Voices of Eat Street recorded in oral history project

Dr. Kim Heikkila interviews Sami Rasouli, owner of the former Sindbad’s Café and Market at 2528 Nicollet Ave. Photo by Rasun Mehringer

The road from Vietnam to Eat Street was not easy for Hung Duong, owner of the Truong Thanh Market. Her family paid all they had in gold to escape the Vietnam War. They traveled on rough waters to a refugee camp in Malaysia and sold spare clothing along the way to buy rice. Duong was willing to move to Canada or Australia, but a Minnesota church sponsor brought them to Minneapolis, where they packed 10 people into a three-room apartment and wore up to five layers to keep warm in winter.

Duong’s story is now preserved as part of the Eat Street Oral History project by Dr. Kim Heikkila, commissioned by the Whittier Alliance neighborhood group. The neighborhood is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the street’s identity this year.

Inspired by a Star Tribune headline, a Whittier neighborhood marketing campaign embraced the “Eat Street” name as part of a streetscape project in 1997.

“Eat Street has really been about the success of immigrants,” Heikkila said. “Many came here when Whittier and Nicollet Avenue were not prosperous.”

The neighborhood was historically an industrial part of town with workforce housing, said Ricardo McCurley, executive director of the Whittier Alliance. Kmart arrived in the 70s as  part of a city project to clean up “urban blight.” By interrupting Nicollet Avenue access, he said, Whittier became a no man’s land with cheap commercial space for purchase. He said the street illustrates what happens when small entrepreneurs can purchase their own buildings, rather than face the potential for eviction at any time.

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Duong told Heikkila she was thrilled to buy her building on Nicollet Avenue — the $350,000 price tag seemed reasonable when she expected it to cost $1 million. (She needed a new storefront because customers were repeatedly towed from her first shop at 11 W. 15th St.; Duong often personally paid the $100 bill to reclaim their cars.)

Hung Duong, owner of the Truong Thanh Market at 2520 Nicollet Ave., participating in the Eat Street Oral History Project. Photo by Rasun Mehringer
Hung Duong, owner of the Truong Thanh Market at 2520 Nicollet Ave., participating in the Eat Street Oral History Project. Photo by Rasun Mehringer

Duong’s late father Xuong Mau Duong worked as a doctor in Vietnam prescribing herbal remedies, and he continued his practice at the Nicollet Avenue market, becoming so busy they had to ask customers to give him breaks to eat. The shop grew to stock 70 different varieties of vegetables in two weekly shipments. Duong earned a reputation for her honesty. She once cautioned a customer to buy a small amount of mango, which wasn’t very sweet that day, and another patron said she’d never seen anyone do business like her.

“She say, ‘No wonder you’re so busy,’” Duong said.

The oral histories involve a range of people who can speak to different eras of Eat Street’s history. The 90-minute interviews typically start with each individual’s background and how they came into business.

Heikkila said she was struck by how hard new immigrants worked. Kids became involved after school, pitching in to make sewing kits or deliver baked goods.

“For the vast majority, they didn’t know how to do this. They learned it by doing it, and they decided it was their best shot,” she said.

Lung Tran and her brother Michael talked about Lung’s continued daily presence at Quang Restaurant after 30 years. Christos Greek Restaurant owners Gus and Carol Parpas talked about the tough restaurant business. Harry Singh talked about his Original Caribbean Restaurant’s handmade roti. Isidro Perez of Marissas Inc. discussed mixing baking and business. Christian Johnson of Spyhouse Coffee talked about visiting the farmers that make the shop’s coffee beans. Tammy Wong talked about her family-run business Rainbow Chinese Restaurant and Bar. Former Acadia Café owner Tom Berthiaume and Joanne Christ of the Black Forest Inn spoke about the 1990s revitalization of Nicollet.

Interviewer Heikkila — a longtime boxing instructor at Uppercut Boxing Gym — previously completed an oral history project on nurses who served in the Vietnam War, and authored a book on the topic. She is currently compiling oral histories of the “Booth girls,” describing the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital that served as a home and hospital for unwed mothers on Como Avenue in St. Paul.

The Eat Street project will be archived in the Special Collections section of the Minneapolis Central Library, and the Hennepin History Museum will showcase an exhibit on the project in the fall.

Some of the businesses Heikkila profiled have already shut down and live in historical memory. Sindbad’s Café and Market, located on the block now home to Icehouse and Vertical Endeavors at 2528 Nicollet Ave., closed in 2008. Owner Sami Rasouli now splits time between home in Najaf, Iraq and Minnesota, and describes his current position as a peacemaker. He thought of Sindbad as an Arab-Muslim “oasis” and cultural center, complete with pita bread, baklava and books.

Photo by Rasun Mehringer
Photo by Rasun Mehringer

“You get in and you learn about many things besides the music, beside the food, the spices, the aroma of the spices, yeah, and they were all welcome,” he told Heikkila.

Shots were fired through Rasouli’s shop window when he protested the decision to go to war with Iraq in 1991. And the day after 9/11, he was afraid to open the store, as he had recently posed for a magazine cover prominently describing him as a Muslim Arab business owner. But schoolchildren came with flowers during the Gulf War, and longtime customers arrived with offers of safe haven after 9/11.

“So that was a civic lesson, profound wisdom, that I learned from it,” he said.

Rasouli said he felt the pull to return to Iraq and help build peace, even though his hometown had become a dangerous place.

“And explain to them that the U.S. is not like always John Wayne or Sylvester Stallone, like Rambo or George Bush, or these guys they met during the invasion/occupation,” he said. “Explain to them what’s the Whittier Alliance is; the people that I met there; people give me business, supported me. … And often I’m asked, Sami, please make up your mind. Are you an Iraqi or an American? And actually I explain that I’m an Iraqi 100 percent; I’m an American 100 percent and that makes me 200 percent human being.”