Skin Tight

Pretty vacant: Even though Azzam Sabri spent $150,000 on renovations, one of his rental properties in Lowry Hill sits empty
Richard Fleischman

Thank u 4 enlightening me and everyone else who happens 2 be black and living in the jordan neighborhood, why is it that black folks are only suppose 2 have one leader 2 speak 4 us all ? ... I salute and am proud of

both mr. Samuels and ms. Johnso 1n lee, they both are hardworking passionate people who are trying 2 get the job done for all of us ... I'm so sick of wannabe pc neo conservative hipster rags trying 2 divide and put things into there [sic] own white validated genre. ... also, the only way that a brotha or sistah can get on your cover is 2 kill somebody?... fuck u and your hidden george bush supporting ass paper!!! oneluv.

--reader e-mail regarding "Black Like Who?" City Pages 8/27/03


Two weeks ago this page was mostly devoted to the differing public images of two black City Council members from north Minneapolis, Natalie Johnson Lee, who is African American, and Don Samuels, an immigrant from Jamaica. Response was swift and sharp: For example, State Rep. Keith Ellison, a northsider, fired off a letter to the editor accusing City Pages of, among other things, playing favorites based on who is more "authentically" black.

That I was blaming racial undercurrents for the white establishment's apparent preference for Samuels--who represents something other than the stereotype of the African American male--was lost on Ellison and other correspondents. Some of the readers argued that complexities between black Americans and black immigrants are overblown. The angriest responses I received were exclusively from men of color.

All of this underscores a main point: How do African Americans view Don Samuels?

"Certainly there are issues between African Americans and immigrants of color, and everybody knows that," says Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist. "I think that seven out of ten folks don't know that Samuels is an immigrant from Jamaica, but the ones that do have that in the back of their minds."

Fact is, Edwards surmises, Samuels will continually have to win the trust of the old-guard leadership in the black community. "Samuels is an unknown to a lot of us, and there's always going to be a question as to where his interests lie," Edwards says. "Samuels has done some things that, perhaps smartly, align him with the white leaders in the city, and we've all wondered about that a bit."

The doubts are there, and Samuels can feel them. "As a Jamaican in the African American community, the comparison is always being made, and I don't feel too good about that," he admits. But Samuels claims to understand where the criticism is coming from: He offers the observation that many immigrants of color, like himself, only represent "the highest functioning of our native societies," and that it's unfair to make comparisons to African Americans "when we are talking about the more educated, limited sampling of our countries" here in the States.

"Local African Americans have had to go through the horrors to get us where we are," Samuels says. "We have not had our ancestors shackled, or our uncles called 'nigger.' I'm constantly telling immigrants to be aware of this and embrace the path that was cut for us."

It's a sentiment echoed by blacks around the city. It's one thing for immigrants to come from a country where they are the dominant culture, and see themselves reflected in leadership positions. It's quite another for black Americans to have to defend the leaders they have, and protect the advances they've made.

That Samuels understands this makes it all the more worrisome for northside residents who support both him and Johnson Lee. If redrawn ward boundaries hold for the 2005 election cycle, voters may well see the two pitted against each other for one seat. --G.R. Anderson Jr.


When a House Is Not a Home

Azzam Sabri has spent two years meticulously restoring his century-old house on the southwest corner of Franklin and Fremont Avenues in the Lowry Hill neighborhood. The rotting roof has been replaced, the wood floors refinished, and marble tiles laid in the kitchen and bathrooms. Sabri (if the name is familiar, it's because he is the brother of Basim Sabri, the flamboyant developer who currently faces federal charges that he bribed former City Council member Brian Herron in 2001) even has prospective tenants--a 12-member Somali family--lined up for the three-story residence.

The only amenity lacking, unfortunately, is a certificate of occupancy. No matter how splendidly restored, it is illegal for anyone to live in the home. "I have a big, huge eight-bedroom house that I can't do anything with," Sabri laments.

The problem is that the property Sabri purchased in August of 2001 had two dilapidated structures. Minneapolis zoning code says it's illegal to have more than one principal residence on a single plot of land. The two homes have been on the same plot since 1911--before the Minneapolis zoning code even existed. For nearly a century the two homes were permitted to legally occupy the same lot. But because one of the residences was abandoned for more than a year, the city determined that only one home may now be used. Despite the city's affordable-housing crunch, Sabri has two options: tear it down or leave it unoccupied.

And Sabri, after spending $150,000 on upgrades alone, has been hit with more bureaucratic niggling. In August 2002, the Minneapolis City Attorney's office charged him with two misdemeanor crimes related to beautifying the property: Sandblasting without a permit and failing to take precautions to minimize air pollution. Each charge is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Last month, Sabri was tried before a jury of his peers, who acquitted him in less than an hour.

Sabri claims the charges were the result of a witch-hunt. Lowry Hill Residents, Inc., the local homeowners' organization, has vehemently opposed any rehab efforts. "The fact is that it's a violation of the law," argues Barry Lazarus, a member of the group's board of directors. "One of them should be destroyed."

Sabri's attorney, Jordan Kushner, dismisses the group's legal arguments as simply a means to keep renters--and poor people--out of the tony neighborhood. "If it was some wealthy person who wanted his family in one house and his servants in another house, I doubt that they'd have a problem," he scoffs.

Sabri was granted a certificate of occupancy for one of the residences in May and it now has four tenants. But to rent the other house, he must obtain a "non-conforming use certificate." Last month, the city's Board of Adjustment held a hearing on the issue. Eight Lowry Hill residents--suddenly crusaders for the vigorous enforcement of zoning laws--spoke against the measure, and the board voted to deny Sabri the permit.

The only one from the Board of Adjustment to side with Sabri was Peter Rand. "I don't see any compelling reason that we should use zoning law to destroy a historic asset," says Rand, an architect. Sabri has appealed the Board of Adjustment decision, and the matter will come before the City Council's Zoning and Planning Committee on September 18. If Sabri loses again, he can then appeal to the full City Council. He has little faith, however, that city officials will ever grant the permit, and believes that his only recourse might be to bring a lawsuit. "Maybe City Hall is broken," he surmises, "but not the courtroom." --Paul Demko

Suggestions, gripes, and tips should be sent to [email protected]

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >