The New Normal in the neighborhoods: Is the sky falling or isn’t it?

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Meeting at a McDonalds and a bank, an art gallery, and a couple neighborhood councils, we asked participants in the first round of “New Normal” community conversations where their neighborhoods should most focus their resources and energy.

Consumer spending is down, unemployment is still up. It’s looking likely that cities are going to take a whacking in the state budget this year, and so are social services organizations that often deal with disparate issues like health, education, family services, and transportation. All these issues, judging by our community conversations, are also fundamentally neighborhood issues.

Though times are still tough, most participants in our conversations just didn’t buy that that there will be permanent disinvestment to their neighborhoods, though they agree there may be serious short-term challenges. Many did admit other long-term trends, like an aging population and the need for new sources of energy, would certainly affect the way their neighborhoods operated in the long term.

Support of local economy and business development

When asked what his neighborhood’s priorities should be, one West Side resident answered, “Local. Local. Local. Need I say more?” 

It was an oft-repeated sentiment; people want to be able to have thriving local businesses and they want those businesses to create jobs and make their neighborhoods a generally nice place to live. Of course, shopping and investing in a local economy is not always so simple. Some North Minneapolis residents, for instance, pointed out they couldn’t always shop local because the area simply doesn’t have the diverse mix of businesses they’d like.

Many participants who were around in the ’60s and ’70s brought up the fear that, as in those decades, we may be entering a period where neighborhoods will be left to fend for themselves.

Take the initiative to revitalize West Broadway in North Minneapolis. West Broadway is a major shopping corridor and in the last decade it’s gotten better in terms of security, vacancy rates, business development and appearance. The West Broadway Coalition recently kicked off a membership drive for local businesses and there’s also been much to-do about mayoral support for North Minneapolis. The initiative seems to be gaining momentum, but it could lose steam without proper support, says Ron Hick, executive director of the West Broadway Coalition.

Hick is worried about who will pay for new facades and better signage for stores, and create tax incentives for new businesses. Local businesses can certainly try to pool together resources and access non-government sources of funding, but that may not be enough. “My impression is that if there’s not going to be public support, it’s going to be hard.” Hicks said. “I mean, boy, it’s gonna be hard.”

In Northeast Minneapolis, investment in the arts has helped revitalize neighborhoods, made them safer, and brought in more residents and revenue.

Dawn Williams has lived in Northeast for 17 years, has benefitted from NRP funds that helped her rehab her house, and is active in her neighborhood council. “When I moved to Northeast, Central Avenue was pretty scary,” Williams said. She says that lots of things have changed that, including the arts. “I’ve got friends from the suburbs who come here specifically for Art-A-Whirl and other art crawls, and they think we’re so cool.”

If St. Paul and Minneapolis had to make a wish list of where to invest at the neighborhood level, it may serve them well to identify those projects with existing momentum in each neighborhood. As funds dry up it would be a real shame to see local business development in North Minneapolis, or say investment in the arts in Northeast, go by the wayside.

Race, outreach, and inclusivity – Reform to neighborhood councils  

Segregation was nearly impossible to ignore at our community conversations, where only a handful of minorities attended. That aside, neighborhood organizations also vary greatly in their efforts to reach out to minorities and in their representation.

Minneapolis City Council Member Robert Lilligren put it this way at our Lake Street conversation:  “We see racism and segregation most at the neighborhood level,” he said. “It is a major problem and it would serve us well not to ignore it.”  

“Neighborhood organizations do not represent the people who work in the neighborhood,” said Ariah Fine, a North Minneapolis resident. “How can we bring everybody to the table?”

Ruhel Islam is the owner of Gandhi Mahal, an Indian restaurant on Lake and Minnehaha. He likes the outreach from the Lake Street Council, which he says is very different from organizations in his previous location in Dinkytown.  Ruhel is now a member of the Lake Street Council.  “Here is the best,” he said when he introduced himself at our Lake Street conversation.

Jamal Hashi is co-owner of Safari Express, with one store location in the Midtown Global Market. “You see so many different faces in Minneapolis. I like the diversity.” But Hashi, who is originally from Somalia, also sees a real disconnect between minority communities. “I’d like to see more dialogue between the Somali and Latino communities,” he said.

So how do neighborhood organizations reform the way they outreach and disseminate information, and make minorities feel more included in the process? Ideas included getting more minority staff members and volunteers into neighborhood councils, publishing materials in other languages besides English, and holding meetings in places of worship and community centers where minorities already congregate.

And one more idea that some people batted around: Tie funding to diversity.

“Right now funding is tied to the number of people who participate,” said Joyce Wisdom, the Executive Director of the Lake Street Council. “But nobody cares who shows up. Why not tie funding to ‘who’ is showing up, not ‘how many?'”

Safety nets: If you’re going to cut, don’t cut here

Like many of our participants across neighborhoods, West Side residents noted that some organizations and individuals simply can’t function with fewer resources. At our community conversation in the West Side Citizens Organization (WSCO) offices a crowd sat around a table and bounced comments back and forth about the most vulnerable populations on the West Side and the “New Normal” expectations of lower resources.

“It’s bogus,” said Monica Bryand, a WSCO board member. “Keep in mind there are real vulnerable populations that literally can’t do more with less.”

Many participants expressed fear over the prospect of major cuts to nonprofit organizations that provide social services in their neighborhoods, including services and infrastructure for the aging. With limited nursing homes in Twin Cities neighborhoods, some worried they could lose aging populations to suburban nursing homes.

This isn’t just a West Side issue. Heather Johnson, 28, is a service manager at the Longfellow Grill. Johnson lives in the Standish Ericsson neighborhood in Minneapolis.  She lives next to her 85-year-old grandfather and enjoys his company and that of other older residents in the neighborhood. “With age diversity, you get a whole different viewpoint,” she says.

What will happen to Johnson’s grandfather? If he wanted to, would he be able to find a nearby nursing home where his granddaughter can visit him on the way from work at the Longfellow Grill? Also, what of the grandfather’s role in the neighborhood? Are there enough activities to engage him and would he feel safe walking around?

This is what concerned Thune and many others back at our WSCO conversation. “We need to make housing for these elderly people in our neighborhoods. And we need to make it easy for people to build attachments to their houses, so that if their elderly loved one doesn’t want to go to a nursing home it’s easy for them to stay nearby.”

Sustainability and education

Environment, education and public infrastructure were among the most frequently-mentioned issues in the conversations, and the buzz-words most often heard were sustainability and self-sufficiency. People felt strongly that neighborhoods, residents, and city and state government should encourage programs and policies that affect energy consumption, green space and community gardens, and access to locally grown food.

Faith Krogstad, a community organizer at Hamline Midway Coalition, says her district council has a lot of momentum growing around environmental issues. Though Krogstad is looking to the government for partnership, she insists that things start with residents.

“We want to reduce our energy consumption in a sustainable way and we want this to be a grassroots effort.” Krogstad said.

Energy reduction is also central tenet in WSCO’s nascent ten-year plan for the West Side. Monica Bryand, a WSCO board member, says that energy reduction will help low-income families reduce their overall living costs. Both neighborhoods have benefitted from tax credits that incentivize neighbors to reduce energy and rehab homes. If those were to disappear it would drastically affect how neighborhoods approached energy reduction.

Similarly, many participants emphasized youth and family education. This was something Amanda Jones neatly summed up in our Northeast conversation. Jones, a recent college grad who lives in St. Paul but is doing an arts internship in Northeast Minneapolis, is not that far removed from her high school days.

“If the school’s not good, then it’s a warehouse to kids.” Jones said. If those students aren’t excited about the school, and if the school isn’t truly engaged in the community, then the parents view the school as just a place to send their kids. “But if you have a good school that has connections in the neighborhood, then you want to live there, you want to invest there.”

Barb Rose, a long time resident of the West Side, emphasized the importance of lifelong education:

 “I want my neighborhood kids-and we have a lot of kids in my neighborhood-to be able to succeed and have a place in the future…whether that means employment opportunities, good schools, or safe streets.”

She explained that that couldn’t happen unless both they and their parents had access to lifelong learning and training opportunities. “Maybe that means they need access to good education and their parents also have access to education, but I want my neighborhood kids to have a future.”