St. Paul rebuilding efforts inch along after civil unrest

Tony Her and Long Her inside their store.
Long Her (left) and Tony Her, owners of New Fashions Tailoring and Alterations, inside their store on July 30, 2020. Their family business on University Avenue in St. Paul was damaged during the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd.
Nina Moini | MPR News

Sales had already come to a screeching halt at New Fashions Tailoring and Alterations before the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day.

Tony Her said his nephew, Long Her, made no money in April because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two watched together as rioters and looters in St. Paul neared their family business of 30 years.

Tony Her’s nephew asked him what they ought to do for protection.

“We just closed the door and went home because we don’t want to stay here and we don’t know what is going to happen,” Tony Her said.

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They returned to toppled clothing racks and stolen merchandise that would amount to a loss of $58,000.

Still, the Her family count themselves among the lucky ones because they were able to reopen quickly after the unrest. They also applied for and received a $7,500 grant from Ramsey County for COVID-19 relief. Dozens of racially and ethnically diverse businesses along University Avenue in Midway remain boarded up.

A building is a pile of rubble.
The building that housed the clothing store, Sports Dome, is a pile of rubble Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Sports Dome is one of the businesses in the Midway area that was heavily damaged during the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in late May.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

St. Paul officials estimate 300 businesses were damaged during the civil unrest in late May. In Minneapolis, the number was closer to 1,300 businesses. City officials in both cities expect rebuilding in critical business corridors could take 10 years.

St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said the city is not tracking how many of the 300 businesses have received financial help or plan to reopen or close because there are so many different avenues for assistance and specific needs for each business. Tincher said COVID-19 first revealed what she calls “application fatigue” on the part of affected owners.

“It is overwhelming and the stress level and anxiety is already so high,” Tincher said.

Instead, Tincher said the city is working to coordinate culturally-specific technical and legal services for business owners so they can access resources and apply for financial help. Civil unrest relief funds are available from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Ramsey County and various nonprofits. Mayor Melvin Carter says he hopes the Minnesota Legislature will provide some funding to St. Paul, which is already facing budget woes due to the pandemic. Carter will reveal his 2021 budget proposal on Thursday, and said it may include some relief for business owners impacted by civil unrest.

The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce Charitable Foundation has raised $1 million to help businesses rebuild through the We Love St. Paul & We Love Midway Fund. This week the chamber announced its first round of grants to 16 businesses, with awards ranging from $1,000 to $50,000.

Dr. Pafoua Yang’s St. Paul Clinic was among the businesses to get some help from the chamber’s fund. Yang’s clinic is still boarded up just blocks away from New Fashions in the Little Mekong business and cultural district that stretches about a half-mile along University Avenue.

Yang is still dealing with her insurance company. An obstetrician, Yang has calculated $150,000 in damage to her clinic, including stolen equipment. Insurance likely will not cover the damage, or what her practice lost from being closed for several weeks. Yang is spending her own money to repair what she can. Replacing the doors and windows cost nearly $15,000.

Plywood with words "Minority owned #BLM" covers windows of a building.
Dr. Pafoua Yang's St. Paul Clinic is boarded up Wednesday. Yang's business was damaged in the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in late May.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

“I basically come in here with my husband and my two daughters and we go through everything and we clean everything.” 

Yang said her nephew was among peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters during the civil unrest. He alerted her that the lights were on inside her clinic around 10 p.m. because looters had taken over.

Yang asked him not to intervene. 

“It was terrible to come in and see the wreckage here as well as on University Avenue, but lives are so much more important.”

Yang added that includes the life of George Floyd. Mostly, Yang worries about her patients going without care. 

After working for major health systems, she decided to open her own clinic five years ago.

“This is where my heart is. I am Hmong, so obviously my heart is with a lot of immigrant populations and so when I opened this clinic these were the clientele that I had in mind.” Yang hopes to be able to have virtual visits with some patients again in a few weeks.

The Asian Economic Development Association in St. Paul estimates more than 50 of the 300 businesses damaged during the civil unrest are Asian-owned. Kate Mudge, executive director of the Hamline Midway Coalition, said work has to begin immediately to preserve multi-cultural resources and retail along University Avenue for the long-term.

Mudge is exploring fundraising for cooperatives that would allow residents of the area to collectively buy and manage commercial properties when it’s time to start new businesses on the busy corridor.

“I think this opens up a lot of new models,” Mudge said. “Obviously it takes resources and time to do it but many of the business owners that were speaking to politicians right after this happened said, we can rebuild. But there is a big emphasis on rebuilding differently.”

Yang hopes an even more vibrant future for University Avenue will emerge.

“The only thing that kept going in and out of my mind was the saying about the phoenix and how it has to [emerge from] the ashes of fire for it to be better,” Yang said. “So I think that we will get through this and I think something great is going to come out of this.”

Yang added that when she left a war-torn Laos decades ago she dreamed of a new life with the opportunity to care for others through medicine. The dream became her reality. Without resilience, Yang says, there is no rebuilding.