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Beyond the Multi-Colored Panels

February 4, 2014 @ 2 Comments

A Look into the Reality of Families Living in Riverside Plaza

The Immigrant Magazine, The Immigrant Experience,Insight,Laura Hoogeveen

Beyond the Multi-Colored Panels: A Look into the Reality of Families Living in Riverside Plaza

Beyond the Multi-Colored Panels


Zainab Farah stands along the side of the cream wall, opening the tasseled blinds one gentle tug at a time. Three of her children sit perched on the couch below the window, wide-eyed with slender, brown fingers pointing to the buildings they recognize from above. We stand 21 floors above ground level in one of the Riverside Plaza apartment complexes in Minneapolis.

The apartment buildings are located south of Interstate 94 and east of Interstate 35W. Tall, multi-leveled, cement structures with various colored panels of blue, yellow, red, and dark gray, Riverside Plaza apartments have been the icons of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood since they opened in 1973. To this day, the six high-rise apartments provide housing for over 4,000 people, including from the Middle East and Southern Asia to the East African region.

But few take the time to step inside the diversity of those who live there. It’s the story of families who arrive in the United States from thousands of miles away, seeking better opportunities than the places they left while leaving behind the ones they love back home. It’s the story of trials and struggles, often adjusting to a completely different society than where they came from, but ultimately striving for more stable futures. It’s modern day stories of crafting their own versions of the American Dream, creating a happy and successful life for themselves and their families.

The Farah family occupies one of the 1,303 residential units in Riverside Plaza. The family consists of the father, Sharif, 44, and mother, Zainab, 39, along with their six children. When I first met them, Sharif picked up his children from school at 2:17 p.m. I watched a wide smile part his lips as his daughter came running toward him, clasping her lanky arms around his neck. As we left the school, the son reached for the door and stood in its opening, leaving just barely enough room for his father’s metallic blue, motorized wheelchair to zip through.

Born with a leg disability, Sharif relies on either his 4-wheeled wheelchair or walking on his knees to get himself around. He came to Minnesota in October 1995 to escape the civil war in Somalia. A couple years later, he returned to Somalia to bring his wife back to the United States with him. In that way, they are like many of the residents who live in the apartments that have a varied history and arrive in the United States from far-off, war-torn or struggling societies.

Beyond the Multi-Colored Panels: A Look into the Reality of Families Living in Riverside PlazaRiverside Plaza was intended to be only one component of a design that envisioned 30,000 people in the neighborhood. Originally called Cedar Square West, the project was the first of its kind in the country to receive Title VII funds, which provided development assistance for large-scale projects through low interest loans and public service grants. It was created as part of a larger plan called “New Town-In Town,” which sought to mix high and low-income, ethnically diverse, multi-generational people in a dense area. Architect Ralph Rapson designed the buildings to model the French Le Corbusier’s modern architecture designs in Europe. According to the National Register of Historical Locations report for Cedar Square West, Rapson also sought for the architecture to “reflect and accommodate the social diversity of its inhabitants.”

The high-rises gained fame in the 1970s because of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which often used shots of Riverside Plaza and Cedar-Riverside area. An influx of Vietnamese immigrants moved into Riverside Plaza in the late 1970s, followed by the arrival of thousands of East African immigrants in the 1990s. According to U.S. Census data from 2005-2010, the race and ethnicity of the community is predominantly Black or African American (45 percent), followed by White (37 percent), Asian or Pacific Islander (3.4 percent), and Hispanic or Latino (2.8 percent). There is no doubt the composition of the community has changed since its inception as mixed income housing with support from the U.S. federal government.

For many, especially the 30,000 undergraduate students at the adjacent University of Minnesota, the apartments are an image of underdevelopment and danger. “You went to the ‘Crack Stacks’?” was the response of some of my friends when I told them about my experiences in Cedar-Riverside while we were eating dinner one night. Their eyes all bulged, right before they licked the sea salt off their greasy fries, as I started sharing the incredible things I had learned about the community.

“Why would you want to spend time there?” they asked.
My heart felt like it literally dropped the distance from the 21st floor of the concrete Riverside Plaza building all the way to the ground; my experiences there have proven to me that it is a rich community. In fact, people should want to spend time in Cedar-Riverside, instead of avoiding it.

“The place gets chided as the ghetto in the back of the neighborhood,” said Semhar Araia, an instructor at the University of Minnesota. A lack of proper care for the buildings and a few homicides in the early 1990s led to the negative monikers for the area. According to the Minneapolis Police Department, the crime statistics in Cedar-Riverside peaked between 2002 and 2006. Since then, crime has steadily declined and is comparable to the Minneapolis-wide average. However, the adverse nicknames continue to represent how many people view the area.

“Bad guys make problems, not for me but I see for others,” said Waleed Salam, an Iraqi man living in Riverside Plaza apartments. He would prefer to live some place safer, where his family doesn’t feel so ethnically different, and in a place that’s quieter without the constant noise of people and the city. Ambulances and police sirens can often be heard throughout all hours of the day.

Waleed, 55, and his wife, Hanaa, 51, currently live in a 3-bedroom apartment with three of their children, all of whom are in their 20s. They fled Iraq for Syria nine years ago, and then they arrived in the United States one year ago. Waleed sat on a plaid couch, dressed in jeans and a powder blue polo, as he told me about his experiences as a journalist in Iraq. He drew in a long breath from his cigarette as he said, “In Iraq, before 2003, Saddam was president and the regime tried to silence all people. We had to tell the regime, ‘You are good! You are the best!’ even though that was not true.” As a boy, Waleed watched many American movies and always dreamed of living in a place with such freedoms. “There are chances for a person to do anything he wants here,” he said.

One of Waleed and Hanna’s daughters still lives in Baghdad, Iraq with her husband and three young children. Waleed and Hanna stay in touch with their daughter by Skyping frequently. Because their daughter’s family is Kurdish, they face severe persecution on a daily basis in Iraq. They constantly move from house to house, and they are unable to send their 7-year-old daughter to school for fear she will be abducted. When Waleed and Hanaa Skype with their daughter, they watch her weep for them through the screen, where she sees them but can’t physically touch them. Their daughter tells them she longs for the same freedom they have found in the United States. Although Waleed would rather live somewhere other than the Riverside apartments, he knows it is a much safer option than the daily violence his daughter’s family faces in Iraq.

As a Somali man in a predominantly Somali community, Sharif Farah said he especially believes Cedar-Riverside is a safe and secure community for his family. “Friendly people, they give you whatever you want or need,” he told me. “Our people share everything… they are not like this!” He clenched his fist together into a tight ball. “If someone has two jackets, they’ll give one to you!”

They moved into Riverside Plaza and have lived in the same residential unit for 17 years. The layout of their apartment hasn’t changed – a small kitchen, living room with a dining room table, and a long hallway leading to 3 bedrooms with 2 bathrooms —
but certainly the dynamics of their home have evolved during the time they have lived there. Now, their children ranging from 3-year-old twins to a 13-year-old son fill each of the three bedrooms.

In their apartment, I sat on a vinyl-covered chair as the children bombarded me with an influx of dialogue. They clung playfully to my limbs and pleaded with me to play with them. As the snow fell outside, the 5-year-old, Maryama, told me, “Summertime is actually the funnest!” They recalled their favorite summer memories of eating ice cream, playing soccer, and swimming outside with their friends.

In early October, her brother Abdullahi, 8, won a race competition. As he told me this, he stood on tiptoes reaching the corner of a Maplewood bookshelf to grab his winning medal. He held the medal out, holding it out from the top of the lime green strap as if it was the winning catch of the day. “The paper took his picture,” Zinab, his mother, said with a proud smile. “His photo was in 78,000 homes!”

“Yeah, and when I grow up, I’m gonna be two things,” said Abdullahi. “A football player! And I’m gonna do track, too, ‘cause I had the fastest time in third grade and I beat an eighth grader.”

Sharif, the father, hopes his kids grow up to be famous someday. “I want people to know their parents came from outside the United States,” he said. “Maybe they can be mayor of Minneapolis or a professor at the University of Minnesota.” Sharif believes in supporting education, no matter what country or place someone lives in. Luckily for his children, their school is located extremely close to their apartment.

“We don’t even have to take a bus to school,” Sharif’s daughter, Miske, 9, said. “We just wake up and go downstairs!” They attend Cedar Riverside Community School, a charter school, which provides education for grade levels kindergarten through 8th grade. At any given time, 170-180 students are enrolled at the school.

Other local neighborhood amenities include a grocery store, playground, daycare, and Metro Transit bus stops and light rail stations. The children said they enjoy living in Cedar-Riverside because it has everything they need in one area, and that fact also makes it easier for their father to get around. “When people see me, they give me a hand,” Sharif said. “I have never seen anyone bother me. Instead, they usually get up from their seats and tell me, ‘Have a seat!’ ”

As we continued talking, Abdullahi then tapped my hand to ensure he had my attention. “If you start from the C building, you can walk through all buildings without touching the ground. It’s called the skyway,” said he matter-of-factly. He squinted out the window, sticking his pointer finger to the glass to trace the path of the skyway connecting the concrete towers.

Beyond knowing the sight of Riverside Plaza, we should learn the stories behind the multi-colors, and multi-layers, of a complex but beautiful community. “The United States is the best place to live in,” Waleed Salam said. “The people here are nice. There’s no difference between if you are American, French, Iraqi, Iranian, Somali, or if you are from Australia or Cambodia.” It’s time we started viewing the different communities in our surrounding around the same way.

All photos by Laura Hoogeveen

Sources:Sharif Farah,Waleed Salam,Semhar Araia, Ruqia – Cedar Riverside Community School

National Register of Historic Places – Cedar Square West


U of M Enrollment – http://www.oir.umn.edu/student/enrollment/term/1129/current/12474

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