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For some city dwellers, race shapes definition of 'urban'

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Greg Martin, owner of Urban Bean
Greg Martin, owner of Urban Bean in Minneapolis, prepares an order on Feb. 11, 2013, as employee Amy Johnson looks on. "The shop's name choice was very specific," Martin said. "We wanted it to convey population density, buildings, city life, everything urban."
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

When the word "urban" first emerged in the early 1600s, it was defined as "a densely populated area."

In recent years, though, it's come to mean many things to many people. For some it's synonymous with chic. For others, it's code for people of color; race plays a role in shaping the word's use.

The term comes from the Latin word for city. For generations it was a popular substitute for suave and sophisticated. But ask some modern-day city dwellers what "urban" evokes for them and you may get answers like the ones we heard:

• "Like a 55-gallon oil drum on fire next to a chain link fence."

• "Black people must reside there."

• "Where you normally see guys drinking whiskey."

• "To me, the word urban is just a way of saying ghetto."

"Urban isn't a color... It's a way of thinking, a way of walking, a way of dressing.

Like a lot of expressions, "urban" has countless connotations. The difference here is that many of these meanings are reflections of racial stereotypes.

Urban style in a white neighborhood was described as "coifed hair, nice suit, nice briefcase." In a black neighborhood we heard "kids dressed in hip-hop clothes."

In the Uptown area of Minneapolis, urban is less about "burning oil barrels" and more about "croissants and cappuccino." Business owner Greg Martin set up his artisan coffee shop Urban Bean in Uptown. He wanted to include the word "urban" in the shop's name to highlight its metropolitan mindset

"I like the energy and vitality you see in an urban setting," said Martin. "It just feels like there are things happening."

Four miles away, in north Minneapolis, Lissa Jones has a completely different take on the term.

She's the host of the Urban Agenda radio show on KMOJ, an African American-focused station that broadcasts from the city's north side.

Urban Bean Coffee
Urban Bean Coffee in Minneapolis set out to be an integral part of the city. Owner Greg Martin wanted the word "urban" in the name of his shop to indicate that the establishment is dedicated to the urban area.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"The whole idea of urban, it used to be trendy and hip and condos and swank restaurants and all those things," Jones said. "As soon as urban centers became largely black, brown and poor whites, the definition of urban changed and became synonymous with poor neighborhoods, hip-hop clothing, whatever people's conceptions or, frankly, misconceptions are about the people who live there."

Jones notes that an Asian neighborhood can be known as, say, Chinatown. An African American area, on the other hand, is "just urban."

"Urban is taking root as the new way to talk about black people," she said.

Twin Cities musician Ibrahim Oduniyi said urban is now code for African American. He thinks that's because many white people are uncomfortable saying the word "black."

"Urban is a word that is used from a lot of people that live outside of an urban area," Oduniyi said. "They want to be politically correct. They try to come up with a different term that sounds, what you want to say, more presentable. There's no reason why. If it's predominantly African American, let's say African American neighborhood."

On a recent early evening at Urban Touch barbershop in south Minneapolis, the clientele is entirely African American and the most popular 'do is the frohawk, an afro-Mohawk.

Jordan Clark
Jordan Clark, 14, sits for his Feb. 7, 2013, appointment at Urban Touch in Minneapolis. Owner Billy Hill says the word "urban" in the barbershop's name refers to "upscale and cosmopolitan."
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Owner Billy Hill makes it abundantly clear that the "urban" in Urban Touch is not a reference to some, as he puts it, "ghetto-fabulous type of situation."

"My 'urban' is more or less like an upbeat, upscale type of urban," Hill said.

Deidre Clark has been bringing her sons to Urban Touch since their very first haircuts when they were 2 years old. She is quick to jump in on a discussion about the word urban.

"I think it's more about a cultural sense of belonging," Clark said. "Every day in life you have put a mask on and interact with your place of employment or school. In an urban area, you don't have to do that. I can come right up in here and every single time I can peel off the mask and just shoot the breeze."

Like Clark, the shop's manager, Darron Britt, equates urban with authentic.

"Urban isn't a color," he said. "It's a way of thinking, a way of walking, a way of dressing. You're open, laid back. You're free to say what you want to say, free to do what you want to do. Urban is a way of living, no matter what color you are."

For Britt, urban isn't a term to be defined. It's something to be lived.