I spend too much time on the internet. The internet has lots to offer for every noble desire and depravity imaginable. A lot of what it has to offer is a respite from boredom. Waiting in lines, waiting through commercials, waiting for something to happen at work. All that waiting has a tendency to make me crave drama and conflict.
I’d say one of my favorite pastimes is watching people lose their shit and turn into nasty, ugly jerks over disagreements. I know it’s better for people to have an enlightened, civil dialogue and come to an understanding, even if it’s only that there’s no hope for synthesis or for one argument to win over the other. Hell, it’s refreshing on the rare occasion this does happen, but this is the Age of Information. Or rather, this is the Age of the Social Media Narcissism, and everyone’s the Supreme Leader of their own pile of amalgamated memes, outrages, circlejerks, clickbait, and other assorted simulacra.
It’s a well-known fact that everyone on the internet is an asshole. You may notice exceptions to this, and there are always exceptions, but the bulk of these exceptions exists in that realm where somebody is being an IRL person online. This isn’t just lack of anonymity; lots of people are assholes with their names and social media accounts attached to it. This is being somebody in the public eye: celebrities, politicians, corporations, basically anything with a phone you can call and public appearances you can disrupt.
One fine Sunday evening, after 7 hours of binging on Six Feet Under, I turned to my Facebook app to further disrupt my sleep patterns. Having acquired a surprising amount of local political connects given my sometimes erratic behavior, I saw several council members and political junkies referring to a statement made by Mayor Betsy Hodges. This was the statement of an IRL person as referred to earlier; as is typical, it called for civility, condemned others’ lack thereof, spoke from authority, and used some awesome words like “fomented” and “bombast.”
Normally, I would be getting the thrill of uncovering another shitstorm slapfight, and it most certainly is one of those, but one of the main players in this soap opera is an old friend: Councilmember Lisa Bender. To be perfectly clear, I am very biased in this whole thing. To put it another way, I am invested. How else would I be motivated to take the time to shift through the grease and the bullshit saturating this ball of tangled string? So instead of feeling my usual glee, I took the slapfight personally. It’s not as fun being part of the slapfight. Furthermore, the figurehead of the other side is the star of HGTV’s Rehab Addict Nicole Curtis. She’s saved a number of old houses from the chopping block in my city and made them lovely. She apparently lives right in the area. I’ve probably served her coffee or wine, or been in the grocery line with her at the co-op. She’s passionate about the neighborhood and my city, and she inspires others to preserve historicity. This bomb is way too close to home.
The temptation was very strong to wrap my hands in tape and enlist in an epic internet battle, but my curiosity got the better of me. Why are my Mayor and a reality show star sparring online? Why are dimwitted assholes from around the country calling my CM a bitch and threatening violence in that emotionally-stunted-idiot-behind-a-keyboard way? Assholes like Jeremy James Ezack from Harbor Beach Michigan; Craig Franklin, a retired police officer in New Port Richey, Florida; Buckeyes fan Steve Corcoran; and Kelly Peterson Gomez of Cottage Grove, Minnesota.
Where does it all begin? The asshole who started this whole mess was Nova Scotian sailor turned Master Builder Theron Potter Healy in 1892, when he decided to buy the land and build a house. The population of the city was about 165,000, and there were 36 council members. Lowry Hill East (aka The Wedge) was ward 8, district 33, and governed by Alderman Melvin Grimes. Though the bicycle craze had just begun in Minneapolis, and there were wheelmen demanding paved roads, the land at 2320 Colfax Avenue South was likely an empty field at this point.
Healy built a $7,000 house here to Edward F. Orth, son of John Orth, the founder of Grain Belt Brewing Company. It was a departure from the showy Queen Anne style and tended more neoclassical (i.e. plain and symmetrical) which was all the craze at the contemporary Chicago World’s Fair. Somehow, Orth or somebody started a fire by 1895, but Healy was still around to patch up the house. Orth was just around the corner from the Gluek’s House, and doubtless a number of brewskis were drained.
Orth moved to Lake Harriet before too long, and the house was sold to Thomas and Effie Kenyon, who made their fortune on old-timey sounding medicine. The year was 1903, and the neighborhood was finally a neighborhood. Various Johnsons from different families would live here until 1937.
There isn’t a lot of detailed information after this point. In 1948, the porch was enclosed with masonry. In 1965, the house became a multi-family building, then a rooming house in 1982. Being carved up into boarding units is not gentle on a building, and the structure wore down. This is where Anders Christenson and Trilby Busch first enter the story. Anders, fresh out of grad school with an English degree, and Trilby, an English instructor, researched and wrote about the 27 of 30 Healy houses in the Wedge neighborhood. The Orth House is described as “a shabby rooming house with asbestos siding.”
In 1991, asbestos or not, another fire occurred, and this will be important later. In 1992, Donald and Ramona Ziegler sold the house to Michael and Linda Crow for $145,000. The house is sided by vinyl instead of asbestos this time. After some health problems, Mr. Crow realized he might not be able to maintain his property and put it back on the market in 1997. For good measure, a third fire will occur in 2011.
It’s no secret that there’s any number of developers salivating at prime real estate to build condos and apartments in Minneapolis. Many of these are luxury, and in Uptown, a lot of 4-6 story multi-unit buildings would be built in between The Greenway and 28th Street. Many decried the changing nature of the neighborhood, and even though I had only been living there since 2001 or so, I could feel it after an Apple Store replaced the Uptown Bar in 2009, and Parasolé killed off Figlio later that year.
That said, CARAG, my neighborhood, mostly stayed the same. The teeming masses of trust-fund yuppies didn’t burn down Uptown, so I adjusted. Their money is green, and there are always fun places to be in Uptown, old and new.
The Healy Project (HP) is founded in February of 2012 by Andersen and Busch. Six months later, The Lander Group makes an offer. The proposal is a middle-income, net-zero waste apartment building with 45 units. The Minneapolis Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) approves the demolition, but Christensen appealed the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to designate the property for “study as a historic resource.” Crow appealed to the Minneapolis City Council on May 24, 2013, but it was denied.
Minneapolis was changing, however, and after a passionate and lengthy battle over the public funding of the Minnesota Vikings stadium and lots of young or new voters swelled the ballot boxes, 7 out of 13 wards would have new councilmembers. In Uptown, incumbent Meg Tuthill lost the DFL endorsement to Lisa Bender after the other new DFL candidates threw their support behind her. Tuthill still ran for office after saying she wouldn’t at the convention, but lost to Bender with less than half the votes. Again, I was not neutral in this. I was a stalwart Bender supporter: going door knocking, supporting her on social media, and even voting for her as a DFL delegate at the endorsement convention. I trust Bender implicitly, as we founded the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition together, and her passion, knowledge, ethics, and success impressed me.
It is here that some lines are drawn, if perhaps some are thicker than others. Bender was upfront about supporting development, and Tuthill was upfront about supporting preservation. Of course there’s all kind of grey area in between, and it’s not as if Bender plans to tear down the entire ward or Tuthill blocked all development. Therefore, Nicole Curtis endorsed Tuthill, whom she knew and knows personally, saying “with some of these candidates a new stadium is nothing compared to what they have planned.” Christensen and Busch were donors in the Tuthill campaign. Gary Thaden, a Tuthill supporter who falsely accused Bender of breaking campaign finance law, is a registered agent of the Healy Project. Brian Finstad, also with Healy, was a Tuthill supporter. Many of these key players live in the Wedge near Tuthill and the Orth House. This is the core of the Orth House preservation movement.
Less than a month after the new council is sworn in, the Minneapolis Residents for Responsible Development Coalition (MRRDC) is founded. Crow moves forward with an application for Demolition of a Historic Resource with the HPC, which is summarily denied. However, the CPED found that the property “does not appear eligible for historic designation as a landmark building” based on analysis by City Planner John Smoley. They also cited surveys by Mead & Hunt in 2005 and 2008 that did not recommend historic evaluation. They found that it “does not retain integrity in setting, design, materials, and workmanship” citing all the aforementioned modifications, many other modifications or removals of historic features, the policy of elimination of rooming houses in Minneapolis, and the zoning of the property for high-density residential.
The people in favor of development will be CM Bender, property owner Crow, ten other CM’s, Mayor Betsy Hodges, City Planner Smoley, and the developer. What I’ve been getting at is that the team in favor of preservation bet on the wrong horse and are motivated to make this politically costly to CM Bender. In no way do I question their commitment to preservation of old and historic properties, but I do question their motivation in how they are handling the politics of the situation and the fallout of Orth’s destruction. The team in favor of development have no prior agenda with each other, as far as one can tell.
The City Council will eventually vote 11-2 to approve Crow’s application to demolish his house. About this time, the mudslinging begins. Christensen dismisses Smoley’s credentials saying he “lives in a fourth ring suburb” and that “his Ph.D. thesis was on nuclear missile silos.” The MRRDC coins the word “Bendrification” and attacking what they would later term after the PR fallout “Extremist New Urbanist.”
HGTV and Nicole Curtis film part of the meeting and Curtis’ reaction for an episode of Rehab Addict. The footage and the later social media response show Curtis to be a passionate, powerful, stubborn advocate for preservation. Though the typical heavy-handed editing of her reality show makes me cringe, it is impossible to doubt her commitment to what she believe is right.
On June 9, 2014, a motion for temporary injunction (i.e. delay demo) from The Healy Project is denied by a district court finding, amongst other things, that the only expert testimony the Project was able to produce came from the founders of The Healy Project (i.e. they were their own expert) and Robert Roscoe, and that their testimony “lacks foundational reliability, and is not based on the type of data or education generally relied upon by experts in the field of historic designation or preservation. Each expert ultimately presented a personal, biased opinion, which cannot be helpful to the trier of fact, and which lacks foundation and credibility.”
On October 3, 2014, the Lander plan is approved. On October 18, apparently a contractor begins work without the proper permit, and Curtis takes a dig at Bender’s recent move to Uptown (relative to Tuthill). Interestingly, Curtis and Bender moved to Uptown around the same time. Maybe this whole thing was set up in advance in a secret meeting between the two as an elaborate prank? This is the first personal attack on Bender by Curtis.
In February 2015, Bender’s Facebook account begins to be regularly the target of attempted hacking. Healy Project member Ezra Gray jokes about releasing video of Bender “enjoying a post-coital cigarette with the developer. Healy Project supporter and Orth House neighbor Eric Meininger takes to Twitter to defend Gray, and Christensen and Busch like the status. Bender supporter and aide to CM Cam Gorden Robin Garwood condemns the “reactions of a small number of relatively conservative homeowners and “preservationist” TV personalities” coining it “Bender Derangement Syndrome.” In the comments of his post he points out that they Healy Project’s claims that Bender, et. al. are lying and corrupt are without merit.
The social media mudslinging picks up. Curtis criticizes Garwood’s subsidized trip to Cuba and the size of the City Council. Curtis claims on Twitter to have “read a disturbing chain of emails from @lisabendermpls @AndrewForMpls to constituents –wow,” but has not produced or quoted said emails as of this writing. Lowry
On February 10, Bender nominates Lowry Hill East Residential Historic District for designation at an HPC meeting. Hopefully, when everyone’s done screaming, they can unite over this and work together, but I foresee political pissing contests over the size of the district.
On February 24, The Orth House and its neighbor are demolished. Curtis responds “Lisa Bender lied…the Orth died.” The next day, she posts a picture of the demolition claiming there’s been no demolition in the community for 40 years. Later, she posts “We lost a great home here in Minneapolis thanks to” Bender. A local blog, The Wedge Times-Picayune, publishes an article highlighting the vitriol of Curtis’ fans on Facebook: calling her “bitch” and making sexual slurs. There are multiple claims of corruption. On the 28th, Curtis posts emotional cell phone footage of demolition (hold the phone landscape-style Curtis!).
Later that day, Mayor Betsy Hodges condemns Curtis and her fans, claiming “This behavior is reprehensible. Nicole Curtis has fomented and abetted this behavior, and she has done *nothing* to either stop it or exhort her supporters to exhibit civility and decorum.” Curtis responds “I would love to have control over the million of you that follow my page” and “I don’t condone threats of violence nor anything of that sort.” Articles are written by Fox9, CBS, City Pages, and MPR, and blog posts are written by MinnPost, The Wedge Times-Picayune, Bring Me the News, and others.
Curtis responds to the Fox article on her page “I’m sorry Mayor Hodges, but you can take shots at me all day long-but, at the very least, salute the people that work alongside me and put their own time and energy in this city not because they are paid to, but because they are dedicated and believe.”
Bender ultimately responds with an essay on March 2 explaining her vote and the history of the conflict. Furthermore, she says she is disappointed with “the aggressive, sometimes violent rhetoric that has been used by a few local people (and hundreds of people from elsewhere in the country who have been emailing, calling, tweeting and posting on facebook about this for over a year) to spread lies about me, call me names, and threaten me” and calls to “return to working on the important issues at hand and move forward with civility and cooperation.”
The Healy Project will dispute much of the official record. According to official sources, fire gutted the top two floors, more or less. HP disputes this and linked to a Google Drive for evidence that it’s just not true. I watched a lot of the video, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it as the quality is very bad, being very shaky in dark rooms with a sometimes unhelpful handheld light. You certainly can’t see 360 degree views of the rooms, and though they don’t prove the rooms to be in good or decent shape, they don’t prove that any of the testimony was inaccurate, as was stated in the denied injunction, “After a fire gutted the second and third floors, the Crows significantly remodeled the interior.” And even if it was inaccurate, as Garwood said in his above-referenced post, “Judge Magill… notes that ‘Parties agree that the interior of the home holds no bearing as to whether it is deemed a historic property.’”
HP did link to some salvaged material from the house: in addition to the pile of wood in the above mentioned Ezra Gray post, there was a nice fireplace and a less nice cracked one; a bunch of nice looking doors, some of which were shoved in the walls for safekeeping; some cruddy looking wainscoting, door frames, and millwork; cracked and discolored tiles; and a few nice windows. It was good that these items were saved, but they sure don’t make a house.
There was claims of other lies, but the most direct and perhaps damaging to Bender was the meme crafted by Curtis: “Bender lied… Orth died.” After spending hours of reading through official documents, newspaper articles, blog posts, and social media flotsam, I could find no specific mention of what Lisa Bender lied about. I could find plenty of claims that she was misled by developers, by the City Planner, by the property owner. Most of it was bullshit, and the rest difference of opinion, but nothing actually specifically pointed to a lie by Bender. There was the usual complaints of corruption, bribery, etc. but there was not a trace of evidence that any politician accepted money for their support in this whole fiasco. Well, except for contributions made to Tuthill’s campaign, but those were small potatoes, as there are strict rules to Minneapolis campaigns.
Where are we at now? There are thousands of angry Nicole Curtis fans ready to extract revenge on CM Bender and Mayor Hodges, but as easy as internet activism is, it’s also futile. They will continue watching reality TV and making passionate if awkward social media pleas for justice. The majority do not live in Minneapolis, much less Ward 10. Many do not know Mayor Hodges is a woman, do not know Bender and Hodges are different people, and do not understand how the Minneapolis City Council works and its purview. They admire her and in a general sense preservation, but they will likely have little if any effect on the future political landscape of Minneapolis.
Curtis and the Healy Project are not going anywhere, but should the Wedge become a historic district, they may have an easier time preserving Healy homes. There’s plenty more work to be done, and I think we can strike a balance between preservation and development. Curtis will undoubtedly find more homes to rehab, and there’s no shortage of those in Minneapolis. Curtis has repeatedly stated she is not interested in public office, though Tuthill running again in 2017 would not be terribly surprising.
The Lander Group’s project does look pretty cool. According to the website, “The units will be geared to more affordable budgets with the smaller sizing, and real transportation options.” It will be designed for cyclists with public work areas, accommodations for bringing bikes inside, and a bike shower. There’s talk of transit passes being included with rent, and car sharing. That said, I’m not counting unhatched chickens when it comes to new development. This is about as far as I can get from my general corporate cynicism.
Bender still has a ward to run, and she’s a busy woman. Being a councilmember is far from single-issue. A lot can happen in three years, and news cycles don’t tend to last longer than a week: people have short attention spans. Uptown will continue to grow. Places will open, and places will close. I predict that it will be better to walk, bike, and live in Uptown.
And someone will post or say something stupid on the internet, and most of the world will either forget this has ever happened, or never know it did.
Edit: 3/4/15, 09:06 Made some changes after proofreading with fresh eyes, added some sentences to clarify ideas.
Edit 2: 3/4/15, 09:41 Changed the neighborhood designation for somebody.
Edit 3: 3/4/15, 10:00 Phrasing.
Edit 4: 3/6/15, 11:00 Added some sentences re: Curtis, subtracted a bad joke.