It's an understatement to say that business is slow at 3 Blends Barbershop, which occupies a sliver of a storefront in what usually is an active commercial part of north Minneapolis. There are no customers on this weekday afternoon, and Jerome Naylor, the Lowry Avenue shop's proprietor, says that he'll be lucky to have even one $17 cut before he finally gives up and locks the door around 10:00 p.m. The place is so placid, in fact, that one of the kids from the neighborhood is sleeping in one of the barber's chairs.
This is the third year 3 Blends has been open for business. The first two were about getting established, Naylor says, and this year he "had high hopes" for a make-or-break year. But now, the 35-year-old father of four notes, he's cut staff from four barbers to just himself and one other, and though at one point every chair could be counted on to pull in $800 to $1,000 a week, Naylor's now having trouble making his $560 a month in rent. "I'm going into debt with my landlord," Naylor says bitterly. "I doubt I'll make it if it's going like this."
The reason for Naylor's near-stoppage in business is obvious to anyone who happens across the intersection of Lowry and Emerson Avenue North. On May 10, construction crews decimated a near-mile-long stretch of Lowry Avenue, which is also Hennepin County Road 153, from Interstate 94 to Girard Avenue North. It's the first phase in a remaking of the Lowry Corridor, and it involves some $6 million in roadwork that will close the stretch until November. The road needs to be redone—construction crews are finding roadbed built on cobblestone that dates back to the late 1800s—but the magnitude and logistics of the project have some business owners facing the end of their livelihoods.
They compare it to the rehabbing of Lake Street, the city's main commercial district in south Minneapolis. There, years of meetings between government officials, businesses, and residents ensured that at least one lane of traffic would be open during reconstruction. The same is not true for Lowry, which is a mass of dirt, sewer lines, and busted-up concrete that is barely suitable for walking, let alone driving. It's entirely shut down.
And though the notion of rebuilding Lowry has been in the air for some 10 years, and a comprehensive plan was published in May 2002, shop owners say they had little more than a couple of weeks' notice before the construction started. More than that, people like Naylor wonder aloud if what they see as shoddy treatment would be happening if it weren't for the fact that the construction is affecting mainly minority business owners in a troubled part of town.
"It's about all the violence and murders and dealing that goes on here," Naylor surmises. "They think businesses are part of the problem. They acting like we in the alley dealing drugs. How can we do that? We're all working, trying to make an honest living."
Officially, the project will take a four-lane east/west roadway and add dedicated left-turn lanes in some spots, narrow some stretches to one lane with parking and bike lanes, and widen sidewalks in other parts. The corridor is expected to see increased traffic—up to as many as 17,000 vehicles a day—according to a 122-page Hennepin County report called the Lowry Avenue Corridor Plan. Additionally, the plan envisions new businesses and housing (as many as 110 units at the Lowry and Lyndale intersection, for instance) and the county has bought out and relocated several businesses and residents on Lowry, and used eminent domain to take over other properties. (There is a phase II, from Girard West to Theodore Wirth Parkway—also estimated to cost some $6 million in road construction alone—slated for 2008.)
"The goal of the redevelopment project is to address the decline of Lowry Avenue by improving the livability of the corridor, as well as serving as a catalyst for regional revitalization," said Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, who represents the area, in a press release that marked the groundbreaking. "This is a truly great, long-awaited day for residents of this part of the city."
Business owners disagree. Adil Albosaad, the owner of the property that houses Naylor's barbershop and six other businesses on the northeast corner of Lowry and Emerson, says he's never seen such bad business in the 14 years he's run the E&L Food Market on the corner. Albosaad, a 34-year-old who was born in Iraq, says his register take is down some 65 percent, but mostly he worries about vacancies. His three residential tenants above the market have moved out, and he knows that renters like Naylor probably can't hold on.
Albosaad's business tenants include a deli owned by an Egyptian immigrant, a Chinese restaurant, a nail shop owned by a Vietnamese family, and a T-shirt shop owned by an African American. He says that all are behind on rent—something Albosaad is willing to deal with at least for the short term.
Albosaad is less charitable toward government leadership, especially Stenglein—who, he says, doesn't return his calls. "Mark Stenglein is so good before an election," he says. "He will kiss our asses, but now we don't hear from him." Albossad has proposed that, at the very least, the city waive the license fees for the businesses for 2006, but so far his proposal has fallen on deaf ears.
"It's a massive redevelopment project," Stenglein concedes. "We're making the best effort to deal with those concerns."
The rationale for closing the corridor entirely, according to Hennepin County senior engineer Dean Michalko, is to save time and money. "If we kept it open, construction would go for at least two full seasons, if not longer," he says. "Our goal was to get in there and get it done as quickly as possible."
Tait Danielson Castillo, executive director of the Hawthorne Area Community Council, calls the intersection "the saddest, most devastating scene you could come across." Danielson Castillo says he has met with Stenglein and other leaders to at least ensure that part of Lowry will remain open during phase II, but it will likely be too late. "Stenglein will say we've been talking about this for years, and that every property owner knew this was coming and blah, blah, blah," Danielson Castillo says, adding that many details of the project were unknown to pretty much everyone in the area. "But the reality is the same. Things are falling apart. These businesses will close within the month."
Danielson Castillo stops short of saying the project seems designed to do exactly that. But many businesses, such as a dry cleaners, a shoe store, and a candy store on the south side of Lowry, are often closed now. Tattoo artists at Always Affordable Tattoo have stayed on the clock, but they say the number of walk-in clients is down from as many as 10 a day to maybe one. (The county's report notes an "opportunity" for "removal of 'seedy' retail.")
Illegal businesses are unsettled too. The intersection has been rife with drug dealing and prostitution for years. Most of that has moved to Lyndale and other neighborhood streets. (The intersection is at the junction of four different neighborhoods—Jordan, Hawthorne, McKinley, and Folwell.)
The irony of all of this is that in recent years, elected officials and neighborhood groups have identified economic development as the main priority for healing long-troubled pockets of the North Side. Now, as Danielson Castillo notes, these small businesses that help keep a fragile community together will be gone.
Back at the barbershop, Naylor surveys his prospects. He can't afford new equipment and supplies, and points to the frayed electrical cord on his clippers. He also claims that even clients who used to come to 3 Blends don't show anymore because they quite literally can't negotiate a path to the barbershop. "The government don't care about us, the police don't care about us, and it most certainly feels like they want us gone," he says.
"I might have to go back to school to learn another trade," he adds with a resigned chuckle. "Maybe I'll just go into construction."