A year of rebuilding a neighborhood

Organizations and residents of some hard-hit stretches off Lake Street in Minneapolis say they’re working to build a better, more just community

People walk past painting plywood on a building.
Market patrons walk past a plywood mural reading "Abolish the Police," "Justice," "BLM," and "Love" at the Midtown Farmers Market Saturday, May 22.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

When Jamie Schwesnedl looks out of his Minneapolis bookstore’s front window, he sees empty lots where a post office and small immigrant-owned businesses once stood. Down the block, the shell of a burned-out police precinct abandoned just days after George Floyd’s murder, still stands. They are grim reminders of the nights of unrest and arson that rocked the Twin Cities a year ago.

Last May, Schwesnedl climbed to the top of his building’s roof and watched the neighborhood landscape change in front of his eyes. Officers fired tear gas and projectiles at people. Looters smashed windows. A block away, fire consumed a six-story building.

“It was so hot that it felt like I was sitting in front of a bonfire,” he recalled.

State patrol march in front of buildings
State Patrol coming in to guard 3rd Precinct march in front of burning buildings May 29, 2020 on South 27th Avenue, south of East Lake Street in Minneapolis. Fires continued to burn after protesting over the death of George Floyd broke out for a third straight night.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News file

Schwesnedl said it just felt apocalyptic, like the city would be gone within a couple weeks. These days, it’s not the structures he is mourning. 

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“The people I miss the most are the other business owners and their customers who were in all these funky spaces that they made work, the creative, make-it-work folks in the neighborhood,” said Schwesnedl, who co-owns Moon Palace Books with his wife Angela. “What's coming back the fastest are the sort of cookie-cutter things.”

Over the past year, Schwesnedl’s Longfellow neighborhood continued to evolve as residents, community organizers and business owners take stock of the place it’s been — and the place they want it to be. Institutions at the epicenter of the protests have shifted their missions, vowing to rebuild in a way that prioritizes both public safety and equity. 

‘A better way’

In the early days after Floyd’s murder, business owners, non-profit leaders and religious leaders from around the neighborhood formed a group called Longfellow Rising. Schwesnedl said it started out as almost an emotional support group. 

“But then it became more of a logistical support group of everyone being like, ‘I can't get a permit to get my rubble removed, how do you do this?’” Schwesnedl said. “Eventually, it became a thing of like, ‘Hey, we have this opportunity to rebuild our neighborhood in a better way. And if we all work together, we can do that.’”

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church now flies a massive Black Lives Matter Flag from its bell tower. The church got involved when it served as a medic center during the unrest, then as a food distribution center in the months afterward, said Rev. Ingrid Rasmussen, the lead pastor. 

“Just trying to fill that gap, at least temporarily, that was left when grocery stores and other basic necessity places like Target were no longer accessible in the neighborhood,” Rasmussen said. 

She describes Longfellow Rising as an odd collection of community members, with pastors sitting next to liquor store owners, next to social workers, next to bookstore owners. 

People walk through a farmers market.
Patrons fill the Midtown Farmers Market Saturday, May 22. The market became even more crucial to the area after nearby grocery stores closed following the police killing of George Floyd.
Nicole Neri for MPR News file

“It's a way for us to continue the conversation about how do we ensure that the righteous anger that we saw reflected in the streets after the murder of George Floyd,” Rasmussen said. “How do we make sure that that righteous anger is also reflected in the community that's built back?”

Rasmussen said the unrest made it even more clear that some in the community are carrying heavy burdens of trauma. And that people with privilege in the neighborhood and beyond can’t just go back to pretending that doesn’t exist. It’s forced her congregation to share in a sense of solidarity and suffering that she says are important elements for change.

“We're getting a taste of what it's like to be less siloed, more interwoven with the neighborhood, more connected to both the gifts and needs of those who live around us,” Rasmussen said. “It's probably who the Christian Church has always wanted to be, and I hope that's our future.”

Just between Holy Trinity and Moon Palace Books is an oddly-angled block that was once home to a slew of immigrant-owned and small businesses. It was burned to the ground during the days of unrest. 

But Meena Natarajan of the Pangea World Theater said her organization is working with others in the neighborhood to create something new on the rubble. 

Natarajan said social justice and equity have always been part of her theater’s mission, and it’s partnering with the Gandhi Mahal restaurant to create a new center that gives more space for communities of color.  

“Let's do something that we couldn't do alone, let's build something huge together, we couldn't do alone,” Natarajan said. “We are building something called the Center for Peace and Social Justice, as something dedicated to both food justice and cultural justice in the area.” 

Community patrols still intact

During the unrest, people weren’t confident police would show up if they had to call 911 and many neighborhoods in south and north Minneapolis organized their own protective patrols. Just a few blocks from Longfellow, Alicia Smith of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization said the walking patrols that started in the neighborhoods during the unrest have continued to evolve. 

A woman in an orange stands in front of a green sign.
Alicia Smith, Executive Director at Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, at the Midtown Farmers Market.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Smith said neighbors out for a dog walk might now coordinate together, then stop by an elder’s house they didn’t know before, just to check in to be sure they’re OK.  

“We're not trying to replace the police. We don't act as though we are the police,” Smith said. “But what we are going to do is be intentional about building these relationships with each other.”

Voters will likely get to decide the fate of the Minneapolis Police Department this fall. A citizen-driven effort would change the city’s charter to eliminate minimum staffing requirements for the Minneapolis Police Department and create a new Department of Public Safety, which the City Council would have more control over. 

Even in cases of violence where they need to call the cops, Smith said neighbors will often stay on as liaisons to be sure cops know what they’re dealing with, and to ensure that the situation doesn’t escalate. 

A woman sells books at a farmers market.
Author Crown Shepherd holds a pop-up children's bookstore at the Midtown Farmers Market.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

When most of the grocery stores in the neighborhood were burned or closed because of looting last year, Smith said the neighborhood Midtown Farmers Market on the block became even more important. Even though the smell of smoke still emanated from burned and burning buildings, she said the market was a reminder that life was still there.

“There was great suffering,” Smith said. “Certainly, we could have decided that, ‘We don't want to continue to do this because we're unsure.’ But we trusted and believed that as being a part of the community that we too were safe.”

Smith is the first Black woman to run her neighborhood organization. She said that has helped to shift the group’s focus to build trust by including people like renters or those who rely on public transit, who may not have been traditionally considered by some neighborhood associations.  

“It wasn't something that was urgent for people,” Smith said. “And last year, we felt the urgency of building community, of knowing your neighbors. It's important that I know who lives next door to me, when I'm at a time where I feel unsafe and unsure.”

Right now, the neighborhood around the Third Precinct sounds like a construction zone. The big box stores have resumed business, but many buildings housing smaller and immigrant businesses are still empty lots. 

Even before Floyd’s killing, Moon Palace Books’ Jamie Schwesnedl said many in the neighborhood had a fraught relationship with the precinct, whom they saw mostly as unhelpful outsiders. He remembers his wife getting verbally abused by officers who were drinking in the bookstore’s parking lot after their shift just weeks before Floyd was killed. 

Even after all that’s happened in the last year, Schwesnedl said he believes most neighbors are dedicated to changing what public safety looks like in the city. The plywood covering the second floor of his bookstore is covered by a mural with the slogan, “abolish the police.” 

Schwesnedl plans to take down the plywood when the bookstore reopens in a couple months, but he’ll probably replace it with a smaller sign in the window.

“We're a little more comfortable just saying what we think,” Schwesnedl said. “Also, I think most people in the neighborhood are a little more ready to see some serious change.”