George Floyd Square: A Neighborhood in Flux
Visitors continue to bring flowers and other offerings to the corner where Floyd was murdered three years ago. Formerly known as Cup Foods, the nearby store has changed its name to Unity Foods. Dan Niepow

George Floyd Square: A Neighborhood in Flux

Commerce has slowed at the corner where Floyd was murdered three years ago, but community leaders are building out a long-term vision for the neighborhood.

In the three years since George Floyd was murdered at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, the corner has transformed into a memorial that’s brought in visitors from all around the globe. People continue to bring flowers, gifts, and other offerings to the space, which pays homage not only to Floyd, but to countless other individuals who have died from police violence.

Jeanelle Austin, executive director of the George Floyd Global Memorial, estimates that folks have brought over 5,000 artifacts to the area over the years. Her plan is to build a permanent, brick-and-mortar home for those, but she acknowledges it’s going to take a while.

“I’ve talked to folks at the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in New York, and they said, ‘Remind the people that it took us 10 years to build this,’” Austin said. “To do it right, it takes the time it takes. It takes us engaging neighbors, engaging the public, figuring out what is needed. … I think it’s too early to tell what the next steps would be.”

Jeanelle Austin, executive director of the George Floyd Global Memorial
Jeanelle Austin, executive director of the George Floyd Global Memorial

The George Floyd Global Memorial, a nonprofit that Austin co-founded in the months after Floyd’s murder in 2020, is actively talking with residents and business owners about the neighborhood’s future. Angela Harrelson, Floyd’s aunt and an author, also sits on the organization’s board.

Austin, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, said she has been caring for the memorial at the corner of 38th and Chicago since June 2020. At the time, she would regularly get up at 6 a.m. and tend to the corner. For her, caring for the memorial provided a quieter way to continue to protest.

“Marching became too traumatic,” Austin said. “I needed to find a different way to both protest and heal.”

Austin, who also runs a separate business of her own, is well aware of the hardships that local businesses are facing, but she’s asking bigger questions about the neighborhood’s future. For her, it’s bigger than day-to-day commerce.

“I want to do the due diligence to listen to my community. … There’s a lot more dynamics here than just people patronizing businesses,” she said. “I think it’s important for us to have these bigger systemic dialogues: What are we trying to do as a community? What are we trying to do as a society?”

A section of Chicago Avenue between 37th and 39th streets bears the name of over 150 names of people killed by police across the country.
A section of Chicago Avenue between 37th and 39th streets bears the names of over 150 people killed by police across the country.

As many know, though, transitions can be tough. Local business owners in the area say they’re still having a hard time staying afloat these days, even amid a steady uptick in foot traffic from visitors around the world.

Billy Jones, owner of Onyx Coffeehouse directly across from the memorial, said the last few months have been a bit of a mixed bag. When asked how business has been since he opened the cafe in March 2022, he said it just depends on how you look at it. “Financially? Horrible,” Jones told TCB on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. “But as far as meeting people from all over the world… it’s been excellent in those regards.”

Jones has been in the neighborhood for most of his life. The building that houses Onyx has operated as coffee shops under different names for nearly a decade, he said. Jones said he’s always wanted to operate a business in the area, but has faced challenges as a Black business owner.

“I’ve always wanted to own a business around here, but they don’t really let Black people lease out businesses, at least not from what I’ve seen,” Jones said. “I think only because of George Floyd a lot of people relinquished their leases. That’s just my opinion, though. So it made it a little easier for Black businesses that probably have never been over here before George Floyd.”

About 80% to 90% of business comes from tourism, Jones estimates. He said there are people in the city who will not go to George Floyd Square because they worry it is disrespectful. Others see it as an eyesore. That means a massive amount of people visiting the coffee shop aren’t from the city at all.

“And you know, it is a hard place to come to. It’s very dynamic,” he said. “No two days are the same. And so I don’t really blame them for not coming over here. It’s very emotional… No one really knows how to come over here.”

Dwight Alexander, owner of Smoke in the Pit, said business has been down 30% to 40% since George Floyd’s murder. He wants the city to reopen the block to make it easier for people to get to businesses.

Unity Foods – the convenience store formerly known as Cup Foods – continues to operate, but employees there said foot traffic has declined considerably. What was once a bustling corner store sees strikingly little activity these days. A sign outside the store said it’s now operating under new management and a new name.

Meanwhile, Sam Willis, owner of Just Turkey, opened his restaurant in the fall of 2020. Covid set the business back from opening sooner. “We’re just weathering the storm,” he said.

Moving forward, Willis said the area needs to be revitalized. “It needs to be made attractive for tourism and the people in the community.”

Even when people do come into the block to see George Floyd Square, they aren’t always patronizing the businesses surrounding the memorial, said Willis, a lifelong South Minneapolis resident.

“We’re just trying to provide generational wealth for our children and be here for the community as well,” he said. “Our goal is to prevent obesity in an urban community and promote healthy eating in an urban community.”

Many businesses around George Floyd Square were offered $50,000 in forgivable loans in 2021. But this didn’t prevent multiple closures, the Star Tribune reported last year.

Minneapolis City Council president Andrea Jenkins said the city is asking the state legislature for $25 million to invest in and around George Floyd Square. But she has said people on the ground want the city to stay out of it, according to KSTP.

Bus service through the area is still rerouted around the square. Barricades section of the corner of 38th and Chicago, making it hard for traffic to cycle through.

The city recently purchased the shuttered gas station directly across from the corner where George Floyd was killed. But community members say there’s no consensus within the neighborhood on what that should become.

In the meantime, the corner might look a bit different in a few days, though. From May 25-27, the George Floyd Global Memorial will hold its third annual Rise and Remember Celebration, which will include a candlelight vigil from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on May 25. That will follow a racial justice conference held at Best Buy’s headquarters in Richfield earlier in the day.

Austin, the head of the George Floyd Global Memorial, said Best Buy has been “a supporter of us from the jump.” The electronics retailer was a sponsor of the memorial’s Rise and Remember gathering in 2021 and 2022. This will be the first year that the Memorial will hold a racial justice conference, Austin said.

On May 26, the Memorial has scheduled a gala event at Paisley Park in Chanhassen. It’s the first time the organization has partnered with Paisley Park. Given Prince’s activism, it made perfect sense to collaborate on the venture, Austin said.

In some ways, the corner has displayed remarkable resilience, even if that hasn’t necessarily meant an influx of commercial activity. In the wake of Floyd’s murder three years ago, local church groups built planters that still stand today. Some flowers planted then are still alive today.

Paul Eaves, one of many volunteers who help maintain the George Floyd Memorial, said his motto is simply: “Keep it dignified.” He started saying this after Floyd’s grandmother came by and said, “Thank you for keeping this looking dignified.”

“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Eaves said.