Street Fighting Man

neighborhood prophet or capitalist pariah. basim sabri doesn't care what people think of him--as long as they stay out of his way.

When he was 14, Sabri cut a deal with an Israeli bleach manufacturer to distribute its product. Sabri peddled the bleach from store to store in his homeland, and he reminisces about cornering the market as if he were discussing a new development: "I was the sole person distributing bleach!" he boasts. "As a Palestinian family, you have to learn to be a survivor."

In 1979 the 20-year-old Sabri came to the U.S. to attend the University of Minnesota, joining family members who were already living in the Twin Cities. Sabri's first job in America was working as a bellhop and busboy at the old Curtis Hotel.

By his own account, he was not flush with cash. In 1983 Sabri was living on the second floor of a building at 27th and Dupont in south Minneapolis, paying $200 a month in rent. Sabri treated his apartment like his "castle," putting in skylights, redoing the plumbing, and retiling the kitchen, all without telling his landlord. When then the owner of the building revealed that he was selling the property for $125,000, Sabri decided to buy it himself. "I said 'No problem'," recalls Sabri with a laugh. "I didn't have 125 dollars."

The owner offered to sell on a contract for deed, provided that Sabri could come up with a $15,000 down payment in three months. Sabri abruptly quit school, bought a van, and started a moving company. He raised the money and made it happen: his first real estate deal. "That is how I started. I still own it to this date." From there, Sabri bought up more than 20 residential properties in south Minneapolis.

"There's a lot of people who think I come from money," says Sabri, narrowing his eyes before exploding with a declaration. "I come from zero!" And Sabri, who initially planned to pursue a degree in political science, never made any formal study of business: "You don't study it. It's like sex. You either know it or you don't."

The Dupont property would also come to symbolize Sabri's tenacity, both political and economic. The 100-year-old building included a retail space that had been used over the years for a variety of different businesses, including a grocery store, a dry cleaner, and a construction firm. Technically, however, the building was not zoned for certain commercial uses. So in 1991, after Sabri signed a lease with a tenant who wanted to open a hair salon, he applied to the city for a variance. But some neighbors didn't like the idea.

The city's zoning department initially approved Sabri's request, but another city agency took a position against the variance, citing the opposition of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association. Sabri, who rarely hesitates to sue if he feels he has been wronged, filed suit against the city in late 1992. "It was a bunch of assholes ganging up on me," he snorts.

As it turns out, an ambitious woman named Lisa McDonald was an active member of the neighborhood association, and a staunch opponent of Sabri's. Now McDonald is a member of the Minneapolis City Council. And according to her version of events, neighbors simply didn't think that a zoning change was appropriate for a corner otherwise surrounded by homes. Sabri still sees the conflict as an attack on an immigrant businessman. "There's a lot of hidden racism among white Caucasians against foreigners and blacks. That's reality," he observes.

"[Racism] has nothing to do with it," McDonald counters. "He says that about everybody that opposes him."

While the dispute dragged on, McDonald launched her first campaign for city council. Sabri spent money trying to defeat her. McDonald won, and when she took office she made her feelings about the hair salon known to the City Attorney's Office. Talks of a settlement between Sabri and the city unraveled. "I acted on the direction of my neighborhood board," McDonald maintains to this day.

In May 1999 the Hennepin County District Court ruled that the city's action in denying the variance request had been "unreasonable," but the judge wasn't convinced that Sabri had incurred any significant damages. City appeals were rejected, and he was ultimately awarded $5,200.

For Sabri, the money involved pales in comparison to the battle over what he saw as a matter of principle. "It took 11 years and maybe $60,000, but I won," says Sabri, who still blames McDonald for a ten-year fight over a minor zoning issue. "I think a municipality like the City of Minneapolis has to learn their lesson. Kick their ass!" Today his building houses an upholstery firm and a landscape architecture business. "What a waste over a goddamn hair salon," he concludes.

Sabri no longer resides in Minneapolis. At the end of last year he moved to suburban Shorewood, where he lives with his wife, five-year-old daughter, and a small spread complete with goats, chickens, pigeons, and peacocks. Nevertheless he's behind a group called Citizens for Minneapolis Mayor, whose main purpose is to denounce Lisa McDonald's bid for higher office. Sabri even took time out of one of his Saturdays in late March to attend the Tenth Ward DFL endorsing convention--the ward McDonald has represented for eight years. He made sure delegates got a copy of a small, green piece of literature entitled "Don't Be Fooled," which contained two short paragraphs outlining why McDonald should not be elected mayor: "She is a fox dressed in Democratic clothes and a Republican body."

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