How Little Asia Was Born

The phone rings constantly at Asian Consulting Company on Nicollet Avenue. Shuping Teoh answers in English, but inevitably switches to Chinese, Malay, or one of the three Chinese dialects in which she is fluent. Officially, Asian Consulting puts job-seeking Latinos and Asian Americans in touch with Chinese restaurateurs looking for workers. But Teoh and her colleagues are all-around Asian/Anglo trouble-shooters, helping the growing Asian-American community in the neighborhood and the city at large navigate the English-only labyrinth of American business and government.

It's no accident that this white-collar entrepreneurial establishment catering to Asian Americans has rented office space on Nicollet Avenue. For the past five years, Nicollet between downtown and 29th Street has been the site of a small-business renaissance. New stores--principally owned by Chinese, Vietnamese and a growing number of Latin American immigrants, along with a few entrepreneurs from Jamaica and the Middle East--are opening at a pace that makes the Whittier neighborhood seem a Minneapolis anomaly: a stable and diverse ethnic business district.

The fall and rise of Nicollet Avenue is a lesson in the capricious fortunes of city neighborhoods. "It's a story of one big, bad city decision and repairing the damage done by that decision," explains Tom Berthiaume, chair of the Nicollet Avenue Business Association. "It's taken 15 years to get the engine started."

The "big, bad" decision was made in the late 1970s, when the City Council authorized construction of the K Mart on Lake and Nicollet--a building plunked down not on a city block, but a city street. K Mart and its parking lots sealed Nicollet at 29th Street, diverting traffic onto one-way residential streets, First Avenue going north and Blaisdell Avenue going south.

The result was a three-way loss: Residential property along First and Blaisdell fell victim to commuter drive-by and lost its value, while the business district along Nicollet had the life choked out of it for lack of exposure to automobile traffic. "This section became fly-over land," Berthiaume says. A handful of businesses--among them the Rainbow Chinese Restaurant, the Black Forest Inn, and Porter's Bar and Grill--hung on through the tough times. Many more went toes-up. All through the 1980s, continues Berthiaume, "Property values went into a free fall and places got boarded up. There was substantial decline."

But in the early 1990s the neighborhood's fortunes began to shift. New immigrants to the city from Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America were drawn to the district for cheap housing and employment at GFI America, the giant meat-processing plant on 28th Street that offers some of the only semi-skilled jobs in south Minneapolis. In the 1990 census, 11 percent of Whittier residents reported speaking a language other than English at home, about equally divided between Spanish and Asian/Pacific Island tongues.

These immigrants provided a customer base for a handful of ethnic establishments. In 1990, three Asian markets had set up shop on Nicollet between Franklin and 29th Street, along with an Asian-owned dentist's office, photo-processing shop, and bakery. This kernel of Asian-run businesses, and the low rents on the boarded up storefronts along the avenue, began to attract more small business. Today the businesses in the district, Asian Consulting Company among them, draw their customers from the entire metro region.

Kham Haung, a Chinese-born refugee from Laos, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in economics and math in 1990. Haung's parents had run a grocery in Laos, so, along with his brother Tom and sister Noy Oudvanh, he was drawn to the same trade, and in 1992 the children opened Shuang Hur B.B.Q. Deli on 26th Street between Nicollet and Blaisdell. The store consisted of a couple shelves filled with canned goods and specialty Chinese products and, more importantly, Haung's barbecued meats. ("Only Chinese people know how to do this," he says.)

Today, a dozen ruddy barbecued ducks and the same number of chickens hang suspended next to a full side of pork in Haung's display case. In addition to a growing number of shoppers, local restaurants account for a hefty share of Shuang Hur's business. Over the years, the store has expanded from two aisles to four, then to eight. Now Haung boasts an enormous stock of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean products and a tank of feisty-looking live fish.

Business is so good, in fact, that the Haungs are relocating down the block into a 12,000-square-foot building, fully remodeled with a price tag of more than $1 million, paid for in part by low-interest loans from the city.

The Haung family's success hasn't come at the expense of other businesses. "Before this they had a couple stores here," Haung recalls. Now he figures at least 20 Asian markets have settled in the area. "Everyone competes with each other," he says. But so far anyway, the competition hasn't driven business away. In fact, as the district's reputation for ethnic offerings grows, customers commute to Nicollet for specialty shopping. Haung says some of his Chinese customers drive all the way from North and South Dakota for his barbecue. (Haung himself lives in Hopkins.) And a growing number of non-Asian customers seem to be discovering the store, too.

Like the Shuang Hur grocery store, many of the small businesses in the area are opening on low-interest loans through the Minneapolis Community Development Agency or from neighborhood banks like Franklin Bank, where special loans are available for local businesses. But as a whole the rebirth of Nicollet Avenue seems to be a homegrown phenomenon, rather than the result of downtown planning--unless you count the depressed values wrought by the K Mart project.

But now that business is booming, planners are beginning to take note, spearheaded by local groups like the Whittier Alliance and the Nicollet Avenue Business Association. This spring, construction will begin on a $7 million face-lift for Nicollet Avenue between Grant Street and 29th Street, including road repair, 200 new trees, and decorative street lighting. The Neighborhood Revitalization Project will pick up 75 percent of the $3 million to be spent on cosmetic improvements; property owners will be assessed for the remaining 25 percent.

Part of the redesign includes an experiment in traffic control: Northbound traffic from First Avenue will be re-routed onto Nicollet at 29th Street. Call it the reopening of Nicollet--15 years after the disastrous K Mart project, cars will finally head past the restaurants and grocery stores on Nicollet once again.

Considering the fact that traffic atrophy gave the businessmen along Nicollet a leg up by driving property values down, the assessed price tag of the new streetscape could have the opposite effect. Any significant increase in property values would undoubtedly drive marginal businesses out. But neighborhood boosters refuse to concede that that might happen. Says Berthiaume, "A diverse business community is a stable business community."

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