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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The week the Twin Cities blew up

Betty Firth
Posted 6/3/20

I moved to Minneapolis amazed by the squeaky-clean city full of amazing parks and lakes, with alleys that were in better shape than the streets of Chicago, my home for the previous year. At the time …

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The week the Twin Cities blew up

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I moved to Minneapolis amazed by the squeaky-clean city full of amazing parks and lakes, with alleys that were in better shape than the streets of Chicago, my home for the previous year. At the time Minneapolis was not very ethnically diverse, so I bought a duplex in the Central neighborhood because I didn’t want to live in a place where everyone looked like me. I had grown up in an almost entirely white community, a small town northwest of Chicago, and I welcomed city life with an interesting mix of people. The neighborhood was a potpourri of ages, races, and socio-economic profiles with a large contingent of thirty-something liberals with change on their agendas. My block on Portland Avenue was a cross section of single family and rental properties, long-term owners and renters, and others who came and went fairly regularly. The busy street did not invite interaction with neighbors on the other side.
The multiplicity of cultures in Chicago with its proliferation of small, excellent, and reasonably-priced restaurants had educated and spoiled my palate. I wondered how I was going to deal with the surplus of bland “American” cuisine offered in the Cities. Chicago had also given me, a naive suburbanite, my first exposure to lying landlords, gang graffiti on my garage, and cheering crowds at Cubs, White Sox and Bears games, complete with men urinating on the wall panels surrounding the Bears stadium. I knew within a couple months that I didn’t want to stay. Chicago was just too much…too big, too dirty, too noisy, too angry, too impersonal. Minneapolis looked pretty good in comparison, and I settled for less Mexican, Indian, and Thai food.
Had I known more about living in cities, I probably would have chosen a different neighborhood, because the area I lived in didn’t have the necessary components to make easy connections between residents. It’s the everyday things that do that: the grocery store, the library, the drugstore, the laundromat, bank, florist, post office, movie theater, and hardware store. It’s the park where you always walk your dog and the coffee shop, food co-op, second-hand store, and small, locally-owned restaurant that you hang out in, getting to know the owners and your neighbors who frequent the same places. We just didn’t have enough of those things to provide a core of casual connections, so I never did feel that sense of belonging.
I decided to try the neighborhood association route, went to meetings, and volunteered to be the block captain. The kids would come out if there were food and games, but the parents shied away. Two sisters in their 80s reminisced about earlier days when they held block club meetings in their home; now they were too afraid to let strangers in. The neighborhood and the association were full of good-hearted, hard-working residents, but it seemed like a losing battle to me. A long-term activist resident told me that they considered a neighborhood meeting successful if people showed up and nobody threw any chairs.
I had a home-based business, but I lived the rest of my life outside of my neighborhood. I learned my way around both cities and a lot of suburbs, more so than many Minnesotans who stuck pretty close to home. After a few years, I found the Quakers, and Minneapolis Friends Meeting and Friends for a Non-violent World (FNVW) provided a center for my social, spiritual, and volunteer activities.
Through the years, the Cities changed dramatically; the metropolitan area grew by almost one and a half million people from 1980 to present day. The influx of immigrants brought their cultures and created neighborhoods and businesses including restaurants and grocery stores. The gangs also moved in from other U.S. cities, identifying Minnesota as a market ripe for the harvest. A peace officer from our neighborhood who had lived in St. Louis and Dallas recognized the graffiti identifying each gang, and he tried to warn the mayor, who refused to pay attention, preferring to live in denial. The gunfire was more frequent, occasionally resulting in tragedy, as when a neighbor boy who was mentally challenged, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting because, unknowingly, he wore the wrong colors that belonged to a rival gang. One day I was saying goodbye to a friend in front of my duplex, and a man with a gun ran right by us though the yard, followed a few seconds later by a police officer with his gun drawn. They disappeared into the back, running toward the alley. She looked at me, wide-eyed and said, “Are we in a movie?” We never heard what happened.
But the gunfire and occasional problems with tenants were not the worst of it. What got me down was the persistent lack of civility: the broken glass on the sidewalks, the litter everywhere, the noise from overly loud boom boxes on porches, through open windows, and from jacked-up stereo systems in passing cars, making the glass in my windows rattle. There was seldom a cheerful greeting, except from the children who helped me plant peppers and flowers the last summer I was there. I was white and a landlady and not to be trusted.
But it was still my neighborhood, my home for twenty years, and I defended it to those who would criticize or ask, “Why are you living here?”, like the policeman who responded to a call I made. They were asking the wrong question. They should have been asking how to make cities and neighborhoods work better for everyone. They should have been identifying the lack of resources, the lack of interest in providing more opportunities, education and jobs, the lack of knowledge about building strong communities. Some of my tenants were low income, some were black, and we were often treated with disrespect when we asked for help from the police who I wanted to ask, “Why are you living in Eden Prairie?”
I was eager to leave the city, but it wasn’t until after I moved to Ely that I realized how shredded my nerves were from the constant urban energy drain. It took me about six months to really relax and breathe more easily. I feel grateful every day that I am lucky enough to live in this small, quiet town where we have our differences, but I believe, at the heart of it, we know we’re all in this together when we greet each other in the grocery store or post office. But my heart broke last week when George Floyd was killed in my old neighborhood, and the city and country blew up, boiling over with the pent-up frustration and anger of people being ground down by poverty, injustice, and hopelessness, trapped by a system that changes way too slowly or none at all. Will this be enough to bring recognition and the will for revolutionary change? Only if we insist and work to make that happen.

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