Gail Rosenblum
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Buying groceries can be a chore, but it was pure fun for Raymond Robinson, stepping off an orange school bus and into North Market, a full-service grocery store on Minneapolis’ North Side.

“I love it, I love it,” he said, filling his cart with peanut butter, chicken, bologna, bread and ice cream.

Robinson isn’t just referring to the spacious, well lit and well stocked grocery store that opened at 44th and Humboldt in December. He loved the bus ride, too.

The free shuttle, called the Northside Circulator, took Robinson and an equally delighted group of neighbors from their Rainbow Terrace senior high-rise to a Hennepin County service hub, where they took care of personal business. Then it was on to the Target Field light rail station, where they grabbed a cup of coffee and the University of Minnesota Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC).

Community leaders hope that the shuttle, rented from Metropolitan Transportation Network and sponsored by Pillsbury United Communities, becomes a permanent and daily fixture for North Side residents.

That’s because the simple outing is part of a serious mission to provide for North Side residents what others may take for granted: easy access to basic amenities, from healthy food to adult-learning opportunities to expanded social adventures.

The shuttle grew out of Raising Places, a national initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

Minneapolis is one of six communities selected from 150 applicants nationwide to conduct “labs” with community stakeholders to address poverty, lack of affordable housing, disengaged youth, food deserts and more — “challenges that prevent these communities from becoming healthy places to raise families,” said project director Sara Cantor Aye.

In addition to the shuttle, which is seeking funding to continue, community members have proposed “sunlighting” North Side schools with more windows and natural light “to foster a healthier atmosphere for children to learn.” Another project envisions revitalizing the now vacant Lincoln Community School for an art space for young people.

“Revitalizing” is the operative word here. This Plymouth Avenue corridor, Aye noted, “has a rich historical and cultural heritage, once being an economic anchor of Minneapolis’ North Side.”

The busy thoroughfare was one of the city’s destination locations, she noted, with shopping, entertainment and dining options. “Over time, small bodegas were abandoned or replaced by fast-food chains, many homeowners have moved away and rental units moved in,” she said, as have crime and violence.

Beginning last fall, civic leaders, residents, educators, law enforcement officials, business owners and health professionals brainstormed dozens of good-hearted projects to infuse renewed vibrancy into the community.

The shuttle was a winner from the second it rolled away from Rainbow Terrace. Mattie Henderson, president of the senior high-rise, has ridden it four times.

“Honey, it is just awesome,” she said, noting that residents of Rainbow Terrace who otherwise had never met “sat together and had conversations on the bus.”

She added, “People can take care of their business at the [county] hub, or go have coffee downtown, or ride and lose themselves in thought.” She noted that North Market is an especially welcome stop because previously, residents had to drive, find a driver or take city buses outside of the community to buy groceries.

“This is absolutely a beautiful thing,” she said.

At UROC, the group was warmly welcomed by interim director Marilyn Higgins, who pointed out an art display in the lobby and free computer classes, which the seniors were encouraged to consider. Higgins recalled riding a similar bus in Syracuse, N.Y., called the Connective Corridor Shuttle.

“It’s hard to get people on it at first,” she said. “But it would be great for this neighborhood to feel they had direct access.”

Many residents are envisioning adding stops to the Northside Circulator, such as to zumba classes for seniors; or the Minneapolis Urban League, where students can do work-study; or to the U to see a dance performance at Northrop. Others tossed out the idea of having a historian on board the bus to tell riders stories about the area, or artists performing en route.

Pillsbury United Communities CEO Adair Mosley said the short-term goal is to “aggressively” find corporate and foundation support to keep the Northside Circulator running throughout the summer, preferably on a daily basis. He estimated the cost at $500 a day.

“The hope is that people see what people who live in this community see,” Mosley said. “We see the value of being connected to each other and to the assets we have in this community. Our hope is that someone will want to be a part of that — and maybe come ride the bus themselves.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum