To Leslie Bock and the folks over at Betty Danger’s
My name is Ryan Williams-Virden. I spent the first thirty years of my life in Northeast Minneapolis. The Northeast that I remember, however, is very different from the one that you have crafted from what, I’m sure, you saw as rubble. Let me explain.
I grew up in Northeast before there was ever an “arts district.” I grew up in Northeast when abandoned buildings and tore up homes were not blank canvases but symbols of perseverance, monuments of memory. Before craft beer and microbreweries Northeast was my home. In my Northeast the only Pub Crawls folks did were when they got too lit to drive home so they literally crawled. Peddle Pubs looked more like kids too young to drive biking in the streets after getting into their parents liquor when they were gone, or even sometimes with their parents. In my Northeast problems were often worked out with left jabs and right crosses, and vacations came at the end of a six pack, or–depending on how long you been surviving day to day– at the bottom of a bottle. If you were lucky, like me, you could bus tables at restaurants which you would probably never be able to afford to eat at.
I don’t say all this to romanticize the struggle of so many working class people. It is not romantic. There is nothing romantic about alcoholism and poverty wages. I know from first hand experience. I remember giving hugs and trying to see if I could smell liq on their breath. At my first job washing dishes the cook would sneak across the street to grab a couple beers between orders. He called his car the pussy chariot, trying desperately to find something honorable in his nightly routine; he talked to me, a 14 year old, about having a drink with him when I was old enough. He fully expected me to be there, working with him, when I was old enough to drink. My park board baseball coach kept a cooler with beer under a jacket between the driver and passenger seat.
But I also don’t write this to shame or distance myself from that history. It is precisely because of those experiences and that geography that I am who I am today, for better or worse. For every memory of struggle, I have two memories of laughter and love. That is my history and I won’t sit around quietly as you– and the hipsters like you who are currently colonizing Northeast– position my monuments for your own shits and giggles while making light of the struggle that forged so many scoundrels.
You may be wondering what I’m talking about. And while I am certainly talking about the general way you have interacted with those of us born and raised in Northeast who have great ideas but didn’t get a loan from our father’s to play around with and dabble in entrepreneurship, this time I am talking about your flagrant violation and mockery of Alcoholics Anonymous in the sign outside the establishment. You see, Northeast has an intimate history with alcohol, and therefore alcoholism. The bars that you and your ilk are so attracted to actually have a history. They served working people who needed an escape — any escape– from the systems that you and yours capitalize on to own those very properties.
I have personally seen warriors struggle daily with sobriety. I’ve seen battles lost and won. I know what it means when my elders say “there by the grace of God go I.” I know the subtext of the serenity prayer. I have seen the alcoholic at the bar drowning demons decades in the making. I have seen the bruises on my friends when their brother, or dad, or uncle, or boyfriend, lost the battle and came home to teach them a lesson. For these folks AA represents their hope, it represents their salvation. Growing up the sobriety medallions were stored away and treated with reverence. You mock this history and these struggles with your Northeast AA: Arts and Alcohol event. Sadly I expect no less. You are doing what colonizing White folks have always done. You believe that the world is your playground, that cultures and histories are simply accouterments that add a little spice and exoticism to your consumption. For examples of this look no further than the greeting on the very same sign: The Village of Mexampton welcomes you to Northeast Minneapolis. You want to turn the masterpieces we painted on the daily with our blood, sweat, and tears into a pentimento, replaced by your obviously forged hipster print. We see you. And this is why we hate you.