The view from Middlebrook Hall to Riverside Plaza

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Middlebrook Hall, located on 22nd and Riverside Avenue, is the only West Bank University of Minnesota student housing. When new students arrive, they find themselves in a rich but unfamiliar cultural milieu, a densely urban and multi-cultural neighborhood that sometimes seems dangerous. 

Most Middlebrook residents said that they had never heard of Cedar-Riverside before moving to the dorm. Stacy Nehring, a freshman from De Pere, Wisconsin, was told by peers that the neighborhood was “pretty safe, but sketchy.” Many were also told by their parents and fellow students that it was unsafe to walk alone and that they shouldn’t go out in the neighborhood at night. Jared Zeigler, a sophomore from Lake City, Minnesota, spoke for many of the residents: “I haven’t interacted with it (Cedar-Riverside neighborhood); I’ve just heard about it.”

FULL DISCLOSURE: Last year Jessie Lieb was a resident and this year she is a Community Advisor of Middlebrook Hall.

Peter Edge, a first-year resident of Middlebrook Hall from St. Paul, was more familiar with the neighborhood. While he had never been to the neighborhood before coming to campus, he had been told by friends and family that the neighborhood was unsafe. Edge, a recreational skateboarder, said the Riverside Plaza was a known skating location, but that his friends felt it was too dangerous to visit. “The crack stacks have a reputation,” said Edge. When asked what that reputation was, he was unable to elaborate. 

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.

Most of the residents interviewed said they hadn’t had any intentional interactions with the neighborhood because they were too busy with other activities and getting to know the campus. The few who had some interaction with the neighborhood had only positive things to say.

Ivy Beech, a freshman from Los Angeles, California, said, “I just find it a cool area. I love Acadia; I love Hard Times. It is grungy and reminds me of L.A.” Tiffany Chen, a sophomore from Maple Grove, Minnesota, said, “I have found really unique places that I probably wouldn’t have ever gone to if I didn’t live over here.”

Sophia Ginis, a former Community Advisor and a Middlebrook resident between 2004 and 2006 initially shared the same opinions as many of the current residents. (Community Advisor is similar to a Residential Advisor and is also known as a CA.)

“When I first moved in to Middlebrook as a freshman I liked the neighborhood, but I didn’t feel comfortable in it,” she said. Her perspective has changed drastically, and Ginis is now the Vice President of the West Bank Community Coalition (WCC), the recognized neighborhood group.

Ginis said she was initially drawn to the neighborhood, like Chen and many other residents, by the unique restaurants and theaters. She eventually got to know owners of the businesses and community members and wanted to get more involved. As Ginis became involved with the WCC and familiar with the neighborhood she “started to feel secure and hopeful about where the neighborhood was going.” Ginis said she “saw the desire of everyone to improve the neighborhood” and “just knowing each other helps build a sense of community, gain trust, and identify problems.”

Over the years, “just getting to know each other” seems like the hardest step for U of M students. Ginis said, “As a freshman, I didn’t think the neighborhood wanted the students to get involved.” Now on the other side, Ginis said the truth is exactly the opposite. “The neighborhood definitely wants the young people to be involved. It can be a learning experience for them and their participation is also important to us.”

WCC’s main goal is eliminating Cedar-Riverside’s negative stigma as an unsafe and struggling neighborhood, and Ginis believes students can help.

“The easiest way to get involved as a student is to go to meetings and see where they need help,” Ginis said. Neighborhood meetings are usually held on Tuesday nights.

Specific information can be found by emailing one of the people under the Contact Us link on their website.