By Jeff Wagner

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The heart of Lake Street, the “International Avenue” of Minneapolis, is starting to beat again.

The sizzle has returned to the kitchen at Abi’s Café, where people can get a taste of El Salvador. “I get to share a little bit of home, a little bit of my family and where I come from,” said owner Cesia Baires.

The sounds of the world can be heard again at Amla International Translation, where more than 100 languages are interpreted for the legal, tourism, and education sectors.

“It feels wonderful,” founder Paul Amla said about sitting in his office after being closed for months.

Both businesses were just two of the hundreds that were damaged, pillaged, or burned along Lake Street in the days following George Floyd’s death in late May.

“It was chaos out there. I didn’t know what was happening,” Baires said.

From her restaurant she witnessed people throwing rocks at windows and heard gunshots nearby. A man was shot to death at Cadillac Pawn, two doors down from Abi’s.

In the days that followed, looters smashed their way into Abi’s. The ceiling was ripped down, televisions were taken, and kitchen equipment damaged. “We were coming here every day after it got dark because we knew it was gonna get really bad just to protect the people that live on the top floor,” she said.

Amla’s office was ransacked. He said the building it’s in was set on fire but it didn’t spread because the building’s made of brick. Two businesses already struggling at the height of the pandemic, then dealt a destructive blow.

“This is the first time ever in my life that I contemplate to say I don’t think we might make it,” added Amla.

“You see how hard people have worked to be where we are now. And it’s kind of like we get up and boom again, we get beat down,” Baires said.

But in their lowest moment 70,000 people, businesses, and non-profits answered the call for help by donating to the We Love Lake Street campaign. It’s raised $10 million so far with nearly half already given to businesses to rebuild and restart. The Lake Street Council is in charge, along with help from other stakeholders, with distributing the money said Allison Sharkey, the council’s executive director.

“It’s up to the 325 businesses now that have received a grant through the fund and these are grants based on need and based on level of damage up to $25,000 per business,” Sharkey said. “For a lot of those businesses that amount of money was enough to close the gap of what their insurance didn’t cover and it was enough to get back open.”

The money helped Abi’s rebuild its storefront and buy kitchen equipment, allowing it to finally reopen just two weeks ago. Amla used the money to pay rent and cover losses.

“It’s very significant, especially when you need every penny to survive these days,” he said.

Just because they’ve reopened doesn’t mean they’re back to business as usual. Customer traffic along Lake Street remains slow, either due to the pandemic or concerns about crime.

“Some of my clients would say ‘Oh, you’re on Lake Street? I don’t think I can come here,” Amla said.

There’s also the assumption that some people don’t realize business have even reopened.

“If someone has a window boarded up or if their neighbor is closed, people might not know that some of their favorite stores are open,” Sharkey said.

The phones were ringing Wednesday at Abi’s Café, but Baires said it feels as slow, if not slower than during the height of the pandemic. While the restaurant was closed, she shifted her focus towards her new food truck. “That’s doing a little better than the restaurant since I’m taking (the truck) out of Minneapolis or out of Lake Street.”

Sharkey said the next several months will be critical for the survival of Lake Street businesses. She implores people to do more than just drive by and survey the damage. She wants them to park and open their wallets.

“Every dollar that you’re going to spend, just think about whether you can spend it with a business that you care about in the community,” Sharkey said.

It’s another challenge in a difficult year for the Lake Street corridor. But resilience isn’t hard to find along this stretch of road.

“I feel like we have to get through this hard times in order to finally one day see a better Lake Street,” Baires said.

“I see so many changes, some construction going on. And so I am optimistic that when we come together as a people we can achieve great things,” Amla said. “Lake Street will come back and stronger.”

We Love Lake Street continues accepting donations. To make one, click here.

Phase two of distributing the donated funds in the works. Sharkey said some of that money will be geared towards businesses that were destroyed or damaged beyond small repairs. Beside the campaign, Sharkey said the Lake Street Council will continue to push for state and federal funding to help businesses in need.

Jeff Wagner

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