#AGreatCityRises and the toll of gentrification on Northeast Minneapolis

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I stopped at the corner trying desperately to remember the potholes and broken concrete I knew as a child. I creeped the car – like I would have back in the day – down the now perfectly manicured road with its “vintage” appeal, missing the cracked and crumbling concrete.

My family came to Minneapolis after being forced out of St. Cloud by folks who thought that two blind people could not be adequate parents. For as long as I can remember, 216 Fifth Ave. SE represented our roots.

As a kid my dad would take us down to the Mississippi River and tell us stories about playing there as a child. We would trek into – what felt at the time like the woods – lining the river bank and pretend we were in Sherwood Forest. The rundown mills were a reminder of how the city started and stood as memory to its past. We would walk the cobblestone street towards Hennepin Avenue and Pops would tell me about working as a cook at The Wharf when he got the call that Mom went into labor. The joy in his eyes at that moment would quickly fade as he warned us of the dangers of St. Anthony Falls, telling us about his friends that have died there, and how he almost did. We would laugh and ask questions, he would tell us about Frankenstein’s Castle and how Nicollet Island wasn’t always so fancy. It used to be the place the homeless would gather at. Going up Hennepin, we would hear the stories of my Grandpa drumming at Nye’s and how he would sell pencils on the street to make a little extra money for the family. We would stop at Red Owl and pick up groceries for Grandma. Pops would remind us about how they would let the family keep a tab when times were tight and money was funny. This was my history. This was the landscape from which we were cut. It deserved my respect and honor. And it got it.

Today I drove by 216 Fifth Ave. SE, and saw college kids drinking on the deck. I found a parking spot on the all too familiar street feeling a bit surreal. When my grandfather passed away 34 years ago my family sold the house to The Pillsbury Company but continued to rent it to them. When my grandmother transitioned the house was remodeled and rented out to college kids, the University of Minnesota is big business. The landmarks are the same, but somehow barely recognizable.

I walked towards the river like I used to do, and saw a sign that warned about entering private property. Lining Main Street are brand new condos and artist lofts, the smiling white faces on the fences blocking off construction sites promise more to come. As I walk towards Hennepin I am surrounded by people walking their dogs, out for a run, taking a walk, or worse, on a Segway tour. None of them notice me, but I notice them. They look right past me. Many of them drawn here by the new developments and promises of #AGreatCityRises. They have no idea of the history in these cobblestones or rundown mills. They don’t feel the memories in their DNA. They have no stories to tell and they don’t care to hear the ones that have been told. The Wharf is gone. Nye’s is closed. The strip mall where Red Owl was, is now home to a Lund’s and luxury condos. But my roots are here somewhere.

 

Central Avenue between University Avenue SE and Fourth Street SE through the years. From left to right: 1956, 2005 and 2016. Photos courtesy of Northeast River District and Google Maps.

Central Avenue between University Avenue SE and Fourth Street SE through the years. From left to right: 1956, 2005 and 2016. Photos courtesy of Northeast River District and Google Maps.

 

Gentrification is a bit of a buzzword nowadays. Everybody thinks they know what it means, but few actually grasp the entirety of the concept. For many it simply boils down to affordable housing and racial makeup of neighborhoods. Admittedly, it’s a difficult idea to measure and quantify which makes it easy to dismiss, especially after an ostensibly comprehensive and unbiased report from the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.

The report essentially said that gentrification wasn’t happening in Minneapolis. But, it doesn’t take a very sophisticated analysis to understand that when property values rise so does rent, property taxes and everything else in the vicinity. We see this happening. In the last 10 years the median value of a home increased 28 percent, as compared to just 9 percent for the region. Living is more expensive and it is plain logic to understand that those who can no longer afford the increased cost of living will have to find another place to live. But that’s not the entire story of gentrification.

The reality is gentrification is as much about power, respect and who gets heard as it is about data and quantifiables. So, yes, it’s about affordable housing, and racial makeup, and poverty levels and other data markers. But, it’s also about who is deciding what gets built and who it is intended for. Whose vision is being made manifest and to what end?

 

Who is gentrification for?

Minneapolis City Councilmember Alondra Cano said, “gentrification is a process that slowly and gradually changes a community. It is a physical and cultural displacement.” When we understand gentrification in these terms it becomes much more clear why so many people around the city, working class and people of color, are feeling the massive weight of gentrification.

On the border of Northeast Minneapolis and St. Anthony Village sits the Lowry Grove community. Northeast is currently undergoing aggressive gentrification which has, in turn, made the land Lowry Grove sits on ripe for “development.” Residents – concerned their homes and so much more, their roots would be wiped away – organized and are fighting back.

Luann Zappa, a long time resident of Lowry Grove and a member of the group fighting to save the community, certainly understands how gentrification works.

“I think they knew a long time ago. They knew they wanted to sell the park,” she said, “Phil Johnson [the former owner] took in something like $1.5 million a year and never put any back into the homes. It’s all about money.”

Phil Johnson, who owned Lowry Grove, recently sold the park for $6 million to Continental Property Group (CPG) which has plans to build condos on the land. You can hear the exhaustion in Zappa’s voice.

“According to the [initial plans] CPG is projecting $13.5 million in profit. They know what they are doing. They want to get rid of all the minorities and poor people so they can make money,” she said. Profit over people seems to be the American way. The fight against gentrification is taking its toll.

Currently in failing health, Zappa said, “the stress could probably kill me.” And how many others?

 

Large crowds gather at 612 Brew during Art-A-Whirl on May 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Daniel X. O'Neil.

Large crowds gather at 612 Brew during Art-A-Whirl on May 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Daniel X. O’Neil.

 

This is the real face of gentrification. This is what isn’t captured in numbers and median incomes or housing values. Gentrification leaves people disposable. It defers to the logic of the market and white supremacy to determine affordability. What is Area Median Income (AMI) when your city is flooded with young white urban professionals – yuppies – making $80,000 per year looking for the next microbrewery. That measure is largely meaningless to the waitress struggling to make ends meet working for $7.50 per hour and anything those yuppies decide to leave as a tip. Beyond that, the market logic erases the reality of racism and capitalism which systemically funnels resources and opportunities away from the working class and communities of color.

Market logic, as Cano pointed out, “only works if institutional racism doesn’t impact the free market. But it does.”

Cano said, “the free market makes its gains off our oppression. We are at the whim of the free market.” Gentrification rests on the dangerous and tired idea that proximity to whiteness is the key for vibrancy. So, if a neighborhood is in disrepair, rather than consider how that is the totally predictable consequence and function of how white supremacy and capitalism work to limit opportunity and exploit resources (including people), the answer becomes to inject capital, which of course, is in the hands of rich whites. And they don’t just come with capital, they come with co-ops.

Besides limiting economic outcomes gentrification erases culture. Ashley Fairbanks, a local artist and organizer, describes what this looks like.

“On Nicollet there used to be two Asian supermarkets, now it’s The Wedge Table and a graphic design firm. Those were culturally relevant places. You are literally starving people out of the neighborhood,” Fairbanks said. “Who is [development] intended for?”

The question is not rhetorical. Gentrification is largely about intended and desired residents. Fairbanks, and so many others, can recall this particularly brutal aspect of gentrification. She remembers landlords telling the residents of her mother’s building they “were going to start fresh” and proceed to raise the rent, displacing residents. Counting on the mechanisms of capitalism to push out undesirables, landlords know there will be “fresh” residents (i.e middle class white folks) willing and able to meet the new, higher, standard of living and ultimately increase their profit margin.

Fairbanks half jokes, “If you build the juice bar white folks will come.”

This isn’t new though, Chaun Webster, a North Minneapolis resident and writer who is working on a project documenting the geography of North Minneapolis called Echo North, provided the historical context for understanding gentrification.

“Columbus [and other colonizers] saw this land as barren, savage, scarce, and he saw the people that way as well. Gentrification operates the same way. Developers see this land as barren, savage, scarce. But there are things here. There are people here,” Webster said.

Those people, though, don’t matter, not in a capitalist economy, and not in a white supremacist society, not in settler-colonialism. That’s an uncomfortable truth, leading many to refuse it, favoring instead the lie of what The Atlantic called “The Miracle of Minneapolis.” Webster wasn’t surprised by this.

“That’s the narrative of Minnesota. It embodies the [supposed] American ideal, the miracle of Minneapolis. It’s an old narrative built off of these gross disparities,” he said.

Those disparities must exist for white folks’ self-actualization, Webster said, “Blackness is the backdrop that white people define themselves against. Spatially and materially that has been North Minneapolis.”

 

 

Using the sociologist Calvin Schmidt’s 1935 map of Minneapolis – notably the same year as the Federal Housing Administration was founded, facilitating white flight to the newly created suburbs – to illustrate his point, Webster continued, “It’s a predictive map. At a time when Hennepin County is less than 1 percent Black, and the North side is majority Eastern European Jews,  North Minneapolis is the Negro Slum. Not the Jewish slum. The Negro slum.” The Southwest neighborhood is labeled “The Gold Coast.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey often uses the hashtag #AGreatCityRises to celebrate new developments in the city. But great for who? The argument is that rising property values – transforming the Negro Slum to the Gold Coast – is in everybody’s best interest. But that’s not true. Rising property values only benefit those in position to benefit. When property values go up, so does rent. Yet incomes, too often, remain stagnant.

Frey said he wants to see “diverse neighborhoods, in every sense of the word – racial, class and age – where anyone has the opportunity to live in the neighborhood of their choice.”  But can the system produce that? Many will suggest, yes, if we fix it, but the system is not broken, gentrification is not simply an unintended consequence; it is the totally foreseeable, predictable and logical outcome of a system meant to siphon resources, wealth and power to a select and limited few while appearing natural and benign.

 

#agreatcityrises

Jacob Frey. Photo courtesy of Jacob Frey’s Facebook page.

 

But it can be interrupted. Gentrification offers the opportunity for a truly multiracial alliance to form and reimagine society.

 

Building coalitions to build communities

“On the North side you can’t move [anything] without Black and Hmong solidarity. Without working class solidarity. We need a base. And that base needs to be a broad-based coalition,” said Webster.

“We have to envision what we want our city to look like and figure out how to translate that into policy,” Fairbanks said. “We can’t just be against gentrification, we have to have a plan for what we want.”

Cano is already working on how to blunt the edge of gentrification, including implementing a $15 minimum wage. Cano points out when property values go up and rent stays stagnant people will inevitably be displaced. Beyond minimum wage, Cano uses the Southside Hub Center as an example of how the city can work against development that displaces communities. Cano worked with developers of Southside Hub Center to build in measures of accountability. That development contains affordable housing as well as retail space which will anchor the building. Most importantly, built into the plan, that retail space won’t be occupied by chain stores. Instead, it will be dedicated to small, local businesses that “reflect the reality of Lake Street,” Cano said. Additionally, Cano said government needs to recruit local entrepreneurs and visionaries and then subsidize their developments in order to fill the gaps created through rising property values. I wonder what Central Avenue would look like if this level of accountability was present.

This type of forward thinking – multiracial coalitions demanding and receiving support via policy – is the only way Frey’s vision of a #AGreatCityRises will ever be achieved. In the city with the largest disparities between white folks and people of color it is criminal to act as if continuing to inject white people and white dollars into communities is anything other than violent. And, it isn’t working for working class whites either. The cost of living affects us and we get pushed out as well. We end up alone in our rage while putting up Trump yard signs and embracing division. We forget that Donald Trump is a landlord. He makes his living gentrifying and uprooting folks. We forget that the people most like us are not the rich but the workers, in every shade of Brown.

 

 

The movement to end gentrification and move towards equitable development is an opportunity to break free from our isolation and reconnect with others, with humanity. This is a chance to envision a world free from the cutthroat competition and callousness of capitalism. A world free from the stress and disease that are hallmarks of a life working too hard for too little. Whether we are fighting to save our homes like Luann Zappa and the residents of Lowry Grove or living relatively comfortably, this is our self-interest.

I asked Pops how he feels when he goes back down to the river and through his old neighborhood. He stopped and sat in silence for a moment. “It’s hard to even recognize. It’s sad,” he said. I asked him what he thought would have been different, had it not been developed, he said, “I don’t know Ry. We had ideas. There was so many people, with so many ideas, but none of us ever thought we could actually do it. We didn’t think it was possible.” That line hits hard and lingers. Didn’t think it was possible. I think of the kids I grew up with. I think of my students and wonder how many of them don’t think it is possible. In the end we’ve got to dream. And fight. And dream again.

Our roots are here somewhere. Our trees must grow.