We Are Here Part I of II

My children grew up here . . . What I want to see is Plymouth Avenue and West Broadway lined with small businesses, the ma-and-pa stores, where people can make a living.

— Van White (1979)

On a hot summer day in 1998 – after spending all of my Fall and Winter drawing at Juxtaposition Arts – I packed a snack into my backpack, laced up my beat-up gym shoes, and walked two blocks south towards Plymouth Avenue, where Roger and Payton were already setting up to paint. I had a Mighty Ducks hat that I thought would make me look cool to the older kids, and a t-shirt my parents wouldn’t kill me for getting paint on.

I spent the summer of 1998 painting my first mural, at age 8, on the corner of Plymouth and Dupont. It was a medium-sized mural, but back then, to me, it was as big a painting as I could imagine. All of the other students were twice my age, but I was still given a five-by-five foot square to paint – nearly the same amount of space as the rest of them.

If you were driving west down Plymouth Avenue, you would’ve had a perfect view of the wall. The background was a textured blue, and halfway down the wall – maybe 20 or 30 feet from the sidewalk – you could see my piece. That was nearly twenty years ago. That building, and the mural we painted, no longer exist.

Back then, I didn’t know about the history of North Minneapolis – I was just happy to occupy my little five-by-five foot space in it. At age 8, I didn’t know much about historic racism and xenophobia. I didn’t know anything about the history of Plymouth Avenue, the shops that used to line it, or what had happened there thirty years before.

On August 3rd, 1966, Clarence Benford Jr., a Northsider, a teenager, was joined by nearly 50 other black youth along Plymouth Avenue to demand fair treatment by the businesses that lined the street on both sides. When a shop owner was confronted for his refusal to hire black youth, the dispute ended with one of the black youth being assaulted. When the police failed to take the assault seriously, the young folks turned to the only kind of justice within their reach – they went back and smashed the shop windows.

In an essay titled The Way Opportunities Unlimited Inc., Camille Venee Maddox writes that one of the leaders of the group later explained that “black youth in the area were fed up with their inability to get jobs. He said that the businesses he applied to in the area stated to him ‘We’ll call you tomorrow, but tomorrow never came.’” There was unrest that night in 1966, and, in 1967, Plymouth Avenue burned.

Back in 1998, I was wiping sweat from my eyes as I tried to get the shapes right. That summer was hot. They don’t tell you this in your art classes – if your school still has art classes – but mural painting is physical. And, in trying to keep up with the 15 and 16 year-olds, it felt like a sport. I grabbed a step stool to reach the high spots. I placed red and pink, light green and dark green, white, and finished some parts with a black outline. Roger showed me how to throw a gold border around my piece once I was done. I pulled the blue-tape off the edges, and admired my perfect little square – the biggest thing I’d ever painted in my entire life.

What I didn’t have the language for then, as I battled through the summer heat, was this sense of urgency I felt, and have felt ever since. I – like many of us – grew up experiencing the events of 1966 and 1967 in the air. Surrounding this major Northside street was the absence of a grocery store, the absence of a movie theater, the absence of a local deli – all of which had once been here. But back then, I only knew it at a gut level.

Driving North on Elwood towards Plymouth Avenue, you pass the First Church of God in Christ, erected strongly on a small hill. If you look closely, behind the church sign, you see a stone Torah above the front doors. Before North Minneapolis was considered a “Black” neighborhood, it was considered a Jewish one.

In the early 20th century, thousands of Jews were escaping violence in Europe. Some came to Minnesota, but were not considered white “enough” at the time to integrate into 1930s/40s America. They were forced to settle in North Minneapolis. North Minneapolis has long been, for the last one hundred years or so, a place where the city and state have parked their “undesirable” populations.

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Blacks and Jews quickly found themselves neighbors on the Northside, and while both communities were considered “undesirable,” segregation among them was still enforced, with Jews edging out blacks as white “enough” by comparison. Still, bigotry against both communities from the rest of the city became so bad that in 1945, then Mayor, Hubert H. Humphrey had to pass a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination in hiring based on race or religion – an effort targeting support towards Blacks, Jews, and Native Americans, specifically. This being 1940s America, the ordinance, while well intentioned and helpful for some, proved difficult to enforce. By the 1960s, many Jewish businesses had joined the rest of the city in denying jobs to Blacks and Native Americans. With Blacks and Jews living so close to each other, remaining solidarity among the communities weakened.

Minneapolis likes to champion itself as a progressive city, but who has change happened for? And who has it happened to? The story of the last half century would have us believe all issues the Northside currently faces are due to our own shortcomings – particularly, the shortcomings of black Northsiders. In reality, they’re the result of a long line of policies and cultural norms used to constantly move wealth and power out of North Minneapolis, concentrating it in white neighborhoods.

In 1924, for example, the Edina, Minnesota Country Club District passed an ordinance which stated, “No lot shall ever be sold . . . or rented to any person other than of the white or Caucasian race, nor shall any lot ever be used or occupied by any person other than one of the white or Caucasian race, except such as may be serving as domestics of the owner.” Ordinances such as these, which were known as housing covenants, were not uncommon.

Historian David Roediger writes that a “1939 Minneapolis covenant, for example, forbade sale or lease ‘to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.’ As new suburban developments came to regard exclusion as a status symbol,” it wasn’t just money that made someone wealthy or provided them with a certain level of power, it was their physical and social distance from “undesirable” communities. This is how places like the Northside are built, whole sections of cities are effectively kept out of sight, and out of mind – walled off by highways or landfills, impound lots or railroads. And it is from invisible margins such as these that we have, since emancipation, demanded a better tomorrow, “but tomorrow never came.”

These are just a few of the types of policies and cultural norms that have shaped American cities; they created North Minneapolis, the Southside of Chicago, the Northside of Milwaukee, the Westside of Detroit, to name a few, and became the foundation for today’s local governments. Over 72 years after Hubert Humphrey’s anti-discrimination ordinance, unemployment among Blacks and Native Americans, those is it was specifically designed to help, is still high. The denial of homes has been replaced with predatory home loans that turn our financial strife into financial ruin. Minneapolis may no longer label the Northside a “negro slum” on official documents, but, somehow, the maps haven’t changed.

In that summer of 1998, my 8-year-old self learned how to match colors, shake spray cans, and paint big. The sun mirrored the heat from the 1967 fires – I gripped my spray can like a brick – I like to think Plymouth Avenue was talking, demanding someone, anyone, challenge the fading half-truths that came before, and to tell a better story of the Northside. To tell a story that unveils and honors our past, a story that collectively envisions a better future.

Thank you for reading the first issue of The Community Occurrence. Please keep an eye out in the coming weeks for We Are Here Pt. II of II, as we dive deeper into the history of North Minneapolis, and look towards the future we must build together. Thank you.