Sidewalk of the Week: Chicago Avenue and 38th Street

If you delve deep enough into south Minneapolis, far  from the leafy green edges and the glittering lakes, if you find a way to bridge the pair of freeways that run like impassible pincers south through the city, you find yourself in a vast yuppie desert. It is a land filled with people of all walks and colors, from all over the world. There in the central swath, cut off from the fancy homes of the waterfronts, Powderhorn Park sits like a gem on old jewelry, the neck in the emerald necklace, a mid-city oasis cloaked in a patina. The sidewalks of Powderhorn run crackling off, and if you follow their paths old streetcar stops fan out before you, each one a character like old men repeating half-remembered stories.

Running just south and east from the park, two main streets come together like shoelaces to form one of the finest of these.  38th Street is key path East and West, joining the far-off river to the Uptown lakes and rose gardens. Chicago Avenue runs South toward a cozy creek lined with green yards, and North straight to downtown past two of the city's biggest hospitals. All those places seem far away. A church steeple rises in the distance, and a classic streetcorner closes in. 

You hear stories told in cities of how artists change things, how they appear one day with paintbrushes and hammers to make new the old buildings and plant seeds of future cities. On the sidewalks of Chicago Avenue, you’ll find such a place, a corner on the very knife edge of creation. Though they're never so simple, such urban legends seem true here. You can literally tell, house by house and building by building,  whether they are part of the before or the after picture. One on side: a bright and fenestrated coffee shop abutting an alley, the city’s most famous street photographer (Wing Yung Hiue’s) art gallery, a boutique "consignment" furniture shop and its eggshell teal sidewalk sign with a bird on it, a large re-used building transformed into a studio for the “fire arts,” which I'm told runs the gamut from glass blowing to blacksmithing.

[Covet Home Consignment, with Hiue's Thirdspace gallery in the background.]

[Blue Ox Coffee and its alley.]

[The window of the Fire Arts Center.]

[Do not sit on produce rack.]
On the other side: a custom T-shirt shop, a barber salon / tattoo parlor, a muraled Mexican restaurant, and Cup Foods, the shop with the best of the city’s typo names (Edna Realty and Super USA being other obvious candidates). Cup Foods is a thing to itself, absolutely covered with signs. To step inside is enter a world of the unexpected, one of those kaleidoscopic chambers that keeps changing, growing, expanding as you walk through it. Racks of dried fruit and nuts stand next to a well-staffed island with glinting and mysterious electronic gadgetry (for some reason), and a decent enough produce section that more often serves as a bench, overlooked almost to the point of expiration.

Between the two sides, pregnant newcomers and patient locals, lie non-profits – the Aliveness Project or Lavender Magazine –  while the Super America sits on the corner pumping its gas, still the only place anyone's likely to notice.

[Dealz tee shirts.]

[The binary building of Tip-Top Haircut and Quality Body Art.]

[An empty red building waiting for a tenant.]
It's remarkably easy to break down the neighborhood like this, to make sides and divide. I imagine those in the area feel the same; nobody frequenting Cup Foods would step into Blue Ox Coffee (and vice versa). But it seems to me there’s a lot in common here too, that the glassblower and the t-shirt printer share a devotion to creation, a white knuckled grip on an uncertain future. I imagine everyone in a five-block radius is their own boss. This is the land of making your own way, bootstrapsburg, and the main difference between the two sides lies in aesthetics – font choice, color palette, attention to detail – the deepness of race and culture, and one’s ability to get grants. (Also, as I write this, another difference appears: no older places have websites.)

The other common thread is the mural. Almost every building sports one, almost every surface bears a pictured imaginary. The Mexican restaurant has a cityscape foregrounding transit and a lake, a transect fading to a rolling countryside. Another seemingly empty building sports an abstract honeycomb’d grid reminding me of a soccer ball. Cup Foods displays a cliché'd rural landscape abutting their alley. Best of all, the auto shop on the corner explodes into a million colors like Van Gogh on LSD.

 [Four murals of Chicago Avenue.]

[The Piping Industry Development Council marks an empty doorway.]
Empty buildings sit here like kindling, waiting to launch into entrepreneurial space. I get the sense that neighborhoods like this overflow with community, albeit of different valences and types. The bonds of being on the edge. I am greeted on the sidewalk more than once, and this feeling seems spurred by its exposure, by the shared excitement of the precipice, the way cold weather fosters tolerance or camping generates memories. These sidewalks tell a tale of low rent and high hopes, the very things that make cities come to life. They are sidewalks of change, and you can read them backward and forward in time.

Sometimes these transitions go badly. But if any place can make just progress, I would bet on this one. Hiue's art has been devoted to recognizing diversity for decades, to bridging difference and starting difficult conversations. 38th and Chicago has a exposure to it, a sincerity that seems to me a good omen, a forgotten place soon remembered.

[A bright grey winter afternoon on Chicago Avenue.]


Alex said...

Fantastic, Bill. I'd add that the church on the southwest corner has a yard sale every seasonable weekend, and while I've never stopped, it seems that few things draw in perhaps-uncomfortable neighbors of "diverse backgrounds" better than yard sales. 38th St has a special place in my heart as the route I most frequently followed to and from a fondly-remembered ex-girlfriend's house, and Chicago was usually the most interesting waypoint. Anyway thanks for the writeup.

Alex said...

ps add Rund's Market in the North Loop to your list. And I suppose I should point out that St Paul itself is something of a knockoff of Minneapolis, as Nate proved the other day at streets.mn

Anonymous said...

I will add that there are those of us who live nearby and stop in Cup Foods for some limes and milk on the way to Blue Ox. Or the reverse. Love this intersection.

jinwen said...

the wall painting is impressing

Anonymous said...

I know this area well. Thanks for showcasing it. The photos are great as well.

Flo Golod said...

This is great - I'd like to share it on my Facebook page. Is there a way to do that?

Anonymous said...

I love this intersection(well, I don't love the gas station/ open air drug market...but the rest is quite nice). It is a few blocks from my house.
A few notes:
The empty red building is rented out. I think food trucks cook do food prep there.
And for what it is worth, the owners of the new shops have lived in the surrounding neighborhoods for years. The owner of Cup Foods lives in Roseville.

Stephanie said...

Great start to an article about a place I love. I appreciate the shout out to Wing Young Huie's photography, and the link to our website.

And yet, I question whether the author actually talked to anyone while snapping the photos. If they had, they would have learned that the red building is owned by a new company that is currently building out the inside to be a community kitchen for caterers and food artisans. They might have found out that the tattoo shop and Tip Top Haircut are not the "before picture," but like many of the businesses on this corner (Cup Foods and Super America are the main exceptions) opened in the last two or three years.

There is a lot of diversity here, but there is more than murals tying us together. With the exception of Super America, I know the names and faces of the people who own businesses on this corner. We are definitely our own bosses, but are also all looking out for each other.

Stephanie Rogers, Gallery Director
Wing Young Huie Photography and The Third Place Gallery

Bill Lindeke said...


No, I didn't talk to anyone except friends (that I knew from before my wandering). That's part of the premise of my blogging (for better or worse), to wander the streets and wonder... It's gotten me into trouble before (e.g. my post about Cincinnati) but that's part of the adventure. I just hope I didn't undermine your work in the neighborhood. I this this corner is terrific, and though I want to bring into focus some of the urban dynamics, the last thing I hope for is to undermine attempts to bridge cultural or economic gaps in the neighborhood. From what I know about Wing's work, that seems like the primary goal. Thanks for your (probably under-rewarded) efforts to that end.

Unknown said...

Dear Bill,

Thank you for taking time to see our neighborhood as a fellow artist. That spirit of creation may be the strongest common bond we share at 38th and Chicago and also why your post has resonated with so many. I think it worked very well that you approached us first as (only) an observer and not an interviewer, because it shows the stand-alone freshness of what's happening here. The details will emerge in surprises as we continue to get to know one another in this new (and old) little village.


Anonymous said...

I patron Cup Foods AND Blue Ox often!

Michael Foster said...

I can not forget that Cup Foods has been a target of more police actions then I remember. When the S.A.F.E officers were asked how to improve security (I was a homeowner at 42nd and Chicago), the S.A.F.E. immediately said "blow Cup Foods up". I will also say that in the 10 years I was a home owner in it's neighborhood, Mike Stebnitz did more than anyone--including the City of Minneapolis -- to improve the quality and safety of neighborhood.

Jimmy Longoria said...

"You hear stories told in cities of how artists change things, how they appear one day with paintbrushes and hammers to make new the old buildings and plant seeds of future cities."

Thank you, Bill, for your taking notice of what many of us consider sacred work. And thank you for the great photograph of the mural that Mentoring Peace Through Art did on the Mill City Auto Body building. (you can see more photos of it on our web site: www.mentoringpeace.org) Let me share the invisible with you. That particular wall was often used by drug dealing gang members to announce their presence. We agreed to take on the project and found all the resources ourselves. We employed 5 STEP-UP interns and 7 volunteers. We interviewed the neighbors and found that on the side of the building was where the drug usage occurred, and found paraphernalia there. The middle and high school students chose the theme of the mural - Greek mythology. The project was extremely successful. The residents next door told us that before the mural they always kept their blinds closed - now they are open. And might I add - this week I was given the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, "Living the Dream" Award for making a difference in the community. We believe that artists are servants of the community. Thank you for appreciating the work - and thank you for your blog! Jimmy Longoria

Evette said...

Dear Bill,

Thank you for the blog and the feature on the 38th & Chicago intersection, it was truly deserving and greatly appreciated. The improvement at 38th & Chicago is not the work of one individual but the efforts of residents and business owners that love the neighborhood. I have lived in the area almost 40 years and have seen the growth and advancement of this intersection. The 38th & Chicago Business Association along with the City and Minneapolis Police Department have a vested interest and have worked tirelessly to improve the qualitiy of life in this area. It is a labor of love. We are glad to see the new businesses that have emerged within the past five years and are grateful for the cities financial support of facade grants for the betterment of our community but give kudos to those who have weathered the storms and continue to be a stable part of this community. We love this neighborhood and are committed the growth and development with much and more to come.

Anonymous said...

Edna Realty is not a typo. It is a different entity than Edina Realty.

Samir said...

Dear Bill,

I want to personally thank you for your time and effort in putting this beutiful observation together. I also want to thank and support all the investors and bussiness owners who have trusted in hard work and building our community. In deed, it's a very deversified community.
By the way my store name is not a typo. It was originally Chicago's Unbeatable Prices. I shortened to CUP FOODS. I am proud to say that since 1999 I have refused to sell any alcohol products and lottery tickets. I offer a wide selection on produce and fresh meats. That's to Huey's pictures and vision. Thanks to all to artist and murals in our community.

Bill Lindeke said...


Thanks! I didn't know the story about the acronym. I never did think it was a typo, but I think it's funny that it might be...

I bought some mushrooms at your store, and they were delicious.

Shonda Allen said...

Shonda Allen

Dear Bill,

Thank you for a wonderful article on the beauty and assets of 38th and Chicago. It has taken many community members, organizers, and officials including the police department, city officials, city planners assitance over the last 10 years in helping in the development of 38th and Chicago. Many businesses like Cup Foods, and the Sunshine Childcare Center and Millenium Connect have been supporters of the corridor from the beginning and always willing to engage with the community. It has been a pleasure to see the vision we had in the 38th and Chicago Small area Plan come true over the last 5 years with business owners like Mike Stebnitz, Wing Young Yuey,the Fire Arts Center, and Blue Ox. 38th and Chicago Business Corridor looks forward to your continued support of the community to maintain the vision of the Small area Small and Development of the area.

Shonda Allen

Anonymous said...

I wish that some of property owners on the corner would consider truly reinvesting some of their profits into the infrastructure. There are some beautiful old buildings that need and deserve some TLC.

Both Cup and the Mexican restaurant building owner have blocked up windows to the detriment of the walkability and vitality of the neighborhood.

New awnings and signs don't cut it. How about opening up windows, restoring your adorable diner front, etc?

Matt B said...

More good news for the intersection, in the form of barbecue: http://blogs.citypages.com/food/2013/01/smoke_in_the_pit_coming_soon_to_powderhorn.php

Matt B said...

More good news on the way, in the form of barbecue: http://blogs.citypages.com/food/2013/01/smoke_in_the_pit_coming_soon_to_powderhorn.php

Anonymous said...

I would like to say one thing. Sam at Cup has helped my mom and family for years. He gave my mom credit for milk , eggs and bus cards. He and his family and about 15 other neighborhood employees at Cup really work hard and are the longest standing business on that intersection.

I appreciate all the new and old businesses on this intersection and I support as many as I can. Depends on my pay check!!!!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post! I've lived a few blocks south for just over three years and have been known to get my coffee in Blue Ox and groceries in Cup once in a while. See http://pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org/arts-on-chicago/ for more info on arts stuff happening on Chicago, including that honeycomb mural (that's on the side of the Chicago Ave. Fire Arts Center, btw). Also, I hear that red painted brick building is being turned into a sort of kitchen lab/shared workspace for food businesses that don't have their own pro kitchen, also part of the Arts on Chicago project.

Ironically, my rent went up a substantial amount last fall and I don't know if I'll be able to stay in the neighborhood. I can't tell whether that's gentrification, or just property owners tightening their belt. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bill, for your article, and posting of comments. It IS very significant that art has come together with the day-to-day world of the 38th and Chicago juncture. Ya know what? I'd just met a man in his 60's way out in rural Wisconsin who told me his parents are buried just up the street from there. It's a small world. For those reading this, Bill appears to be a devotee of the arts, and all kudos to him for that. Art has transcended all race and class differences, as does the corner of 38th and Chicago evolve toward. The folks i know that run Cup Foods, are so ingrained in that neighborhood with love, sweat, and years. Often the owner still sleeps in his office to keep up with busy hours, and has employed people of many backgrounds and races to work as part of the team. Other shops around there have tended to come and go. Mostly, besides the corporate anomaly (SuperAmerica) on the corner, CUP Foods is likely the oldest running business; caring for neighbors there, creating a stopping place for many cultures. Like Bill's article pointed out, the produce section doubles as a place to lean, as you talk with neighbors. The electronics section is one of the most extensive cell phone sales and services places around, as CUP Foods is completely in tune with today's electronic media. Maybe glass blowers are too, though, in their own way. Most importantly, Bill in his more recent post mentioned that he was wishing to bridge the various sorts of people, cultures, and bonds that this neighborhood shares. That's a good thought, Bill, we thank you. America is built upon that idea. Which is to bring all that is diverse together to serve a common good. :-)

Anonymous said...

Who put the last commentor on the payroll? Hilarious, the idea of Sam sleeping in his "office" because he is so busy taking care of business "helping" my neighborhood. Give me a break. He is hightailing it to his $600k house in Roseville, guarenteed.

Powderhorn fan said...

Where, out of the blue, did that last comment come from? I thought this author was writing an article about the evolution of a neighborhood? This isn't a forum for person vendetta, is it? If so, let us know your name, and we'll get started on you next (ha ha!!) Let's keep it positive, and about the neighborhood, please.

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