Snelling Avenue (aka Highway 51) runs north and south through Falcon Heights, Roseville and Arden Hills, funneling cars straight through the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, nicknamed Little Africa for its 50 to 60 East African businesses.
The Little Africa storefronts along Snelling Avenue, ensconced among traffic islands and narrow crosswalks, look out on one of Minnesota’s busiest roads. The Minnesota Department of Transportation reported that in 2015 as many as 45,000 cars drove on sections of Snelling Avenue each day. That’s a lot, considering the highway cuts through businesses largely dependent on foot traffic.
“What I’ve come to understand from people who live here is some of them view it as not friendly to pedestrians,” says Jonathan Oppenheimer, a Hamline-Midway resident and graduate student in social work and public policy at the University of Minnesota. “And they also view it as kind of dirty. You’re going to have more litter if you have 30,000 cars a day.”
Originally from Massachusetts, Oppenheimer moved to Hamline-Midway with his Minnesotan wife Britta Carlson in 2009, but it wasn’t until they bought a home in 2010 that he wanted to get a feel for how other residents, most of them white and middle class, perceived their neighborhood.
Oppenheimer brainstormed ways to “promote pride, livability, visibility and community”—starting with Highway 51.
In 2014, Oppenheimer submitted a grant proposal to the Knight Arts Challenge outlining a public arts project called Midway Murals that would commission four muralists to beautify the sides of four buildings along Snelling Avenue during the summer of 2015. He received a $25,000 grant. He had to crowd-source for the remaining funds to reach $80-$90,000. From there, an offshoot of the project called the Midway Public Art Working Group has built on Oppenheimer’s idea that public art can provide the reason for cars to slow down and the motivation for pedestrians to take a moment and check out local businesses.
“If you’re sitting here in Snelling Café,” says Oppenheimer, referring to an Eritrean café along Snelling, “most of the folks who come in are a part of the Eritrean community. I think people don’t know that if they come in here, they’re welcome. The food is delicious and the coffee is delicious. But you have to kind of get over” both the traffic barrier and the cultural barrier (even if that barrier is self-imposed).
Two blocks south of Snelling Café, Star Food Market sells East African and Middle Eastern groceries. On the south wall of the building, Hamline-Midway mosaic artist Lori Greene spent two months in 2015 researching and then piecing together a story of Oromo traditions—food, fertility, dance—using mirror chips and ceramic pieces purchased from Italy, Germany and Portugal. Star Food Market co-owner Bahar Hassan emigrated from Ethiopia with his parents in 1999. He recognizes the goats depicted in the mural, emblematic of an Ethiopian fable of shepherds, who—observing their sheep, sleepless after eating certain beans—invented coffee.
Reaching into Hamline-Midway, the Midway Public Art Working Group teamed with Paint the Pavement last September to design “creative crosswalks.” For 2017, Oppenheimer hopes more blocks will agree to redo their crosswalks in collaboratively designed, inviting patterns. The group also plans to commission a mural on a Hamline University wall.
To get involved with the Midway Public Art Working Group, call Jonathan Oppenheimer at 651.226.4170 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.