Ivy Vainio pointed to a large area in the corner of an abandoned storefront on East Fourth Street.
“It was where the cashiers were, but that whole area was tobacco products,” she said.
Then she pointed to a small, rectangular table on the opposite side of the room. “In this space, which didn’t even take up this whole space — it probably was the space of this table right here — was produce.”
The building Vainio stood in last week was the old 4th Street Market, which closed in February 2017 in a dispute over rent and repairs, leaving the Central Hillside without a food market.
It has been closed ever since, but a transformation is starting to take place on the inside. The American Indian Community Housing Organization, which Vainio serves as coordinator of its art, climate and culture program, purchased the building in July 2018. It’s being prepared to reopen as the Niiwin Indigenous Foods Market sometime next year.
Outside of a few coolers, there’s little now to suggest that this was a food market. Instead, it’s mostly gutted, with the most notable feature being a number of wooden chairs set up in rows and a handful of rectangular tables such as one might see in a church basement.
That’s because the building has been used this year for a series of “pop-up” events, all pointing to indigenous culture and lifestyles the way they were before white people came.
“We decided to do some pop-ups on some cultural practices, some spiritual practices that are connected to the Anishinaabe with food and food harvest and water,” Vainio said.
The events included presentations, demonstrations, samples, opportunities to purchase indigenous products and activities for the kids, she said.
All of that is going to be played out on a larger scale this Saturday, when Duluth’s first Indigenous Foods Expo takes place not only in the building at 102 E. Fourth St. but on the blocked-off street in front and Central Hillside Park across the street. It will include food demonstrations, vendors, musical performances, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and lacrosse played Native style.
It will be the most visible aspect, to date, of a long-term effort to give residents a glimpse of what’s to come and seek their input into the market’s rebirth.
“We’ve been surveying the community to find out what people are really interested in as far as the design of that space,” said LeAnn Littlewolf, economic development director for AICHO. “And also what kinds of foods they’re interested in. So we’ll be implementing that into our design.”
Visual evidence of that interest is a black column in roughly the center of the building, which has been transformed into a colorful writing space where pop-up attendees have been invited to respond to questions such as “What is indigenous food?” and “What do you want to see in the new market?”
“Vegan foods,” “walleye,” “cooking classes” and “wild rice” are among the responses. At least one respondent expressed a strong interest in the return of “Taco Tuesdays” that were once a staple at 4th Street Market. Vainio said she thought that would be doable.
But some things definitely won’t be found there, Vainio said. No tobacco, except tobacco used for traditional indigenous purposes. No soda. No high-fructose drinks. No alcoholic beverages.
Instead, Littlewolf said, there will be “affordable, fresh, healthy staples, fresh produce, milk, bread, eggs — food items that the neighborhood can come down and purchase. … Also, we want to have some retail space to feature indigenous foods.”
AICHO already has several shelves filled with indigenous foods in its gift shop at its Gimaajii Building, 202 W. Second St. Items include hominy, wild rice, indigenous teas and jellies. Some such items have been available since the gift shop opened about a year and a half ago, Vainio said, but the variety has grown as each presenter at the pop-ups provided additional items.
But before the market on Fourth Street can reopen for more than pop-ups, renovations will take place. The back wall, currently lined with old coolers, will be opened up with windows providing a view of Lake Superior and become the area for a cafe, Littlewolf said.
It will be a place not just to shop for needed foodstuffs but a gathering place for community and cultural activities, she said.
“People love to come in and learn more about indigenous worldview, indigenous culture, indigenous practices,” Littlewolf said. “And so we’ve implemented that in all of our spaces.”
An architect was scheduled to visit the building last week to determine what it will take to bring the vision to reality, Vainio said. It’s not yet known specifically when the market will open.
It can’t come soon enough for some Central Hillside residents.
The written-out comments from some of the residents who attended the pop-ups have been “bone-chilling,” Vainio said.
“I remember one specifically. … She wrote (that) this market is important to me. Because right now, I have no car. I have a couple of kids. When I have to go get food, I have to grab them, go to the bus stop, wait for the bus, get them on the bus, go to the closest market … grab the food, carry the food, wait for the bus, get back on the bus.”
The return of the market on Fourth Street would “impact us in such a good way,” the woman wrote.
For all of the planned changes, the market’s new name isn’t as different as one might think.
“Niiwin,” Vainio said, is the Ojibwe word for “four.”
If you go
What: Indigenous Foods Expos
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Central Hillside Park and Niiwin Indigenous Food Market, 102 E. Fourth St.
Rain plan: Presentations still will take place at the Niiwin Market; outside events will move to the AICHO Gimaajii building, 202 W. Second St.
Learn more: AICHO.org