Q&A: Mayor R.T. Rybak on recovery in north Minneapolis

Tornado anniversary live broadcast
Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak talks about how the city responded after a tornado struck north Minneapolis one year ago today, Tuesday, May 12, 2012 during an ATC live broadcast at UROC.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

A tornado hit north Minneapolis on May 22, 2011. One year later, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak says the neighborhood is recovering, but that there's still work to do in the areas of economic development and housing.

Rybak spoke with Tom Crann of All Things Considered in north Minneapolis on Tuesday.

An edited transcript of that discussion is below.

Tom Crann: I want to get your assessment now, one year later, of the recovery effort in north Minneapolis?

R.T. Rybak: There's some real good news. There's been $28 million of repairs just to homes alone. That's one of many statistics you can see that really get evidenced by going down the street and seeing a lot of buildings rebuilt, some homes better than they were in the first place.

The thing I think I'm most concerned about now is having the sustained compassion to make sure that we understand that rebuilding a house, or even rebuilding a neighborhood, isn't the same as rebuilding a life. When you really think about and hear these stories...you really get into the fact that there are huge numbers of folks who went through an awful lot.

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The good news of that horrible thing — that people are carrying around a lot of grief — is that people of north Minneapolis are tough. The cartoon that you historically have seen painted about this place has been blown up by the fact that people now understand that these amazing folks who have gone through a lot and have built a lot, have a resilience beyond what I think anybody could imagine.

Crann: Take us back to that afternoon, for you, what's the most vivid memory you have?

Rybak: I had arrived on the scene almost immediately. I was walking down a street that looked like an apocalyptic movie, with wires down, and smelling of gas, and trees everywhere and people wandering around.

And I found this woman in a wheelchair in her nightgown. And she was pretty confused and in a daze going down the street. I said 'My gosh what are you doing here?' It was raining. She said, 'There's gas in my house.' I tried to get her to a place of safety when it was raining. I turn around this corner and find this porch, and I walk up to this woman on the porch and I point to the woman in the wheelchair and I said, 'Could I just put her on the porch.' And she said, 'No, that woman will not be on my porch." And I thought 'Here's this African American woman turning down this white woman in a wheelchair.' And she said, 'She won't sit on my porch; she'll sit in my living room.'

That whole idea about people opening up is something I saw repeated many times over.

Crann: This year, you came to the Capri Theater...for your State of the City address and you put the focus on north Minneapolis. Some people in the community say they've seen this before. You were here in 2006 as well for a similar [event]. They say they've seen this show. North Minneapolis is the key to a growing city, you said. There are skeptics who say, 'Yeah, we've heard it, it hasn't happened.' What do you say to the skeptics, and what evidence do you have that in a couple years it will happen?

Rybak: I did come back here in 2006 and said we'd be measured by north Minneapolis, by what we do here. And we brought every department and power in the city together, and that's where our focus has been. We haven't treated the city equally. We've disproportionately invested in north Minneapolis and we'll keep doing that: millions of dollars, scores of homes, thousands of people put into employment programs. These are results that are important, but what's also important is that there's greater need, so there will have to be continued focus on this.

Anybody who thought this was a press conference...or a single speech a few years ago, realizes that we've been at this for a while. We had to up our ante a year ago, a little bit like pushing a huge rock up a hill and suddenly your feet slip and you're back at the bottom of the hill. But then you recognize [that] we've come a long way. And yet we still have a long way to go.

Crann: Another thing I've heard from people here in the community, some are angry, they say the city's response might have been different. Some say it would have been different in a more well-heeled or less diverse part of the city.

Rybak: That's not really what I hear when I go door-to-door. I hear folks grateful for the work of the thousands, literally, of employees from the city, who were hands-on in that. But more important, I hear people recognizing that north Minneapolis healed itself. There was a lot of help from the outside, but this community led its recovery. And that was huge because this isn't always a simple place to do business.

It's a complicated place, and this complicated place came together and said 'We as a community are going to create a vision.' And we supported with an enormous amount of help, but we followed in the right way, [with] a strong community [that] has a government supporting it. And that has been a breakthrough for this area. We didn't go away before. We're not going away in the future. But the good news is that we've come a long way.

Crann: That [Penn Avenue North and West Broadway Avenue] business node needs some development, something has to happen there. After your State of the City speech, what evidence are we going to see, a couple years out, that something is happening there?

Rybak: That's a good intersection because when I went there in 2005, the Capri Theater was really in shambles. Today, it's an incredible place. A couple blocks away is a cluster of housing that was the place of a very notorious murder that's now a great neighborhood. That kind of focus, including bringing the school district's 600 jobs to that street, is now going to be seen at Penn and Broadway. The stores that were lost there are now going to rebuild across the street as part of a housing initiative. We're hoping to widen Penn in partnership with the county and really make it a grand boulevard that can tie parts of this community together.

There are going to be a series of other investments including, we've now partnered with the Dayton administration to do a five-year plan to do 100 green homes, 25 a year for the next five years. We're relocating our employment and training center, possibly to that one intersection you talked about, which can be tied in with the thousands of jobs that we've focused on in employment and training programs.

There's a lot of programmatic work that's being done, but we also have to recognize that a lot of this work is about healing early. The Northside Achievement Zone has been a real breakthrough, and one of the great pieces of news this year is that that effort led by Sondra Samuels about intervening early got a huge federal grant.

That's the kind of success we've seen. And I think that over the past decade, what we've seen in north Minneapolis is that there's always been lots of people who want to help. The people who all want to help are getting together to help in a single direction a little better. But that direction isn't coming from the top, that's coming from a community that's understanding that it has much more capacity than it ever thought before.

Crann: What has been the most difficult part for you and for the city of this recovery process?

Rybak: The biggest challenge is that there's a lot of complicated housing situations here. If this went through an area that had a higher level of home ownership, where there was a higher level of insurance coverage, where there was more predictable employment, a lot of things would have been different. The most complicated homes for us to deal with are in the hands of renters with problem landlords that may not be evident.

Crann: What does the city do about that?

Rybak: Massive amounts of door knocking...You just can't give up. It's not as simple as other places, but that's exactly why we're here.

This interview was transcribed and edited by MPR News reporter Jon Collins.