You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to visit Eretria, Ethiopia, Nigeria, or Somalia. Take a walk along Snelling Avenue between University and Lafond and you’ll find a bit of Africa blooming in the heart of the Hamline-Midway neighborhood. On Friday November 13th, a number of St. Paul and Minneapolis based community leaders and artists did just that during the “Celebrate Little Africa: Arts and Culture Tour.”
The tour was one of several that took place along the Green Line as a part of Twin Cities LISC’s larger event “C4ward: Arts and Culture along the Green Line”, a creative symposium. The symposium and the tours were organized by LISC and by the seven Cultural Corridor partners. The purpose of the event was to encourage attendees to think about the ways in which arts and culture highlight local diversity and to also think about the ways they can bridge communities together while boosting neighborhood economies.
The symposium began in the morning at the Wilder Foundation with keynote speaker Carol Bebelle. Executive Director of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, Bebelle spoke at length about her work strengthening the economic, social, and artistic revitalization of her New Orleans neighborhood before and after hurricane Katrina.
After the keynote speech, symposium attendees were divided into small groups to participate in guided tours in one of the many neighborhoods of the Cultural Corridor partners (African Economic Development Solutions, Asian Economic Development Association, Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Aurora Saint Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, Creative Enterprise Zone, Prospect Park 2020, West Bank Business Association).
During the Little Africa tour attendees traveled along Snelling Avenue, where they visited African Plaza, Fasika Ethiopian Restaurant, Dahabshiil Mini Market, Addis Mini Market, Sabrina’s Café, Sunshine Beauty Salon, and Snelling Café. At each location, the group had an opportunity to meet with the business owners and learn the unique stories of the locations. They also discovered some of the back-stories embedded within the stunning murals donned by a few of the businesses. The tile and mosaic mural decorating the exterior of the Africa Plaza for example, attendees learned was a visual tribute to the Oromo people and culture, a major ethnic group within Ethiopia.
Most of the owners served the attendees food—injera, sambusa, baklava, gyro, a variety of Ethiopian style lentils and veggie dishes—to name a few. A major highlight of the gastronomic elements of the tour was the coffee Sabrina’s café owner Karima Omer served the group during her traditional East African coffee ceremony.
In addition to the coffee and food, poet and African Economic Development Solutions Arts Organizer Lula Saleh read original poems that touched upon the many themes that arose during the tour. A poem written in celebration of African women, Saleh revealed during the tour, was inspired in part by Freweini Sium, owner of the entire Sunshine Building and the Sunshine Beauty Salon. Sium, like many of the business owners within Little Africa represents a lesser known reality within communities of African heritage across the Diaspora—women business owners have a strong presence.
The tour ended at Snelling Café with a pop-up art gallery featuring the works of artists of visual artists Geno Okok, Sara Endalew, and Binyam Raba, the documentary street photography of Netsanet Negussie, and the eccentric and bold handbags of fashion designer Ngeri Nnachi. Tour attendees mingled with the artists before participating in a heartfelt discussion surrounding identity, home, arts and the community, and the future of Little Africa.
Overall both the Little Africa tour and the C4ward symposium were a success. Attendees, Little Africa business owners and artists, had several opportunities to experience the uniqueness of Little Africa through story-telling, food and art. As the afternoon waned, Snelling Café filled with laughter, conversation and a strong sense of community.