The words of Eritrean immigrant Elsa Rezene sparked the Dream Sequences pop-up public art gallery at the corner of 36th Ave. and East Lake Street.
She said, “It’s never too late to start dreaming,” recalled her son, Tetra Constantino, who took over running the business she started, Elsa’s House of Sleep.
“That’s the story of all of us on Lake Street as we rebuild,” observed Howe resident Jack Becker during a community event on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. Becker, the retired founder of the nonprofit Forecast Public Art, curated and organized the outdoor art exhibit along E. Lake St. as part of his work with 36th A.R.T. (Avenue Revitalization & Transformation).
“What started out as an effort to mitigate blight along East Lake Street has become a creative celebration of a Black-owned business – Elsa’s House of Sleep – working to reopen its doors and revitalize an important intersection in Southeast Minneapolis,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity to tell Elsa’s inspiring story and demonstrate the ways in which artists and art can contribute to Lake Street’s recovery and reawakening.”
Becker added, “Thank you to the artists that made this project possible. This project was a labor of love and we got so much love back to us.” The eight local artists featured in Dream Sequence are Ta-coumba T. Aiken, Christopher Harrison, Ron Brown, Katrina Knutson, Gordon Coons, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Jordan M. Hamilton and Zarra TM. The work of everyone but Aiken was printed on panels that are attached to plywood on the fence and on the building. Aiken’s original canvas is on display.
“We’re currently trying to figure out how we do restoration along E. Lake St.,” observed Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley. “How does the community come together and create projects in love to rebuild and revitalize this area? There are so many vacant properties.”
Yet, there are also positive things happening at the intersection of E. Lake and 36th, and Dream Sequences symbolizes hope, creative entrepreneurship, and the reawakening of Lake Street, according to A.R.T. Small businesses emerging at the corner of E. Lake and 36th Ave. include bakeries, a retro thrift store, Latin dining and more, adding to a vibrant collection of restaurants and services. In 2024, the corner will be the site of a 2024 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) METRO B Line station.
“It’s this collective process through collective labor that is grounded in love, and we can do incredible things,” remarked Wonsley.
Becker wanted to do something about the “blighted property” at E. Lake and 36th, so he researched who the property owner was, and then drove over to meet Tetra Constantino at his University Ave. store. He wasn’t sure how the request was going to come across – and recalls being delighted by Constantino’s enthusiasm for the idea and his desire to participate. And when Becker called his friend of 55 years, artist Ta-coumba T. Aiken, he discovered Aiken had known Elsa Rezene and had a painting rolled up in his storeroom that was created 26 years ago in partnership with her. It was created with children who are now 27-37 years old. Aiken added the black lines through the drawings done by the children.
“You’ll see some things are right side up and some are upside down because that is how we are,” observed Aiken.
On the west side of the building is a piece by Gordon Coons titled “Man Transferring into Healer.” Coons is an elder Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa and Ottawa/Potawatomi artist, originally from Michigan, who has lived in Longfellow for 45 years just a few blocks from the site. In the piece with five panels, Makwa bear is transitioning into a man, a protector becoming a healer.
“The healing is so relevant to what needs to happen on Lake Street,” said Becker.
HISTORY OF ELSA’S HOUSE OF SLEEP
When the Green Line lightrail project was being planned, Elsa’s House of Sleep at 1441 University Ave. W. looked like it was going to lose all of its parking. Constantino began looking around for a place to move. One evening, he found himself in front of 3540 E. Lake St. He recalled that his mother had always said how much she loved Lake Street, and that her first location was in the area. Rezene died in 2004, three years after Constantino had taken over running the store when he was 22. He decided to purchase the building and open up a second location. In the meantime, he lobbied his then-council member Russ Stark, and eventually the city purchased the lots at 1419 and 1427 University Ave. to create a parking lot that customers of neighboring businesses could use. The Minneapolis store officially closed in 2019, but they continued to use the E. Lake St. building for storage and clearance sales, with plans to fix it up.
Then the Uprising happened.
The building wasn’t damaged then, but was later that year. Constantino is working with the Minneapolis Foundation to help fund the renovation, which will be a complete redo of the building constructed in 1922. Elsa’s House of Sleep will then reopen, and there will be space for two other businesses off 36th. He hopes to reopen in August 2023.
“I’m looking forward to what it’s going to be,” observed his wife, Nnecka Constantino.
“I thank everyone for supporting our vision,” said Constantino. He pointed out that the people who work at Elsa’s reflect the community.
BEAUTY FROM MESSY CHANGE
Donations for the pop-up art exhibit came from Lake Street Council, Elsa’s House of Sleep, Longfellow Community Council, Xcel Energy and Trustone Financial. In-kind support was provided by Shapco Printing and Barebones Productions. Community volunteers involved include Brian Cornell, Mark Lange, Laura Mylan, Mark Safford, Amy Sundby, Jeanchaiyaphum, Nichole Goodwell, and Gail Fridlund.
“Thank you for doing this,” three attendees told Constantino as the event on Feb. 5 concluded. They live in the neighborhood. “We appreciate it.”
“After the uprising, it is beautiful to see something come from the messy change that was left behind,” said Whittier artist Zarra TM, whose artwork adorns panels on the east side of the building.
“I hope people feel excited walking through the neighborhood. I hope people feel inspired. There’s a lot of empty buildings, and there’s so much that can be done in this area. Come see art. It’s great.”
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