My freshman year at the University of Minnesota, I lived on West Bank, just a few blocks from one of the largest East African communities in North America, in a neighborhood called Cedar-Riverside.
From the beginning, I really liked exploring the neighborhood and immersing myself in an environment that felt so much different from the surrounding city. It reminded me of being in another country.
Some people hold negative connotations with the neighborhood, though, especially in the last few years. If you Google “Somalis in Minneapolis,” for example, you’ll probably get some results that are, let’s just say… slightly xenophobic. From my experience, many individuals outside of the community don’t necessarily view it in the best light, even though (and maybe because) they’ve never actually been there. And the Wikipedia page for the neighborhood didn’t even mention the East African community until I added it (kind of odd when there were entire paragraphs about the history of other immigrant communities in Cedar-Riverside, from Germans to Swedes to Danes).
I think if people could experience a little more of the neighborhood and actually get to know those who call it home, they might see things differently. While I can never know what it would be like to grow up there (or immigrate and live there), I do think I gained a unique perspective — through time spent volunteering at a community center on Cedar Avenue, I was able to build friendships with a handful of guys in the neighborhood — and I want to share that with others like myself who grew up outside of the community.
Capturing the essence of the community was somewhat difficult: I really want to get as many portraits as possible, but a lot of people in the neighborhood don’t want their pictures taken for a variety of reasons. My friend Ibsa (pictured below) told me that some people might think I’m working for the FBI or other government agency, profiling individuals in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, my pre-existing relationships gave me at least some sort of basis for photographing parts of the neighborhood. I started out with film for this project because I think it forces a certain authenticity — in its reflection of the photographer’s shortcomings and the imperfections of the subject matter — that’s too easy to hide with digital. Cedar-Riverside isn’t perfect, and neither are these photographs, but I’m excited to show them to you.
Merga and Abdi, two guys who I didn’t previously know but were still willing to let me take their picture. Merga’s hat says “Oromia,” the name of a region in Ethiopia that’s home to the Oromo people. He told me about recent events in Ethiopia (in and around Addis Ababa) affecting the Oromo people, and he wanted you to know about what’s been going on. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
Zack (short for Zackariya) standing in West Bank Grocery where he used to work. I’ve known him for a few years. Zack was born in Virginia but raised in Minnesota. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
The exterior of West Bank Grocery, as seen from across Cedar Avenue. There’s also a small kitchen/restaurant in the store, where $5 will get you a big chicken sandwich and generous portion of fries — stop in and pick one up if you’re ever walking by and hungry. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
The edge of a soccer field in Currie Park, with basketball hoops and the Brian Coyle Center in the background. During the warmer months, this field is packed. I’ve played soccer here a few times. I wish I could’ve played more. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
My friend Ibsa, one of the first guys I ever met in Cedar-Riverside, in front of Riverside Plaza’s C-Building. Before taking this photo, I ran into him in the Brian Coyle Center, where he now works as a mentor to younger members of the community (of which he’s proud, as you can tell). Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
Inside Riverside Mall. There are a few similar malls in Minneapolis, but this is the biggest in Cedar-Riverside. Walking through here will make you feel like you’re not in Minneapolis anymore, in a good way. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
Cedar Coffee, one of my favorite spots to get Somali tea when I was in school. It’s across the street from the Cedar Cultural Center and in the basement (below Al-Karama Cedar Square). Somali tea is great by the way, in case you’ve never had it — spicy and sweet with plenty of steamed milk. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
My good friend Mowleed, in the back of Sagal restaurant and coffee. He’s one of the most motivated people i know, and he’s not a half-bad soccer player, either. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
Ahmed, a student studying accounting and MIS. He works at West Bank Restaurant (formerly Sahara). It’s my favorite Somali restaurant in Cedar-Riverside (their chicken suqaar is great). I’ve gone there so much that Ahmed and I got to know each other a bit over the years. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
McKnight tower, part of the Riverside Plaza apartment complex. the complex was designed by Ralph Rapson and originally created as mixed-housing that would span across all socioeconomic classes. McKnight Tower is still the tallest building in the city outside of central Minneapolis. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.
The view of Riverside Plaza from 19th Avenue South and South 5th Street. Nikon FM, Superia X-TRA 400.