C4ward: Celebrating Arts and Culture along the Green Line

December 17, 2015

By Mary Kay Bailey, Central Corridor Funders Collaborative


One of the biggest assets and, according to this writer the most delightful thing about the Green Line, is that you can travel the world within its short 11-mile span.  The work of the Central Corridor as Cultural Corridor (C4) partners is to amplify this message and boost local economies through arts and culture, lifting up the diversity of people, places, and businesses that call the Green Line neighborhoods home.

On November 13th, a packed room gathered at the Wilder Foundation to learn about and explore seven cultural districts along the Green Line.  Hosted by Twin Cities LISC, the event featured the tastes, sounds, arts, energy, and people living and working in the following districts:  in Minneapolis – the West Bank and Prospect Park and in Saint Paul – the Creative Enterprise Zone, Little Africa, Historic Rondo, Frogtown, and Little Mekong.

Many partners in the C4 initiative had traveled together several years earlier to a conference in New Orleans.  There, they were inspired by the work of Carol Bebelle, the founder and visionary of Ashé, a community arts center in one of New Orleans’ historic black neighborhoods.  Ashé is a Yoruban word (a language used by an ethnic group of 40 million people in Africa) which translates roughly as “Amen” or “so let it be done.”  This sense of action, purpose, and support is behind Ashé’s mission of using “art and culture to support human, community and economic development.”

As Bebelle shared, “Culture is the big Mama; it’s the roles, rules, rituals, traditions and pathways.  It’s the foundation for life.”  Culture serves multiple functions: it allows people to be rooted in who they truly are and with cultural activities – through food and music, we can more easily move into issues that may be uncomfortable, fearful, or shameful.  “Laws have not made us change,” Bebelle asserts, but rather we respond to a cultural, social, or creative awakening or inspiration that leads to a shift in consciousness, then action, and ultimately a changed reality. Bebelle encouraged participants to partner up, to do, and “to be critical, not cynical.”

Fueled by Bebelle’s powerful insights along with music and words from local artists, seven groups set off to explore seven districts.  We asked participants to share some of their tour highlights. 

Aleah Vinick joined the group visiting the Creative Enterprise Zone, located in the vicinity of the Raymond Avenue Station area.  In this tour, participants visited a number of creative non-profits and businesses, including: Rebel Ink, Forecast Public Art, Urban Boatbuilders, Urban Growler, Bang Brewing, and Workhorse Coffee.  As Vinick puts it, “I didn't really even understand what the Creative Enterprise Zone meant, but after meeting the creative entrepreneurs who work and manage their own small businesses within the zone, I'm a true believer. It's a tight community of hard working people who support their neighbors' efforts to work and thrive!”  Vinick is excited to come back and check out the new Can Can Wonderland space once it opens. 

Sharon DeMark headed to Snelling Avenue’s Little Africa where tour-goers were treated to shops, restaurants, cafes, public art – including amazing colorful beautiful murals made of both paint and mosaic.  The name “Little Africa” captures that many African cultures and countries are represented in Saint Paul and the state as a whole.  On the tour, DeMark met people who were Eritrean, Nigerian, Oromo, and Ethiopian, in addition to Somali.  Participants discovered that many businesses are owned by women and that entrepreneurship goes beyond the retail storefront as businesses create the products that they sell (e.g. a hot sauce that has dates as its base). DeMark is looking forward to a repeat visit to enjoy the “gracious and generous welcome I received as a person not of African descent AND the great coffee at Star Foods and Snelling Café!”

Lucas Koski toured Little Mekong where participants saw the future site of the Little Mekong public plaza, the Asian Economic Development Association’s pop-up performance space, and visited Ha Tien deli, May's Market, Lao Thai Restaurant, Thai Cafe and the Hmong Cultural Center.  Koski noted, “I learned about the incremental growth and success of some of the businesses…a lot of people were adversely impacted by the construction of the Light Rail, but the roots of the community in this geographic area are very deep and strong.”  Koski’s looking forward to next summer when he can make his first visit to the Little Mekong Night Market – and hopefully the new public plaza.

I hopped on the train to the West Bank to visit the region’s most densely populated neighborhood that has been a home to immigrants for decades, starting with the Swedes and today, where the top five languages spoken (in addition to English) are: Oromo, Korean, Spanish, Hmong, and Somali!  We were delighted to discover “hidden” shops and restaurants in Al-Karama Mall on Cedar Avenue where our cold hands were warmed with spiced and milky tea.  We learned that the neighborhood is home to the largest concentration of music venues between Chicago and the West Coast and that the Southern Theater’s ARTshare program lets members pay $18/month to see unlimited performances!  I’ll definitely be back to eat more food at Dilla’s, visit the House of Balls, and see performances at the many theaters and music venues.

As poet Tou Saiko Lee notes in his poem engraved at the Lexington Avenue station, there is a “universe on University” and indeed, along the whole route of the Green Line.  Get out and explore – treasures await!