In Minneapolis' Hawthorne neighborhood, hope still stands

Rev. Floyd Beecham
Reverend Floyd Beecham, founder of Faith Tabernacle Gospel Fellowship church, has been an integral part of the Hawthorne neighborhood, including helping start the Hawthorne Huddle, a monthly community gathering.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

The Rev. Floyd Beecham Sr. folds his 6-foot-plus frame into the passenger seat of a subcompact for a tour of Hawthorne — a neighborhood that, on paper, is the worst in Minneapolis.

Beecham doesn't quite see it that way. He's ministered in the neighborhood for decades. He and his wife are founders of Hawthorne's Faith Tabernacle Gospel Fellowship. While he doesn't sugarcoat the problems, he knows the numbers don't reveal the whole story and they can't see the flickers of opportunity.

To see those, you need to get in the car and drive around.

"It's probably considered the poorest neighborhood in the city," he says. "It's got a pretty bad mark. But it's a great neighborhood with great people."

Named for the early 1800s writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of "The Scarlet Letter," the neighborhood on Minneapolis' near north side has endured nearly every modern day calamity an inner-city community can face — drugs, gangs and more recently a wave of home foreclosures.

A report card used by Minneapolis to rank the city's 87 neighborhoods on more than 40 categories ranging from housing costs, to child birth weight, to graduation rates puts Hawthorne last.

It has the lowest rate of adult employment among the city's primarily residential neighborhoods. Only 44 percent of Hawthorne's adults ages 16 to 64 have jobs. The long term unemployment rate — more than a year without a job — is more than 8 percent. Hawthorne's rate of concentrated poverty is more than twice the city wide rate.

But crisis sometimes creates openings for change. The Great Recession left in its wake of destruction hundreds of foreclosed homes for sale at rock bottom prices. The tree-lined streets have lots of single family homes.

There are still a few boarded up homes and gaps where apartment buildings were torn down to thwart drug dealers — "like the house was guilty," Beecham says dismissively. "The house is not guilty, the building is not guilty of drug dealing."

But for the most part yards are trimmed, houses are painted and under repair, and there are new houses going up. Beecham says there's still gang activity, but he credits law enforcement for helping keeping a lid on it.

"The homes that are left are in reasonably decent shape," says Beecham, who's also a full-time real estate broker.

The housing stock has led to a phenomenon not seen for a while in Hawthorne. "Now ... you see a lot of whites walking down the street," he says. "That means they're coming back."

Census numbers show that four decades ago white people made up 85 percent of Hawthorne's population. The most recent Census numbers show 40 percent of its residents are African-American, 23 percent are Asian and 14 percent are Spanish speaking.

Beecham knows something about changing neighborhoods. A Kansas City, Mo., native, Beecham lived as a child for a time in St. Joseph, Mo., and then St. Paul where he graduated from high school and met his wife. They and their three children were among the first African-American residents of a Brooklyn Park neighborhood where they still live.

Their house was egged and a cross was burned around the corner, which he interprets as a reaction to their presence.

Racism, he says, is a resurgent problem, affecting communities' relationship with police, people's ability to find a job and a neighborhood where they feel comfortable. It concentrates Minneapolis' poverty in a handful of neighborhoods including Hawthorne, he adds.

"You don't have any problem moving wherever you want to," he says. "But at the same time, you know whether you're welcome or not when you try to get involved in things outside of your home."

Beecham says most people are in denial about the existence of racism and its corrosive effects and how they trickle all the way down to daily life in neighborhoods. "They need to really seriously and honestly put themselves in the place of a person of color and walk it."

He began his religious work in the 1980s. It included the Urban Hope Ministries outreach located in the Hawthorne neighborhood and a neighborhood carnival organized by his church and staffed with volunteers. Beecham says money constraints have reduced Urban Hope's efforts and forced the end of the annual carnival years ago.

These days, Beecham and others meet monthly for breakfast at Hawthorne's Farview Park as part of the group they call the Hawthorne Huddle. The first meeting was held in Beecham's church. General Mills is a sponsor and partner.

Several dozen people typically attend, including many from nearby neighborhoods. Beecham says they use the Hawthorne Huddle to network as they exchange names and trade information.

People at the meetings include residents, business owners, city, county, school district and law enforcement officials and people from a range of nonprofit agencies and organizations.

There are updates on crime, which is still a problem, and other neighborhood news. There's a panel discussion at nearly every meeting on issues like housing, education or opportunities for young people.

Beecham, 74, says it's been a challenge to get residents involved in activities. But as he's watched Hawthorne programs, businesses and people come and go, he takes the long view. Solutions don't happen overnight. Persistence pays off.

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