Neighborhood Character Is a Myth. Long Live Neighborhood Character

Author’s note: This is written from my perspective. I am a white person who owns a duplex one and a half blocks from the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) 3rd Precinct. The loss of these buildings is insignificant compared to the continued trauma and loss of life perpetuated by the Minneapolis police.

In my experience over the past five-plus years following developments through the Minneapolis Planning Commission and two years being active to get the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan approved, the general demographic of people who stand in opposition to any development are white people who have lived in their houses for 30-plus years. They are the ones who frequently claim that adding more neighbors will destroy their “neighborhood character.”

I’m 29 years old, and I grew up in the Seward neighborhood. Apart from a short stint living in Chicago, I kept coming back to South Minneapolis, and Downtown Longfellow was my neighborhood hub. It is far from being glamorous or sexy, but I usually chose to live close. It’s familiar, accessible, and it offers most everything I need. Downtown Longfellow is a commercial hub that supports the surrounding community.

On May 25, 2020, the Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd; and rightfully, the following protests moved to the MPD 3rd Precinct — also in Downtown Longfellow. For days, peaceful protests were greeted by police harassment and intimidation, and outsiders came in with no motivation other than destruction. Tensions with the grieving community continued to rise until they snapped. With no “due process” or public hearings, Downtown Longfellow was set on fire, reducing many 100-year-old buildings to rubble.

I have memories of all of these places, because this is where I live and where I do most of my shopping and recreation.

I remember when I was a student I’d walk home from South High and stop at the Arby’s or Wendy’s for a snack. Both gone.

I remember stopping in the Post Office to buy stamps, and the time I mailed snacks from Aldi to my brother-in-law in Washington state. Gone.

I remember the day many years ago when I was crossing Lake Street at 27th Avenue, looked up and noticed the letters: I-O-O-F etched at the top of the building that housed El Nuevo Rodeo. That was that day I learned about the IOOF. I loved that building. It’s gone now.

I remember the Minnehaha-Lake Liquor Store, that I shopped at because, while not always the cheapest or the best selection, it was close. Gone.

I remember the tobacco shop where I first learned of CBD gummies. Gone 

I remember taking days off to go to the lunchtime buffet at Gandhi Mahal. Gone.

Heck, I even remember the time I went to the pawn shop on the off-chance I could find a spare disk from The O.C. Season 3 (I had forgotten my copy in a DVD player when I moved out of an apartment). Gone.

And there’s the dark brick Coliseum building. The building that housed a Hennepin Health clinic, many non-profits in the upper floors and the Denny’s that gave me food poisoning. (Shrimp and grits at a nationwide 24/7 diner? I should have known better!) That building still stands, but it isn’t open anymore.

The Coliseum building, May 14, 2021.

After all those other memories, what upsets me most about the exclusionary and false narrative of “neighborhood character” is that in February 2020, for my 28th birthday, my spouse and I went to the Town Talk Diner for the first time. We chatted with the owner/bartender over cocktails and small plates, and one thing that came up was the restrictions on building improvements in the name of historic preservation. He said that if a barstool was damaged, it could not be replaced — that the business would simply be down a seat.

It was a great night and a great birthday, and it left such a lasting impression that a month later when COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, ordering takeout from Town Talk was the first “COVID date” we had. It was so good, we kept going back.

But after the Minneapolis Uprising, that building, its barstools and its classic lightbulb sign were all gone. The entire block was smoldering for days.

The Town Talk Diner. street view, 2019

You may notice some houses around the city have red signs that say “Don’t Bulldoze Our Neighborhood” in response to the outreach for the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan, but here we are: Bulldozers came and leveled the buildings whose wooden interiors were ash, and all that remained were masonry shells at risk of collapse. Dump trucks brought in loads of dirt to fill in the cavernous foundations that would otherwise be exposed. The neighborhood businesses, where over my lifetime I’ve spent thousands of dollars, were all destroyed over a few days. 

Credit: Author

Where do we go from here?

What’s done is done, and the buildings are gone. However, if you have been through the intersection of Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue recently, you know construction is happening. The Wellington Management apartment building — whose burning frame was in the media for so many news cycles — is nearing completion again. Wendy’s, AutoZone and the Pawn Shop are also nearing completion, but those are single-purpose buildings. There is nothing characteristic about them. No additional housing units are being added. There are no public amenities.

I referenced the Wendy’s as a memory, but I haven’t been there since high school. It’s a chain, and other than cars and noise, it contributes nothing to Downtown Longfellow. I am most peeved by the lack of diversity and continued car-oriented nature of these rebuilt parcels. In my life here, these businesses and buildings were the blight I dreamed of getting removed and replaced with something better. The businesses can exist, absolutely, but the land use must intentionally follow city policies. 

But what good are these policies — the policies we worked so hard to get accepted into the 2040 plan — if we give a business an exemption to be one story, instead of four? We must further demand that “highest and best use” is in fact highest and best. If the people in elected office actually cared about providing shelter at all levels of affordability and recognized how urban sprawl impacts climate change, they would supply the funds to build the remaining three stories.

No more one-story buildings on anchoring corners. No more variances for drive-throughs. No more parking ramps.

We are still in the midst of an ever-worsening housing crisis; and the hideous, life-destroying teeth of climate change are only starting to show themselves in Minnesota. It’s well past time to act. We need to acknowledge that our horrendously restrictive housing policies are intrinsically linked to the current issues we face as a society. We need to continually acknowledge that racism is still alive and well here.

The real historic character and local businesses in our neighborhood are gone, but at least people traveling through can still get their drive-through Wendy’s, a new spark plug at AutoZone and hock some goods at the Pawn Shop.

Long Live Neighborhood Character.

The Wellington Management building, under construction for the second time. Credit: Author, May 14, 2021

Fred Kreider

About Fred Kreider

Fred is a car-free, smartphone-free Millennial who lives in a 120-year-old NOAH duplex in Downtown Longfellow. A connoisseur of the built environment, they find it unacceptable for transportation to be deadly and believe housing is a right, not an investment. A member of the Streets.MN Climate Committee.