As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
* * *
On the afternoon of May 22, 2011, a tornado with winds reaching 125 miles per hour touched down in North Minneapolis, long the African-American center of the city. The quick-moving storm uprooted trees, downed power lines and sheared the roofs from houses. One person was killed and hundreds left homeless in the biggest natural disaster to strike the city in decades.
The tornado missed the house of Anthony Newby, a real-estate entrepreneur, by four blocks. New to the neighborhood, Newby joined the volunteers seeking to help struggling residents, but grew frustrated by what he perceived as the local government’s slow response. It wasn’t that he was an activist. Though he had lived in Minneapolis for years, he hadn’t been particularly aware of the deep poverty that exists in swaths of the city. But as he walked the blocks of North Minneapolis, it became clear that the tornado wasn’t the first disaster to hit there. Foreclosed homes sat vacant and boarded-up. Extended families crowded into apartments to make ends meet. Three-quarters of the residents affected by the tornado, it was later reported, had been relying on some form of public assistance.
The storm landed North Minneapolis on the front page of newspapers for weeks, serving as a reminder that sections of a city long considered a bastion of progressivism had been left far behind. For Newby, it also served as a call to action. He created an online petition demanding that people made homeless by natural disasters be allowed to live rent-free in foreclosed properties. He helped found Occupy Homes, organizing the activists who camped in the yard of Monique White, a single mother of two, after US Bank foreclosed on her home. He joined Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a community group based in North Minneapolis that was formed after ACORN’s demise. And last year, the 39-year-old became its executive director.
“Look at the gap between whites and nonwhites in Minneapolis,” Newby said. “It’s an embarrassment, a crisis.” But it isn’t a new crisis: back in 2010, the Economic Policy Institute reported that the unemployment rate for blacks in the Twin Cities was more than three times that of whites—the greatest disparity of any metro region in the country. Nor have subsequent studies found much improvement. Nearly all of the children living in poverty—94 percent—are children of color. White students in public high schools have a 67 percent graduation rate, compared with 36 percent for blacks, 34 percent for Latinos and 22 percent for American Indians. Like many cities across the country, whether Minneapolis feels like a “good” place to live often comes down to the race of the resident.
Yet while the statistics remain bleak, a powerful force has emerged in Minneapolis that seeks to end such extreme racial disparities. This movement is helmed by Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, a coalition that includes NOC and four other key partners: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); Take-Action Minnesota, a network of progressive groups; ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition; and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, a workers’ center.