Today East Lake Street in Minneapolis is a vibrant corridor of ethnically diverse businesses, but the area was once considered a neglected urban wasteland. "It was in very, very bad shape," says Ramon León, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Center in Minneapolis. "Everyone was leaving. No one wanted to live here."
León says when he came to Minneapolis from Mexico in 1991, the stretch of Lake Street on the east side of town was a hotbed of crime, with prostitution and drug dealing going on at all hours.
It hadn't always been that way.
Between the 1920s and early 1960s, Lake Street was "a bustling thoroughfare and a diverse commercial district," says Tom O'Connell, a Metro State University sociology professor and former South Minneapolis community organizer.
During Lake Street's heyday, commercial attractions such as the Sears department store at 960 East Lake and a popular strip of car dealerships drew customers from around the metro area. But by the late 1960s, O'Connell says, the rise of the automobile industry and its attendant infrastructure meant more Twin Cities residents were moving out to the suburbs, which is where Lake Street's car dealerships relocated.
Soon other businesses began to leave as well. Minneapolis-Moline, a farming equipment factory, left Lake Street in 1972, taking its many jobs and dollars with it. By the late 1980s, the most successful moneymakers on East Lake Street were those that dealt in illicit activities, like adult movie theatres and "massage" parlors.
John Flory was at that time the economic development specialist for the Whittier neighborhood Community Development Corporation. Flory says East Lake Street became one of the "centers for vice in the metropolitan area." He says that the sex and drug trade drew in clientele from outside the metro area, who didn't want to be seen doing these kinds of activities in their own communities. "Part of what needed to be changed," says Flory, "was to say to these customers, 'This isn't the place to come anymore. We don't want you here.'"
In 1994, Sears ended operations at its Lake Street location, leaving a vast, vacant building behind. But rather than cause further economic deterioration for the East Lake Street corridor, Sears's departure attracted a new generation of entrepreneurs: immigrants, primarily from Latin America, who saw the low real estate prices as an opportunity to start businesses - a dream that had previously been out of reach.
"We saw that these spaces were empty and rents were really cheap," says Ramon León. "And we had already the buyers." The buyers were local Latino immigrants, who in the 1990s represented more than 25 percent of the population in many neighborhoods along Lake Street.
People of Hispanic origin in Minneapolis had nowhere to shop for traditional ethnic goods and services at that time. "If I wanted buy tortillas," León says, "I would go to the west side of St. Paul," where there was a small Hispanic community. That changed in 1994, when the first four Latino-owned businesses opened up on the corner of Fourth Avenue South and Lake Street, including Video Latino and Trujillo's Tax Service, the latter of which has grown into a successful chain. These paved the way for more entrepreneurship by Latinos and other ethnic communities.
In 1999, León and Flory, working with the Latino Economic Development Center and other community organizations, helped start the Mercado Central, a cooperative of businesses that catered to a Hispanic market. By the year 2000, there were 300 Latino-owned businesses in the immediate area, from tortilla shops and traditional grocery stores to accounting services and law firms. Long-time community activists like Flory and O'Connell believe without this influx of immigrant entrepreneurship on Lake Street in the last decade of the millennium, the neighborhood would still be a tough part of town. León says Lake Street's new vibrancy makes it a draw for the entire region.
"We feel fortunate living here in the Twin Cities," he says, "because unlike other places, we are appreciated here as contributors to the society, rather than a burden to the society."
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