Nearly a year after the May 22, 2011, tornado that ripped through North Minneapolis, killed two residents and made thousands homeless, opinions vary greatly on what the poverty-stricken community needs most from local and state government. Should the City of Minneapolis introduce “pie in the sky” ideas such as street cars and light rail transit on the north side and spruce up the waterfront on the Mississippi River — as Mayor R.T. Rybak suggested during his State of the City address at the Capri Theater on April 11 — or focus more immediately on fixing damages homes and bringing investments and jobs?
“If we get the jobs of maintaining the street car project, if we can become employed as maintenance workers longterm on the project and not just as builders, then that helps us,” said North Minneapolis activist Kenya McKnight. “In terms of light rail, if we can actually get the city to be an advocate to have more than two stops. Otherwise these are things that make North Minneapolis look pretty, but don’t really add any relevance to the residents being able to access or benefit.”
Criticism was swift last summer and fall that the City and Hennepin County weren’t doing enough to aid tornado victims, many of whom were renters with few resources. The primarily African-American neighborhood lost thousands who moved away following the tornado. Meanwhile, the state legislature passed a series of measures during the 2011 summer special session that critics called mere bandaids, and this session the House only passed legislation that would help a liquor store damaged by the tornado relocate across Broadway Avenue. In an interview with The UpTake, Rep. Bobby Joe Champion defended that legislation.
“They haven’t cleaned up North as they would have southeast or somewhere near Kenwood,” said North Minneapolis activist Mel Reeves, who credited the Northside Community Response Team with filling the void left by the City following the storm. “I don’t believe that any other part of the city would be allowed to have houses sitting around with this kind of roof damage over this amount of time.”
Reeves said that the City’s response following the tornado soured his view of government. “The reason you pay taxes, the reason you give allegiance to a government or city or state is because they are in place to have your back. Government exists for the people.”
Urban Homeworks Executive Director Chad Schwitters said that most of the approximately 200 houses with damaged roofs — and telltale blue tarps identifying them as victims of the tornado — are either vacant or are in the process of being fixed.
“Sixty-seven percent of residents of North Minneapolis are on some kind of county assistance, which is why that storm was so severe in the neighborhood,” said Schwitters. “It wasn’t because the tornado itself was incredibly severe, it’s because of where it hit, and the economic disposition of houses in the neighborhood.”
Rybak, who also delivered a State of the City address at the Capri Theater six years ago, said that the neighborhood is dramatically better off than it was in 2006, but that much needs to be done to improve safety, housing and jobs. “Unemployment among African Americans is 15 percent higher than the rest of the population,” said the Mayor. “That’s unacceptable.”
McKnight argued that more should be done on behalf of renters, since North Minneapolis residents with few means are in no position to become homeowners.
“Most of the families we lost were generational families — older, more stable families who got caught up in the financial crisis,” said McKnight. “The only way to get them to return is through rental properties. There seems to be this push against renters but for more homeownership. That’s driven by need to increase the tax base here.”
“The renters who are currently here need to create some sort of renter’s union and develop an agenda around our interests and what we want to see and make sure that’s part of the bigger agenda for this housing plan for the community.”
Rybak countered that the best way to help renters is by finding them jobs: “There’s significantly more that can be done for renters, but one of the things we have to do is recognize the most important things we can do is deal on the employment side. There’s a lot that can be done on rental assistance and on the federal and state government, but the real place where we can play a role is getting a hard-to-employ person into a job.”