“Sometimes You Just Gotta Give.”

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Four years ago this week, six months into a fourteen month bike trip.  

I had a bad feeling about the Imperial Motel in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, but the manager told us there was nothing else for miles. It was already dark, with wind chills in the 20s. Too cold for camping.

In retrospect, camping would have been a better choice.

“Cash only”  the manager said.
Most of the motel “guests” were permanent. They paid $40 a night — exorbitant for what they got.  Everything about the place was disgusting. The walls were oily. The smell was overwhelming, a putrid mix of mold, dust, body odor and smoke. After the owner put a screw driver to the heater  I could still see my breath.

The bathroom floor had the topography of a pit mine. Climbing into the slippery tub, Dave fell, slashing his hand.

The hospital was a mile away. We walked our bikes slowly, in a daze, Dave trying to keep his hand elevated. A jovial doctor from St. Paul, Minnesota gave him ten stitches.“When I was a kid, we’d cross the river chanting M. I. S. S. I. S. S. I. P. P. I. as fast as we could. I never thought I’d end up living there. I came down to work in Louisiana. When Katrina took the hospital in Chalmette, I transferred here.”

On the TV at a Vietnamese café blocks from the hospital, a slick anti-immigrant ad played between updates on a second Virginia Tech shooting. I thought about the guests at the Imperial and an emergency room patient who coughed blood and had no insurance. I looked at Dave’s drawn face, holding his bandaged left hand up, picking at his food with his right, in his own pain-medicated twilight zone.

Behind him, in stained glass was the likeness of a turtle.

Fifteen miles down the road, between Biloxi and Gulfport, we found a beautiful room for $35.95, checked in at 2pm and spent the afternoon at the IHOP eating whole grain pancakes that had become a comfort food for us.

Our route to Louisiana the next day hugged the Mississippi coast line. In Waveland, a town of 5,000 — over 90% white — we met Baptist Minister Ben selling oranges and apples on the roadside with a team of recovering addicts. The town was leveled by Katrina. I asked the Minister about post-Hurricane recovery. He shook his head.

“Recovery? There’s been none. The recession and oil spill destroyed what was left of our fish and tourism industries. All city workers — police, fire — were laid off a few months ago….”

While Dave chose apples– pointing with his bandaged hand– I shook my head sympathetically, encouraging Pastor Ben to continue.

“Without jobs, drug abuse and alcoholism has become so rampant the fast food companies stopped giving drug tests. Not enough sober workers to fill positions.” He pointed at the fruit. “Proceeds go to my Anonymous programs. My first meeting no-one showed up. The second week, three people came. Now 165 are coming every week.”

A pale man with shaky hands took our coins.

“We need good jobs,” Pastor Ben concluded, handing us three apples and three satsumas, “but the addiction problem is so bad, people will be in no shape to hold them when they come.”

In Pearlington, Mississippi, on the Louisiana border, we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom. A spare, toothless Black man selling collard greens and garage sale items offered us chocolate bars and peppermints. It looked like he was more in need than us, but we were learning to take offerings from strangers graciously.   In Lakeland, Florida, at a gas station adjacent to a homeless encampment, a skinny man with stringy blond hair clutching a twenty-ounce can of beer insisted on giving Dave two dollars and got angry when he tried to refuse.

The collard vendor seemed to guess what we were thinking: “You can’t always be asking. Sometimes you just gotta give.” He shifted his gaze to the heavens. “I just lost my wife of forty years, but she did not leave me without. We had five children.” He listed them by age.  “Oldest, 38 …  baby, 28. The Lord’s been good to me.”

Gentrification meeting in Minneapolis’ Ninth ward.

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Three hundred people met  at Plaza Verde on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis on September 30, 2015 to talk about gentrification and pose the question, who will live in Minneapolis in 2020?

Jessica Lopez Lyman, Chicano Studies Scholar, explained that one of the myths about gentrification is that it happens overnight.  In reality developers, politicians and bankers set the stage for years before the sudden appearance of new businesses and an influx of the white, wealthy, and formally-educated people, buying housing and businesses.

An audience member illustrated how the process has worked in Minneapolis.   Former Minneapolis Mayor Sayles Belton got rid of much subsidized housing in the 1990s. Subsequent Mayor R. T Rybak built luxury condos. Our current Mayor, Betsy Hodges has made it a goal to encourage 100,000 new residents to our city by 2020. The question is: who will these new residents be? From the housing  being built, it looks like high income folks. What will happen to those living here now? We have a housing crisis currently in Minneapolis, with long lines for affordable rentals.  Why aren’t we building affordable housing?

Another participant pointed out that gentrifiers have the luxury to plan long- term, while the residents of a gentrifying neighborhood don’t have the time or space to fight.    Their window is often next months suddenly-elevated rent.

Lopez Lyman explained that displacement of People of Color (it does happen to working class whites as well)  to satisfy the needs of elites, has been happening for eons, this is just the new name for an old game.

Neeraj Mehta of the Center for Urban and Regional Development at the University of Minnesota  noted, we are now told the problem is “concentrations of poverty”, — too many poor people living together — instead of poverty itself. The gentrifiers solution is dissolution and dispersal of neighborhoods. Nothing is done about racism or poverty. Mehta said the bottom line is “It’s easier to move people than to move resources.” We need to demand resources now — he concluded — not wait for the gentrifiers to arrive with their attending resources.

Chaun Webster of the Firehouse Collective and Ancestry Books in North Minneapolis, pointed out that the justification for gentrification begins with the colonial narrative that the neighborhood is empty of human resources. Nothing is begin replaced, only added.  Artists come in to  “beautify,” creating murals  and such, that satisfy the palette of wealthier whiter newcomers, often referred to as “young professionals.”

The crowd was rich in ideas to overcome gentrification.  Here are some of the ideas coming from the panel and the floor.

  • Demand an end to government subsidies to developers.
  • We need Community Benefits  Agreements between neighbors and developers for any project receiving government funds.
  • Fund community development that uses the human capacities already within neighborhoods.
  • Redistribute Park resources to benefit Communities of Color.
  • Turn Section 8 housing system into a home ownership program.
  • Encourage local coops.
  • Protect housing from foreclosures,  tax hikes and rent hikes.
  • Fight the culture of gentrification – when wealthier newcomers demand their cultural norms become law. (Real life example: removing a basketball court in North Minneapolis.)
  • Create an affordable housing trust fund.
  • Fighting discriminatory lending. Prosecute the offending bankers and banks.
  • Fight Charter schools that disperse neighborhoods and support the public schools that anchor them.

A man who encouraged us not to use race language was chastised by people not wanting a race-blind discussion. Unfortunately his original point — that the enemy has a face — developers teaching people to flip houses, planning foreclosures, people who actually plan and carry out gentrification —  was lost.

A woman pointed out that reliance on non-profits ends up with band aid solutions that keep the structure of racism and poverty intact.

Kudos to Minneapolis Ninth ward councilwoman Alondra Cano, for sponsoring a forum that was NOT about band aids.  Hope it is the first of many.