NoMi? NoBe? No Go

A few years ago, we had a movement of people who tried to rebrand our Twin Cities community as “NoMi”—a shortened take on North Minneapolis, where I live and work.

North Minneapolis is the heart of the African American community in Minneapolis, and home to a growing diverse group of Latino, Hmong, and Somali residents. It's a community with an important history, a strong sense of self, and one expanding through hope and optimism. While it has abundant assets and irreplaceable qualities, North Minneapolis also has challenges that are impossible to ignore. Our neighborhoods were hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and devastated by a tornado that ripped through the center of the community two years ago.

The “NoMi” push for revitalization drew a lot of criticism and polarized people across racial lines. To be fair, I knew many of the residents and realtors leading this effort and while I understood their commitment and passion for the strengthening and betterment of our community, it lacked a connection and rootedness to the culture, diversity, and history of our community. Many people saw the work as primarily creating benefit for new residents, not existing residents. Put another way, people saw it as a benefit for white folks and less for communities of color.

So when I heard about a video by Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Company in California promoting the rebranding of North Oakland as “NoBe”—North Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville—I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!

Following the realtor company's video, Phat Beets Produce of North Oakland made a counter video, as its community garden was featured as a selling point for “NoBe.” Phat Beets took scenes from the promotional video and combined with their version of the community to, as they say on their website, “…Challenge this attempt to rebrand North Oakland in order to make the neighborhood more attractive for new homebuyers moving up from San Francisco and businesses that cater to the young, affluent and hip.”

Watching these videos really hit home for me.
A Critical Lens

As a person working in the field of community development, the attention and energy North Minneapolis receives makes me both excited and nervous. Excited, because I know it will bring together a multi-sector collaboration that draws on the diverse skills and assets of multiple partners. Nervous, because whenever you talk about revitalization efforts in our community, you also inevitably begin to talk about displacement and gentrification.

That’s why everywhere I go, and in every conversation I participate in, I keep asking questions about our efforts to strengthen and revitalize. Who participates and who benefits? Who are the people who help shape the ideas, the definitions, and the strategies we are using to strengthen a place?  And as a result of our efforts, who ends up benefiting?

In the Twin Cities, we take pride in our belief that all people have opportunities to become successful. But for every success we have, there are real problems as well. While the region benefits from a number of social and economic assets, it is unable to translate these benefits to everyone, specifically to communities of color, who make up the fastest growing segment of our population and an increasingly large part of our workforce.

Unfortunately, data shows that these members of our community are more likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty; more likely to suffer from chronic illness; less likely to graduate from high school; and less likely to own their own home.

In 2010, Minneapolis had a 3:1 black-to-white unemployment rate, the worst disparity in the nation. Young black males are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated in Minnesota than to live in college housing. Adding to poverty rates, employment and educational disparities, we have staggering racial disparities in mortgage lending and in homeownership rates in the Twin Cities and Minnesota.

In the Twin Cities, race, place, and a person's well-being continue to be highly correlated. Where you live affects whether you have access to the resources you need to thrive, like quality schools, trustworthy banks, and access to healthy food, good jobs, affordable housing, and transportation.

Forming Our Communities

If we’re being honest, we should be willing to acknowledge that we do not have a strong history of creating equity in the making of our places, specifically within the context of our central cities. We have, over the past century, created different places and spaces in our cities for different people. We create and design, invest and disinvest, include and exclude different parts of our cities in different ways. Every area across our cities has places for the rich and places for the poor. Places for the powerful and places for the weak. Places for those people and places for these people. Places for people who are white and places for people who are not.

Efforts to improve conditions in America’s central city neighborhoods have been ongoing for decades. There are raging debates about what exactly our goals and efforts are aiming to achieve and how to best achieve these goals. The debate has grown more complex and dynamic over time with the onset of the recent foreclosure and economic crisis; the growing awareness of the suburbanization of poverty; an increasing focus on connecting low-income neighborhoods and their residents to broader regional opportunities; and a demand for housing in urban areas that are transit friendly, walkable and near job and cultural centers.

Today, neighborhoods in our central cities continue to face internal and external pressures to change. We know that we need to improve the social, economic and physical well-being of places and the people who live there. We must elevate the principles of equitable development as we look to improve schools, better public transportation, build new housing, or create more jobs. This can be done by:

  • Preventing displacement;
  • Approaching community engagement in such a way that those residents most impacted by our decisions are included in the decision making process;
  • Honoring local culture and history and;
  • Because race has played such a distinct role in shaping our neighborhoods and region, creating places that offer unequal opportunities to their residents. It must continue to be a central consideration for our community development and neighborhood revitalization efforts in the future.

At the end of the day, the success of our efforts should not only be measured by what we did, but by who benefited.

Connecting Through Development

I am optimistic about the ability of our diverse community to come together across differences to build upon our strengths, even in light of the “NoMi” debacle.

When the tornado hit our community, hundreds of houses were destroyed and many lives were interrupted in unimaginable ways. Since then, I’ve witnessed various groups of people across culture, race, and economic status partner with each other, the city, nonprofits, the philanthropic community, and others, to move forward the rebuilding efforts. I have come to believe that the act of journeying together as a community these last two years has done more for solidifying and strengthening our identity as “Northsiders” (as we’ve proudly called ourselves for decades) in ways that a realtor-driven rebranding effort never could have.

Of course, we have not perfected anything, and we continue to experience bumps and bruises along the way. I remain hopeful that a diverse group of people working together can build a thriving, mixed-income, multicultural community where people are connected to each other, engaged in community life and have the resources, capacity, power, and access to opportunities that are necessary to strengthen our individual and collective well-being.

(Tornado destruction in North Minneapolis. Photo by Alleycat Studios CC BY-NC)

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Neeraj has been a “Northsider” for 13 years and lives with his wife Erin and two energetic sons, Koen and Ezra, in the Jordan neighborhood of North Minneapolis. He is the director of community based research at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota and is a 2011 Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow. On his free time… oh wait he has no free time, didn’t you read that he has two small kids?

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