We live in a sketchy neighborhood. Growing up, our daughter Michel used to call it the ghetto, but it isn’t, she was just being teenage urban dramatic. Ghetto in America is synonymous with slums, and this is not a slum. I have since learned that in Rome, the Ghetto, with a capital G, is one of the classiest old neighborhoods of the city along its bank of the Tiber. In Prague, on the other hand, the ghetto not so classy an image, or in Warsaw.
What Michel meant was she was self-consciously aware of growing up in the inner city. Though she literally accused me of risking her and our family’s lives by taking up residence here, our lives didn’t turn out too bad at all. She and her brother Vincent both graduated South High, just a couple blocks from here. I suppose for them it was one thing to attend one of the most prestigious urban public high schools but another thing to actually live in the hood where it’s located. Our town was labeled Murderapolis then for its gangster homicides and it tainted us all. A police officer was assassinated at a pizza shack not half a mile up Lake St. I could not help but have serious misgivings about my surroundings in three decades and more at this homestead, and still Roxanne and I abide.
Ever on the cusp of gentrification, our neighborhood gets skipped by in the urban landscape for the more chic and toni parts of town, so old houses with solid bones like ours remain affordable on the local real estate market mixed with lower rents in line with a muti-housing market accustomed to being a low rent district on the Monopoly board.
It’s not a high crime area. It’s not immune to crime. Statistics show public safety around here is pretty high. We are not specimens, however much we are an organic community of leftovers, homebodies, meanderers and nobodies sharing space on a trapezoidal map called Corcoran. Nobody moves here to be hip or find redemption, and certainly not to speculate in real estate. There’s an invisibleness, anonymity to this location. A comfort zone of neutrality.
When we meet people when we travel and they ask us where we live we say Minneapolis, and they then ask which suburb. Roxanne and I seem to strike some people as suburban, and some of them guess, Plymouth, Richfield, Coon Rapids. Some people can hardly believe people like us live within the inner city. I’m not sure what that means or how it reflects on us or them.
Our house was built in 1913. The deed says the lot is located in Griswold’s second addition to the city of Minneapolis. Nobody seems to recall who Griswold was, no statue of Old Griz resembling Chevy Chase in the park, not a Holiday Road within the city limits. Corcoran as a neighborhood unto itself was created in the 1970s around an elementary school that no longer exists that was named after an early immigrant settler to the territory who taught school and posted the mail in the 1850s. There are about 87 neighborhoods with names and boundaries all over the city, all distinctly formed around local neighborhood organizations responsible for nongovernmental administration of resources to their community, like grants, referrals and other informational networks of do-gooders who put to use things like federal and state aid to cities. There have been neighborhood organizations and councils and committees and block clubs in this city (like any city) since the first meetings along the falls of St Anthony, and I’m sure some neighborhoods pulled a lot of clout by the representation of their residents in city and county government. Corcoran territory was once part of a greater neighborhood called Powderhorn, so named for the biggest inner city central park in east Minneapolis, itself named for the shape of its valley and its lake. To the east further Corcoran borders Longfellow. In the Great Society that existed in the 1970s it was considered crucial not to allow inner cities to decay, and so a neighborhood awareness was fostered at the city level to create formal organizations and territories of virtually the same size to try to stir some identity among the residents, a Model City approach to urban survival. It was a very liberal approach to fending social problems, one of many that still works. A result was the creation of Corcoran neighborhood out of twelve or so blocks of fringe Powderhorn, a portion of city Powderhorn doesn’t miss at all, the part that abuts East Lake St and Hiawatha Avenue.
An esteemed elder visitor from Wausau, Wisconsin said our house is a Sears house. He recognized its floor plan and the style of its kit assembly. By Sears house I think he meant Craftsman, sold and shipped by catalogue, assembled on site, but I have no proof of authenticity. It’s probably a cheap knockoff of a Sears house — cheap as in inexpensive, done by budget, efficiently constructed — and don’t expect any claim from me to historical designation. Originally the house was constructed for gas lighting — whoever designed and built the house in 1913 completely missed electricity. Gas lamps and fixtures had to be retrofitted to knob and tube wiring almost right away. No architect configured the kitchen to include an electric refrigerator. We have rewired and redesigned the kitchen twice more. That’s why I’m skeptical it was a real Craftsman house. I think it was a bootleg job of obsolete outdated plans, executed quite well, that got this solid dwelling constructed on this corner lot in Griswold’s second addition.
Roxanne and I acquired it in 1981 from the estate of the dad who passed away and left it to his only son, now orphaned, who grew up there. His name was Ramon Muxter. He was a fairly known photographer gone off to New York. Credited as the inventor of the selfie, see his self portraits with Mae West and William Burroughs at the MIA, taken at arm’s length with his Leica. I had no idea who the seller was until the night of the final walk through before closing, when we met Ramon, and I recognized him as the guy who did album covers for Dave Ray and Tony Glover and had things like the Mae West and William Burroughs selfies in the MIA collection. Of course he joked he would have jacked the price even higher had he known he was selling to a fan. He was cashing out to go back to New York and buy a loft. The joke was on all of us in 1981 trying to do a house deal. Roxanne and I wanted the place to establish our family. At the time Michel was three and Vincent was on the way. Ramon Muxter wanted quick cash. The house didn’t qualify for a conventional thirty year mortgage. Interest was about twenty percent anyway. The real estate agent found an investor partnership to cash out Ramon and give us the house on a five year contract for deed at a mere 12%.
I remember when we first moved in, the two old guys who used to walk around the blocks together, Tony and Stanley, the Polish guy and the Russian, they thought we paid too much for the house. They owned houses one street over from us and they were sure nobody would buy the Muxter house, it was way overpriced.
Tony and Stanley lived most of their adult lives in the neighborhood. World War II refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, they worked their careers as machinists at the White truck plant or at the Minneapolis Moline factory, which were then located across the railroad yard bordering E Lake St and Hiawatha Avenue, both shut down since the early 1970s. These two chums, they prided themselves in being old, long time retired pensioners. They used to walk to work carrying lunch buckets. Raised their families hereabouts. They remembered the neighborhood before the new South High was built and when the block that is now the park was the site of Corcoran Elementary.
When we bought the house Roxanne and I were not new to the neighborhood. We had lived in a fourplex apartment on Longfellow Ave near Cedar and Lake since before Michel was born, so we knew the neighborhood for what it was, working stiff families like Tony and Stanley. We used to take 32nd St as a shortcut to or through Hiawatha Ave and go past this house, at a corner at a stop sign, and we used to admire it from the street. A modest two story with an extruding set of bay windows facing south. Open front porch. Stucco siding. A stained glass window set high on an extrusion similar to the bay windows. Green yard. Flowers and shrubs. You could guess an older couple lived there — maybe we saw them, the Muxters putzing in the yard. The house was set back from the street allowing a wide yard, and on the border of the yard and the sidewalk along the street stood four tall mature maple trees creating a shady arbor over the property, which in the fall lit up in gold. I do not recall saying to myself or to Roxanne or even little Michel, wow, it would be worth raking every last leaf to live in that house with the beautiful maples.
I was turning 30. Roxanne and I were together almost ten years. We had a daughter age three. Expected a second child in the spring — back then it was common not to know the gender. Roxanne’s career as a research scientist took off. I was a store manager for the Krayon Film Shops chain. It seemed like we were making decent money, saving up for a down payment on a house. With interest rates so high we knew we shouldn’t expect much house for our money. We didn’t want to move to the suburbs, either. Our apartment on Longfellow would not suffice for two kids, so we knew we would have to move either way, rent or buy. At that stopsign on 32nd St we noticed a realtor’s for sale sign in the Muxters’ yard.
We called the realtor expecting nothing to come of it. We expected the price too high, we would not qualify for a mortgage, somebody else already bought it. The realtor arranged a walk through. The interior woodwork charmed us. It was cozy and homey. It had a clawfoot bathtub. Very reliable and fairly new gas boiler furnace — radiator heat. Serviceable kitchen, especially since it was designed and built before the advent of refrigerators. The plumbing would require upgrading to copper horizontal pipes. The electrical wiring would have to be redone to meet current code. And the entire upstairs — that second story as seen from the street — was entirely unfinished, just an open attic, an illusion — Ramon used to use it as a photo studio (a darkroom in the basement had been converted for the showing into a tool closet). The realtor said she represented a motivated seller who needed to cash out his inheritance to get on with his life in New York. She pitched us what seemed like a reasonable price, said she could get us financing through a contract for deed with some private investors, and offered to hook us up with the plumber and electrician to bring the dwelling up to code.
After walking around and getting the feel of the place Roxanne and I confided in whispers. We loved the place. We bought it. Thirty six years later we’re still here.
We’ve put two roofs on it. Painted, painted and repainted the trim. Painted the stucco exterior. Twice remodeled the kitchen. Finished the upstairs into an open loft bedroom, studio, library, lounge and office. Upgraded the bathroom. Except paint, the fixes, upgrades and remodels were not done by us but by hired people with skills. We like to think we’ve kept up the property, done diligent maintenance. We have been careful not to do it harm. Thus Roxanne and I plighted our troth to this house on a corner lot in Corcoran somewhere in Griswold’s second addition to Minneapolis and committed our lives to an urban dream to not allow cities to decay and rot.
It seemed reasonable to believe the neighborhoods relied on residents of civil citizens to sustain. It made us sad when the younger families around the block put their houses up for sale in the 1980s when mortgage rates came back down, left the city, worried that the public schools weren’t good enough for their kids. With no more Corcoran school, the kids in our neighborhood were offered choices to attend three or four elementary schools, none within remote walking distance, all in other neighborhoods. The favorite one, Seward, had a waiting list to get in. The others had reputations for overcrowding, rundown buildings, lazy teachers, low test score rankings, bad learning, crappy food and disruptive students. One named Wilder, for Laura Ingalls, was nicknamed Wilder and Wilder Yet. We tried to be nonjudgmental — Michel was accepted into Seward. The bigger picture we were looking at was a trend in pessimism among the neighbors that the future of our city did not look bright, but more like blight.
The same young urbanists who welcomed us to the community when we first moved to the block gradually moved away. This depleted our kids’ playmates, but at school the kids made new friends beyond the neighborhood. Beyond their opinions of the city schools the neighbors who left cited reasons of safety. They pointed to creeping blight in the residences and businesses in the blocks along Lake St. The rental properties degenerated and with it their perceptions of the tenants. They said they were tired of seeing the drug dealing and prostitution on their sidewalks. Hearing loud arguments coming from the walkup apartments. Gunfire. They expressed no faith in city government, the county, the Met Council, the school board, the state or the feds to solve the problems, so they sold out as the real estate market rose and went to live in places where urban problems did not exist, at least in their minds.
And they were right, I guess — who am I to denounce somebody’s basic right to pursue happiness? Their points were well taken. We chose to stay behind because we were already happy. What worried us most was the trend of moving out of the city looked like white flight, a very illiberal reaction to living among an increasing presence of minorities of color. It’s been hard enough to deal with my own racism and white privilege my whole life but it was sadder to read into my ex-neighbors’ motives a tacit rejection of what decades later became commonly called diversity, and I sensed panic which I did not share.
Today we by no means are the only white people on the block but that’s not really the story of how diverse the neighborhood remains, it’s mostly about me not selling our place and moving to the country twenty years ago. I am stubborn and barely flexible in my naive belief in humanity being able to get along. We have a sweet place to live after all. Nothing bad has befallen us here in this place I think of as the Buffalo House on Buffalo Acres. Charmed life. I report this as a testimonial. I love this city.
Our house is located where we can access everywhere. Backstreet direct routes to the St Paul campus for Roxanne’s commute to work, including bridges. Parkway and lakes accessible in two directions. The river road not far. Freeway access nearby via Hiawatha Ave to get to the suburbs or get out of town. I used to work downtown, twelve minutes away. The biggest Sears store in America used to be located about fifteen blocks away on Lake St. When I worked in St Paul I took the freeway or rode the Selby-Lake bus. The international airport is about eight miles away down Hiawatha Avenue, aka state highway 55. Only less than fifteen years ago a light rail train line was established between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America, through the airport. They put a station called the Midtown station two blocks from here at an overpass above Lake St and I used to commute to work downtown on the light rail. Before that I rode the Cedar Ave bus. There is nowhere you can’t go from our house. You can get to Europe on the light rail to the airport, where you would have to take a plane.
When we first moved to the neighborhood we found we really didn’t have to commute very far, we were already at least halfway there.
As I mentioned, the largest Sears store in America was just down the street, where we bought house paint, shopped for a color TV and got a scoop of Swedish Fish from the candy counter lady in the linen uniform. Two blocks away from our house, across Lake St and technically not in Corcoran but in adjoining Phillips — named for a whiskey distiller — is the strip mall called Hi Lake, named for the intersection of Hiawatha Ave and E Lake St. When we first moved to the area before Michel was born there was an SS Kresge at the Hi Lake — a dime store, as the older folks used to say. There was also a JCPenney. A Snyder’s Drug, then a local chain competitor to Walgreen’s. The anchor tenant was a Red Owl grocery store. Kresge’s vacated to a True Value Hardware store and the Red Owl called itself the Country Store. The savings and loan where Roxanne and I banked and had our 30 year mortgage with a lucky sweet adjustable rate we got to pay off the balloon due on our contract for deed opened an office at Hi Lake next to the hardware store. There was a hair salon, insurance office, liquor store and an ice cream shop called Winky’s. And a stand alone Pizza Hut towards the center of the parking lot. On the far corner a Burger King. Across from Burger King on the Corcoran side of Lake St was a former drive-in from the 1950s called Porky’s, subsequently converted to a sit-down restaurant of comfort food called Aunt Nora’s. Kittycorner from Burger King was the site of the old Furniture Barn, an old late night and matinee movie sponsor selling beds and sofas pitched by a guy named Mel Jass, and even before the Furniture Barn the building was the original factory making Burma Shave. Down the block from Nora’s was a shady restaurant called the Mad Mexican — Michel bused tables there in junior high. I learned years later that Ramon Muxter’s dad was a retired teamster and made extra cash washing dishes at Nora’s. Back next to Hi Lake was a dangerous looking wedge of land sticking out along Hiawatha Avenue where there was an M & H gas station facing the liquor store — the gas pump island was so precarious it felt like you could get picked of by passing traffic while gassing your car. Across Lake St at the Hiawatha intersection was a five story no-frills office building running a trade school for electronics, radio and TV called Brown Institute, which graduated half the AM radio deejays of my generation before it folded.
JCPenney was probably the first to pull out of Hi Lake. The Country Store followed. Snyder’s too. The liquor store stayed vital, Winky’s ice cream shop not so much. An auto parts store moved in. True Value Hardware stayed. The savings and loan got acquired by a bank and closed the Hi Lake office. Pizza Hut closed. A loan shark rental center came and went. It wasn’t just Hi Lake, there were ghost town gaps in strip malls everywhere in the 1980s recession and its aftermath. Even so, across Hiawatha Ave, outside of Corcoran again but alongside the border with Longfellow, at the former sites of Minneapolis Moline and some other long closed factories, Target built a store alongside a slim strip mall intending to be chic with a Radio Shack, a Sepia Photo shop, Hallmark Cards and a SuperValu grocery. Later Cub built its own stand alone grocery store further off the parking lot towards old railroad land, and the SuperValu went away. People scoffed and laughed at Target opening a store in the inner city, but it turned out to be the highest grossing store. To some people Target proved the middle class was viable in the inner city. Then Sears closed its one time largest store on Lake St. It confirmed Lake St was dying, maybe dead already. Yet a Rainbow grocery store opened a block from Cub.
Meanwhile the busy intersection of Lake and Hiawatha congested with traffic which we continued to avoid by taking backstreets. Eventually a bunch of federal money came through to enable the state to finish a project started in the 1950s and abandoned in the 1960s after housing and land acquisition, to upgrade Hiawatha Ave, aka Hwy 55, to almost-freeway, boulevard status between the airport and downtown Minneapolis along the east border of Corcoran. Hiawatha Ave runs a direct beeline trail between the original Fort Snelling, the territorial federal outpost, and the mill at St Anthony Falls on the Mississippi, the trail linking the army with flour in the early 19th Century. The beeline cuts diagonally across the grid pattern of the streets and avenues created later as the city hilariously named Minneapolis (Water City) expanded south of St Anthony to Griswold’s second addition and beyond, taking in stride the slicing Hiawatha and also its parallel companion avenue named of course Minnehaha.
Somehow in the negotiations of what amenities to the upgrade of the Hiawatha corridor might provide in additional benefits to community well being, along with the light rail line to run along Hiawatha most of the way to the airport previously appropriated, it was approved to build a bridge over Lake St at Hiawatha to eliminate most of the intersecting traffic. This bridge, along with the elevated transit station adjacent, formed a concrete boundary to the neighborhood as formidable and intimidating as a psychological Berlin Wall. To this day its unintended consequence puts pedestrians under bridges of desolation in a no man’s land like walking across a giant empty swimming pool of cars, trucks and buses.
Aunt Nora’s closed somewhere along the way, although she had a second location on Calhoun Boulevard whenever we craved roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and a popover. The Burger King mysteriously burned down. The florist shop on Cedar and Lake closed. So too the TV and appliance shop on the opposite corner, where Roxanne and I bought a Sanyo, our first color TV. Along Lake St, across the Phillips border from Corcoran in the three blocks from the burned out Burger King and the boarded up Nora’s, the old Pioneer’s Cemetery and its lush green lawn in the summer, its gnarly oak trees in all seasons, evenly snowed in winter, smooth except the raised tombstones, the old graveyard looked more cheerful than the creepy storefronts. Lake St looked grave.
Stanley our retiree neighbor got mugged one day walking to the hardware store. Jumped by a couple of young punks who hit him in the head, knocked him down and took his wallet. The aftermath of the 1980s recession left some communities slower to recover and so it seemed crime was the theme of economics. Gang violence scared everybody. A crack cocaine epidemic steeped the war on drugs. The name Murderapolis fell upon the city. Though much of the violent crime occurred on the north side, known as the black part of town, no part of the city was unaffected. The gangster assassination of a street cop took place on the south side, near us. Rumors and innuendoes insinuated gang takeovers of the inner city neighborhoods as residents fled violent neighborhoods for safer ones and somehow brought with them the conditions they sought to flee. More blame was heaved on the public schools. More outcry of inequity voiced the minorities for the unfairness of racial profiling. Incarceration rates of young males kept increasing, blacks owning more equity there. Wild youth menaced the streets. Whites left the city for the suburbs with fear in their eyes the minorities would follow with their crack and criminal behaviors, loud music and slovenly ways, and so forth. Seems all my life the world’s been on the verge of going to hell in a handbasket, the whole kit and kaboodle. And yet somehow things tend to sort themselves out. Stanley wore a bandage on his forehead for a few days while he walked the block. Nobody ever caught the punks who rolled him, at least not for this particular crime.
The two most violent events on my block that I know of were murders. One happened before our time, when an elder couple living in the house five doors down were killed in a burglary. Turned out the renters in the house next door, six doors down, got caught with the victims’ TV set. The other occurred in the street in front of a rundown duplex four doors down from us one summer night about three a.m. when a young woman deliberately ran her cheating boyfriend down with her car in front of his other girlfriend, and backed up and ran him over again. Four doors down is far enough away for me to sleep through such commotion, even with the windows open for fresh air. I learned about both reading the paper. The neighbors filled in the details.
Time and again I suppose we had opportunities to bail. Roxanne and I made good money, she as a research scientist at the U, I at whichever of the four or five different jobs I’ve held since we moved to Buffalo Acres, always employed, always dependable, good credit. We could have sold and taken the equity to Greater Heights, so to speak. After all, this place was supposed to be a starter house, just to get our foot in the real estate game. We were expected to build a little equity, appreciation, sell it and move up in the world, every five years or so — another mortgage, more debt. Instead we stayed, put money into maintenance and some renovation, kept up the payments and paid off the mortgage a little early. We could sell today but where else would we go?
I think of that David Crosby song, Almost Cut My Hair, that goes, I feel like I owe it to someone. Or like I owe someone an explanation. It might seem to make more sense if I still had long hair, but I’ve been bald and rather corporate looking for a long time. I’d like to say I had foresight, though I did see signs of hope in the Target store, the Hiawatha overpass at Lake St and the light rail station. The old Brown Institute building became a charter school for Native American kids sponsored by the Anishinabi. A second hand thrift store called Savers moved into the old Snyder’s space at Hi Lake. Behind Hi Lake where there used to be a block of shabby housing called Happy Hollow where the Pioneer Cemetery bordered the ex-dump near Hiawatha Ave, somebody invested in building a kind of incubator center for start-up firms specializing in green technologies — the anchor tenant of this facility was a ReUse Center which was a warehouse showroom of old doors, cabinets and fixtures from old houses, and the rooftop had the first solar panel garden I ever saw in the city. Yes, and further behind the ReUse Center and the former dump they converted an unused railroad corridor into a bicycle and pedestrian trail connecting to all the lakes and scenic parkways and featuring a bold suspension bridge across busy Hiawatha Ave named for Martin Sabo, a liberal congressman who garnered a lot of federal money for programs and transportation projects in our district. There were signs all along that the inner city was not abandoned and forgotten, it was all a matter of how much fate would determine the outcomes and how much the wills of persons staked to gain something from raising the standard of living, raising consciousness, raising safety.
I remember when Tea Party people used to deride Barack Obama for being a community organizer and I think about all the community organizers I’ve met in the inner city and I can see why people like Michele Bachmann are afraid of them. They usually have agendas to undermine racism, oppression and injustices taken for granted as rights and entitlements by so-called libertarians who prefer to control social engineering by persecution of poor people, much of whom nonwhite minorities. These community organizers can be vociferous and devious in their methods and still ethically build bonds in their neighborhoods to keep basic communications going and to advocate for people who get screwed by The Man and don’t know what to do next. Some organizers get into elected politics. Others work out of nonprofits. Volunteers. They make good networkers. They keep society honest when they bring light to dark elements and engage smart dialog among persons both affected and caused.
That there are people among us who practice public service, either professionally or as avocation, and that the good ones aren’t even preachy about it, always tells me somebody’s watching what’s going on, somebody will notice what is going right and what is going wrong, and like the arc of history ultimately bends towards justice, somebody plus somebody can make things happen, can lay groundwork for things to happen to not only stop society from going to rot but actually stimulate authentic and sustainable prosperity. To the unsung civic leaders and concerned citizens, block clubbers and liaisons with planners and developers, much thanks for paying attention to the habitat of the city.
The YWCA partnered with the school district, which already controlled or had first dibs on the former Brown Institute building at Lake and Hiawatha, to build a state of the art health club facility and gigantic fieldhouse for club use as well as physical education and sports for South High. It meant razing a block of blighted housing and some iffy storefront businesses on Lake St, including the Mad Mexican and the vacant Aunt Nora’s. The complex would take up the entire block from Lake St to South High and face the high school’s track and football field.
Across Lake St the burned down Burger King was replaced on the corner by a five story apartment/condo building above an Aldi’s grocery store. The Hi Lake strip mall underwent a facelift. The old stand alone Pizza Hut building was reconfigured for a new location for the liquor store, a taco and burrito shop and a Subway sandwich franchise. The old JCPenney opened as a buffet restaurant, the Tippanyaki, serving consistently tasty varieties of dishes at a good price. Then for some reason, under protest, the hardware store lost its lease and moved out — that didn’t look good. Then the bank that succeeded the one that bought the savings and loan where we got our mortgage — who I went to work for eventually around the end of the last century — moved into the space that used to be the liquor store. Little Caesar’s pizza moved in where Winky’s ice cream shop used to be.
A Bubbles Laundromat, a hip hop clothing store and a cellular phone shop have since moved into the space where the hardware store used to be, which so long ago was a Kresge’s. In my mind I would prefer the shopping center would have transformed into a kind of European-style plaza like an all-seasons Christmas market, but realistically this is America, not Zurich, not the Zocalo of Mexico City. This is Hi Lake and snobby taste for shops like Patina, Swarovski and Zara are inappropriate delusions here, available elsewhere, and respectable tenants like the current cast don’t make me nostalgic to bring back Kresge’s. (Dime stores are now dollar stores, and there’s one of those at the other mall near Target.) Commerce rebounded.
In a way I grew up around Lake St because my dad was a car salesman and in my childhood the car business in Minneapolis was located all up and down Lake St from East Lake St at the Marshall bridge to St Paul at the Mississippi all the way across town about eight miles to the end of West Lake, hardly a block without a dealership it seemed, lots of shiny cars parked in lots with signs and banners. Dad worked at various dealers over the years and sometimes he took me to work on his days off so he could meet customers and close deals, and sometimes I would look around the office and the shop, but sometimes I liked to go outdoors through the car lot to the sidewalk and look around the busy street. Seems like a lot going on. In high school I took city buses linked to Lake St routes to get to St Bernard’s Academy, and I would transfer at Lake and Nicollet (that’s pronounced Nik-lit around here) where there was a fantastic record store where I’d fan through album covers between buses, but never bought anything because their prices were a dollar more than I could get records elsewhere. Even after the car business moved to the suburbs there remained a lot going on, maybe some things shady, maybe not, but Lake St never scared me off, never bullied me off the sidewalk.
Lake St was my gateway to other races than the white whites I lived among growing up suburban. Lake St was my crossroads mark, how I learned to navigate the city. The Sears building twenty stories high was the most prominent high rise on the south side horizon outside of downtown, a skyline to itself, with a big green neon SEARS facing all four directions off its stone roof. I could always tell where I was by proximity to the Sears. Built in 1928, art deco, at one time it employed 2000 people, not just the department store on the lower levels but a vast catalog fulfillment center. When the store closed in 1994 the building had floors and floors of wasted space, and not just the high tower with the neon sign. The sign went dark for twelve years.
It lit up again as MIDTOWN, in red neon now, sign of the Midtown Global Market, an international bazaar of foods and merchandise in the place of the old department store. A vortex of hospitals and several health clinics converged next door, a hotel chain took over and built up the upper floors to repurpose the place, and you wouldn’t know it was once a Sears if it weren’t cut in stone into the storefront over the old street level entrance.
More evidence of civic partnerships are these transformations. The Midtown Global Market and the rising of the Midtown YWCA alongside the Midtown station of the light rail grouped these landmarks linked by Lake St and branded the area the Midtown Corridor. Not necessarily hip and trendy it has a certain bluecollar bite to it. Sounds inclusive, attractive to any and all of the types and kinds of various people coming to live in midtown neighborhoods. The offspring of Model Cities and Great Society.
Some of the genius of the Global Market is the allure of collaboration and coexistence of many various cultures currently living in Minneapolis who have migrated here from other lands. Lake St remains a crossroads gateway. Minneapolis attracts migrants. (And St Paul.) Count the students from all over the world who attend our universities, who work in the tech sector, medicine or agriculture, there are those who choose to remain when they fulfill their degrees to work and have families and weave themselves into the community at large. Then add the migrant laborers who pick crops and roof houses seasonally who stick around. And then add the refugees, the ones who either come here or end up here escaping some form of death sentence in countries where they are persecuted and unprotected. This is some of the makeup of the residential population, my once and future neighbors.
Vietnamese, Cambodian, Liberian, Hmong, Salvadorean, Ethiopian, Somali — these are some of the nationalities and ethnic peoples who have migrated into whole communities in Minneapolis and the surrounding metro the past two generations. All here legally. Refugee asylum seekers settling down and making a home, working, shopping and raising kids in a new place. We encourage them to assimilate, and at the same time we respect their native cultures and even try to assimilate some of theirs into the mainstream, appropriation if you like, for the sake of overall diversity — music, literature, art, food. They come to America to be free, and we take them in because America is the light of the world, a free country and good example on the planet of how to humanely treat persons displaced by political atrocity or natural disaster — that at least used to be the coda.
Before the Vietnamese in my lifetime it was Koreans. Korean orphans. Before that the World War II Europeans like Stanley and Tony. People all escaping war to come to my town for a better life — a life. The overall community welcomes them — pities them — makes room for them, lends them resources to integrate and networks them into the basic economy. In my neighborhood the Brown Institute building on Lake St is now a public adult education school for learners of English as a non-primary language. (In my retirement I am encouraged to volunteer there as a conversationalist but I don’t want to let anybody down.) From my front porch I see the students park their cars and walk to class with briefcases and backpacks, like the South High kids only older and walking the other direction, inevitably a person of color, nonwhite. The muslim women in their scarves and long skirts sometimes travel in pairs like the nuns when I was a kid, nuns who used to teach us about showing kindness to refugee victims of communism and famine. Here, I thought, they can learn to be like us, victims of democracy and plenty.
There are five apartment buildings on our block, counting both sides of the street. They are called two-and-a-half story walkups — two floors up and one floor down from street level, no elevator — and each building houses about six apartments (or as they say in the UK, flats) and each usually rents to a family with a mom and a kid or kids, some with husbands. These apartments are located mainly the other half of the block and on the same side of the avenue, so from my own front porch at the corner I cannot observe what goes on except one colonial style walkup mid-block on the other side of the avenue. And we’ve witnessed some loud and threatening behavior, domestic violence where we’ve called 9-1-1 to that building, but overall in all our years we haven’t witnessed an abundance of bad actions. (Remember, I slept through the girlfriend boyfriend murder by car.) Though three more walkups take up our side of the avenue, there are ten dwellings which are homeowner residences, one of which rents out as a triplex, and two others that are single family homes rented out and not owner occupied. There are at least eight homeowner occupied houses across from us with two walkups on that side and a four-plex on our opposite corner. In a culture that prizes home ownership the number of homeowners on our block would please an optimistic demographer looking for proof of life of a middle class after the last recession.
It’s the renter class who live in those walkups whose fate is uncertain under the current recovery. When we first moved in, the walkups seemed more or less to have working class tenants. One building had retirees. Some polite Asians, possibly Hmong or Vietnamese. People shopped at Red Owl, Snyder’s and JCPenney. The end of the Kresge’s era. As the 1980s recession lingered into the ’90s the tenants at the walkups turned over frequently, or maybe there were a lot more strange visitors coming around. Nobody was shoveling the sidewalks in the winter. In the summer the grass around the buildings died. Burger King wrappers in the chain link fence and the ever present plastic bags that blew in like tumbleweeds from Utah. Tenants punched out the screen windows, or maybe they just fell apart, useless to keep out flies, mosquitoes, bats. Without screens or curtains, drapes or blinds the apartments revealed a thrust stage on the frail balconies portraying the naked drama of urban life being poor. Their privacy concealed nothing.
On my block. Where I looked the other way most of the time because my view faced a different direction, but I kept track. When the retiree pensioners moved out of the walkup because it wasn’t nice anymore and the landlord was starting to rent to shady characters. A trend of African American single mothers. Some with boyfriends. Tenants who didn’t get along with each other generated police calls. There was an arson, a cocktail through the window into a basement apartment to supposedly shut somebody up. Homeowners up the block and across the avenue pressed the city to get after the landlord to screen tenants, and while at it pressed city inspectors to check out the buildings. To no one’s surprise the walkups started flunking code inspections. The city threatened the landlord with prosecution of crimes committed by tenants on the premises such as crack cocaine transactions, which may or may not be constitutional, it wasn’t tested, but it got the landlord — one guy owned all five buildings — to pay attention enough to rental applications to screen for known badasses. Or recent arrivals from Chicago with dubious credentials. And agreed to do some cosmetic fixups and replace a stove or two. For that he raised the rent a little, but not much, just enough to show how cheap rents were expected to be in this market and illustrate there was no real way to keep out the riff-raff.
How I idealized the flow of society I envisioned ways for poor people to make their way up so they could become not as poor, and then not poor at all. What is it in scripture Jesus said, the poor are always with us, but cry and cry alone — no, that’s cynical. This supposes an endless source of the poor, unless it’s the same poor all the time, and it doesn’t take any research genius to find sources of poor, if not in the USA then somewhere on the planet. In my ideal they begin at the entry level of the economic scale and then rise as their skills and experience raise them up to where they emerge into the next economic level to replace those moving up into the next level of prosperity, and everybody has opportunity to keep learning and keep going to the next, and the next, as long as they have time. I knew there were those who were born on third base and pretended to have hit a triple, but I saw through them and presumed others did too. I knew there were others wrongly called losers whose faults were merely cosmetic. If it were a perfect world Karl Marx could have been free to be a novelist.
Or a comedian.
So much for the path to the American dream running through my back yard. It seemed sometimes I was a squatter on land undeserved, Griswold’s second addition — or edition — notwithstanding. Our presence on this corner I’ve always thought of as caretakers of a small piece of civilization. It passed to us from Raymond and Hazel Muxter through their son Ramon, and we will someday pass it on as well. It’s only real estate, I tell myself. And still I wonder if I deserve to live so well on the same block as poverty. We are not rich, not even upper middle class in the big picture of home economics. Yet, compared to our neighbors living in the two-and-a-half story walkups, we might be millionaires. To someone living on this planet in a country where from our refugee neighbors fled we might be zillionaires. The longest lasting sustaining effect we might have on the world we live is to show good example of what we mean. If people like us, white, educated, modern, liberal baby boomers abandoned the city, why would succeeding generations choose to take our place? If white society, as if banded together formally, abandoned the city there would be no white voices to answer, no white ears to listen, no white skin to feel the nerves of color enamorating our urban culture. The city needs white skin in the game.
Not white supremacy, to be clear.
I simply feel the need to justify my existence in the inner city, for anyone living who might suggest I don’t belong. I stopped being hip and cool about 1978 when I became father to a daughter, and no matter how many tries at MTV and the worldwide web I never got it back. I can’t feed off the legacy of Prince — who by the way established his headquarters in the suburbs. Many of my contemporaries are outdoorsy types living Up North or down on the farm. I’m not gay, though I am a happy guy. Everybody has to live somewhere. The Buffalo House is my townhome, my condo, only I am the homeowner association who provides the maintenance and nobody can tell me I can’t paint my garage orange. The mortgage is paid off and in theory I’ll always have a place to live as long as I keep up the insurance, taxes and utilities.
The YWCA is two blocks away. True to promise it’s a world class health club and sport center. We became members as soon as they opened the doors. Roxanne uses their fitness machines and takes cardio exercise classes. Our membership is now covered by our Medicare part B — they call it Silver Sneakers, but I don’t like the idea of being sneaky. There’s a big indoor oval track that rings the second level of the field house where I go to walk and trot laps in winter when long walks outdoors on the best groomed sidewalks can be treacherous from snow and ice and the air itself is brutally cold. Walking in the field house I can listen to my iPod on my Skull Candy earbuds, something I would not usually do on the street just walking around the city, and look out the windows.
One side of the track looks at South High, the athletic field and bleacher grandstand. There used to be boarding houses, a few half-blocks of them, off a half-street bordering the athletic field, and it was rumored these boarding houses were true bordellos. At the commercial edge of these houses stood the old Furniture Barn, for a while an officina for a Hispanic insurance business, and across Lake St you could see the pikes and stone fence of the Pioneer’s Cemetery and the new Aldi’s with the apartment building over it where the Burger King burned down.
Most recently the half blocks of boarding houses along with Lake St commercial properties like the old Furniture Barn were razed and cleared. The view from the field house track witnessed the demolition, done in mere days. The sudden vacancy was stunning, like looking at a rival farm compared to the groomed grass on the other side of the South High fence. A guy from the neighborhood tried to organize a movement to stop the demolition of the Furniture Barn building on historical grounds because it was the original Burma Shave factory, and he sat at the stoplight on the corner by the Y at a card table with posters and handing out fliers until the very last day. The city will put up a historical plaque on the corner when reconstruction is done.
The school district acquired the land between Lake St and South High to build an adult continuing education center affiliated to the high school. It will replace the facility being used at the old Brown Institute building on the other side of the Y. From the windows on that side of the field house I watched the demolition and excavation of vacant pavement all around the Brown Institute, breaking ground to build a county service center across the street from the Y and next to the Midtown rail station, with apartments adjacent to the service center filling in the rest of the block towards my house. The county service center and a small parking ramp off Lake St at virtually the corner of Lake and Hiawatha is phase one of the project. It required an immense excavation and the driving of the pylons for the foundation clonked the neighborhood half the summer. It has risen as a rather attractive building of a modern proto-european style. It complements a so-called senior living apartment building erected the year before on the opposite side of Lake St on the triangle where the M & H gas station used to be, adjacent to the Hi Lake strip mall and against the Midtown station. A lot of new multifamily housing going up in the city these days are designed in this style, which appears austere but elegant and can wear well over time. The second phase will enclose the block around the service center with multifamily apartments.
The third phase will move the public adult education facilities out of the Brown Institute and into the new buildings on the old Furniture Barn blocks, the other side of the Y, upon completion later this year. Then the Brown Institute will be torn down like a disassembled erector set, leaving a green gap between the county service center, the new apartments and the Midtown rail station.
Walking laps around the field house to the random shuffle of songs on the iPod and looking out the windows at bulldozers, cranes, lots of hard hats and green-glow yellow vests putting down concrete and putting up walls, then windows, then doorways, facades, life takes on the vista of time-lapse movies. A song from Madonna, Like a Prayer comes on the iPod, not the original but the one recorded as performed in the Hope for Haiti Now TV benefit right after its last big earthquake in 2010. In the song she misses a line, as if she’s all caught up amazed by the gospel chorus in the final buildup to the crescendo, a little mesmerized by her own song, she omits life is a mystery, goes straight to everyone must stand alone, I hear you call my name and it feels like home. Why does this all seem so dissonant, I wonder as I round the bend of the track between windows, filling in the life is a mystery part in my mind, asking myself if I really like the changes happening to this part of the neighborhood or am I simply content that things are changing and so far nothing’s going wrong.
My favorite thing at the Y is the pool. I love to swim, just cruise in the water, tread water, crawl, backstroke, float. Slow lazy laps back and forth from the shallow to the deep end. Taking in the echoes of the ambience of such a big room, watching the roof beams go by floating and cruising on my back. This aquatic center has an olympic pool with lanes, a smaller recreational pool with fountains for kids, and a water slide which I usually partake when it is scheduled. Roxanne and I bring our grandkids on our guest passes. My favorite other thing about the pool at the Y is the greatest hot tub on the planet with the best jets ever. Healing bubbling waters for the aches and pains the toil on this mortal coil inflicts day to day. Yes. Alleluia.
The two block walk from my house to the Y and back goes past the row of two story walkups. Then and when I used to commute downtown to work from the Midtown station I would pass them every day, walking by. I never thought of it as a gauntlet as much as a reality check. The coexistence of low rent dwellers on the same block as median homeowners keep me aware of my own privileges and responsibilities to the civic social contract. I don’t feel guilty for these disparities so much because I did not cause them — no action or decision of mine set in motion the lives of these people that they ended up living in two-and-a-half story walkups on my block — and my concern is what I might do about them now and in the future to alleviate these disparities, looking for that wisdom to know the difference. I’m not a missionary kind, so I don’t knock on doors, say, how’s it going brother, no I tend to mind my own business. Respect privacies. I do look people in the eye. I make eye contact in the street, on the sidewalk passing by. In the summer people at the walkups tend to hang out in the front yard and open up their windows. Not once have I ever been harassed or detained. Sometimes lately they set up little yard sale flea markets on the grass in front of the apartments, but usually I don’t need the baby clothes, a wooden chair or mariachi CDs and cassettes. Of anything I worry they might think I do not respect them or think I’m condescending when I say hola to the Hispanic ones.
Lately those buildings, the tenants and the landlords have been in the news from being in district court. The tenants sued their landlord about eight years ago for unanswered complaints about mould, cockroaches, faulty plumbing, broken heating systems and just about anything you can imagine could go wrong in a low rent housing flat. The same guy owned the five walkups on our block along with about fifteen other buildings on the east side of south Minneapolis, and he was just coming off litigation from not screening bad actors from being tenants. He claimed he was doing the best he could to maintain all his buildings and it wasn’t fair that he who cared enough about his poor tenants to give them shelter at such little cost was singled out for just a couple of apartments just to make him look bad. He counterpunched the tenants, saying some bad apples attracted cockroaches, they abused the plumbing, disrespected the property. The city inspectors investigated the properties. It dragged out in court but the landlord lost his rental license and had to sell the properties to somebody who would maintain them to code.
The new owner spruced up the curb appeal, put up new signs and made better arrangements for prompt snow shoveling and keeping the grass groomed and picking up litter. Things inside the apartments kept breaking down, stoves and ovens, heaters, windows (in the back, away from the avenue, facing the alley) and nothing got fixed. Water leaks. Mould. Fed up, the tenants took up legal action against the new landlord, this time with a bigtime downtown law firm working pro bono. In discovery it was found the landlord defrauded the court with false documentation, and it was learned the new landlord didn’t even own the apartments anyway, legally, but the old landlord actually still held the deeds. The court ordered a trustee to manage the buildings and collect the rents (so that rents may not illegally be withheld) while new ownership is sought for the buildings. The second landlord, asserting on appeal he rightfully owns the buildings not the first landlord, claims to have sold them to a third party, but the city does not recognize the third landlord as having legally purchased the buildings. None of them have rental licenses. So far the tenants still occupy their flats, paying rent to the management trustee. Thus far the city brokers the status quo. The repairs are being made, I hear.
The future happiness of the tenants remains to be seen. The management trustee is learning the actual costs of maintaining each building after finding out terms of the contract binding the buildings to the first landlord, the second landlord was given an operating budget which included capital maintenance, and any money the second landlord didn’t spend he was allowed to keep. What everyone is learning is the real cost, the real price of affordable housing.
The landlords all say, if they upgraded all the cheezy housing to minimum standards they would have to charge market rate prices for rents, and that would price the poor out of the rental market. If some developer came in, bought the five walkups on our block and gentrified them, the poor tenants would disappear, be gone. But that’s not going to happen, says the city, which pledges to foster the creation of more affordable housing, not less, and also according to the developer of the senior apartments on the old triangle next to Hi Lake, same developer of Rail Line Flats along Hiawatha which were just built in the in-fill property the highway, the railway and the bikeway didn’t take, also the same developer of the soon-to-be apartments that will fill in the rest of the block facing the Y after phase three. I met this developer at a cordial community meeting to present the grand reveal of the land-use plan for the long-lost asphalt corner of East Lake St and Hiawatha Ave surrounding the old Brown Institute, next to the Midtown station. He told me his studies showed there was no hope for market rate housing — market rate anything — in this neighborhood, it was all affordable or nothing. I am reconciled to know they won’t be building any luxury hotels on any land nearby, even if there might be a ready workforce of the servant class in the neighborhood. To this I asked the developer whether this designation of affordable could be a way to brand the neighborhood’s destiny, and he got a little defensive and insisted nobody looking at all the demographics would see it otherwise.
So, amigos of the walkups, take heart, nobody wants to evict you. Nobody’s going to swoop in and convert the properties into luxury condos and put you on the street, we’ve all been advised by an expert, the neighborhood isn’t all that cool. This isn’t Uptown, or Linden Hills, not Lake of the Isles, not even Powderhorn, or Brackett, or even Seward. This is not Loring Park, or Whittier. You all can stay.
Perhaps after getting one’s legs steady at residence in one of those apartments one can afford to go deeper into the neighborhood and rent a house. Or a duplex. The city is trying to make fourplexes popular by rezoning almost all residential lots to allow fourplexes. Whereas people might trend to seek detached single family houses to rent or to buy, the urban planners and developers promote higher density. Okay then, one gets the sense the plan to increase the population habitat and wonders if it is in anticipation of a growing population to come or whether it’s to manufacture demand for high density housing to lure a bigger population to fill some kind of city need. I am an urban person by persuasion but I am wary of high density living. It will be a center of the American experiment, so to speak, to invite hundreds more people to live on the next block the next couple years.
Already I’m seeing some of the so-called seniors from the so-called senior apartments down at Hi Lake taking jaunts and hikes past our house and into the neighborhood. Our sidewalks are inviting, aren’t they? There is green space landscaping planned at the new apartments but the tenants might still care to walk just four blocks to Corcoran park. Our lawns and trees make a pleasant landscape for strolling. I have seen people with badges on lanyards around their necks out strolling the neighborhood during lunch hours, employees at the new county service center. It pleases me to provide a welcoming environment for visitors and new residents.
It remains to be seen whether all the new construction projects will transform the neighborhood or belie its flaws. I attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the county service center a couple of years ago. Chairs were arranged around a speaker’s podium on the asphalt of the vast parking lot on the corner of the Brown Institute where local leaders spoke of revival and synergy. Neighbors, onlookers and members of the media watched and mingled over coffee and cookies. Authorities, dignitaries, the developer and folks affiliated behind the scenes of the project took turns putting on hard hats and yellow-green safety vests to pick up ceremonial golden shovels and get photographed shoveling spades of ceremonial sand. Posing for these pictures they reminded me of those face cut-outs at tourist attractions. A journalist struck up a conversation, asked who I was and where I lived and what I thought of the project. I said it was a dynamic jump-start to a stagnant corner long starved for attention and life and it should add to the diversity of the neighborhood. I could tell he was piqued at my insertion of the word diversity. I sensed right away it was a mistake to invoke that buzzword, and the reporter may have sensed unintended sarcasm. What do you mean by that? he asked.
I reflected a moment and said that the corner where we stood and the intersections around it were an ongoing scene of migration and transmigration and adding more people into the mix could vitalize the place. I added I was not in favor of greater population density but recognized the realities of proportionate land use. I found myself getting more vague as I chose my words so as not to trigger inference of race. I wanted to express my wonder of what might be the result of the treatment these acres were undergoing. I hesitated to predict a golden renaissance. I did not address any fear that crosscurrents of cultural or ethnic friction could compress and become volatile where the population squeezed most dense. I avoided sounding like a stereotypical white homeowner pondering the arrival of hundreds of renters of affordable housing presumed to be people of various, diverse shades of color. I avoided sounding like an unstereotypical white homey pandering to my soon-to-be new brothers and sisters in the hood. The journalist tired of my jive and moved on to interview the county commissioner. My remarks did not merit mention in the next day’s paper.
The one important unifying element of the neighborhood I have not mentioned yet is the Midtown Farmer’s Market. Every Saturday from May to November the asphalt corner at the foot of the Brown Institute turned into a village of canopies and tents, stalls and trailers, bushels and pecks, quarts and gallons, bins and sacks of fresh vegetables and fruits in season. Corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, carrots all grown within a hundred miles. Locally raised meats. Honey. Bakery goods. Vendors selling jewelry and lotions. Shirts and dresses. Flower bouquets. Food trucks making tacos, kabobs and omelets. A music stage. The farmers market packed the usually dead asphalt with humanity like having a global market one day a week. After several years they expanded the days to Saturdays and Tuesday evenings in the summer. Rain or shine we could get fresh groceries but on a nice day it was a nice place to hang out, see if we knew anybody.
The new county service center would displace the farmers market. During construction on the corner across from the YWCA, the market was allotted a temporary piece of the parking lot used by the adult education program stashed behind the old Brown Institute and next to the rail station. During the planning phases of the development neither the county, the school district nor the housing developer would make any promises on the fate of the farmers market, successful now in its 15th year. They would say, when this farmers market got started you all knew all along the use of the empty asphalt across from the Y was temporary, and we can’t guaranty any space for it in the final project. Somebody persisted — probably an Obama era community organizer — and all the parties gave an inch and designed permanent space for the farmers market. The market could operate in the adult school’s parking lot during construction. When the new adult education facility opened on Lake St, the other side of the Y, and after the old Brown Institute was torn down, the farmers market could occupy the green space left in the open footprint of the Brown Institute, at the center of the block between the county service center and the new apartments. Fair enough. This continuity is vital to the neighborhood’s identity.
The other day the city’s new mayor spoke at a rally-style news conference on the rooftop of the adjacent 135 unit apartment complex just built last year along Hiawatha Ave called the Rail Line Flats. They call them workforce apartments. It’s a nice building along the style I liken to modern multifamily housing I’ve seen in European cities with vertical linear frame patterns, horizontal rectangles arranged vertically, and earth tone multi-tone facades. In the year it’s been occupied there’s been no noticeable changes in neighborhood activity, particularly in traffic patterns, which was surprising to me given the ingress and egress proximity to Hiawatha Ave. The mayor, Jacob Frey, newly elected, young and energetic, handsome and genial, pitched his goal to spend $50 million toward affordable housing. In addition to building more units on vacant lots and lending down payment assistance for home buyers his vision includes protection for renters, diligent building inspection and renters rights. It’s a tight market, he says — vacancy rates are about 2%, where 5% is considered competitive, and home prices are up, demand high, inventory low. The population of the city is rising for the first time since I was a baby. As an elected leader the guy realizes the overall issue is urban livability for all.
I’m on board. Minneapolis is a rich city. Affordability got us this house in the first place when we were young, and if not poor, economically challenged. We qualified for a grant to replace our roof the first year. We didn’t always make such good money. Looking back we bought this place on the cheap but it didn’t seem so cheap at the time, just way cheaper than a house on Lake Harriet, or Seward East. It still is, according to Zillow. If the mayor wants to use this neighborhood as an illustration of his goals, I welcome him.
A few years ago when he was vice president, Joe Biden came to Minneapolis to speak at a luncheon downtown. On his way back to the airport on Hiawatha Ave he ordered his motorcade to take a turn into the neighborhood because he said he heard a lot of good things about South High and he wanted to see the place for himself. The motorcade pulled up between the school and the athletic field where the football team was holding practice. Joe Biden got out of his limo and approached the team, took off his jacket and tossed a round of Go Deep with the receivers. I am told by somebody who knew somebody that on the way in and out of the neighborhood the motorcade passed by our corner and on the way back to Hiawatha Ave, as they paused at the stop sign the vice president gestured a thumbs up and said, “Nice house.”
It’s a nice neighborhood. I cannot take all the credit. It might be my fault if it falls apart, and I’ll take the blame. Seriously, I’m happy we stayed. We proved to ourselves we were right, there is no inherent evil living in the heart of the city.
Maybe the most pervasive influence in our part of town since we’ve moved here is Latino. Why so many people from places so much closer to the equator would choose to migrate here, Terra Frio, the land of brutally cold winters, I don’t know. A horrible cynic would cry out they must be illegal aliens all hiding out where nobody either expects to find them or nobody else would take them — sanctuary city and so forth — but there must be a deeper reason to settle in the Twin Cities. I trust they’re legal, street legal at least, and when you look around you see they really aren’t aliens, they are quite at home.
A lot of Mexican heritage and also Ecuadorian, Columbian, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan and Salvadorean, Lake St the past generation has evolved into a corridor brightened by the colors of Latin America. Panaderias. Mercados. Supermercados. Tiendas. Not just restaurants and taquerias but offices and trades took up business in the blight the car business left behind and lifted a depressed and down and out stretch of a gritty street and over time gave it new vitality, new reputation and new history.
Not only Latinos but more enterprising immigrant minorities are locating firms in the city, most noticeably east Africans these days. In the 1970s it was Vietnamese, in the ’80s Hmong, through the years of migration the migrant tribes establish signature businesses and build identity around town. Turning the old Sears into a global market serves the market and the marketeers as a prime venue for prosperity like the farmers market serves the growers and the eaters for good nutrition. It’s a good idea to open avenues of prosperity and nutrition to all seekers of the American dream and to keep the doors open.
That last recession of 2008 proved a tipping point on our block. That was about the time the tenants at the walkup apartments first stood up to their landlord about their living conditions. A duplex went abandoned, condemned. Across the street the lady got foreclosed and before she could be evicted she died from the illness that kept her from keeping up the mortgage. Anybody who bought a house or recently remodeled with a second mortgage was under water, owed more than the house’s value. Foreclosures and short sales became common. Anybody who wanted to sell and move couldn’t get a good price or find qualified buyers. It reminded me of when Roxanne and I first moved in.
Here we were just paying off our mortgage and sitting relatively sweet, fully employed at the peaks of our careers, empty nesters, grandparents, free to travel and take a winter vacation and lo and behold the rest of the economy caved in. We didn’t get pay raises for a while, though we were already making good money. We were in a position to help others, increased charity, but that’s not something to boast but a left hand not knowing what the right hand does kind of thing, if you know scripture. Here we elected our first African American president, the master community organizer himself, a gentleman and a scholar, and what happens is the whole phony premise of economic valuation started to crash like the unseen hand of a Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme. What a coincidence!
The following ten years proved the ultimate resilience of the neighborhood. After a couple of winters of bleak stagnancy a young couple from Kansas City with little twin boys moved in across the street. He is a techie working for a Fortune 500 firm. Privately I refer to her as the Jamaican Lady for some reason because she could be Malcolm Gladwell’s sister. Nice family. Boys, Avery and Ivory, are getting lanky. They just added a baby girl last year.
Next to their house on the far side, next to the colonial brick walkup is a curious narrow stucco house covered in ivy vines. It was built identical to the place directly across the street, probably about 1910, both houses by members of the same family. The one next door to the Jamaican Lady was kept in the family about a hundred years until the last one to inherit it decided to sell it and move away, only she waited until after the recent real estate bubble burst, had to put some money into a furnace and amenities to make it attractive to sell. The buyer was a couple of teachers, a lesbian couple both named Sarah, who snapped it up because it was affordable and they liked the neighborhood, good location, and by the way they too had a baby girl born last year.
The other twin home across the street had been out of the family at least one generation, had been subdivided into an up-down duplex which fell into shabby disrepair and eventually became condemned. By then it barely bore resemblance to the Sarahs’ twin across the street except for their identical stained glass windows. At the point it got condemned it had been the object of two different guys who acquired it and tried to rehab it and left it abandoned. Four years ago it was acquired before demolition by a local non-profit land trust who completely gutted it to the bones and reassembled it again as a single family dwelling with a fresh stucco exterior painted Bungle House Blue, then sold it to a young hipster couple, the Edens, Adam and Evelyn, he a county attorney and she a teacher of adult education, English as a non-primary language (at a different school district for now) and they too had a child last year, a boy.
The same land trust also bought the house across the street from us where that poor lady went bust and died. They gutted it and reassembled it with a fresh exterior and sold it to the Kanes, Rob and Judy, both blind. The Edens say they were interested in this house first before theirs but got aced out by the Kanes. The Kanes had a baby boy almost two years ago.
The nicest house, the jewel of the block, is a three story Victorian mansion two doors down from us we still call the Washburn house, not for the current owner, or for the owner when we first moved here, or for the original builder, but for the ones who completely restored it fifteen years ago. The previous owner for more than a generation was Betty Rodriguez, who raised eleven kids there. Betty had a famous restaurant on the north side, Mexican of course. She was from around the Rio Grande. A tragic accident while in the hospital paralyzed her from the waist down and she ended up living in a wheel chair out of a makeshift porch off the dining room where she had access to the living room and kitchen. Betty taught Roxanne how to make enchiladas. She always had one of her kids’ families living with her in the upper two floors, sometimes more, all taking care of her. Roxanne and I used to sort of be on call to help her if she slipped too low in her chair if Betty was home alone. We were friends with a couple of Betty’s daughters and their kids played with ours. The famous boxer Raphael Rodriguez was Betty’s son.
When Betty passed away the house was acquired by Jeff and Sarah Washburn, in their thirty-somethings with a son in elementary school. Sarah was a teacher. Jeff was the CEO of a housing trust that reconditioned rundown housing and helped finance buyers, albeit not the same housing trust that later benefited the Edens and the Kanes. In their own time Jeff and Sarah renovated the Rodriguez house, made it gorgeous from the roof to the basement. They said they were good at working together since they met in the Peace Corps in Honduras. They fenced in the back yard, put in a porch, patio, hot tub. Inside they put in a new kitchen, replaced broken woodwork, restored the porch and living area after Betty. At possibly the penultimate peak of the housing bubble, the Washburns sold the place to another lesbian couple, Jennifer and Sarah, who were childless. The Washburns moved across town where they found another old Victorian home to restore.
Shortly after the new owners put a new metal roof like the ones in Paris on the Washburn house the housing bubble burst and the new owners were under water from the getgo. They struggled for a few more years and finally took a short sale to a hetro couple in their very late twenties, both family psychologists, she with a broader practice and he more focused on juvenile and adolescent. Such a big lovely house, they started out renting to roomers; it must have been like living in an Airbnb. Very recently they had their first baby, a girl.
Just adding these new neighbors among the old reliable ones already here reinforces my hopes and dreams of a respectable neighborhood, and now that they are having children invigorates me even more to believe we have a joint faith in the future. We all know we’re living in a sketchy place and time. My time will come to pass too soon. I would like to leave this place in willing hands to nurture positive outcomes.
The journalist I talked with at the county groundbreaking ceremony asked me if I would recommend this neighborhood to my kids, and I said, of course but I don’t need to, they have their own minds.
Old neighbor Stanley the retired factory machinist ex-Russian eventually passed away but not from his wounds when he got mugged. He died of natural causes, as did the Polish guy, his walking companion, Tony, who as they say preceded him in death. After Tony passed, Stanley kept walking, alone is when he was vulnerable to his muggers but he kept on, accompanied more and more by his wife. After Stanley passed she walked by herself until you come to think of it she was suddenly seen no more. Somebody sold their houses. Somebody moved in.
Spring arrived late this year. Our horrid winter lingered like pneumonia. We got a blizzard of two and a half feet of snow the Ides of April. The neighbors mobilized double time to help dig each other out. Ice did not leave the local lakes until just May 5. Now it’s all melted and gone out of mind. The sun is high and daylight begins before six and lasts past eight. Trees have green budleafs. The apple trees are in bloom in pink and burgundy. We dug the sludge out of the flower beds we left from procrastination in the fall, raking the maple leaves into the gardens for mulch to comfort the hibernating perenniels, now we take out the muck to expose the soil and the emerging crocuses. Some of the tulips left from the Muxter years don’t bloom any more, just scraggly leaves, the bulbs too old, need replacement this fall for next spring. The daffodils stand sentry for a few days while the peonies get ready, the phlox, and so on. The lawn feels barefoot lush. Lilacs are on the way. Tomorrow mow the grass for the first time.
Contacted a local tree service and asked for an arborist to come over to give us advice and a bid on trimming our four tall maples. He emailed me back with a quote to remove all four and pull and grind all the stumps. I wrote back he misunderstood me, I wanted just to trim the dead branches and advice how to keep them healthy. He called me on the phone and told me, they’re dying.
All those dead branches up near the top and the hollow boughs with bark falling off are signs that the trees are reaching the end of their life cycle. The roots were dying and the trunks having trouble moving nutrients into the limbs and branches. They are dying from within, he told me. He said he could trim off the deadwood this year but next year we would look up and see more deadwood, and we would never keep up, eventually each tree would lose more and more life, and limbs, even hunks of trunk could fall. He came to the house and met with Roxanne and me and had us look up into the trees from all angles. They were mature all right, about five stories tall. The arborist guessed forty to fifty years old. By the looks of some of those upper branches and the condition of some patches of bark it is plain the four shady maples are doomed.
Roxanne and I haven’t decided whether to take out all four at the same time or the worst two now and keep the other two another couple years. We arranged to wait to have the work done until January so we could enjoy the summer shade, the arbors of green and the eventual fall colors one last time. One last raking. It’s heartbreaking for us to imagine this homestead without those maples and their protective spans filtering the sun, green on blue like part of the sky itself. I keep thinking I will miss the oxygen.