North Minneapolis: Past and Present

3:34 PM, Jul 10, 2007   |    comments
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Stairstep Initiative
Peace Foundation
Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest

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Underneath the North Minneapolis that grabs headlines — the neighborhoods dealing with big-city problems — there is a community that, for decades and through generations, had the feel of something more simple. "Nobody locked their door, you could walk down the street and know everybody," Reva Rosenbloom said. She grew up at 16th and Oliver avenues North and lived there until she was married in 1954. She was married at a synagogue on Penn Avenue, one block away. Her parents owned a dry goods store on Plymouth Avenue, which was, at the time, a booming business district. "And that's where everybody did everything," she said. "They didn't go downtown. We didn't have shopping malls." North Minneapolis included the state's largest Jewish community. It was one of the few places in Minnesota where Jews were allowed to live, because many property owners in the first half of the 1900s agreed to restrictive covenants, which banned Jews from buying land. Iric Nathanson, who grew up at 8th and Elwood avenues North, said there was "a lot of housing discrimination" when he was growing up. "Jewish people were kept out of many neighborhoods," he said. "But yet they had this neighborhood, and it was warm and embracing." Nathanson grew up in a house his grandfather built in 1915. His family sold the house in 1968. A synagogue across from the house became a church, and the memories of a diverse neighborhood became distant. "In the 30s and 40s, there were young Jewish boys (and) young African-American boys playing basketball together," he said. Civil rights leader Harry Davis, who died last year, once said, "We crossed racial and religious lines and so that's why it was so unique." He was talking about life in the first half of the 20th century in north Minneapolis, in an interview featured in a 2000 documentary called "We Knew Who We Were." Davis said north Minneapolis had been a place where historically persecuted people came together. "The whole relationship of togetherness was developed because we were kind of equal in terms of economics," Davis said in the documentary, which was produced by the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. But populations starting shifting after World War II. "Guys got out of the service and wanted to move away," Rosenbloom said. "So people started moving to suburbs." Jews moved, mostly, to St. Louis Park — a rare suburb in which they could buy homes. But federal loan programs prevented African-Americans from doing the same thing. The Federal Housing Administration effectively institutionalized racism by discouraging the mixing of what it called "inharmonious racial groups." "For a black person like my father to get an FHA loan was about as easy as getting a camel through the eye of a needle," historian Mahmoud El-Kati said. El-Kati said housing policy was just one of the hurdles lining up in front of blacks. "What do you want to talk about?" he said in an interview with KARE 11. "Education? Family? Religion? Entertainment? War? Peace? I mean, it's the same question — black people will get the worst of it." Eventually, in 1967 — 40 years ago this summer — those frustrations ignited into a riot on Plymouth Avenue. Minneapolis joined the list of cities, including Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark, in which the civil rights movement sparked a rebellion. "People were very unhappy with things around the country, and so they reacted the way everybody else did around the country," said Liz Samuels, a longtime resident of North Minneapolis. "This was simply a statement of rejecting of this assigned second-class status," said fellow northsider Al McFarlane. And north Minneapolis wasn't unique. "It was happening all over the country," said Alfred Babington-Johnson, CEO of the Stairstep Initiative. "The frustration (was) about how does this system works started to respond." In north Minneapolis, the frustration destroyed Plymouth Avenue. "They broke all the windows and they trampled through everything," said Harriet Kaplan, who was caught by a camera the day after the riot, as she was carrying boxes out of Koval's appliance store at Plymouth and James avenues North. "It looked like people got along," she said. "Why (the riot) happened, I don't know." Forty years later, the businesses are gone from Plymouth. Koval's Appliances moved to Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park. And Kaplan, who keeps a picture of her old neighborhood next to her desk, says, "It was just wonderful growing up on the Northside." At 8th and Elwood, Iric Nathanson's old house is now one of the many homes in the neighborhood that were converted to rental property. It was converted after his father sold it to the city. Nathanson, who has spent 25 years working on housing issues in Minneapolis, said the disturbances of 1967 accelerated the flight to the suburbs that began after the war. "I think there certainly were real estate agents that tried to capitalize on these difficult times," he said. "(They) went around telling people, ‘You'd better sell right now. The neighborhood is changing.' " Today, advocates like Al McFarlane urge fellow northsiders to take back a sense of ownership. "Ultimately, we have to determine our own future and create our own sense of who we are," he said. It still is a neighborhood of parks and kids playing. In many ways, North Minneapolis is the same place Reva Rosenbloom remembers. "It was sort of like a small town, I suppose," she said. But her neighborhood's innocence has been scarred by suburban flight and by poverty that became entrenched. "If you plant the seeds for a sycamore tree," Mahmoud El-Kati asked, speaking about housing and other policies, "would you expect apples to come from that?" As recently as 1993, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against Minneapolis, accusing the city of creating "pockets of poverty" with discriminatory housing programs. That lawsuit was settled two years later. But North Minneapolis remains a neighborhood where, half a century later, people say they still don't get the attention they need unless sirens and violence attract it. "People in North Minneapolis basically are African-American," Liz Samuels said. "And because they're not of the white privileged class, they don't get treated the same way as people that are of white privilege."

By Scott Goldberg, KARE 11 News

(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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