Neal St. Anthony
See more of the story

Houston White runs a North Side barbershop, a noted clothing design and retail shop, and a coffee bar and community space.

Several businesses. One building, at 44th Avenue N. and Humboldt Avenue N., with a nice patio.

White, owner of Houston White Menswear (HWMW), also is a carpenter and hands-on building renovator. And he is a can-do visionary when it comes to his Webber-Camden neighborhood in the northwest end of Minneapolis.

He plans to spend six figures to overhaul and expand his 2008-refurbished, century-old headquarters to almost triple the size over the next couple years.

White envisions it as part of an emerging commercial hub, what he calls Camden Town, along 44th Street, an old, frayed-edge neighborhood that is slowly sprouting new businesses, commercial face-lifts and an improving housing market.

White, 39, who attended North High School and lives a few blocks from his business, espouses “Black Excellence” in his clothing line and endeavors. And he wants to attract more black professionals to open businesses and buy homes in the area. Whether they grew up on the North Side or elsewhere.

“It’s beneficial to the neighborhood and to the entire state of Minnesota when black folks do well and young black boys can see positive black men doing good things,” said White, ticking off the names of several black professionals who have invested in Webber-Camden in the past couple years.

Newly elected Council Member Phillipe Cunningham announced his candidacy at “Houston White’s Men’s Room.” And White is friends with former Council Member Barbara Johnson, champion of investment in housing and business in the Webber Park-Camden area.

The target market is a rainbow coalition of small businesses and residents.

“Houston is a rare connector of people and ideas,” said Stephanie Gruver of Re/Max Results, a realty agent and North Side resident. “Houston builds bridges. Not walls.”

Housing prices are slowly rising in an area that is still one of the more affordable in Minneapolis. And Gruver points to White’s expanding businesses — the new North Market grocery across Humboldt Avenue, a nearby coffee shop and expanding Thirsty Whale bakery — as encouraging to neighborhood veterans and prospective residents.

White, who said revenue from his businesses will approach $500,000 this year, plans an addition to his 4,600-square-foot building to expand the barbershop this year. Next year, he plans to build a new, larger connected building, including a larger space for meetings, music and community gatherings.

“First a new barbershop,” White said. “And then we redo and expand. There will be retail and design space. And then a new coffee-and-wine bar.”

The 1925-vintage commercial building, with an apartment above, already is impressive, 10 years after White and his wife moved in and remodeled.

“Houston is enormously creative and one of the most interesting and forward thinkers I have met in north Minneapolis,” said Roberta Englund, a 21-year resident and executive director of the Webber-Camden Neighborhood Organization. “There’s a new library, new businesses and 44th Street is going to be reconstructed in 2020.

“Houston has concluded [the area] needs to be rebranded. Camden Town. I like it. The board [of which White is a member] seems to like it. It will start at Houston’s corner.”

White was one of the first students at what is now a several-building Juxta Position Arts on W. Broadway. It began as a North High summer arts program and has evolved to include hundreds of young people, amateur and professional artists who produce painting, clothing, media and more for sale.

“I had a business in a backpack,” White recalled. “Silk-screened shirts, incense, oils.”

White graduated from barber school after high school and opened Mass Appeal with a partner in what soon became a five-chair shop on Plymouth Avenue. White remembers making around $60,000 from the business by his early 20s. However, he left after his business partner disagreed with White’s expansion plan.

Having learned carpentry from his father, White had remodeled Mass Appeal and funneled some of his earnings into rehabbing and selling old homes. He also built about 20 homes in Brooklyn Park and Golden Valley.

That career crashed in 2007-2008 as the mortgage market crumbled and lenders quit lending without big down payments. White and his wife got stuck holding four $1 million-plus homes from which prospective buyers backed away.

White, unable to carry the construction debt, filed bankruptcy and liquidated.

“That was humbling,” White said. “We weren’t building 20 houses at a time on speculation. It was depressing because we were trying to be careful.”

The mortgage market flipped, catching developers and builders in the Great Recession of 2007-09.

“I was only 28,” White recalled. “We had to push reset.”

White and his wife moved in 2008 out of a $1 million suburban house they couldn’t sell into an apartment above his commercial building on 44th Street. White remodeled the building that is valued today at $165,000.

It is worth a million bucks to the neighborhood, a showcase for business, art, construction and fashion on a once-unfashionable corner.

And it’s a growing harbinger of what could soon be bustling Camden Town.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.