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Worlds away, blocks apart: Student’s journey from Riverside Plaza Towers to the U of M
Ryan Colbert, a first year student at the University of Minnesota, can see his childhood in the distance. Growing up in the Riverside Plaza Towers for the first twelve years of his life and now living on the West Bank again as a student in the U of M's Middlebrook Hall dorm, he has seen multiple aspects of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. In this interview, Colbert offered his unique perspective on the neighborhood.
What are some memories you have of your time living in the Riverside Plaza Towers?
I have a lot of memories of there being a lot of kids to play with, of people of all ages and different ethnicities. Some of my best friends were from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Everyone kind of mixed when I was younger. As I got older, this changed. People became more divided and hostile for arbitrary reasons I am unsure of.
The towers were definitely a community of their own with the plaza connecting all of the buildings. I remember coming home from school (Colbert attended Marcy Open Elementary) and always going straight to Currie Park.
High-rise ghettos or urban villages?
Are the Riverside Plaza and Seward high-rise apartment complexes, home to low-income residents for more than 35 years, "beyond merely shabby" and filled with crime? Or are they "a vital and fascinating mix of cultures ... a series of villages in the city with the opportunity to begin life in the United States among one's countrymen?" Our series highlights concerns and facts, featuring the voices and stories of people who live and work in the communities. Click here for links to all of the articles in the series.
I also grew up going to Hard Times. One of my best friend's father is still a cook at Kilimanjaro Café.
Do you have any specific memories of violence?
Yes. I remember once I was looking out my [16th floor] window and I saw a group of guys fighting. All of a sudden I heard a gun shot, and saw a guy fall.
Do you think the Towers have changed since you lived there six years ago?
I'm not sure. I don't really go inside much. I definitely distanced myself.
The immediate surroundings have changed. Now there is all of the bar life, theaters, and the light rail. The area does not seem to be as isolated.
Are you involved in the surrounding Cedar-Riverside community? Why or why not?
I go to the surrounding theaters and still frequent Hard Times. As far as being involved in the community as in helping the community, no. It is not the way my goals are orientated at the moment. It is time that I focus on what I want to do and where I want to go. I'm in college and just don't have a lot of time.
How does it feel to be back in the neighborhood as a student?
Being back in the neighborhood is definitely odd, but in a good way. It is more like I feel fantastic about where I am now, and seeing the Towers in the distance makes me feel grateful for that.
The neighborhood also seems to have grown in a positive light. From what I remember the presence seems to be much younger and more eclectic since I lived here.
Do you think students should be involved in the community and consider themselves community members?
I think it is definitely an odd line, since they are students but also live in the neighborhood. But since they are here I think that is enough to be aware of the community and how it works. I think it is their duty, as with all people, to get rid of any preconceived notions they have about the neighborhood if they don't actually know anything about it.
The neighborhood could also always use fresh minds, so young people could be beneficial. They could give input, get involved, help clean up if that is what it needs.
Do you think the stigma that Cedar-Riverside, and the Riverside Plaza Towers specifically, hold as a dangerous and hopeless area true?
Partially. From what I remember there is a level of crime that was always more gang orientated. But this level of crime is not anymore prevalent here. I wouldn't say Cedar-Riverside is filled with any more poverty and drugs than the rest of the city. I don't ever remember seeing crack [referring to the derogatory nickname the "crack stacks" that the Towers have been given.] I also don't think a place should be limited because of these few things.
There are a lot of people here, and so much more than the violence people are told about. There are families raising children, kids going to the park. It is like everywhere else you go: people just trying to live.
Coverage of issues of race and race relations, cultural diversity and immigrant health issues is funded in part by a grant from the F.R. Bigelow Foundation.
©2010 Jessie Lieb