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As iconic Minneapolis restaurant closes, residents fear what's to come

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Kaaha Kaahiye holds a sign protesting gentrification.
Kaaha Kaahiye, a community organizer, holds a sign at an anti-gentrification protest on behalf of Marla's Caribbean Cuisine.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

For over a decade, 38th Street and Bloomington Avenue has been Marla's corner. 

Marla's Caribbean Cuisine, started by Marla Jadoonanan, has been an anchor in Minneapolis' Powderhorn neighborhood for 12 years.

"Marla is an institution. She's been here forever," said Tim Hanuman, who's lived in the neighborhood for 43 years. "She's here for the people. When people come in and they can't afford a meal, she pays. She feeds them."

But now, Marla's is without a home. 

Community members say the beloved restaurant was forced out by a landlord more interested in turning a profit on the building than preserving Marla's. 

For Twin Cities activists, Marla's situation is the latest example of increasing economic inequality and displacement of small businesses and residents who are being priced out of neighborhoods they've called home for decades. 

"When you get rid of and displace places for the community, the community shifts too — radically," said Kaaha Kaahiye, a community organizer. "Small businesses shutting down is not just a symptom of gentrification, it increases the rate of gentrification because it shifts the culture and the makeup of the neighborhood itself." 

Marla Jadoonanan
Marla Jadoonanan is searching for a new home for her restaurant. Marla's Caribbean Cuisine served its last meals Saturday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

A recent University of Minnesota study found evidence of gentrification across Minneapolis and St. Paul. The study analyzed Twin Cities neighborhoods between 2000 and 2015. 

Median home values increased 31 percent over that time in gentrifying neighborhoods; the increase was 13 percent non-gentrifying neighborhoods. 

Gentrifying neighborhoods saw increasing economic inequality over that time, too, as people at the top of the income brackets had almost 15 percent higher wages. 

These economic forces often hit people of color the hardest and shift neighborhoods in such a way that only wealthier people can afford to live and work in them, advocates say. 

"This is unnecessary displacement because the community does not have the right levers in place to ensure that we have truly the 'One Minneapolis' that our legislators talk about," said Tabitha Montgomery of the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association.

"'One Minneapolis' for all levels of socioeconomic status, a 'One Minneapolis' for all cultural persuasions and backgrounds, that it's not just tied to who has the most in order to be able to survive." 

Increase in rent forces out Marla's

Marla's Caribbean Cuisine
Marla's Caribbean Cuisine as seen from Bloomington Avenue.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

Dan Coleman bought the building housing Marla's in 2017 for $700,000. Most of the tenants from that time are gone now, nearby residents say. 

Coleman, a realtor with Edina Realty, said in an email interview that he wanted to "fix up" and restore the building. 

"Basically everything in the building was [falling] apart and/or [at the] end of life when I purchased the building," he said.

Jadoonanan paid $1,375 a month to lease the restaurant space, she said. Coleman wanted to more than double her rent to $3,000.

Relations between Coleman and Marla's grew contentious. The two fought over the condition of the restaurant. Coleman once blocked Marla's access to the basement, citing concerns with the building's electrical system, forcing the restaurant to close temporarily. 

Marla's also alleged in a lawsuit that Coleman "ransacked" its supplies stored in the basement, destroyed its awning and took out its air conditioner. 

The restaurant sued for $50,000 in damages, according to an amended complaint filed in March. 

The two settled out of court in May. The agreement had Coleman paying Marla's for the remainder of its lease for vacating this month. 

Coleman said he believes gentrification is occurring in Minneapolis, but that his actions aren't a part of that. 

"Inflation and taxes are the driving factors for rent increases in the property space, which is driving the needle with gentrification and displacement," Coleman said. "Marla's is closing because the restaurant is a labor of love not a business."

Jadoonanan declined to comment on Coleman, citing the lawsuit's settlement terms.

She said the restaurant is her livelihood, though she acknowledged she isn't cooking to get rich. Rather, she said, it's her passion.

"I think food should be served with love, cooked with love," she said. 

'We fall through the cracks'

People protest Marla's Caribbean Cuisine's closure
People gather at an anti-gentrification protest Thursday on behalf of Marla's Caribbean Cuisine.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

Many people and small businesses priced out of their spaces will simply pack up and leave, said Ladan Yusef, a community organizer with Defend Glendale and Public Housing Coalition. 

"All of the others, they just leave and run ... they're afraid to talk," she said. 

However, Jadoonanan said she felt a need to speak up on behalf of all displaced businesses, gaining attention from local media last year when there were warning signs she may be forced out. 

"People like us, we fall through the cracks," Jadoonanan said. 

However, Montgomery with the Powderhorn neighborhood group, said communities like hers need city policies and business incubators to help residents get ahead of economic trends that could force them out. 

Right now, she said conditions are right for increased displacement to occur. She said community leaders and the city should partner with developers and property owners to find ways to make improvements to properties in exchange for incremental rent increases.

If neighborhoods don't have sufficient economic tools, Montgomery said, Minneapolis will become a "one-note city where the things that are new and that are shiny and where we put our investment are really only for those who can pay the top end of market rate."

A protester holds up a sign at a Powderhorn-area rally
A protester holds up a sign referencing Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey at a rally.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

A spokesperson for Alondra Cano, who represents Powderhorn in the Minneapolis City Council, did not provide comment for this story. 

About 60,000 people live in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis, according to Minnesota Compass, a nonpartisan research group.  

The neighborhood's top two economic brackets are the highest and lowest levels, according to 2017 data. Compass found that 35 percent of household incomes were less than $35,000 and 20 percent made over $100,000. 

Tim Hanuman has seen his neighborhood change in his more than four decades here. He fears more rent increases, and what will become of Marla's, as his neighborhood transforms.  

"I don't know what it's gonna be like," he said. "You can't even find a decent place to live anymore." 

Now, Marla's is searching for a new home after serving its last meals Saturday. 

Restaurant fans have donated over $6,500 to help her move to a new building and get another kitchen up and running. Jadoonanan hopes to stay in the neighborhood. 

She said she's grateful for the support, but packing up the Bloomington Avenue restaurant is difficult. 

"It really feels like a funeral," she said.

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Editor's note (June 17, 2019): An earlier version of this story used photo captions that included an incorrect day for the protest. The error has been corrected.