North Minneapolis has many fences. Four feet high chain link fences, ten feet high homemade wood fences, chest high white plastic picket fences. Fences staked in the 1920s, last fall, in the 70s. I notice them on my runs, which span from six to ten miles, total, every six days. Sometimes I run into neighboring northeast Minneapolis, and on occasion into suburban Robbinsdale. Sometimes I run a straight bee line out and back. Other times I run a circuit, adding on half mile out routes like spikes on a cactus. Sometimes I run in far north Minneapolis and sometimes I run three miles south into Bryn Mawr, an upper middle class neighborhood at the southern tip of north Minneapolis.
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Today, the ninth of January, 2012, saw a high of 49 degrees in Minneapolis. I struck out for my run on bare, gritty pavement with no gloves, hat, or winter jacket. Just my black running tights, shorts, and long-sleeved wicking running shirt that never seems to really wick the sweat off my skin. What I love most about running is just that: me and my feet get me from one end of town to another. Running is pure self-reliance. And it is a high—better than any drug or alcoholic beverage, and I’ve had more than a few in my past. Running is also meditation. It is a time to let ideas come in and to release a few others to see where, and if, they land.
Running is a way of understanding, of observing the world. What I see and experience is fuller and slower and more immediate than driving or biking or even rollerblading the same route. It is like reading a book versus watching TV. Running makes me feel alive like nothing else. It helps me belong. It connects me to that raised chunk of sidewalk I pass every day. To that split siding on the light blue bungalow down on 39th. To the small, brown pit bull that never barks but is always in the backyard of the house with the sign above the garage that reads: Asshole Alley. Asshole Alley always makes me think of “alligator alley” which makes me think of the times I’ve visited or lived in Florida. The sidewalk, siding, and dog might get salted by snow one day, pelted by rain another, buttered by sun on another, but they’re always the same under whatever weather they are wearing. Running is reliable.
Every time I set a foot down on the earth during a run I stitch up my life in a manner that could not happen if I were not running or if I were running indoors. Research conducted with ADHD children in Chicago discovered that if these children walk through an urban park for even a handful of minutes every day, their symptoms diminish. Running outside is like that for me. It calms me. It physically connects me, even intimately connects me with my environment, and I feel safer, more connected than if I were buzzing about on wheels in the same areas day after day.
Running essentially the same routes week after week gives me a sense of place, of belonging, of familiarity that is crucial to my life. It is as if I am resetting my fragmented, disjointed mind and emotions. On each run I find a chunk of my life, exam a piece of it—rough, smooth, basalt, salt, bitter diamond sharp enough to cut—turn it over, rub it against my cheek. Test it like a toddler. I stitch together the patterns of my life and the stitching could not occur without the physicality of the running: the wind, the smells, the sights, the sounds, the movement. In short, our senses: how we receive the world. How we categorize it, understand it, know it.
Today, I decided to run straight down Penn into Bryn Mawr. I’d spent the morning in a Bryn Mawr coffee house on Penn at the very place where I’d meet my 3.5 mile marker and turn around, to head back into north Minneapolis. It seemed like a good way to finish off the day. All my life, whenever and however I can, I “circle up”, make connections, no matter how insignificant. Given how fractured my life and therefore my psyche has been, creating a matrix, a web out of insignificant events is not only about survival, it’s also about quality of life. It’s about holding on, holding myself together so as not to shatter, finally, completely, and utterly into someone who cannot pull herself together again. Making those associations, those completions, stitches up my mind, makes me more whole, builds a canister for my psyche so that I don’t lose the trailings of my life: little pellets of life shat about with no meaning, no connection, limited awareness.
So off I went, the sun spilling golden across the street, bouncing off second-story windows, gifting me a swath of winter tan across my cheeks, the ball of each foot landing on pavement, twisting slightly on sand, then kicking back, propelling me three quarters of a mile down my street. Past the block gang members in their bright white t-shirts took over last summer, past the block where the stray dog we took in then lost was last seen, over a busy four-lane street with the lesbian-owned gift shop and Jewish-owned hardware store, to the tornado blocks—those hardest hit by the June tornado, their roofs still gaping holes as if someone punched clear through to the attic floors exposing rafters and dressers and mattresses and lopsided piles of clothes left behind by renters and flippers who had no insurance, many of whom lost everything.
All along my run the sun blinked off the high wood fences (unless you really pay attention, you might be surprised by how much sun-glare is emitted from a wood fence, even one without much stain left), melted around the contours of the chain link fences lining it the same as fresh-falling snow, spiked off the six feet high steel black fences with spear-like finials reminiscent of some Middle Age torture device.
I was ebullient. My knees high, smiling at everyone I passed—a “good day” to the woman raking leaves on the corner, a “hello” to the stoic teenage boys shuffling down the sidewalk. On a tornado block, I observed the open rooftops, blue tarps drooping languidly in the January heat over bare rafters, and newly vacant lots where the city and banks demolished houses. It did not depress me, as it usually does. I turned the corner, sped half a block to Penn where the newly remodeled gas station glared in all its metallic red, white, and royal blue glory under the spring-like sun, glanced at the abandoned gas station caddy corner from the new one, empty since I first moved to this neighborhood eight years ago. With its flat, slanted roof and big windows I always think what a great coffee house it would make whenever I pass it.
Now one block off of Broadway, the busiest street in north Minneapolis, remnants of the tornado were unavoidable—boarded up three-story blonde brick apartment buildings, a middle-aged white homeless man in the entryway of one of the apartment buildings; cavernous three-story houses built in the early 1900s, plywood nailed over each window and door, squirrels darting in and out of holes in the soffit. Across Broadway from me as my knees churned south down Penn in the unseasonably warm afternoon, stood a two-story brick building formerly home to a ground level liquor store, its sign still intact: Broadway Liquor Outlet (BLO) in sky green. (BLO always jars me and I wonder about the motivations of the owner-a white man who grew up in north Minneapolis. Is he making a snide nod to cocaine use or to the implicit sexual innuendo? Both?) The upstairs apartment windows were blown out in June, the glass edges like jagged canine teeth, their vacant insides exposed to the whims of the weather. A few pieces of plastic flapped in the wind. I sprinted across Broadway, my heels clipping the insides of my calves. Despite the carnage, the city’s insufficient response, the homes lost, I smiled, still ebullient. I couldn’t help it. I was happy. It was spring in the middle of January in Minnesota.
Further down Penn, blackened, shriveled siding around a house’s bay windows made evident the now extinguished path of flames licking out from inside. The posted sign confirmed: Arson. Other houses were nearly toppled by the tornado—missing roofs, sagging porches, boarded windows. One more block and I was free of the tornado section, practically skipping down dusty sidewalks, I passed fence after fence, some one foot over my head, some one foot tall. I watched the sun skip with me down each picket, felt the warmth on my hands and face, my body free of layered clothing. When I was a kid Minnesota spring was buoyant with hope, with freedom, with awakening. I was gleeful, my surroundings beautiful and bright. As I ran, I was an animal welcoming joy from and to its body, flush with glee from the simple physical exertion of running.
Another half mile or so down Penn, just south of Highway 55, I followed the splash of sun across the wood fences as I ran by—these were mostly tall, gray to tan to reddish with no space between the planks, and in varying states of varnish. Some had very little varnish left, others were glossy. In my mind, I categorize north Minneapolis fences according to perceived age, height, and proximity of planks. The taller the fences, the closer together the planks, the placement of fences in front yards as well as back yards, and the quality of materials indicate (to my mind) areas hit hard by crime over the past fifty years along with the ability of the homeowner to pay for a fence. I like to speculate about the history of the area based upon the size, quality, and ornamentation of the houses; the state of disrepair; the size of the yards; and of course, the fences that layer each property, providing clues like a core drilled from earth, gray and red hued rock sediment sealed over millennia.
Often, as I run or otherwise travel through north Minneapolis, I pay attention to other indicators of past or current stressed areas: stark black bars drilled over first floor windows (there were many more of these even ten years ago); glass pane windows turned into block glass windows; other windows bricked in, leaving a rectangular shaped bright new brick area that does not blend in with the rest of the house; and finally $1.89 red on black Beware of the Dog signs taped, nailed, and stapled to doors, windows, and fences.
The history of north Minneapolis is complex. In the late 1800s through the 1950s and 60s north Minneapolis was a predominately Jewish area. The Jewish community never had to leave the area if they did not want to-everything they needed existed in north Minneapolis-and indeed, many may not have desired to brave the Anti-Semitism found in the surrounding area. Minnesota, in the 1950s, was known as the U.S. capital of Anti-Semitism. Often denied mortgages, Jewish families clustered together in extended units and built community in north Minneapolis. Then, riding the wave of the Civil Rights movement, in the 60s, African Americans began moving into the area and the Jewish community began relocating. Working class whites lived in north Minneapolis as well, along with Native families that came south from the reservations, but Jewish and African American populations are most associated with the Northside.
Some vestiges of the Jewish life are still present. Mezuzahs existed in now Christian houses even fifteen years ago. Most of the Christian residents did not know what they were. My partner, who is Jewish, used to conduct energy audits in north Minneapolis, and became confused when she would see mezuzahs in homes with Christmas trees lighting up living room corners. She thought there were a lot of African American Jews in north Minneapolis until she asked and the current residents said they did not know what they were.
Recently, a Jewish couple looking at homes in the Victory neighborhood pulled up a foyer rug and found a swastika built into the parquet flooring. Not surprisingly, they decided against purchasing the house. And a cultural overlap occurs when gang members, who use a six sided star like the Star of David, break into vacant houses, painting their signs throughout the house. April and I ran across one such house when we were looking to purchase a home. The entire inside of the house was painted with enormous, six feet tall stars. Even though we knew the gang members were using the Jewish star as their symbol, and we’ve never met a gang member who realized the Jewish history of the symbol, we could barely stand to be in the house. Lastly, former synagogues that are now Christian churches dot the Northside. The religious history of north Minneapolis is evident on my daily runs, thanks to the menorahs and Stars of David that awkwardly coexist on the churches, the Jewish symbols preserved because the buildings are considered historical sites. Running down Penn Ave, I can’t avoid the sight of menorahs and Stars of David next to “Jesus Is Lord” in neon red.
On my run today, I noticed the closer I got to Bryn Mawr the higher and better built the fences became. I speculated that this area, at least at some point, was wealthier than some other parts. But it is also close to Glenwood, an avenue stocked with businesses, so it’s possible they had more problems around there over the decades as increased crime often occurs around businesses, especially convenience stores. Whatever the reasons, I continued running, my heart stocked with joy like a fishery plump with walleye. As I stepped down one foot after the other I thought what a gift the warm weather had been, what a tremendous lift in my mood it created, how much the weather impacts the mood and therefore psychology of an area and therefore culture of that area, and boom-my foot landed, turned on sand, and my thoughts jarred.
What about those negatively impacted by the warm weather and paucity of snow, I wondered. Who would they be? Snow blower salespeople. City plows. Snow shoveling businesses. The teens who shovel snow for a few bucks in north Minneapolis. And then I flashed to the Native prostituted women four other women and I interviewed over the past few years and the horrific stories they told us, beginning generations ago, often in boarding schools. Many of them relate the abuses of their lives now with genocide and colonization. Now, a number of the women shovel snow for $5 so that they can eat at McDonald’s, so that they can have food. And my foot scraped along the cement and my heart went thud and my whole entire psyche dropped like a gate had opened, flooding my heart with sadness. The high rates of homelessness in a land that was theirs for thousands of year. The sexual abuse suffered at age three and four often by white foster parents, the abuse introduced into their homes by boarding schools. They don’t have to suck dick for that $5 if they can shovel a walk instead.
The thudding pain and grief for those women turned into instantaneous survivor guilt for enjoying the above average temperature day while those women are suffering. I know I don’t have to suffer because someone else is, but it happens. I ran on. New cedar fences towering over my head–separating, dividing, protecting, holding stories. A few more minutes and I crossed a bridge that arches over a park, the downtown Minneapolis skyline jutting upward like bottom teeth to my left and the Chippewa water distillery to my right.
Once I hit Bryn Mawr the fences disappeared. There’s no need for them here, apparently. No glock carrying teenage boys sprinting through yards at 2am with rookie cops chasing after them like the video games the boy-men cops play on their days off. No random pop pop firework-like shots producing bullets that travel through alleys, across vacant lots, into a second story closet where a three-year-old boy sits with his unfinished plate of spaghetti, hiding with his siblings from the sound of gunshots, one of which will end his life when it pierces the base of his skull. But even here, in quiet, upscale Bryn Mawr, there are remnants of racism, colonization, genocide. Two summers ago, a woman, Native, homeless, just turned eighteen, was found murdered in the tall grasses along Bryn Mawr’s south border. A line or two appeared in the newspaper about her body, sprawled out in the tall grasses. There was grief in the Native community and silence everywhere else. Her body dumped. My Adidas spun on the sidewalk, crunching sand as I ran back toward north Minneapolis, grieving this woman I did not know, her life and death not even a blip to the people of Bryn Mawr. Fences or no fences, we do not escape historical trauma. It is all around us, whether we connect with it or not.