At George Floyd Square, ‘all the businesses … are still struggling’

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On any given day at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, people can be seen walking to the memorial in front of Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered by police two years ago Wednesday.

They take photos or capture video of their visit on cellphones. Others leave flowers, cards, paintings and other mementos. Some stand silently.

Renamed George Floyd Square, the intersection has become an internationally known site visited by people from across the globe.

But for the people working at the roughly two dozen businesses around the intersection, it’s another day at work. To some of the business owners, there’s a growing feeling of being invisible and overlooked two years after riots following Floyd’s death caused more than $500 million in damage.

“We’re not the reason they come to the area,” said hair stylist Natasha Clemons, who owns Clemons Conscious Salon on Chicago Avenue, just a few yards from the memorial site. “They come to see everything around us.”

While they support the memorial and honoring Floyd’s life, business owners say the city has not done enough to make customers, and themselves, feel safe. They want increased law enforcement presence and greater attention to making the area business-friendly, such as expanding the intersection to accommodate more traffic and parking. And they want to see a plan in action instead of merely on paper.

The city said it is committed to helping the businesses survive and has a plan to remake the area.

“All the businesses in that intersection are still struggling,” said Erik Hansen, director of economic policy and development for the city of Minneapolis. “We’re going to continue to participate in seeing how we can drive resources to that intersection.”

To help struggling businesses at the intersection, the Minneapolis City Council voted in April 2021 to approve a one-time forgivable loan program. The loans, forgiven if spent within a year for business expenses, are $50,000 each. Thirty loans were awarded for a total $1.5 million.

Some businesses, like Dragon Wok, closed despite the $50,000 loan. Cup Foods also was a recipient. Calls to the business were not returned. A clerk at the market had called police about Floyd because of a possible counterfeit $20 bill.

Clemons’ salon and Mill City Autobody also were among the recipients.

The last two years have been especially hard for the owner of Mill City Autobody on Chicago Avenue, one of the longest-standing businesses near the intersection. The owner, who asked not to be identified because his case is still not resolved, was assaulted at his shop and severely injured.

Though his attacker is in police custody, the altercation has left him uneasy about keeping his business there.

“When I get here in the morning, I don’t know if I’m going home,” the owner said.

The safety worries are on top of his business concerns. He already was facing COVID-19 downturns when Floyd was killed. After the riots — and with the square so close to the shop — he had fewer customers. Some of his mechanics, worried for their own safety, quit.

“I need things to come back to normal,” he said.

Clemons used the loan to pay the rent for her salon, which she opened in June 2020 on Chicago Avenue, just two doors down from Cup Foods.

Clemons signed a multiyear lease a month before Floyd’s murder, and in the weeks that followed, invested time and money into renovating the space. After Floyd was killed, Clemons didn’t consider finding a new location. The costs of breaking her lease would have been too expensive and she was booked with appointments for the next two months.

“The whole city was on fire at the time, but being in that area was the safest place in the city,” she said.

Soon, however, clients became hesitant about coming to the salon square, Clemons said.

Criminal activity was up in the area, which was acknowledged by Minneapolis police. Also, business was down because of the pandemic, lack of parking on Chicago Avenue and a rise in people doing their own hair.

To stay open, the hair salon needs to triple its client base, Clemons said. She uses vegan products and products free from animal cruelty, which helps attract customers, but it’s not enough.

“Right now, it’s not financially stable to continue as I am,” she said. “My business can’t thrive currently. I don’t know if its the location, or COVID, or what.”

Carmen Valdes, owner of Caval Servicios, a tax-preparation service on 38th Street that mostly serves the Latino community, also struggled with the twin challenges of the pandemic and increased crime.

COVID meant many of her clients were unable to file their taxes in person. Moreover, bus service through the area has since May 2020 been rerouted around George Floyd Square, forcing many of Valdes’ clients to walk several blocks to get to her office.

Valdes said the rise in criminal activity also has affected her business. She formerly kept her office open until as late as 10 p.m., but now closes at 6 p.m.

“I arrived in south Minneapolis in 1999,” Valdes said. “It was very quiet and a nice place. I liked it. I still like it. But lately, it has been hard for me and my clients.”

Since 2018, her revenue has dropped about 40%, she said. In that span, she’s cut back on expenses, including eliminating assistant positions. The forgivable loan has helped, but Valdes said she’s worried the current economic conditions will lead to more financial troubles.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy in the next year,” she said. “Maybe a recession is coming? I’m concerned about it.”

Dwight Alexander, who owns Smoke in the Pit, and Sam Willis, owner of Just Turkey on Chicago Avenue, say immediately addressing traffic flow around the memorial would increase customer activity. Both businesses received the forgivable loans.

The concrete barricades that still surround the sculptures, paintings and other items at the memorial site have hindered customer traffic the last two years, and make it difficult for delivery trucks to drop off supplies, Alexander said.

The former Speedway gas station on 38th Street, gutted during the riots, is now covered in murals and was renamed the “People’s Way” by activists. According to updates from the city, officials talked with the property owner last year and is reconnecting with the owner this spring with the intention to evaluate options to purchase the site.

Alexander respects the significance of the site, but wants the city to at least make it look presentable.

“Why does it still look like a war zone?” he said.

Like Alexander, Willis said the city should work to make the site more presentable like parts of Uptown, downtown Minneapolis or Lake Street.

“It looks like a third-world country when you come here sometimes,” he said. “If this is a memorial for the world to see, wouldn’t you want it to look attractive?”

Still, many business owners there say they aren’t giving up.

“We own this,” said Alexander, whose family-run barbecue restaurant has been on Chicago Avenue for 20 years. “I’m here for the long haul.”

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