The Oak Grove Grocery, with a memorial to slain clerk Robert Skafte outside.

Tragedy at Neighborhood Scale at Oak Grove Grocery

This article contains non-graphic references to a recent local murder.

Small local businesses have a tremendous impact on quality of life in a neighborhood. They provide essential services, give people much-needed “third places” to be, and contribute to the community. Oak Grove Grocery was one of those businesses, and the impact of its current closure has been felt already. 

Oak Grove Street is in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis, just southwest of downtown. It connects LaSalle Avenue to Lyndale and Hennepin near their messy junction with Interstate 94, and closely borders the Lowry tunnel. While short and not particularly notable to passerby, the street contains quite a bit of history. It is filled with mid-rise apartment buildings, the majority of which are over 100 years old. On a walk, you might notice historic buildings including the Dunn Mansion, the Oak Grove apartment hotel, the Women’s Club of Minneapolis and Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. 

Oak Grove street is reasonably well designed. It has a high degree of density, with many apartments and multi-unit houses. It is very walkable, with well-maintained sidewalks, and though it lacks bike lanes low motor traffic makes it relatively easy to bike on. The street has some parking lots built alongside it, but most of the newer buildings use underground parking. Additionally, street parking is limited; most of the street has parking on only one side, and other parts have no street parking at all. 

All of this makes Oak Grove sound like an urbanist’s dream, especially when considering the multiple bus lines nearby, its density and its refusal to prioritize cars. There is, however, one core issue. With the temporary closure of Oak Grove Grocery, the street has no service or retail businesses, and the businesses on the streets nearby are insufficient for the density that exists there. Within a 5- to 10-minute walking distance you’ll find a coffee shop, a handful of restaurants, Level Up Games, and a convenience store. That is the extent of the stores that presently serve this little wing of the Loring Park neighborhood, and Oak Grove Street specifically. 

Level Up Games on LaSalle Avenue and West 15th Street, seen from the sidewalk.
Level Up Games is among the few businesses in the area around Oak Grove Street. Photo: Seth Bose

Once upon a time, the street was much more lively.  Approximately 19 businesses occupied Oak Grove in 1940, according to city directories. These included seven grocery stores, multiple beauty salons, a drug store, a shoe store, and a motor repair shop. By 1960 that number had fallen to roughly 12 businesses, and only three grocery stores remained. 

Oak Grove Grocery

Today, outside of apartment rental offices, there are no businesses on Oak Grove Street.  Oak Grove Grocery, the final grocery store on the street, called Oak Grove home for over 100 years. In December of last year, cashier Robert Skafte was tragically murdered while working at the store. A memorial outside of the store commemorates Skafte’s life. This murder means that we might lose both a treasured community store along with a great person who actively made his community a better place. The store has been closed since the murder, and it is uncertain if or when it will open. 

The Oak Grove Grocery, with a memorial to slain employee Robert Skafte outside.
Oak Grove Grocery remains closed, with a memorial to slain employee Robert Skafte outside. Photo: Seth Bose

Like many others in the neighborhood, I frequented the Oak Grove Grocery store; it was about a five-minute walk from my apartment. The store was located in the basement of an apartment building, making it even more convenient for that building’s residents. It was surrounded by several apartments, including the Oak Grove Apartment hotel next door and the large 215 Oak Grove Apartments across the street. The density surrounding the store meant that location still worked well, even without a major road or an intersection. 

Personally, I would use the store to buy little items that I had forgotten here and there. If I ran out of eggs, off to Oak Grocery. Forgot the salsa for my tacos? Looks like I’m taking a quick walk. On top of many of these smaller items, the store carried several local goods, such as Minneapolis’ own Peace Coffee. It would even stock locally grown vegetables, often grown by Skafte in his own garden. The store was small, but friendly and inviting. The workers were great people, easy to converse with about the weather or the local harvest. 

Oak Grove Grocery’s closure leaves locals with greatly diminished grocery options. The City Market, a convenience store on Nicollet Avenue, can be pricey and largely carries snack foods and beverages. A Lunds & Byerlys and an Aldi are each about a mile  from Oak Grove Grocery; while these options work for buying groceries, they are nearly a 30-minute walk from Oak Grove Street. While some people still bike to get groceries from one or the other (if you see a silly-looking biker wobbling up the wrong way on the Blaisdell bike lane holding too many grocery bags in his hands, that’s me), many will opt to drive; the drop in convenience is too steep. This highlights the importance of having amenities close by; more stores and shops within walking distance will decrease the amount of trips that are taken by car.

15-Minute City

In order for a city to be truly walkable and bikeable — a so-called 15-minute city — it must have accessible core amenities spread throughout its neighborhoods. In order to get people out of their cars, or just to travel fewer miles in their cars, the amenities they need must be close enough to walk to in a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, the average person will choose driving for the convenience it offers. 

City Access Map has developed a handy tool to show which areas of cities have all of these necessary amenities (hospitals, grocery stores, banks, schools, etc.)  within a 15-minute walking distance. In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the site says,  “57% of the urban population has access to services within a 15 minute walk.” Looking at the score for Loring Park, the area is walkable, but as you get closer to Oak Grove Street and onto Clinton Ave, the walkability slowly lessens. The loss of Oak Grove Grocery will only worsen this disparity, if City Access Map hasn’t already accounted for it.

A heat map depicting the relative access to important amenities in the area southwest of downtown Minneapolis. Low-access spots include the areas around Oak Grove Street, the Minneapolis Convention Center and the junction of Interstates 94 and 35W.
Oak Grove Street is one of a few dark areas in City Access Map’s heatmap of Minneapolis. Image courtesy City Access Map.

Community Impacts

Oak Grove Grocery had a community feel to it. It was locally owned and operated by people living in the Loring Park neighborhood, and there was a board outside the store where employees would update messages about happenings in the store or leave positive messages to the community. It also participated in National Night Out, adding more liveliness to the neighborhood on the first Tuesday of each August. The store was a long-running community staple, and felt like it. While the prices could at times be higher than those at Walmart or Aldi, one knew that money was staying in the neighborhood, and going to people who live and work there as opposed to a large corporation and away to who-knows-where. 

The memorial to Robert Skafte outside Oak Grove Grocery. A green tarp shelters a number of flowers and other mementos.
Friends and neighbors of Robert Skafte have erected a small shrine outside his place of work. Photo: Seth Bose

Having local community stores builds a sense of pride in the community. Residents get to know the owners, know the workers, and know that they are participating in trying to build a better community. It creates a more personal neighborhood, where the store owners are just as invested in the neighborhood as the residents. As Deborah Rahn, the owner of Oak Grove Grocery, says, “Being there everyday for the community was a big part of the store, it was a place for everybody to go. It’s so weird now when you’re down there, you don’t see anyone out on the street anymore.” This is the impact these sorts of stores have, they give people a place to go, and they help to keep the street lively.

It is truly heartbreaking what happened at Oak Grove Grocery, and that it is currently closed with an uncertain reopen date. It has been a community staple for many years, serving the neighborhood with convenient access to groceries, healthy garden grown vegetables, and friendly smiles behind the cash register. Communities depend on businesses like these for their services, and are better served when community residents own those same businesses and can create relationships with their customers to truly understand their issues, wants, and needs, and as such they are better able to accommodate them and provide a more personal, friendly service.

Take advantage of these community staples by frequenting them as much as possible instead of going to large box stores. They add to the charm of the city, and you’ll be supporting your neighbors. Additionally, if you are in the position, start one of these businesses yourself. It’s one of the best ways to help your community out. 

About Seth Bose

Pronouns: he/him

I am a Loring Park resident and a student at Minneapolis College studying both Economics and Mathematics. I am an advocate for more transit and denser, more sustainable, and all around better cities.