What About Our Roots? on gentrification

2013-08-31 16.38.34One of my favorite things to do is listen to my Dad tell stories. It doesn’t matter how many times I have heard them they always draw me in: I love them. So many of these stories center around the river and our section of the city: the eastside of Minneapolis. Lately, these stories have an undercurrent of mourning. They tend to start with some variation of: “This used to be…” Even I am starting to use this term as more and more landmarks of my past are torn down to make room for  luxurious inner-city living. When I was growing up we would visit my Grandma on 5th and University. We would often walk to the Red Owl on the corner of University and Central, the owners knew my family by name, they had been going there for decades. My Pops would talk about how Grandpa would come home from playing the drums at Nye’s and sell pencils on the street. He would talk about playing ball at Holmes Park and the rivalry with Marcy. Today, there is no Red Owl, instead there are condo’s built on top of a Lunds. There is no Holmes Park and nobody in my family frequents Nye’s. Not surprisingly my family no longer lives on 5th and University: we couldn’t afford to keep the house. Now it is rental property for college kids. It seems everywhere I turn the memories my family and I hold sacred are fading into the ever-expanding construction of condos and urban renewal. We are being uprooted.

I found myself telling one of those “This used to be” stories this weekend. My wife and I were driving from Northeast towards downtown and I noticed that Totino’s had been torn down. As I told her about the memories I had of Totino’s my sadness quickly turned to rage, I was consumed by the all to present and familiar feeling that I need to defend myself and my honor. Where Totino’s once stood there was a sign that urged potential buyers of the soon to be condo complex to “plant [their] roots in NE.” I became overwhelmed with the weight of the implications and connections that I was making. The demolition of this building combined with the message from the sign felt like the culmination of a 12 round heavyweight fight that I had lost. As I struggled to find my breath, and to keep from going berserk on the next pedal pub I saw, I tried to explain to my wife just what I was feeling.

Fittingly, the only way to even begin to express what was going on in my mind, body and soul at that time is with a story. My Dad grew up with a cat we will call Mark. They were good friends and many of my Pop’s stories involve Mark. As they got older their families stayed connected: I went to school with Mark’s oldest son and daughter; my brother went to school with Mark’s youngest son. Beyond that Mark’s wife was a waitress at Totino’s while my Mom was a waitress at Elsie’s, a restaurant just down the street a ways. It seems our two families are, in many ways, meta-connected. Often times I would see Mark’s wife at Totino’s and we would catch each other up, however informally, on how the families were doing. Totino’s, at least to me, was a symbol of my family’s journey and the community that once was. Now, on that same spot, there sits a sign urging for roots to be planted there.  What does that say about my roots? Or about my Pop’s and Mark’s roots?

This is not an isolated incident. For the past several years I have watched my section of the city be treated like a playground. Every weekend hordes of white yuppies fill the streets. They take the pedal pub to the numerous bar’s that serve as staples of Northeast. Very few of these folks will ever have any connection to Northeast beyond this tourism. Worse, even fewer will understand the history of the bars that they are visiting. Worse still, even fewer will know anything about the people who make Northeast the charming place they so desire to escape to. They come in and shout obscenities and generally act an ass and then go back to their suburbs and sanitized life. These are the same people who were up-in-arms over Gabby’s and forced them out of business; yet, they come out in full force at Psycho Suzies! They move through Northeast often times with pure disdain for the folks that have been there for decades. They are nothing more than parasites and in true parasitic fashion they are attempting to permanently set up shop.

The worldview is clear, as the sign demonstrates: there are no roots here so feel free to make yourself at home. My roots don’t count. Nobody is asking the people of Northeast what they want; nobody is trying to empower the working class that makes Northeast what is. Nobody is asking how Northeasters can benefit from the “Art’s District.” No, the assumption is that we will continue to provide the charm and labor but reap none of the rewards. The thing is we know why they don’t ask. They don’t ask because we don’t need what they are selling. Northeasters been doing art, we been the Art’s District. I would drive down 13th Ave with my Mom and observe the art of our daily lives, on the daily. Northeast has always been rich in culture, it just has never been the traditionally American consumer addicted kind.

So, does this mean you can never move? No, of course not, it doesn’t even mean you can’t move Northeast. What it does mean though is you must be responsible and respectful when you do. In short it means you need to acknowledge there are indeed roots here, the exact opposite of what is happening. Northeast is seen as this blank canvass void of culture and anything else that makes up a neighborhood. Consequently, it is seen as a prime breeding ground. The problem: it is not void of anything. Northeast is as real as it comes. Ironically, this is precisely what draws these parasites.

Of course the irony is inescapable: the first gentrifiers were the Europeans in 1492. This whole scenario is a microcosm of colonialism as it functions in the larger world. As such, I realize the recipe for how to interact with Northeast offers a way to exist in an anti-colonial worldview (at least the humble beginnings of one) and is one that needs to be applied universally. Just as I want Northeasters to be self-determining, and for any wrongs to be righted as seen fit by Northeasters, I want to the same for the Dakota, Lakota, Iroquois, Navajo, Anishinabe and all the native tribes. Beyond that I want the same for Iraqis, Syrians, Tibetans and all colonized peoples. As a person of Irish decent perhaps my rage is historical.

I wanted nothing more than to live in the neighborhood I nurtured with my blood sweet and tears but I couldn’t, the housing prices are too high and the culture too shallow. More than likely I will never live Northeast again and neither will my people. They, like me, will be priced out or completely isolated culturally, all to make room for “roots” to be planted. But have no fear the gentrifiers all wear buttons proclaiming their love for NE and pledge allegiance to the flag.  For the record  F#*k them. My roots run deep.

P.S this is not isolated to Minneapolis. Read this post, which provided inspiration for me as I wanted to give up writing this, by Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson


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