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Uncle Bill’s Food Market: The Community Celebration

(See pictures below.)

 

The new owner of the building at 2428 Plymouth Avenue, formerly the site of “Uncle Bill’s Food Market”, rented awnings, tables and chairs, and opened up the building, on Saturday, September 19, 2009, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., for a community celebration of business development in north Minneapolis. Owner Lennie Chism’s event was part celebration, part protest demonstration, and part investigation of building conditions.

I will not dwell on the reason for the protest demonstration. The building in question was condemned by Minneapolis Fire Department inspectors, after being ordered by Mayor Rybak to do so, on May 9, 2007. Occupants, both the grocery-store owner and two tenants living in apartments above the store, were required to vacate the premises by May 31, 2007. The official reason given was that the inspectors considered this building unsafe. There was, inspectors said, "significant structural  damage" in the building and, specifically, “sagging floor joists”, despite the fact that Fire Department inspectors had signed off on the condition of the building less than a year earlier.

Chism loosened the boards covering the front door so that interested persons could inspect the interior. To the left were the refrigerated compartments which the last store owner, Ali Hassan Meshjell, had installed at a cost of $140,000 before he opened the store. But the critical evidence lay in the basement, entered from a hall in back of the building.

There were at least three separate tours of this basement. While the visitors did not include inspectors or licensed structural engineers, they did include four different owners of commercial buildings and a former asset manager for a major housing nonprofit. None was able to spot any structural damage or evidence of sagging. To the contrary, the floor under the store was firmly supported by huge wooden beams - 8 inches, in some cases - or by steel beams. There was no evidence that the floor joists were damaged in any way. There was no visible “sagging”. But, of course, Minneapolis Fire Department personnel are trained to fight fires, not inspect commercial buildings.

Granted, the interior of the store and of the apartment units above the store needed housekeeping. Someone had ripped off panels in the store ceiling. Here and there unsold merchandise remained on the shelves. In a news rack lay two unsold copies of the Star Tribune dated May 30, 2007 - the day before the occupants had to be out of the condemned building. We were stuck in a time warp while, with flash lights, poking around the interior units of what used to be “Uncle Bill’s Food Market”. As a structure, the building was salvageable. After perhaps a day’s cleaning, the upstairs apartments were ready for some currently homeless persons to move in.

Outside, four tents and tables were set up on Sheridan Avenue, partially blocked off to traffic. Lennie Chism was promoting his vision of a sidewalk cafe which would be called “Springboard Market”. Some associates had produced a full-color picture of what might be: green awnings projecting from the building which partially covered the sidewalk on the Plymouth Avenue side. The awnings announced that “fresh coffee” and “fresh produce” might be had at this location. Today, however, a few brave souls sat at tables in the open sun light, sipping beverages.

Over on the shaded Sheridan Avenue side, a vendor at one table was selling CDs and perfumes. At another table, hot lunches and cold drinks could be purchased for $5.00. Meanwhile, Springboard Development had a table with information about its plan and a petition which would ask the city to drop its demolition plans. Metro Property Rights Action Committee rented a table to show its support. There was a large picture illustrating the lost “American dream”. Around 2 p.m., toward the end of the celebration, a live band appeared - three young female vocalists and a man at a keyboard - performing in the shaded area next to the building.

The most prominent journalist to cover the event was Terry Yzaguirre of Mplsmirror.com. With her video camera, she, too, took the basement tour in search of sagging floor joists underneath the former grocery store. Viewers of this video, posted on Mplsmirror.com, are bound to be disappointed if they expect to find what the Fire Department inspectors claimed to be imminently dangerous. Yzaguirre also interviewed Lennie Chism and then, as the highlight of her report, visited Uncle Bill Sanigular himself in his home several blocks away. Uncle Bill, a diabetic, was unable to attend the celebration because he is confined to a wheel chair, but he did have much to say of his experiences as a store owner and manager. His wife, Jean, did later stop by at the site of their former store.

Among the political candidates and personalities to appear were “Papa John” Kolstad and Bill McGaughey, both candidates for mayor of Minneapolis, and two other candidates for 5th Ward City Council besides Chism: Roger Smithrud of the Independence Party and Kenya McKnight, a DFL challenger to Don Samuels. Also on hand for most of the event was Barb Davis White, the Republican candidate for Congress in the 5th District last year; she’s thinking of running again. Bill McGaughey was the Independence Party candidate; he will not be running for that office, now held by Keith Ellison.

“ Papa John” Kolstad made a point of stopping by this Northside celebration both before and after attending a candidate forum sponsored by the Waite Park neighborhood association in northeast Minneapolis. Besides being a noted musician and owner of a nationwide music-distribution business, Kolstad has considerable knowledge of building renovation because he owns a similar structure on Lake Street. He, too, took the inside tour of the vacant building.

The feeling among political rivals was cordial. All recognized that the city-ordered destruction of Uncle Bill’s Food Market was a deeply disturbing event. There was talk that certain politically well connected developers may have had their eye on this property; cheap acquisition of property is usually the motive behind inspections moves of this type. All candidates attending the celebration supported current attempts to revitalize this and other neighborhoods if done by honest means.

All in all, the event on September 19th was a highly unusual event showcasing a concrete example of the city’s approach to business development, policing, and inspections. Momentarily, political rhetoric was giving way to an opportunity to see for oneself what current city policies have wrought.

inside abandoned store * * * * looking for sagging floor joists * * * * structural support in basement

three political candidates * * * * Jean and Bill Sanigular * * * * Ed Eubanks ordering food at cafe

(Lennie Chism, John Kolstad, Bill McGaughey)

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