A History of the Minneapolis Cultural Districts
By Tiffany Bui
Head down a stretch of Franklin Avenue, and you’ll be greeted by banners, vibrant murals, lightboxes wrapped in drawings, and a mainstay cafe with an art gallery inside. These are signs that you’ve arrived at the American Indian Cultural Corridor (AICC), which has served as the framework for other cultural districts in Minneapolis.
The idea of creating cultural districts across the city emerged from the desires of community members and city officials to prevent displacement of residents in gentrifying areas while at the same time supporting the unique cultural history of the neighborhoods. Robert Lilligren, the first Native American council member in Minneapolis, introduced the idea to the City Council based on his work developing the AICC. After Alondra Cano was elected as the Ward 9 Council member in 2013, she hoped to expand the idea to establish districts in her ward’s neighborhoods.
Minneapolis’ 2040 Plan, a comprehensive document mapping the city’s goals for the next two decades, provided an opportunity to cement cultural districts in the city’s future. The city has committed to partnering with residents and business owners in cultural districts, providing resources to these areas, creating strategies to ensure long-term affordability, and promoting ethical tourism. The cultural districts in Minneapolis are West Broadway, Central Avenue, Cedar Avenue South, Franklin Avenue East, East Lake Street, 38th Street, and Lowry Avenue North.
Since cultural districts became a part of city law in 2020, the seven designated areas have received city funding for street clean-up, improved lighting, commercial property development, and arts programming.
Felicia Perry, the former executive director of the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, said city support is crucial in helping reverse the effects of historic disinvestment in neighborhoods like North Minneapolis.
“So much of the culture of this community is how we were able to tell our story and how we're able to own and hold our stories,” Perry said. “And so for us, being able to have a designation as a cultural district allows us to get better and more intentional access to funds that might come from the city, that might come from the state or federal government, in order to be able to pull in the resources that we need.”
Perry said the designation means she doesn’t always have to explain why a community like West Broadway needs investment.
“What's known doesn't have to be explained now, as long as that entity has an understanding of what the cultural district designation is,” she said.
National Movement to Create Cultural Districts
Cultural districts are a global phenomenon, and they come in all shapes and sizes. There are 19 states that have formal cultural-district programs. Iowa, Louisiana, and Rhode Island were early adopters of the policy, according to Tom Borrup, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on cultural districts. These areas are usually business hubs and places with distinct histories and identities.
“They are a vehicle for organizing people,” Borrup said. “It's an organizing principle for a community and for organizing a sort of political clout.”
On the national scale, Minneapolis’ efforts to create cultural districts are relatively recent and are a little different from other efforts. Borrup notes that other cities with official cultural district programs usually require areas to have a recognized organization to manage the cultural district, with pre-existing programs, funding, and staff. So far, Borrup said, Minneapolis does not have a formal structure or funding process for cultural districts in the city.
Cultural districts in Minneapolis are also explicitly an endeavor to redress historic redlining and economic exclusion within the city based on race, class, and immigration status. Some of these districts also face the threat of gentrification. According to a report by the University of Minnesota Center for Urban & Regional Affairs, more than 45% of census tracts in Minneapolis are vulnerable to gentrification.
“The idea that local communities, ethnic minority communities, within the city have what they need to meet their needs, to grow the way they want to grow, to build an economy that reflects their community, is radically different than institutionalized inequities and racism in our city,” Lilligren said.
Cultural districts alone won’t reverse persistent systemic racism and exclusion, but it provides neighborhoods with marginalized communities the government resources to better plan their future, Lilligren added.
The Ordinance: What are the basics of it?
The ordinance establishing cultural districts states that the City of Minneapolis acknowledges a “reprehensible history” of redlining and economic exclusion throughout the city, disproportionately impacting places with Black, Indigenous, and other residents of color and immigrants. However, cultural districts are also areas with an “exemplary history of resilience and community building” that have nurtured a rich cultural identity. Cultural district designation represents the city’s efforts to support the cultural identity and businesses of the area while preventing displacement.
To be eligible for the designation, properties must be within a Metropolitan Council-defined Area of Concentrated Poverty, be rooted in communities with a significant number of BIPOC residents and/or a rich cultural and/or linguistic identity, have a goods and services corridor, and be accessible by walking and accessible by public transportation.