Michael Tolan's Response

The recent growth of Northeast Minneapolis follows a familiar blueprint of neighborhood change seen across the country, including a few decades prior in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District: Artists move into a former industrial area which has experienced disinvestment; they create a sense of vibrancy attractive to outsiders; and they are eventually unable to afford the area whose success they made possible.

The featured comments by residents and business owners in Northeast echo that pattern of revitalization and displacement, as well as the viewpoints expressed by other community members we at the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota interviewed through our efforts to investigate cultural assets in Northeast. In our work, we focused on the social and cultural value of the places community members have been able to establish because of the area’s affordability—places like coffee shops and cafes, locally owned restaurants and businesses, and artist studios and galleries.

Their answers give some insight into why, socially, this cycle occurs and what stands to be lost. What exactly is it about a place like Northeast that has made it so attractive to outsiders? What qualities make it so ripe for commodification and a spike in demand that’s led to a rapid decrease in affordability?

As a former industrial hub of Minneapolis, Northeast has a long tradition of attracting immigrants—first from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and now from other places across the globe. Businesses representing the Latino, Hmong, Somali, and other communities dot the streetscape along Central Avenue.

Largely because of this immigrant community, Northeast has historically been rich in “third places,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe where people spend time away from home and work and accrue social capital. These are places where people can build community and relationships, and become connected to civic and social groups. The many dive bars and churches which define Northeast have long served this purpose, and continue to do so.

As artists moved into Northeast from the North Loop, they augmented this culture of great places, repurposing abandoned industrial warehouses into studios and opening art galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants.

The rising popularity of Northeast has no single explanation, but we chose to examine it through the lens of successful places. Community members—whether they were homeowners, renters, artists, or small business owners—we spoke to consistently highlighted the authenticity of Northeast. They viewed this authenticity largely in terms of businesses and the arts, as well as through the historic homes and churches and the industrial legacy of Northeast found in the railroads and cobblestones.

We came to understand authenticity to mean small, local, and unique. Authentic places are ones that reflect the community and its history. They create a rich sense of place because they’re exclusive to the community in which they’re deeply rooted. The value of and attraction to these places has been accentuated by the increasing homogeneity of American culture—a sense that you could be in one place, but any place at all because of a sameness that pervades everything from the style of new apartment complexes to national chains.

Authentic places are an antidote to this sameness. As American society becomes more standardized, people increasingly prize authenticity and individuality. Places like local bookshops, diners, and art studios are important to people both because of the services they provide, and because they represent a culture of authenticity.

The irony is that authentic places tend attract homogenous ones. The density of great places increases the desirability of Northeast, making the area less affordable for those very people and places which made it attractive in the first place. Demolition of older buildings which provide affordable rents decreases the supply of small, affordable spaces for entrepreneurs. High rent prices in newer developments exclude all but national and regional chains and luxury boutiques, as lenders often pressure developers to exclusively lease to these “safe” tenants. Meanwhile, rents of older commercial and residential properties rise for many reasons. This can push out entrepreneurs, longtime businesses, and preclude new ones from emerging in the first place. For those who stay, they often experience a sort of cultural gentrification, in which they no longer see themselves represented in their neighborhood or feel welcome there. They feel that new groups “set the rules” for socially permissible behavior in the community.

All agree that neighborhood change is inevitable—even desired. The artists haven’t always been in Northeast, nor have the same businesses from the early 20th century endured to the present. You’re more likely to hear Spanish and Somali spoken on the street than Swedish or Polish. The narratives shared by Northeast stakeholders in this snapshot emphasize the idea that the community opposes not change more broadly, but the current type and pace of change.

Revitalization isn’t neutral. Without concerted planning efforts, growth stands to benefit wealthy outsiders, rather than people of color and low-income residents who helped usher in the wave of growth. In Northeast, community members have been experiencing an inequitable growth that doesn’t always reflect their vision or needs, but rather those of outsiders.

Policy makers and politicians of all leanings can largely agree on the importance of small businesses, entrepreneurship, and artists. The economic, social, and cultural benefits have been well-established. The success of these places, however, threatens their very ability to exist without deliberate and diligent policies to support them and the people who have built them.

An ideal community includes a spectrum of affordable to high-end residential, commercial, and industrial spaces. Land use and zoning policies, regulation on developers, and planning documents ought to reflect that principle of tiered affordability.  Technical assistance programs and access to capital must be readily available to support great ideas. And, most importantly, community members must be empowered with the resources to guide change in line with their vision in order to benefit from growth.

Michael Tolan

Michael Tolan currently serves as a Community Engagement Coordinator with Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Michael works with community members to identify cultural assets and opportunities to preserve and activate them. He aims to increase civic engagement around place, encourage residents to become active participants in the development of their neighborhoods, and develop policies that encourage cultural preservation and sustainable change.

Michael holds a B.A. in Classical Studies from Carleton College and is a graduate of the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs, a national program centered on public policy, civic engagement, and leadership development.