Local Current Blog

Urban Lights owner Tim Wilson on the rebuilding of the Midway neighborhood: ‘Gentrification is not on the table’

Tim Wilson at Urban Lights Music during a 2019 performance by DJ Big Reece. (via Urban Lights on Facebook)

Yesterday, Morning Show host Jill Riley spoke with Tim Wilson, the owner and operator of Urban Lights, the only black-owned record store in the Twin Cities, which has been around for nearly three decades now. The two discussed the history of Urban Lights, the rebuilding of the Midway neighborhood following the events of the last couple of weeks, and a current fundraising effort to support Urban Lights.

Jill Riley: Tim, I wanted to get you on the line to talk to you a little bit about Urban Lights Music. Give us some background on Urban Lights Music, because there is a lot of history. 

Tim Wilson: We’ve been around for 27 years, like you said, almost three decades. We started in ’93. It was a chain that was owned by Northern Lights, I don’t know if you remember them. I used to hang out at the St. Paul location pretty much every day [while] on breaks from my sales job. We got to joking around one day about, “Hey, man, you should buy the store.”

I was like, “You know, it’s funny. Me and my friends used to joke about that in high school.” I called my buddies in high school and said, “Guess what. We can own a record store, if you guys are interested,” and it went from there. ’93 we opened the doors. It’s become a showplace here in St. Paul, kind of iconic. I don’t like to use those words, but other people do. We’ve done everything from shoot music videos…we’ve had everybody from Beyoncé, to Jay-Z, to 50 Cent has been here.

At one point in time, the music industry was really run by Minnesota, when you had Sam Goody Musicland corporate offices, obviously, Target corporate offices, Best Buy corporate offices, and then on the independent side, myself and the Electric Fetus. This was the place to be. Artists would come to town, pay homage, and come through. It was kind of a way to give back. People spend money on your music, and I always thought it was cool to give people the opportunity to meet that person in real life.

That’s kind of the nutshell history, but we’ve been here. I’ve seen kids grow from grade school to high school to college. I’ve had people come back to tell me, “Hey, I took business management courses in college because of you.” I feel like I’m a fixture in the neighborhood, and I want to remain in the neighborhood, and continue to be that urban light, if you will, to St. Paul.

After the unrest and some of the rioting in St. Paul, so many businesses were affected along University Avenue, and your business would be one of them. 

Yes. We didn’t sustain physical damage, but what we did sustain is, obviously, coming fresh off of COVID and now sliding into this, it’s kind of changed the landscape of how money is moving around the midway area. The block next to us is burned down. The block to the East of us is burned down. The Midway Shopping Center across the street from us has sustained a lot of fire damage. What we did differently is that we were able to stand out in front of our business, and because we have been here for so long, people would walk past us and be like, “Don’t mess with them. Leave them alone.” We spent, basically, four days, 24 hours a day, in our parking lot securing the block. We went from rioting and looting concerns to hate group concerns, saying that they were going to burn us down because we were still standing.

Honestly, it was a lot of weird traffic. What I mean by that is that a number of people in the area were not from the area, were walking around, blending in with, at that particular time, people who were rioting. It was just weird. It was weird, they questions they would ask, like, “So do you own this? Why are you out front?” Those kinds of things. Weirdly enough, when we first got here and this all broke loose, a car pulled up and people had signs already made. “Put this on your business- black owned business. Put this on your business, so you’ll be safe.” Of course, immediately we did. Then we learned, later on, to take those off because that put a target on our back. What we were finding was numerous people in the alleys, and there’s no reason to walk and down alleys, that’s where people go to park their cars in their driveways and stuff like that. It was just weird traffic taking pictures of the black-owned signs and stuff like that. Was someone going to come back later on? We don’t know. After a couple of days, we took that down because we were advised by certain law enforcement people in St. Paul that [we were] putting a target on our back, because the narrative has changed.

What does rebuilding look like on University Ave? When the governor took a tour through, did you have a chance to talk to him?

I did. I did. I actually walked in the room and he said, “Hey, your ears must be burning. We were talking about you.” and I said, “Yeah. They were. That’s why I popped in.” We laughed, and did the fist bump thing, and the whole deal. He even said, “Hey, I just want to thank you for what you and your people did by standing and protecting the block as you did for those four days. It’s very important that nothing happen to this sector.” and I said, “Hey, I appreciate that.” Then, he went on to speak in front of the group.

I’ll say this. The one thing that everyone is concerned about in this neighborhood – because I don’t think that anyone wants to leave the Midway. There’s no one who doesn’t want to do business in the Midway. Of course, everyone wants to see the area grow and become fruitful. You’ve got the new soccer stadium. There’s talks of hotels and new restaurants, but the one thing that concerns the smaller businesses is that we basically get forced out. In situations like this, big business says, “Oh, man. Opportunity!” but the governor made it clear to us that gentrification is not on the table.

Some good news to hear that. If there’s anything that can give the community some sense of hope in rebuilding, but rebuilding in the way that you want to see Midway look.

Definitely. Definitely. I mentioned that things have to grow, and things have to change, but I still believe that there is a sense of community that should be apparent in all communities across the city. There are just those pockets of businesses that are community owned, are independently owned small businesses that bring a sense of family and togetherness, [which is] different than a big chain. I don’t want to name any stores. It’s a different feeling when you step into a small business as opposed to a chain store, so I think every community should have small businesses because they’re a part of the fabric, and they shouldn’t go away.

Tim, have you been able to reopen the store? Are you open for business? 

Yes. In the last couple of days we were finally able to take the wood paneling off of the windows and look at the world again, but it’s slow going. I think we’re going to find that, for a while, people are going to concerned about coming to the area because there’s so much devastation around us, that businesses that people frequented and things that you may have wanted in this area, you can’t get now. [It’ll] make people make other choices. We hope that as things get cleaned up a little big, and some of the people that we know are able to open back up, and we know some won’t be, based on the damage they have had to deal with, that we hope people do come back to the area, and that it will again become vibrant.

First, there’s COVID-19 closing down a number of businesses, especially small businesses, and then the unrest of the last couple of weeks affecting Midway, so I do want to mention one thing. There is a GoFundMe to support Urban Lights. The record store had to close for a while, there. 

Two and a half months, we were shut down. We did a few things online, and just tried to serve some customers that were constant while we were down. Coming fresh of that, and we’re like a week into it, and then we jump into the civil unrest, and then that changes things for another week, so it’s rough. It’s rough, to say the least.

Anything anybody can do would be awesome. We’re going to be here. We’re going to get it back rolling again, the way it needs to be, and continue to be an important part of the community, as we have been over the last few years.