Crossing Minneapolis’ Internal Borders; Using Art to Build Equality, Diversity. Tammy Ortegon, 46.


I remember hearing that we were a City of Lakes. I never saw the lakes until I was 16-17 years old and getting around on my own. When you live in Northeast or North Minneapolis and you don’t drive, you have to go pretty far to get to a lake.
My Dad’s grandparents came from Poland and settled in the Polish/ Ukranian section of Nordeast — Mayslacks Bar, church ladies selling pierogies on the corner, beautiful ethnic churches — yep, a neighborhood of bars and churches.

My grandmother on my mom’s side always said she was Eastern European – Hungarian, Bohemian, Czech. When they came to Minneapolis they lived in the Bohemian flats over in southeast. My Aunt told me later that we were actually Roma (Gypsy.) They tried to hide it back then because of discrimination. Still today, there is not much understanding of that culture.

When I was a kid, Northeast was Minneapolis to me. My parents didn’t drive. Many people I knew didn’t have cars. It was a big deal to go anywhere outside of the neighborhood. We walked to Applebaums and Sentyrz for groceries. Sentyrz is still there.

The butcher and the cobbler that were there when my parents were young, were mostly gone by my time. I didn’t know anything about the history of the factory era of Noreast when I was growing up. They had all closed down, the work outsourced. We were surrounded by empty factories. Kids would play in them. They took the jobs, left the people and the buildings. It created a general sadness. On top of that were the stereotypes developing, that unemployed people were lazy.

My parents and grandparents didn’t graduate high school. They had street smarts, very intelligent people, but without the schooling.

Northeast was diverse in terms of Europeans but it was all white. I was exposed to other cultures in school because of bussing. I am very thankful for that. They bussed poor kids of color over to poor white areas. I don’t think there was that much bussing in south Minneapolis. My mom complained in kindergarten when they wanted to bus me to North, when I had a school across the street. She said ‘I don’t have a car. How will I ever get over to the school to visit the teacher?’

She had a point. Kids who got bussed – it made it really hard for their parents to get to school. Then they said – ‘those parents don’t care about their kids.’ Still, I support bussing. If we lived in a perfect world I would be all for neighborhood schools, but as long as we have these inequalities we need bussing.

My grade school was the first Open school and Spanish immersion. It was great for me. It was a destination for children who had just arrived from war in Laos, and Vietnam. I knew nothing about where they had come from. (Today its Somali refugees. People don’t understand the trauma refugees are going through.)

Northeast Junior High did not have the same kind of stability as my grade school. The teachers were tired. Edison high school was more of the same. There were lots of gangs, drugs, and racial animosity, toward Southeast Asian refugees and Blacks.

As a teenager I hated Northeast Minneapolis. It seemed redneck. Old. Not progressive. I got a job in downtown Minneapolis working at the yogurt bar at Daytons in 1985. It felt like an opening to the rest of the world.

Music also taught me about the wider world. My Dad was a record collector. He listened to everything. I learned about Central America and Afghanistan listening to “Washington Bullets  by the Clash.Sun City” taught me about Apartheid in South Africa. I listened to Prince and drew his portrait all the time. Especially his eyes. Today you can find Prince eyes in many of my paintings of people.

I didn’t get involved in social movements until later. I didn’t know I had the power. Black Lives Matter and Idle No More – the way the kids today are walking out of schools …we would never have thought of that. There was no social media. To find out about the world in the 1980s you had to go to a radical bookstore. I finally did that. I walked into Amazon Bookstore when it was in Loring Park. A Feminist bookstore! What’s a feminist? I didn’t know, but I did feel at home there.

My parents didn’t understand any of this. They never voted. I don’t think they even knew where or how to. If they had voted they would have been social democrats — but they just didn’t know. I moved out of my parents house at 17 because I was rebelling. I was new wave. My mother and grandmother were artists, but they never knew they could actually call themselves that.

Working downtown I was meeting people who called themselves artists. They were adults and my parents weren’t happy I was hanging out with them, so I moved out ,got an apartment near Loring Park. Laurel Apartments. They were scummy. They still are. But it was $200 a month and I was on my own.At Edison they had a trades-in-the-schools program. I signed up for cosmetology. It was the only thing I liked about school. I was able to continue that program at Minneapolis Community College.

I thought I was in love; got pregnant. The father left. My parents said I wasn’t going to make it so I had to show them I could. I got three jobs. I realized the apartment I was living in wasn’t safe for a baby so I moved up to 14th and Nicollet. With a baby, my goals and dreams were put on hold, but having a baby gave me new dreams. I wanted to finish high school, get my cosmetology license. Support my child. I got on AFDC.

Welfare is not free.

Most people who talk about food stamps being a handout, would never be willing to wait in those lines and take that kind of abuse. I know there are people who work in welfare offices who mean well. They get tired and they don’t have the resources they need to help people, and after a while you’re just a number to them. It was even worse when my grandmother was on AFDC in the 1950s. The social service officers would come to her house and look in her drawers to make sure her clothes were folded right..

I learned about that later. At 18 I didn’t really know anything about welfare. Somebody told me to go down to social services. I was treated like a criminal, but I also saw how women of color were treated even worse. Dehumanizing.

We got $437 a month for a mother with a baby. It’s the same amount today! Not enough to live on then… My rent was $375. Mothers get on welfare because it pays for health care. I could make more working, but I needed healthcare for the birth and afterward. I really believe if we all had universal health care, affordable housing and day care, no one would want welfare.

You have to break the rules to survive. Its part of the system. They are always checking on you to make sure you are not working because they know you can’t make it on what they give you. So they would call me and say . “You have $20 in your bank account. How did you get that? Your mother loaned it to you? We need a document signed by your mother and a notary saying that she loaned you that money. If she gave it to you, we are going to have to take it our of your check next month.”

I’ve always been a very honest person. I had to learn to lie. They call people on welfare con-artists. Actually we were just good business people. You learn that if you sell $20 worth of food stamps for $10, go to the food shelf to get food, then you can go to the corner store to get diapers. I was an artist, so my “con” was to find a shelf in the dumpster, paint it up and sell it. That kind of stuff. I’m still doing that.

You can’t be lazy and be on welfare, but you can get depressed. You can get disillusioned. You can get so sad, you just can’t get up anymore.

All these people were marching for us to keep our babies, but they when we have the babies they treated us like we were the scum of the earth. I remember taking out my food stamps at the grocery store and a woman behind me saying. ‘My taxes are paying for that.” I didn’t understand what she meant. I never had enough money to think about taxes. Now I know it’s the corporations and the military that steal our tax money with their giant subsidies. Food stamps cost taxpayers about $3 a year. And its food! Something good.

I moved into an apartment building with other single mothers – subsidized housing. The rent was $150 instead of $300. All the other women were in the same situation. We supported each other, but we also got depressed, because we didn’t see anybody getting out of this hole we were in.

One summer night when we were sitting outside and our kids were playing, one woman said, “I wish we could just order some pizzas.” We knew we couldn’t afford that. As we started talking about getting together some grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids, another woman said, “Watch my kids for a little bit” She came back a half hour later with money for pizza. She had jumped into a car on Nicollet Avenue. It gave us all a bitter taste in our mouths.

We were preyed on by abusive men. Poor men pimped, and offered us drugs. Rich men came in their fancy cars. Vultures. The police knew the pimps by name. They left them and the customers alone and went for the women. The women would go to prison, lose their kids. The pimps were protected. At night, from my kitchen window I would see people who were homeless, getting harassed by the police.

When I met my husband Eduardo, and I had to get out of subsidized housing. They didn’t want you to have a partner. We found a house to rent on 48th and Nicollet. A really fancy neighborhood. I had another baby. My older son went to Ramsey for kindergarten. I started doing hair at Great Clips.

Once my kids started going to school in southwest, I was shocked at the resources the schools had, compared to the Northeast. The hardest thing was that the other parents were completely unaware. They complained about not having enough. I learned that when you are experiencing privilege you can’t see it. And no matter how much you have, you always see those who have more. If you don’t drive you want a car. if you get a car you want a better one…

We eventually bought a house on 38th and Stevens. I was cutting hair at an independent shop then, working with an African American woman who was very talented and popular with customers. We were both looking for a way to open our own shops. She kept calling places and they would say, “It was just rented.” She began to wonder and asked me to call. I called and they said the place was available.

Color Wheel Gallery 

I opened up a shop called the ColorWheel on 46th and Grand where I cut hair and sell my art. It is an unusual combination, but most art studios sell something else to survive. Hair is a trade. In February nobody is buying art but they do want their hair cut. I use my art to open people’s eyes. I don’t feel bad for anything I went through, it gives me material.

I love public art and the impact it has. It is a labor of love. One summer I did two murals with kids in Corcoran Neighborhood and Kingfield. In both places the kids were kids. Wonderful. But the difference between the neighborhoods stayed with me. In Kingfield, the parents would drop the kids off, supply them with snacks, make sure they had sunscreen, bring me coffee. They were pampered and so was I. It was easier.

In Corcoran the kids were brilliant, but sometimes they wouldn’t show up. I’d call and the phone would be disconnected. I’d visit their apartment and situations would not be safe. When the kids did come they’d be hungry and I have to find them food. The parents didn’t have the time or resources to monitor us, or help the project. A young girl who was 16, who was selling her body on the street, came over and painted with us one day

I worked with the Corcoran kids ahead of time to decide what they wanted to paint. They chose all the public entities in their lives: parks, the neighborhood association, the light rail, Anishinabe Academy, and kids jumping rope and playing basketball.
These two murals are two miles from each other. Different worlds.

I’m always thinking about how to support local independent businesses like mine and how to fight gentrification. I’ve watched my old neighborhood of Northeast and my new neighborhood on 38th street south, go through swift changes recently.

I never imagined 38th street would get so fancy. I’m not against cleaning things up, flowers, public art, but why can’t we bring it up for everyone, instead of pricing people out of their neighborhoods. Now I hear people say “ Finally I can feel safe on 38th street.” Well, they never went there before. They say “It used to be a bad neighborhood.”  It was never a bad neighborhood. They say, “We are taking the city back.” From whom? That’s like Trump saying we are going to take our country back.

In Northeast they have all these new microbreweries and pedal pubs. Suburban kids come in for the evening, get drunk and throw up on my Aunt’s lawn. And then she gets complaints from the new condo across the street about her grass being too long!

Lake Street is a good example of how a neighborhood can revitalize without gentrifying. After 9/11 I teamed up with photographer Dawn Vogel, for an art show we called Building Bridges. We did it at the Midtown YWCA on Lake street just after it opened. People were saying we were all coming together, but I didn’t see that. I saw the racism, xenophobia growing. Our goal was to fight that. We focused on Lake Street and on Minnesota’s four largest immigrant communities at the time: Somali, Hmong, Mexican and Russian. I created a painting of Lake Street for the exhibit — a vision of the Minneapolis I wanted, showing how newcomers were revitalizing the area, replacing porn shops and massage parlors with stores catering to immigrant communities.

Part of what I paint exists, part of it is where I want us to go. I usually paint in the winter. My Minneapolis paintings are warm and green. They do not have any snow.

Minneapolis Project.