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About Harrison neighborhood and racial justice

by William McGaughey

about Harrison

For the past twenty-five years, I have lived in the Harrison neighborhood of Minneapolis, an area just west of downtown Minneapolis which is home to 4,000 persons. It is the southernmost neighborhood of “north Minneapolis”. That part of the city is stereotypically poor and disproportionately comprised of racial minorities.

A recent paper prepared by a non-profit, “Alliance for Metropolitan Stability”, highlights the racial and income disparity between Harrison and other parts of the city. “As of 2010,” it states, “Harrison was home to 71 percent people of color, compared to only 40 percent of Minneapolis’s total population. At the same time, 37 percent of Harrison residents live in poverty, compared to only 17 percent of Minneapolis residents as a whole. How did this happen? It turns out that Harrison’s high poverty rates can be attributed in part to a series of policy decisions”.

A map of city neighborhoods created in 1935 included Harrison in a larger area identified as a “Negro slum.” According to the report, this set the tone for subsequent policy decisions that kept the neighborhood poor. For example, two major companies, Warden Oil Company and the Chemical Marketing Corporation, were allowed to operate for many years in this neighborhood despite the health risks that they posed. A large public-housing project was sited next to Harrison. According to the report, Harrison neighborhood has suffered from poor access to public transit, redlining practices by banks, discriminatory real-estate practices, and abnormal rates of housing foreclosures, all of which negatively impacted neighborhood residents’ ability to acquire wealth.

“ Dig into our history,” the report declares, “and one will find a legacy of public policymaking that favored, either intentionally or as a byproduct of poor decision-making, the needs of white people over those of people of color and indigenous people.” On the other hand, “the good news is that there are strategies that can help reverse these disparities and sweep away the institutional barriers that have persisted. And our region has the added benefit of being able to rely on a rich network of community-based organizations that can provide leadership and partner with policymakers to arrive at effective and sustainable solutions to these complex problems.”

Harrison Neighborhood Association (HNA), one of the organizations in that “rich network”, has an annual budget of around $250,000, coming from government agencies and foundations. Most of the budget goes toward salaries and benefits for paid staff. This organization holds a large annual meeting, hosts monthly committee meetings, administers a tool-lending program and a revolving housing fund, and represents the community in dealings with the city. I served on its board of directors for several years.

In the interest of disclosure, I am a white man who, besides living in Harrison, owns rental property in that neighborhood. I moved here in 1990 after a fire destroyed my previous residence, mainly to be close to the offices of the Metropolitan Transit Commission where I then worked. After renting for two years, I bought a HUD house across the street as my personal residence and, a year later, a nine-unit apartment building. My tenants throughout the years have been predominately African American. As a long-time resident with a financial stake in this community, I hold opinions about Harrison neighborhood that differ from those of the person who wrote the above-mentioned report.

My first reaction upon reading the report was to notice that the neighborhood was pitching its identity in terms of group victimhood rather than the positive characteristics it might have. It would seem that, without outside intervention, Harrison was an inescapable poverty trap, especially for racial minorities. And yet, I know that one of the world’s foremost entertainers, Prince, grew up in the Harrison neighborhood, and not so long ago. He was a young black man who somehow managed to escape poverty. So what’s the story? Was Prince’s extraordinary career success a fluke that can never be repeated; or is the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability’s negative report an example of “poverty pimping” by a self-interested non-profit?

Prince grew up in Harrison (at least for part of his youth) and wound up in the prosperous suburb of Chanhassen, Minnesota. I grew up in a prosperous suburb of Detroit, Michigan, called Bloomfield Hills - the same place where Mitt Romney was raised - and wound up in Harrison. Apart from socio-economic perceptions, I do not regret my residence in this “disadvantaged” neighborhood. It, in fact, has many advantages including low housing prices, close proximity to downtown and other interesting places, and a wealth of nearby parks including beaches, rivers, and lakes. If chemical pollution is one of Harrison’s legacies, I am unaware of incurring any health problems caused by living there.

With respect to public transit, there is a major bus route - route 9 - which runs down the street on which I live (Glenwood Avenue) and another - route 19 - which is three blocks over on Olson highway. Plans are also underway to construct two light-rail lines that would run through or near Harrison neighborhood. The Southwest Light-Rail Line, if constructed, would connect downtown with the southwestern suburbs; I could walk to either of two local stations from my home in about ten minutes. The other, the Bottineau Light-Rail Line, which connects downtown with the northwestern suburbs, would have stations on Olson highway, five minutes’ walk from my home.

All in all, Harrison does not lack public amenities. As someone who grew up loving baseball, I enjoy seeing the lights of Target field, where the Minnesota Twins play, from an upstairs window of my house. Target Center, where the Minnesota Timberwolves play basketball, is a block or two away from there. The Walker Art Center, with its fabulous “Sculpture Garden”, is equally distant in another direction. Downtown Minneapolis has a remarkable skyway system whose recreational potential, in my opinion, is vastly underrated. The sight of the Minneapolis skyline can be thrilling. There is also a full-sized park a block away from my home where I walk my dog every day. However, Harrison has not had a major supermarket within walking distance ever since City Foods closed twenty years ago; its building was taken over by a Hmong funeral home. It also does not have a hardware store.

The racial aspect looms large in the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability’s assessment of Harrison neighborhood. Being a white man, I may not see the discrimination which African Americans and other minorities face; I can only report my own experience. That experience tells me that racial diversity does not make for a more closely knit and vibrant community.

Over the years, I have become acquainted with few of my immediate neighbors. The Hmongs, though disciplined and peaceful, pretty much keep to themselves. The blacks vary between those exhibiting destructive “ghetto” behavior and being community-minded citizens. It is mainly with other whites that I have had problems. I interact mainly with my own tenants, who are mostly black, and with governmental or quasi-governmental organizations such as the Harrison Neighborhood Association, whose leadership tends to be white.

My neighborhood has a higher crime rate than most other parts of the city, but it is not as bad as neighborhoods across Olson highway to the north. About two years ago, a young woman living on my block was murdered. Although the perpetrator’s identity was known, I am unaware that he was ever brought to justice. My former wife and her daughter were robbed at gun point on the front steps of my home. Even though the assailant took a cell phone with a tracking device that disclosed its later location, the police were unable to offer any help. In other words, there may be some justification for assuming that Harrison receives sub-par police protection because of its reputation, but I cannot say for sure this is true.

The neighborhood mantra is that Harrison is poor because it is disproportionately black. Where does this concept leave me as a white man? To the extent that I am involved in neighborhood activities, it exposes me to an endless series of racial rectification programs, otherwise known as “Undoing Racism” workshops. These are organized sessions that encourage whites to confront their racism, unintended or otherwise. As a person who is not ashamed of being white, I occasionally give hints of disagreeing with the premise of those sessions but, as a practical matter, keep my opinions about race mostly to myself. I do not think those racially antagonistic messages are so much directed at me personally as meant to convey a certain “hip” image of the neighborhood and, from a poverty-pimping standpoint, to attract foundation grants for the organizers.

white attitudes

The odd thing is that there seems to be little opposition to the anti-white messages among whites. In fact, white people in my neighborhood seem some of the strongest supporters of this approach. Since most of them have substantially less personal contact with blacks than I do, I doubt that these people’s racial attitudes have much to do with black people per se. Instead, they are driven by self-perceptions related to political and religious values prevalent in the community.

In an era of declining opportunities for socio-economic advancement, white people of modest accomplishment are hungry to see themselves in a positive light. One of the ways they can achieve this is by doing something for disadvantaged people. Stereotypically, black people fall into that category. Therefore, it is a noble gesture as a white person in a reasonably comfortable situation to be seen helping blacks. Both politics and religion tell them so. On the other hand, to be a white racist is one of the lowest forms of life imaginable in this society. Who wants to be like George Wallace?

Right now, the political class in Minneapolis is obsessed with reducing racial disparities in education. The previous mayor, R.T. Rybak, is working in that field. The idea is that black students fall behind in school because they are given inferior educations or they experience other forms of discrimination that keep them down. Governmental bodies and major foundations, staffed with political liberals, are eager to offer assistance. As a result, cash is pouring into this type of enterprise. For example, a former black City Council member’s wife heads an organization, the Northside Improvement Zone, which was given $26 million to prepare 2,500 low-income North Minneapolis children to graduate from high school ready for college.

The theme of helping disadvantaged blacks benefits the Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) party which dominates Minneapolis politics, in part, by solidifying the black vote behind its candidates. It is consistent with Christian themes of helping the poor and perhaps gaining entrance to Heaven. It is less clear, however, whether such an approach is beneficial to the black people being served. For instance, did Prince become successful through community programs designed to empower blacks? No, he accomplished this feat some other way. Success, if attained, must come from within oneself.

my own experience

The Alliance for Metropolitan Stability report claimed that public policymaking in Minneapolis favors “the needs of white people over those of people of color and indigenous people.” I, as a white person, must ask whether it has favored me. This is my story.

For the first two years of living in Harrison, I had little impact upon the community. I took part in activities of the Harrison Neighborhood Association but did little else other than enjoy the nearby parks. When I bought my first property, I began to sense a certain hostility. When I bought my second property which was the nine-unit apartment building, this hostility emerged in full force.

Two weeks after closing on the apartment which then had a drug problem, I was summoned to a committee meeting of the Harrison Neighborhood Association where complaints were made about the building I had just purchased. The white-female City Council representative was present. When I told committee members about conversations I had with tenants to correct problems in the building, I was called naive and unfit to manage a building. The mostly white committee demanded that I evict all the tenants immediately and start over again. Ultimately, I agreed to evict tenants who had criminal histories. That bought me a certain amount of time.

The real crisis came two years later. Evidently persons in the neighborhood began conspiring against me during a week when I was out of town. First there was a meeting of fellow property owners who accused me of bad management. Two days later, a city health inspector condemned my apartment building for cockroach infestation. (The building was under the continuous care of a licensed pest-control company.) All the tenants had to leave. Then a building inspector, with police and a city council representative present, who went through the apartment compiled a long list of repairs that needed to be completed before any of the tenants could return. Since I would not then be receiving rent, this was designed to put financial stress upon me.

Finally, on April 1, 1995, the neighborhood group held a public rally to denounce me. It presented demands that the building be kept vacant for at least six months (which I later learned would have given the City Council the right to take the building from me) and that I hire a professional manager to supervise compliance with the inspector’s orders. I agreed to the last condition but not the first. Several months and more than $40,000 of expense later, I was able to complete enough work to reopen the building. The inspector gave me a year’s extension to put in the new parking lot.

Sympathizers within the neighborhood organization told me of the factors working against me. First, the white-female lead staff person at HNA aspired to run for political office, thinking that she could gain a reputation among voters by taking my scalp. Second, certain other landlords hoped that I would be financially unable to retain control of the building so that I would be forced to sell it to them at a deep discount. In fact, the owner of the apartment building across the street, who pretended to be my friend, called me on the telephone offering to buy my building worth perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars for $50,000. His hired property manager had been my chief critic at the April 1st meeting.

Later that same month, I joined a group of unrepentant white-male landlords that was suing the city for inspections abuse. The group eventually developed its own cable-television show, supplemented by protest activities. The climax came in 2001 when we were able to help defeat a number of top Minneapolis city officials in the municipal election including the city council member, its president, who had attacked me several years earlier.

My connection with the landlord group may have bought me protection from inspections abuse for the next ten years. Then, in 2011, I sustained another 1-2 punch. In February, my wife falsely accused me of domestic abuse. The responding police officer made a number of untruthful statements on his report. I was taken away to jail and then ordered to stay away from my home until the misdemeanor case was resolved.

A few weeks later, a city inspector condemned my home. The condemnation could be lifted if I completed a certain number of repairs to reduce the point total. So here I was, ordered to complete repairs on my house but, at the same time, being court-ordered not to set foot within one hundred feet of the same property address. A condemned house cannot legally be occupied.

Fortunately, an African-American friend did the required work for me and the condemnation order was lifted. I also pled “guilty-continuance” in the domestic-abuse case on the basis of having made my wife afraid. This plea bargain, which allowed me to return home immediately, meant that all charges would be dismissed if there were no similar incidents within one year.

However, my wife filed for divorce. We entered long and acrimonious negotiations. My wife’s attorney filed motions for temporary maintenance. While I was reviewing the papers as a self-represented person, my wife grabbed the papers. I called 911. She disrupted the conversation and then went to see her lawyer. Later, in a statement made at the police station several hours later, she claimed that I had hit her.

I am arrested

Naturally, the police arrested me. I was now charged with the more serious offense of having committed two acts of domestic abuse within one year. (I was sitting in jail when the scheduled hearing on temporary maintenance was held before the referee.) Now representing myself, I decided not to accept any more plea deals. Ultimately, the city prosecutor dropped all charges.

The divorce case itself was horrendous. The other side wanted $300,000 of my nonmarital property on the fictitious claim that my wife had done lots of work to improve the property even though she had hardly set foot in buildings other than our own home. Although the judge saw through that argument, his ruling assigned me all the $325,000 in marital debt, ordered me to pay permanent alimony of $500 per month, and also ordered me to pay my wife $50,000 from my non-marital assets. The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the last order but sustained the others. I handled both the trial and the appeal myself.

I saw how race played in both the arrests for domestic abuse and in the divorce case - and it did not work to my advantage. My wife was Chinese. She used the team of Chinese-language interpreters to her advantage in prolonging my time of cross-examination. Also, the interpreters passed written notes to each other containing suggested answers to my questions. The judge, who was then chief judge of Hennepin county, ruled that my wife did not speak English, “even to a moderate degree”, even though he had never heard her try to speak English; and therefore, despite three years of having worked in a sales capacity at the downtown Target store, she was linguistically unqualified to work in the United States and, as a prospectively destitute person, would need my assistance forever.

The point of this narrative is to suggest that the political snake-pit in which I live extends well beyond Harrison neighborhood. Neither am I privileged for being white in this largely white community where racial and gender politics play a large role in community decisions. I have experienced firsthand the appalling dishonesty of both the police and the judiciary. No person in a similar situation can feel safe living here. Landlords, stereotypical villains in pop culture, are especially vulnerable since they own enough property to attract envy from certain “neighbors” but not enough to defend themselves adequately against rapacious elected officials pandering to those persons.

Was my treatment by the neighborhood association better or worse because I am white? It is hard to say. I am a white landlord with predominantly black tenants. The complaint about me mostly concerned my tenants’ behavior. One hypothesis is, because it is not politically acceptable for liberals to criticize black behavior, a white face had to be put on the problem. With respect to the arrests for domestic abuse and the decision in divorce court, the politics may run more along gender lines. There are feminist organizations that monitor judicial decisions. Whether white or male, I was the odd person out.

This is not to say that black people and other racial minorities do not have legitimate grievances; their treatment by police and public prosecutors may even be worse than what I have experienced. But the proper response is to demand justice and integrity for all persons from all public officials, and not racialize the problems. Unfortunately, the system does not work that way.

In summary, I see no evidence that the racial makeup of Harrison neighborhood is a decisive factor in the residents’ personal opportunities for wealth or happiness. The twin menace of crime and abusive government action are bigger threats to the well being of individuals living not only in this neighborhood but also other areas of the city. However, city-funded organizations cannot be expected to focus on such things. Government wants always to be seen as part of the solution rather than a source of problems. As a super-moral force, it sometimes goes out of its way to help the racial and ethnic stranger while abusing the vilified white native.


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