LISC National

A Continent in a Corridor

Morgan Mercer

For much of the year, Hamline Park looks like any other urban green space. There are a few basketball hoops, a set of swings and a grill ready for the next family barbeque. However one day each summer, the grassy block in the Hamline-Midway area of St. Paul trades dog walkers and pick-up basketball games for the sights and sounds of Africa.

You don't have to spend $5,000 to visit Ethiopia or somewhere in Africa, you can do it with $100 here,” says Gene Gelgelu, the executive director of African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS).

“We want people to come to the corridor to really feel Africa.”

Hamline Park sits along a stretch of Snelling Avenue in an area known as Little Africa, where dozens of African-owned businesses have set up shop, including restaurants, grocery stores, insurance agencies and law firms. For the past five years, the park has also served as the stage for Little Africa Festival, an event that brings Africans and non-Africans together to celebrate the culture of the neighborhood and to participate in the drumming, dancing, food and music that fill the day. The festival, launched by AEDS in 2014, is the only African celebration of its kind in the Twin Cities.

Our vision was simple, to create more vibrancy and a place that attracts visitors,” says Gene. “Diversity is a beautiful asset for our region, but without something that brings people together it’s not really an asset. It’s just there. What I saw was that art and culture [could] bring people together.”

The Twin Cities office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) was the first organization to support his vision. Not only did LISC give Gene a small grant in 2008 through its “Careership” program, which he used to start AEDS, but it was also the first funder for Little Africa Festival when it began in 2014. The grant AEDS received from LISC paid for the six artists who performed at the event the first year.  

The early investments are critical when you don’t have funds and can’t attract any other funding,” says Gene. “LISC was in when we didn’t have name recognition. LISC was in to lift [us] up.”

The funding for Little Africa Festival was part of a series of creative placemaking grants LISC made to cultural corridors and economic development organizations like AEDS throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul  in an effort to encourage them to try new ways to expand economic growth. In addition to giving loans and providing expertise to businesses and entrepreneurs, LISC encouraged these organizations to dream up ways arts and culture could improve the economics of their neighborhoods. 

It’s about development from within a community,” says Kate Speed, a program officer at Twin Cities LISC and the board chair at AEDS.

“These are anti-displacement strategies, community wealth building strategies and racial equity strategies. It’s building on what's there and investing in it.”

Little Africa Festival, along with the Little Mekong Night Market and pop-up events in Rondo, were just some of the events that cropped up thanks to LISC’s creative placemaking funding. Since 2014, Little Africa Festival has grown from six artists to more than 80. Last year, around 5,000 people attended the celebration, and AEDS expects 20,000 visitors in 2019 when it adds a parade and a second day. Since the festival’s inaugural year, Gene has seen the district expand. New businesses like Ghebre's Restaurant and Sabrina Cafe & Deli have opened. A number of business owners have purchased buildings in the area, too. “That’s a promising sign of this work,” says Gene, who hopes that one day Little Africa will have the same national draw as a district like Chinatown in San Francisco. “I did not just visit, I spent money. That’s what we want.”

Beyond economic indicators, Little Africa has become synonymous with a sense of belonging.

The festival puts African culture, including Gene's own Ethiopian heritage, on grand display in St. Paul for a day. “When you see that, that’s the city you want to live in,” he says. And while Little Africa Festival only happens once a year, AEDS hopes the experience will draw both Africans and non-Africans back to the neighborhood year-round. 

As we do these kind of activities, it becomes part of our culture and a part of our value. Then we invest in it,” says Gene. “Diversity becomes the norm. That’s the future we need in our region.”

We hope to see you at Little Africa Fest 2019 on August 3rd & 4th.