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A year after unrest, Minneapolis businesses struggling to recover

MN businesses
Posted at 3:17 PM, May 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-11 15:17:53-04

There is nothing more Cesia Baires wants than to be cooking again. The 30-year-old, first-generation American opened Abi's Cafe in Minneapolis six years ago, but these days, her kitchen sits quietly.

"I’m ready to work. I haven’t been able to work since the riots happened," Baires said while standing outside of her Salvadorian-themed restaurant.

Baires’ small business began its days on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Lake Street is home to the city's now abandoned third police precinct and is also the epicenter of where last summer's civil unrest began.

"It felt like we were in a war zone basically, with the military out," she recalled.

There were nights when she would stand armed on the roof of her restaurant in an attempt to protect it from looters. She recorded videos as she went door-to-door, trying to alert her neighbors of trouble or fires.

"There were times I had to go into closets because kids were in closets like this because they didn’t know what was going to happen," she said.

All that pain associated with Lake Street eventually became too much, which is why back in February, she moved to a new location a few blocks away.

"Leaving the place was really hard because that was my baby," Baires said about the move.

Nearly 1,500 businesses were damaged in last summer’s unrest, and many were completely destroyed. All of it happened in the middle of a global pandemic, making it a nearly impossible year for many small businesses.

But Allison Sharkey, who serves as the executive director of the Lake Street Council, looks around Lake Street these days and sees hope.

"Lake Street has always been a place where immigrants can open their first business," she said, standing next to a dentist's office which had recently been rebuilt.

Across this city, they are still navigating life after George Floyd's death. Many businesses remain open but are still boarded up. Others, burnt to the ground, are gone and never coming back.

With the help of donations, the business council here is working to hand out forgivable loans.

In an effort to address some of the racial inequality that sparked the unrest, the focus is on helping Black and minority-owned businesses purchase their own buildings outright.

"One thing we need to do differently as we do build back is that we need to remember there used to be a rich network of Black-owned businesses on this corridor," Sharkey added.

But it's not just the physical healing of Lake Street that's on the forefront of this movement forward. They're also focusing on the mental well-being of business owners who've experienced incredible trauma.

"We’re actually starting a mental health program for business owners and their employees. The stresses business owners have been through have been really tremendous and people have been coming to us for support," Sharkey said.

It's something cafe owner Cesia Baires can empathize with. Last week, she discovered leaking pipes and mold in her new kitchen. Even the food truck she was cooking out of in the parking lot broke down.

But on the verge of bankruptcy, she refuses to quit.

"I wanted to stay in the community. Many people will say, ‘Why don’t you get out of Minneapolis?’ Because this is where I have my seed growing and I want to stay here," Baires said.