Life Over North: A Travel Log


Street art

By Sarah Stanley-Ayre

A white, middle-aged man clad in black motorcycle gear ambled up the sidewalk, eyes turned down to the ground. He seemed out of place. The man disappeared into a nearby apartment building.

Michael Knighten and his friend exchanged knowing looks. The man wasn’t from around here.

Shortly after, Knighten spotted the man approaching again, walking slowly. As the man came closer, Knighten saw blood coming from the back of his head. He offered to call for help. The man nodded his head yes.

As EMT’s loaded the man into an ambulance, Knighten overheard him telling police officers that his injuries had come from an accidental fall.

To Knighten, this didn’t sound like the truth. He and his friend watched silently as the ambulance drove away.

It was, according to popular perception, an average day in North Minneapolis. Kimberly Lovett, a Dental Assistant and Associate of Arts major, has an idea of where the violence here stems from.

“Here’s the real truth,” Lovett said. “A lot of suburbanites, who are white, come to North Minneapolis to get drugs, buy prostitutes… they end up getting robbed sometimes. Then they go back to their suburbs and get high.”

Knighten, a Liberal Arts major and certified electrician, attributed part of the problem to rising gang violence. He said it appeared that “nothing” was being done about this epidemic.

Lovett postulated further that the majority of crime in North Minneapolis is actually brought here by outsiders, especially gang members from other cities, like Chicago.

It’s no secret that North Minneapolis has a bad reputation. When asked to name stereotypes regularly heard about the North Side, many students at MCTC responded similarly.

Lucas Herrera, a Liberal Arts major who lives over North, had frequently been told that it is “dangerous, and terrible and you’ll die” here. He said the stereotypes don’t bother him.

“I haven’t been directly affected,” he said. “I’m not dead.”

Devonte Coppage, a Business Management major who also lives in North Minneapolis, had simply been advised not to come here. He said that the common belief that “you might get killed” on the North Side was true.

Coppage’s favorite place over North is Crystal Lake Cemetery on Dowling Ave N.Crystal Lake Cemetery

“Most of my lost friends rest there,” he said.

Stereotypes of the people who live in North Minneapolis can be even more damaging than those of the neighborhood itself. North Side residents like Knighten, who frequently sees strangers to his neighborhood participating in sketchy behavior, resent the way people speak of those who actually live there.

“We are all bad people. We are all gang members, drug dealers…we are all on welfare and we don’t take care of our children,” Knighten said he has heard others say of North side inhabitants.

A hard-working father of six, Knighten’s response to these labels was: “None are true about me.”

Lovett said that what she most often hears in reference to the North Side consists primarily of “a bunch of crime, dope, prostitutes, robberies and murders.” While she acknowledged the area’s startlingly high crime rates, she also argued, “Hey, all this can happen anywhere.”

Molly Johnson, a Liberal Arts major, recently moved to North Minneapolis from Long Lake, MN, with her mother and sister. Their friends advised them against moving here, but those friends had never actually been here themselves.

Johnson loves her new home. “There are unsafe areas anywhere you go, not just in North Minneapolis,” she said. “I love the area. I love the diversity, and I really love being so close to the city.”

Johnson was also upset by the stereotypical perception of her neighborhood.

“It bothers me that the second I tell people that I live in North Minneapolis, they immediately say, ‘you’ll get shot.’ Seriously?” she said.

There are many attributes of the North Side community that are overlooked by the media and by the people who perpetuate its negative stereotypes. Because of its affordable housing, many artists, musicians, and members of the LGBT community have decided to move here. Families have taken advantage of this as well, and purchased their first homes here.

Brian Geving, MCTC student and North Side resident, described it as a very diverse area with many different races and incomes. Unfortunately, this diversity is rarely recognized. Geving said the stereotypes that bother him the most are those concerning what “kind” of people live there, such as the notion that they are all “black, poor, violent, dodging bullets walking down the street.”

“What I like most about living in North Minneapolis is the variety of different people that live there,” he said. “Most people are politically aware and active in politics.”

Residents also described a wonderful sense of community. When asked what his favorite thing about North Minneapolis is, Knighten replied, “When I go to the grocery store, it’s like ‘Cheers.’ Everybody knows my name. There’s community that nobody talks about. The community doesn’t make the news.”

Lovett agreed. “Everybody knows one another. If you don’t know someone, you know somebody in their family,” she said. Her favorite area over North is on Broadway, “because you see everybody on Broadway.”

There are many efforts being made to bolster North Minneapolis. After the tornado in 2011, grant funds and donations were distributed to aid residents in rebuilding areas that suffered the most damage. Various organizations have formed councils and committees to bring attention to the issues affecting the area.

City Council President Barbara Johnson recently said that the city is taking steps to remove fallen or damaged trees on private property still remaining from the storm. She also said that each of the five neighborhood associations will be receiving $35,000 to help their staff tackle problem properties.

A community garden created by Sanctuary Covenant now takes the place of a vacant lot where a house destroyed by the tornado once stood.

The Northside Neighborhood Council, a collaborative group of neighborhood organizations from the North Side of Minneapolis, hopes to ensure that all community members are included in visioning, planning and building an equitable North Minneapolis. It will be hosting an event on Dec. 10 at the Capri Theater, where attendees may enjoy a social hour and dinner, presentations on a variety of topics of interest to North Side neighborhoods, and networking and information sharing opportunities. Tickets are free. Those interested may register at

The city of Minneapolis is developing plans to convert a low-traffic street on the North Side into a greenway. The greenway, while increasing green space, could also allow for amenities like community gardens, public art and playgrounds.

When asked what he wants people to know about North Minneapolis, Coppage replied, “Not everybody on the North Side is ignorant.”

“The stereotypes aren’t all true. It’s a great area with a lot to offer,” Johnson said.

Knighten said, “If we were all criminals, there wouldn’t be a damn thing anybody could do about it. It would be like Gotham. We’re not all bad people; that’s not the way it is. But there’s no news in being good. We’re sick of the crime, too.”

Lovett smiled. “North Minneapolis ain’t as bad as people make it seem,” she said. “It ain’t bad to me at all.”

Patrick Wilson 2

In order to paint a more accurate picture of North Minneapolis, I asked fellow MCTC student Patrick Wilson to accompany my camera and I to the North Side, where he has spent most of his life. Wilson acted as my North Side tour guide, in hopes of showing me sides of this community that I’d never had the opportunity to explore. We also visited places that other students interviewed for this article had mentioned.

Wilson was born in Bloomington, MN, but moved to North Minneapolis with his mother and older brother at the age of six. Here, his brother became involved in petty criminal activity, and Wilson slowly began heading down this path as well. At age eleven, Wilson and his fifteen-year-old brother were kicked out of their mother’s house. After frequently moving between Isanti and North Minneapolis, Wilson ended up back in the North Side for good.

“I always find my way back there,” he said.

Wilson and I began our adventure at noon on the 22 bus from downtown Minneapolis, armed with a camera, notepad, pen and cigarettes. I asked Wilson what the worst thing he’d dealt with on the North Side was.

“I’ve been jumped a few times, held at gunpoint…” he said. “I was jumped by five or six kids, really. They stole my wallet and my 13 bucks.”

I asked him what I should expect during our visit there. “The worst thing you’re probably going to deal with is getting hit on,” he said as we neared our destination.

We exited on Broadway, and walked over to the 4th Street Saloon. Johnson had mentioned that the ‘Welcome to North Minneapolis’ mural on the side of the Saloon was one of her favorite features of the North Side.

The brightly painted mural stood in stark contrast to multiple ominous signs posted on the Saloon’s door, which warned against carrying guns and weapons inside, advised patrons of 24-hour surveillance cameras, and offered a $500 reward for any information leading to an arrest and conviction of individuals conducting illegal business on the premises.

We walked back down Broadway, toward the area Lovett had mentioned as a hangout spot. I was surprised to see that very few people were out and about. Perhaps the first snow, and the cold weather, were keeping them indoors.

What I noticed immediately about this part of Broadway was the abundance of street art and murals. On Emerson and Broadway, we came across two gentlemen measuring for a painting in progress on the brick wall next to Juxtaposition, a small art gallery. The painting bore the heading, “Putting Creativity to Work,” and had themes of “economics and development” and “building types and neighborhood structure,” among others.

As we walked further down Broadway, we took in several more colorful paintings on the faces of  buildings. With the sun shining high above us, we reached our bus stop, which was adorned with a giant flower bouquet sculpture. So far, everything I’d seen in this area seemed downright cheery.

We continued on to Crystal Lake Cemetery, on Dowling and Penn. The cemetery appeared to sprawl forever over the land. We walked over its perfectly manicured terrain and observed the grave markers of fallen World War I soldiers as Wilson shared that as a kid, he and his friends had hung out in this cemetery.

“We used to run and jump over that fence there when the police came,” he said, pointing over rows of tombstones to a faraway barricade. Fencing ran the entire length of all sides of the cemetery, save for the entrance at Dowling and Penn.

The houses around the cemetery were mostly well-kept, some with campaign signs displayed on their lawns. The neighborhood as a whole bore a striking resemblance to areas of South Minneapolis.

Nearby, on 42 and Penn, we saw the house that had been struck by a school bus the day before. A blue tarp was covering the hole in its side caused by the crash.

Our next destination was Victory Memorial Drive. This parkway was absolutely beautiful. There was a vast expanse of green grass and trees along the Drive, with nice-looking homes lining the one way roads on each side. At the end of the Drive stood a tall memorial, adorned with marble benches and plaques commemorating the Hennepin County servicemen of World War I.

This area reminded me of South Minneapolis, near Minnehaha Falls. There was a large amount of open space, and places for people to relax and enjoy the outdoors. It definitely did not conform to stereotypical observations of the North Side that I had been told.

Next, we headed towards the area that had been most heavily affected by the tornado of 2011. Patrick prepared me for what we were about to see. “There are still a lot of scars from the tornado down Lowry, closer to Penn,” he said. “There are houses that are still damaged and haven’t been torn down. All of the trees are missing. They haven’t done anything to rebuild or replant.”

We entered the devastated neighborhood. Here, many remainders of the storm’s destruction were visible. Broken and battered trees leaned in yards, their jagged branches reaching out in all directions.

There were several empty lots, lightly covered by the year’s first snowfall. Houses stood with their windows boarded up or missing. Some houses had pieces of their siding entirely ripped away. These were interspersed with newly built homes, which stood out in bright contrast to the wreckage which had not yet been addressed.

I was saddened to see so much damage remaining even after more than two years had passed since the tornado. I asked Patrick what stood out most to him about when the storm hit.

“When the tornado hit, the community really came together. I remember seeing people with chainsaws, helping their neighbors clear the streets,” he said. “I think a lot of that comes from the neighborhood feeling left out and forgotten. So they came together to help each other.”Tornado damage 2

We decided to head back to Broadway to see if more people were now out and about. We stopped at a bus stop in front of the So Low grocery store on Lowry and Emerson, so I could photograph the young men who were clowning around on the sidewalk.

As I approached the young men, one of them called out “Police!” They seemed put off by the camera around my neck. With my blue hair, leopard-print fur coat, and hand tattoos, I certainly didn’t expect to be mistaken for a cop.

I asked them if I could take their photo. Most of them quickly dispersed, arguing that they didn’t want their faces shown in any photo. One of the men pulled his scarf up over his face and struck a pose. I told him that I was fine with him covering his face for the photo.

Some of the other men then crowded around him, all covering their faces in various ways. They threw up some signs with their hands and allowed me to take their picture. I looked down at my camera to review the shot. When I looked up, the men were gone. They had run away so quickly that I didn’t even get a chance to ask for their names, or why they were so suspicious of me.

Back on Broadway, the sidewalks had become more populated. We stopped in at McDonald’s, where an armed security guard named Ace lamented his job, saying it was the “same thing every day: a bunch of drunk kids, bunch of crackheads.” He refused to comment further.

Next door outside of Spin Cycle Laundry, I spoke with a couple of cigarette-smoking gentlemen. They both declined to have their photo taken, again mentioning the police. One was willing to give his name and tell me a little about his take on North Minneapolis.

The man, David Chew, described the community here as “everyday people from different cultures.” He compared the negative stereotypes with the theory of “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.”

“A problem here is young black cops [abusing] their authority,” Chew said.

He described an interaction he’d had with police when bringing his daughter to her 17th birthday party. He was pulled over on 35th and Fremont, and pulled from his car. Police then searched the entire vehicle, for no apparent reason, finding absolutely nothing. Chew blames the incident on racial profiling.

“Its not all of the cops,” he continued. “Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of good cops in this neighborhood. I take my hat off to the righteous ones. We need them out here. They have a job to do and I respect that.”

Further down Broadway, I met a couple of men at a bus stop who agreed to speak with me after I gave them the two dollars that I had in my pocket. One of the men, Sami Black, moved to North Minneapolis five years ago from Bakersfield, California, after serving in the military at Camp Pendleton.

Black praised North Minneapolis for its community centers, pointing out the Emerge Center across the street. “They help you find jobs. They have a computer center, and a coffee shop downstairs where people hang out,” he said. “Crime is disappearing. You can come and walk through the streets no problem.”

The other man, Kevin Holt, has lived in North Minneapolis for the past 25 years. He has high hopes for the neighborhood.

“What I want for this community is more unity. Hopefully we’ll ante up on our power some day,” he said.

With the sun disappearing below the horizon, Wilson and I decided to end our journey. As we headed back into downtown Minneapolis, I reflected on the day.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in North Minneapolis. The neighborhood was nowhere near as scary or rundown as people I’d spoken to had made it seem. My favorite thing about it was the abundance of art in public spaces.

The people I met there, though hesitant to converse with a stranger, were nonthreatening. The close-knit sense of community was palpable. With all of the negative portrayals of the North Side, I understood why people were wary of a newcomer to their streets, especially one wielding a camera.

I was deeply affected by surveying the damage remaining from the 2011 tornado. I hope that the promises made by City Council President Barbara Johnson to help remove damaged and fallen trees, as well as to delegate funding for more staff to survey and address the damage, will be kept.

However, I know that many more relief efforts will be required than these to fully restore the affected neighborhoods to their original state, and to encourage residents to perform further renovations, and new tenants to move into currently abandoned homes.

I am grateful for the opportunity I had to explore North Minneapolis. I do acknowledge that because of my camera, people were most likely on their best behavior. Also, Wilson and I were there during daylight, and left immediately before nightfall, when most crimes there occur. I also did not have the opportunity to speak to as many people around the neighborhood as I had hoped. Yet my idea of what North Minneapolis is like has been affected and changed drastically by my time spent there.

My hope is that people open their hearts and their minds to the North Side community, and cease perpetuating negative stereotypes concerning the neighborhood and its occupants. I look forward to spending more time getting to know the area and its residents.

Photos by Sarah Stanley Ayre

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