Written By Halimat Alawode
I’ve been living in the Hamline-Midway area for nearly 6 months now and it wasn’t until I started my new internship at African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS) that I realized there was a place called Little Africa. That, in fact I lived a few blocks north of it. Little Africa, is physical location as well as a marketing initiative that was launched by AEDS in 2013. Little Africa is a collection of African owned businesses between Selling Avenue and Syndicate Street, such as Fasika, Sunshine Beauty Salon, Snelling Café, to name a few. In fact, if Little Africa had a physical center anchoring it, it would be Snelling Avenue just east of University. Yet, Little Africa is more than just a location or a brand; it’s a community. It wasn’t until February 9th d that I fully grasped this.
On February 9th I attend my first AEDS event at Snelling Cafe. The event was the first in a series of community workshops organized by both AEDS and the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation to implement a Façade improvement project for the Little Africa small businesses. The project is funded in part by a Knight Green Line Challenge grant, which Little Africa won last year.
As AEDS’ newly inaugurated intern, I was in charge of signing in guest and taking photos during the workshop. But I quickly realized that the task I needed to tackle first was diving into the mountain of ijera the Snelling Café owner, Afeworki Bein, laid out for us. The smell of freshly made food was hard to ignore. I was grateful for his generosity and pleased to learn he too would be participating in the community workshop. In fact the owners of several Little Africa businesses were in attendance. They gathered to learn more about the Façade Improvement project and how they could apply for funding from the City of Saint Paul’s Star Loan/matching grant program to participate in Little Africa’s project.
As the various Little Africa business owners walked into Snelling Café’s homely establishment, I couldn’t help but notice how they greeted and embraced each other like lifelong friends. Even I, the new intern, found myself getting caught up in hellos and greetings. As I attempted to gracefully eat my ijera and sign in Frewini Sium, owner of Sunshine Beauty Salon, I couldn’t help but mention that I heard good things about her salon. She beamed at me and pleasantly invited me to stop by myself and sit in her chair. I couldn’t help but smile. I felt so welcomed by everyone in the café.
Later that night my roommate and I were discussing our day over dinner. I mentioned Little Africa to her, and like me only a day earlier, she had no idea what/where Little Africa was. I explained to her the area and described the shops included in the mix. It didn’t take long for her to state, “Yeah that makes sense, that area does seem like a little Africa.”
Which is spot on. Though we both didn’t actively know the area to be Little Africa the namesake seemed so fitting. When we realized this we also both realized we haven’t spent much time in Little Africa. We drive past the area daily yet have rarely, if ever, stepped in one of the shops. Not the restaurants, not the African owned grocery stores, not the salons, or the many other businesses in the area.
What is it about Little Africa that makes it so daunting for newcomers, so beneath the radar? Why don’t we feel welcomed enough to enter these spaces? For me personally, I did visit a Little Africa restaurant once. Though the service was superb and the food excellent I never visited again. I felt like an outsider and that I didn’t belong. I asked AEDS Executive Director Gene Gelgelu and Arts Organizer Lula Saleh about this. I wanted to hear their take on this dilemma. Gene began by admitting that some immigrant owned businesses tend to cater to their own demographic, it’s what they know. Gene also stated that Little Africa is still in beginning stages of its branding and community outreach strategies, which has the potential to remedy these problems. It would make sense that increased community outreach would result in creating a more welcoming space; which is why Little Africa is putting in a lot of effort into improving this.
They’ve already begun this by working with Midway Murals, a separate non-profit who added public art to the exteriors of three Little Africa businesses. AEDS is currently hosting a series of Facade Improvement workshops and an art series to build community engagement within Little Africa and to improve the exteriors of Little Africa businesses.
With money received from the Façade Improvement project, Little Africa business owners can change the exterior of their businesses to promote a more welcoming atmosphere. From improved signage, to more public art like the Snelling avenue murals, or to practical things like improved exterior lighting, these changes could help make Little Africa businesses more welcoming to residents.
A lot of the outreach efforts are centered on culture and art, from the Murals to the Festivals. I asked Lula if she thinks this is a good direction. She stated that it is one of many initiatives that need to be made and that, “It brings different people together in a safe space where they can share their stories.” Gene also concluded by telling me Little Africa wants people to come and enjoy themselves but it’ll take some time to change the dynamics. Which is true, things will not change overnight but they will change. Little Africa wants to be open to us. The next Facade Improvement workshop will take place on April 5th from 4-9pm. The workshop is open to the community. For more information please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Halimat Alawode is pursing a B.A. in Women and International Development and Political Science at Saint Catherine University. Halimat is a Marketing and Public Relations Intern for African Economic Development Solutions.