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Cameras in hand, N. Mpls. youth capture community after tornado

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Blue tarps
Ana captured a familiar sight after the tornado: Blue tarps slung over destroyed roofs.
Photo courtesy EDIT

The sky is a lot bigger in north Minneapolis nowadays. The May 22, 2011 tornado made sure of that by taking down shade trees.

On a side street just off Lowry Avenue, it's still easy to spot where the twister passed. A blue tarp still covers a damaged roof, and ripped siding flaps in the wind of another house. Every few yards sits a tell-tale mound of dirt where tree once towered.

A group of young photographers from the north side of Minneapolis hopes to raise awareness of the situation, and a little recovery money too, through an exhibit called "Of Sadness and Hope" opening Thursday at the University of Minnesota's Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center on Plymouth Avenue North.

"My friend Kyla, her house got hit," says Mariann, a 13-year-old who's been out taking photos of the neighborhood with 14 other girls.

Many of the houses are empty, some because of the tornado, some because they are foreclosed properties.

Project coordinator Ben Cooney works for EDIT, a non-profit mentoring agency. He said the idea was to capture images of the community in the aftermath of the tornado, and hear the stories of people in the neighborhood.

"When they first saw a group of kids coming up all holding cameras, they were a little intimidated," he said. "But as soon as we mentioned the tornado it seemed everybody was really willing to talk about it. And they want their story to be told and to be heard by the city and the state, because they recognize there is still a lot of work to be done in north Minneapolis."

They found one of their stories in the Gift Hair Salon, which stands at the corner of Lowry and Morgan. The owner, who prefers to be called simply Mz Lola, greeted them like old friends. But things grow quiet when Mariann and fellow photographer Edali, 11, remember when the sky went dark on that day back in May.

"I actually saw the trees fall," she recalled.

"I think the community has found a new sense of awareness."

Mz Lola listens and nods. The Gift Salon was a brand new business back in May. She was driving on the freeway with her sister when the tornado hit.

"As we turned on the radio to hear exactly what was going on, they told us that it had touched down in north Minneapolis," she said. "Well, I had just opened the day before, and I was like 'Penn? Lowry? Oh my God!" And my sister said 'You know the shop is gone. You know it's gone.' And I said 'No, not my shop. Nuh-uh. Not my shop. Couldn't be gone!"

By some miracle it wasn't. And Mz Lola joined the effort to rebuild.

"I think the community has found a new sense of awareness," she said.

Edali took a picture of Mz Lola standing in her salon holding a chalk board bearing the words "determined and resilient." The photographers borrowed the chalkboard technique from documentary photographer Wing Young Huie who developed it for his huge University Avenue project last year.

Edali said as they walked around to take pictures she really noticed how much still needs to be fixed.

"People aren't living in some of the houses," she said in a quiet voice. "Maybe they don't have like enough money to repair their houses and everything like that so they can still live in it."

The city of Minneapolis says progress is being made, but still it's working hard to resolve issues on over 180 properties in need of repair.

The images in "Of Sadness and Hope" are simple, but haunting: busted houses and people trying to make do. One picture shows a boy in a grocery store staring straight ahead with the word "shocked" on his chalkboard. Another shows a young girl who wrote she thought it was the end of the world.

It wasn't of course, and the photographers want to assist the recovery. Proceeds from sales of their pictures will help the rebuilding effort and pay for tree-planting — to maybe fill in the sky a little.