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American Indian Cultural Corridor: New art, new enterprise on Franklin Avenue

As a longtime resident and community development worker in the area of Franklin Avenue east of Hiawatha Avenue, Justin Kii Huenemann doesn't pull any punches when talking about what the neighborhood used to be like.

"It was skid row," he said. "In the 1970s and '80s, this area was known for one thing: bars. It wasn't a great place."

Thanks to the efforts of a number of individuals and organizations, the area could be on its way to greatness. The American Indian Cultural Corridor's name and conceptual identity is the work the Minneapolis-based Native American Community Development Institute, a three-year-old consortium of Indian nonprofits and Indian-owned businesses, gathered for the purpose of taking an often-forgotten segment of the urban population and teaching it how to become an economic and cultural power.

NACDI has hung banners along Franklin Avenue identifying the cultural corridor, but the group is doing more than paying lip service to the notion of redefining the area. It recently bought and refurbished the former Open Arms building at 15th Avenue to make a new home for the All My Relations Gallery (now a division of NACDI; the gallery's grand opening is this Friday, January 21). Also, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe recently relocated its offices to 1113 East Franklin, a building formerly occupied by Catholic Charities.

Add the Ancient Traders building (which contains the Native American Community Clinic) the Many Rivers apartments, and the Minneapolis American Indian Center, and a tangible picture is starting to emerge of a corridor that's conveying a sense of cohesion and positivity where those qualities have tended to be in short supply.

"Our whole effort is to do community development without displacement or gentrification," said Huenemann. "We want the people who live here to have not just residual benefit, but direct benefit."

Job-Growth Sectors and the Arts Lead the Way

NACDI in part takes over the work of Hennepin County's now-defunct American Indian Families Project,
working with American Indian nonprofits on what it calls "sector strategy development"--learning how to gain a foothold in the ownership of land, housing, entertainment venues, media outlets, and health and wellness resources. Those sectors, the group says, are noted for high job growth potential, opportunities for asset development, and sustainability.

NACDI is aggressively pursuing partnerships on both a local and national level. The national American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center, whose Minneapolis office is at 1845 East Franklin Ave., is partnering with NACDI on title and survey work, geotechnical analysis, environmental assessment, and architectural concepts for an eastern "gateway" in the cultural corridor that's envisioned to contain everything from mixed-use residential, office and retail space to an Indian-owned hotel and convention facility.

The cultural centerpiece of the corridor is the All My Relations Arts gallery, the decade-old contemporary American Indian fine arts organization that sees more than of 3,000 visitors annually.  Elizabeth Day, the gallery's coordinator, says part of the reason the area between Hiawatha and 11th avenues is referred to as a cultural corridor is because arts and culture function uniquely in the Indian community as both an expression of ethnicity and as a neighborhood resource.

"Art is accessible to people," said Day. "It's easy for people to accept and relate to. Bringing American Indian art to this area helps create community awareness, and it helps with development because it helps foster pride in people when they see themselves in the art and culture around them."

The unveiling of a mural on the outside of the new headquarters of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe drew more than 100 people on a bitterly cold December day recently, demonstrating the galvanizing role culture and art could have in this setting.

Owning the Land

Right now, the corridor's most tangible asset is the land, much of which has been purchased by NACDI and other Indian development groups such as the American Indian Community Development Corporation--along with the help of grass-roots fundraising and grants from such benefactors as the McKnight Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, and the Otto Bremer Foundation. Help in providing small-business loans has also come from the three-year-old Woodlands Bank. The bank, located near Maria's Caf´┐Ż and Northland Native American Products, is one of Minnesota's only 100-percent-Indian-owned full-service banks.

"Indian organizations buying up properties, and the equity from those helped them buy more and invest more," said Huenemann. "And now in 2011, along this half-mile strip, we're the largest landowners--Indian organizations collectively."

Part of the ongoing metamorphosis of the Franklin corridor is to wean the neighborhood from decades of car-focused development and make it into a more pedestrian-friendly area. The major players in the American Indian Cultural Corridor now have their eye on property located on the south side of Franklin. The Franklin Business Center, originally developed by the American Indian Business Development Corporation, is now mostly owned outside the community. Huenemann would love to see it become a haven for small, pedestrian-friendly businesses.

"[The owners] know what they're sitting on," he said. "Property values in this area have held and in some cases gone up during economic downturn. That tells a huge story. What was once skid row is now prime property, and even though we're getting appraisals on these properties, owners want double the appraised value in some cases."

Huenemen and confederates are prepared for a long battle as property owners vie for top dollar and choice lots sit empty. But to him and many others, the American Indian Cultural Corridor represents a triumph over the mistakes of the past.

"It's been an effort to re-think and transform ourselves around our assets," he said. "How do we create a corridor of entrepreneurship and opportunity, one where we embrace both our cultural and geographic identity? It's taken, and will continue to take, years and years of community conversation."

Dan Heilman's last piece for The Line, in our November 30, 2010 issue, looked at the burgeoning boutique retail at the corner of Snelling and Selby in Saint Paul.

Photos, top to bottom:

Welcoming banners on Franklin define the Cultural Corridor.

The Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), promoter of the Corridor.

Justin Kii Huenemann of NACDI

Elizabeth Day coordinates the All My Relations Arts gallery, one of the Corridor's cultural anchors.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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