Posted on Wed, Aug. 16, 2006

The wordwide way
A proposed 'world cultural district' seeks to market University Avenue not with one cultural and ethnic identity, but with many.

Pioneer Press

Ha Nguyen's face brightens when she remembers a behemoth Asian-style gate that greets visitors in her former home of Westminster, Calif. The city declared a section of town as "Little Saigon," thus branding its collection of strip malls and noodle shops as a destination for all things Vietnamese.

Nguyen is waiting for a similar marketing push on St. Paul's University Avenue, where she and her sister opened their Que Nha Restaurant last year. But if her new street reinvents itself, Nguyen hopes branding efforts capture its hodgepodge of cultures that range from Cambodian to Caribbean.

She might be on to something.

After watching several stalled attempts to build a strictly pan-Asian village on University or an African-American corridor on Selby Avenue, a team of community activists led by a Concordia University professor believes it has the answer: a "world cultural heritage district."

With some savvy marketing, they want the world at large to recognize the future home of the Central Corridor light-rail train as an area rife with soul food, barbecued duck, multicultural neighborhoods and, yes, maybe even a pagoda.

The strategy? To be as broadly inclusive as possible and to avoid alienating some community groups as in years past, said Concordia economics professor Bruce Corrie.

"The reality of this area is that it has to be a multi-ethnic concept for it to work," said Corrie, who added that he even foresees a role there for traditional European cultural centers. "Too often in the past, it's been one idea versus another idea, and there hasn't been too much of a buy-in as a community."

He's hedging his bets partly on the recent success in Minneapolis of transforming the first floor of the old Sears building on Lake Street into a funky, polished bazaar fueled by minority entrepreneurs. At the Midtown Global Market, shoppers bounce from Mexican tortas to Nepali dumplings while jamming to mariachi bands.

Corrie's group will test their ideas Thursday at its first community meeting. As proposed, the cultural district would extend east to west from the state Capitol to Lexington Parkway and north to south from Minnehaha to Selby avenues.

The group will present its ideas later this month to a Central Corridor citizen task force charged with drawing up new land rules for University Avenue. Though plans for the cultural district are still more of a concept, committee members such as Selby Avenue resident Carl Nelson envision a future with more signage, better marketing and new programs to help small-business owners.

From experience, though, implementing even those measures could be tricky.

"We've been down that road many times. It's not easy to pull off," said Brian McMahon, whose group University United unsuccessfully tried to build an Asian-themed streetscape project, replete with a dragonlike sculpture, in the early 1990s.

Another University Avenue pan-Asian project years later clashed with some longtime black residents. They said the proposal, which called for razing the Unidale strip mall at Dale Street, would wipe out a discount grocer and a thrift store that served the area's poor. The debate seemed to widen the divide between the Southeast Asian immigrants who wanted to invest on that corner and African-Americans who harbored the same ambitions.

Dreams of a "global market" — a kind of precursor to the Midtown model — also fizzled on that same intersection.

"It could have been there, absolutely," said Nieeta Presley of the Aurora-St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corp., one of the project's partners. "They had that vision, there were plans, there were drawings, but they couldn't raise the money."

In yet another proposal about five years ago, a group of Chinese-immigrant investors from New York, California and Canada were interested in building an "Asiatown" retail district. After meeting with some of the merchants on University Avenue, they backed out after sensing differences in their approach and style with the local shopkeepers, McMahon said.

St. Paul lacks the density to create a Chinatown and perhaps even that of a Hmongtown, despite the Hmong-American community's entrepreneurial success along the avenue and at a sprawling market near the Capitol on Como Avenue.

There's also the issue of whether cities should even encourage ethnic-themed districts. Some merchants told McMahon years ago that the Asiatown model "would be somewhat artificially creating what was not organic or not real," he recalled.

In its visitors guide, the St. Paul RiverCentre Convention & Visitors Authority promotes University Avenue as a place for tourists to experience immigrant cultures, but there's more work to be done, said Brad Toll, vice president for marketing.

Toll applauds outside initiatives that help visitors navigate the neighborhoods, such as the maps and signage available for the West Side's District del Sol retail area or a coming tour of African-American points of interest in the old Rondo neighborhood.

"They come with a camera around their neck, and they're asking, 'What should I take the picture of? Where should I stand?' " Toll said.

That's where the cultural district could step in, said Presley, a committee member.

"It's just an opportunity for folk to have a conversation, whereas before we've never been talking," she said. "Sure, there may be some turf wars, but if we're open to the fact that we all live there, I think we can get through that."

Laura Yuen can be reached at or 651-228-5498.

If you go

What: Community meeting on creating a world cultural heritage district

Where: Brownstone Building, 839 W. University Ave.

When: 12:30 to 2 p.m. Thursday

For more information: Call Bruce Corrie at Concordia University at 651-641-8226.

© 2006 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.