Pastor Curtis Farrar didn’t want to build his church at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.
There was a building he liked farther south at the time. But this one was available, so at the southwest corner he opened Worldwide Outreach for Christ, where he has led services for the past 38 years.
Now Farrar believes it was divine intervention that his church ended up just steps away from this south Minneapolis corner where, in late May, George Floyd was pinned to the ground by police officers and suffered his final breaths.
“I believe God planted me here,” Farrar said recently. “This one event, on 38th and Chicago, caused the whole world to realize we need to change.”
Farrar’s church is the longest-operating institution at the intersection, which since Floyd’s death has become the site of protests, memorials and a nonstop pilgrimage site for visitors from outside the city coming to pay their respects. It’s still closed off to traffic from all sides, its business fronts covered with painted plywood, flowers strewn around a makeshift roundabout honoring Floyd.
South Side residents are now beginning to brainstorm what they hope will become a permanent memorial at 38th and Chicago. With that has come a serious discussion about the past, present and future of the intersection — and just who it belongs to.
History of racial covenants
The day after Floyd was killed, the team at Mapping Prejudice went back to their maps of 38th and Chicago. In recent years, the project cataloged racial covenants added by real estate developers in the first half of the 20th century that prevented the sale or lease of land to people of color, pushing Black people from neighborhoods and segregating cities across the country.
Sure enough, a cluster of covenants were added on lots southwest of the intersection in the late 1910s, including where Farrar’s church now stands. Kirsten Delegard, the project director of Mapping Prejudice, interprets it as a “buffer” that separated the whiter neighborhoods east of Chicago Avenue from the “heart of Black Minneapolis on the South Side.”
Those racial covenants became unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. By that point, 38th and Chicago had become a “contested area,” Delegard said.
Today, the intersection serves as an axis in several ways. It is represented by two different City Council members and is the meeting point for four neighborhoods: Central, Bryant, Bancroft and Powderhorn Park.
The surrounding community has also changed over the decades. Longstanding buildings and schools were razed and homes were turned over during the Great Recession. Central and Bryant, historically Black neighborhoods, are now mixed, with majority white and Latino residents.
Marjaan Sirdar, a community organizer who lives in the Bryant neighborhood, said 38th and Chicago still acts as border, one he believes belongs to the Black community that was pushed out over the years.
“Chicago was the divide, which is why 38th and Chicago has been battled over. It’s where a historic white and a historic Black community meet,” he said. “This is an old battle for land; it goes back 400 years on this continent.”
Problems with crime
Although the people surrounding 38th and Chicago have changed, the buildings have mostly stayed the same.
When neighbors and business owners speak about what has been there longest, the same three names pop up: Worldwide Outreach for Christ, Speedway and Cup Foods. (Their buildings even served the same purposes over the years; in the 1930s, Cup Foods was a drugstore and Speedway was a Standard Service Station.)
Ausar Lovestar opened a wireless communications business at the intersection in 1994, first in a space owned by Cup Foods and later across 38th Street. Shootings, drug dealing and other illicit acts became prevalent over the years, much of it centered around Cup Foods, he said. Neighbors said the block became a center for gang activity.
“A lot of people shied away from coming to the area as years went by because it became more violent,” Lovestar said. Over the years, the city and neighborhood organizations worked to bring down crime and change the appearance of the intersection. The city pushed grants for businesses to upgrade signs and facades. Neighbors emphasized the arts, and the city assisted the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center to move into an old movie theater next to Cup Foods.
“[It] was the opposite of Uptown,” said Elizabeth Glidden, the former council member for the area. “At Uptown they were trying to control growth. At 38th and Chicago it was more about attracting investment and clarifying the vision for the area.”
About 10 years ago, investor Mike Stebnitz bought the buildings directly next to SuperAmerica, now a Speedway, which had sat largely vacant for decades.
“After 10 o’clock, 38th and Chicago was a ghost town,” Stebnitz, who now lives in Florida, recalled. “If there was snowfall, there would be no disruption of the snow up and down the street. It was that quiet.”
One by one, he renovated the commercial spaces and brought in small businesses, including a coffee shop and photo studio. Some neighbors, including Sirdar, viewed his involvement as gentrification. But Stebnitz and others were proud to see life coming back to the intersection.
“Believe me, there were times when I had someone walk by and accuse me of doing something hideously wrong toward gentrification because I was putting flowers in front of the building,” Stebnitz said. “I don’t want to live in a world like that.”
What comes next?
Stebnitz’s buildings, like the others in the intersection, are once again boarded up. People walk up and down the sidewalk, reading the scrawl that covers the plywood in support of Floyd and against the police.
On a recent weekday night, Council Member Andrea Jenkins hosted a virtual meeting with South Side residents, who shared their views on the intersection’s future. Some wanted a permanent roundabout. Others want it to remain closed to traffic.
“I hate the thought of driving over a sacred area, and that is what this corner has become,” one neighbor said.
Jenkins and others said they would like a “racial healing center” where people could visit and learn about the movement toward racial justice that began with Floyd’s killing.
“To me, that intersection is the soul of the city,” Jenkins said in an interview. “And I think no time more than now reflects that. It actually is now the soul of the country, because the events that saw George Floyd take his last breath have led to a movement for Black lives that is encompassing the whole world.”
The previous night, Farrar led a Bible study inside his church. More than 40 people listened as Farrar preached about what was to come to the intersection.
“God is getting ready to do something — I don’t know what — to this corner,” he told the congregants. “I know he expects us to have a large part in it because he knew this church was here.”