George Roberts and his wife Bev have lived in the Homewood neighborhood of the north side of Minneapolis for 36 years. Roberts taught English at North High. He says back in the 1970s there was some gun violence in the neighborhood, but it always appeared to be over someone else's personal business.
Then he started to notice changes. So he began surveying his students, each year asking them if they or someone they knew had been shot at.
"And in the early '70s if one or two kids raised a hand in my class, well, that was even more than I had experienced when I was in high school," says Roberts. "By the '80s it was half the class raising its hand and in the '90s everyone raised their hand and said they know people who are victims of gun violence."
As a community activist, Roberts has been part of a block club that lobbied to have its street turned into a one-way to reduce traffic and he started a community flower garden. But Roberts wanted to do more.
As a poet, painter and letter press printer, he believed art could be a vehicle for change. He decided to combine his dream of having his own gallery with his dream for rebuilding the community. Just as he was getting ready to retire, Roberts and his wife mortgaged their house and bought an abandoned building. With help from a neighborhood grant, they converted the building into Homewood Studios, a gallery with artists studios for rent. The rent pays for the building, and Roberts doesn't take a commission for any artwork sold at his shows.
He says he has no interest in making money off of the gallery. What he does want is for it to help revitalize the community's sense of self.
"They know this is a safe place," says Roberts. "The kids in the neighborhood know they can come here, they know that the art changes regularly so there will be something to look at and talk about. I always ask them to go around and pick out their favorite one, and then tell me why it's their favorite one. And slowly then I try to teach them some language of art. I try to teach them about line or form or shape or color, so that they can have something to say about the work of art and begin to feel good about themselves."
On a sunny afternoon, a young couple stops and peers through the window. Roberts immediately leaps up, opens the door and urges them to come in. Roberts has to work hard to lure people into the gallery. Many people don't feel comfortable coming in. So each day, after picking up the crack bags and bullet shell casings he often finds on the sidewalk, Roberts puts a couple of chairs out in front and sits for an hour, inviting whoever wanders by to sit and chat.
"If we can get the conversation to turn to the arts and get them in the gallery, that's fine," says Roberts. "If we just talk for a while and they have to leave, that's also fine. But I let them know the gallery's here and when the neon lights say 'Gallery open' that means 'Come in.' It doesn't mean 'Come in if you're ready to buy' or 'Come in if you have money.' It means 'Come in and feed your spirit.'"
The gallery has been open for over five years now. Currently it's showing pen-and-ink drawings by local artist Juan Parker. The images draw on both African heritage and more contemporary themes. In addition to the art, the gallery hosts occasional classes and community discussions.
None of this has made Roberts a star on the Twin Cities arts scene, but some people, like Neal Cuthbert, consider him an unsung hero. Cuthbert is the arts grant manager for the Mcknight Foundation. He says Roberts' studio has made a palpable difference in his neighborhood.
"It shows people who are living there that there are other things than what the media tells them," says Cuthbert. "It shows local kids that there are other opportunities for them, other than what's being sold to them through media and various negative forces in the neighborhood. I think it's profoundly important."
Cuthbert says many politicans and community developers have tried to "fix" North Minneapolis over the years. But they eventually give up. He says it's residents like Roberts, working day in and day out in their own neighborhoods, who make the real difference.
Photographer Bill Cottman agrees. Cottman has shown his work at Homewood. He's frustrated by how the media portray his neighborhood. Cottman says Homewood Studios has the power to change the minds of people who hear only about the neighborhood's violence.
"They come [to the gallery] and they see something and they have their own personal experience that they can use to speak of the north side," says Cottman. "And they don't have to refer to the most recent sensational thing that occurred in the newspaper and say, 'Well the north side is this,' or 'The north side is that.' They can say, 'Well I was at Homewood Studios and yeah, a little kid called me a name but I had a good time at this event.' Now it's their own, and maybe they'll make their way back."
Cottman says he and his wife moved back to North Minneapolis from a house in West Bloomington because of the work George Roberts and his other neighbors have done to strengthen the neighborhood. The Cottmans now live in a beautifully renovated arts and crafts bungalow that used to be owned by a drug dealer. Their daughter's family now lives one street over. She was married at Homewood Studios.
Cottman says life in North Minneapolis may not be as safe as Bloomington, but he feels a greater sense of community in Homewood than he ever did in the suburbs.
George Roberts says it's that sense of community he wants to keep growing.
"I have a very strong conviction about not leaving here," says Roberts. "And I am looking over my shoulder at night when I leave this building in a way I didn't five years ago, so I'm not trying to minimize that things have shifted on the north side and they're a little scary now. But they would be scary whether or not I was here. But if I stay maybe they won't be scary in a year, so I'm committed to that."