditional jebena, or clay pot. Once it was brewed, Karima poured it into siini, small traditional cups, and offered it to guests. Lula Saleh read her poem, Coffee, which compared the typically fast-paced, work-centered American coffee culture to the slow, community-based coffee culture of East Africa. As Lula spoke—”we would wait what seemed like forever, but the time would pass as we’d enjoy each others company and the warmth of the smells and the smoke,”—we felt ourselves transported. For African immigrants, the experience of a traditional coffee ceremony can be an emotional one: “It almost makes me cry,” Karima relayed, “remembering all the friends and family back home.”
As guests were finishing their food and coffee, Tracy Kinney of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation presented on the Facade Improvement project, an arts-based movement for making cultural districts like Little Africa more visible, strengthening a sense of place, and increasing economic opportunity. Facade Improvement plans include adding awnings with mosaics and cultural designs to buildings to make them more visually appealing and cohesive, placing maps of Little Africa businesses at different street-side locations, and adding green spaces. “These businesses and this community aren’t new,” Tracy emphasized. “It’s more about bringing everyone together.”
Lastly, guests shared their appreciation for the guides and our gracious business hosts. Some questioned how the Snelling-Midway stadium and redevelopment will affect Little Africa, but others credited the CCFC with building strong partnerships that have prepared communities to respond to such changes. Amelia Brown, founder of Emergency Arts, spoke to these alliances as one of the best things the CCFC did for the community: “I always believed in the power of [Little Africa] to support the vision of what they wanted for themselves. Little Africa is more cohesive now. There’s more coalescence between resources and opportunities…I think [the CCFC] helped us to see that emergencies are opportunities. Disruptions are opportunities.” While we can’t predict what the future will hold for Little Africa, we’re stronger, better prepared, and more hopeful because of our community partners.