The July 19 commentary by Bruce A. Center (“An open inquiry to Minneapolis city officials: Pray tell …”) rhetorically asks “what were they thinking” in regard to the development of the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan. This large question rapidly devolves into a diatribe denouncing density followed by an indictment of all forms of redevelopment except do-it-yourself, homeowner-sponsored rehabilitation. So here’s what I’m thinking:
If ever there was a third-rail issue here in the bucolic Midwest, the demon of density is a top candidate. (Note: A “third rail” is a device that provides electrical power to a subway car, something unknown to local residents who have not visited a city with underground transit systems.) Conjuring up images of dissolute black and Hispanic young people loitering on the doorsteps of brownstones gambling and drug dealing (as documented by TV fashion police dramas), the critics of density invoke racist images to fuel fearmongering. “Everyone knows” that density creates crime, and nobody wants more crime, so (ergo) increased density means increased crime.
The question for the critics is this: Where will your recent college graduate live? Can these former students afford the neighborhood where they grew up? Where will your retired parents live? Can they find smaller single-level living quarters in the neighborhood where they raised these children? Where will the divorced single parent with children live? Can a single wage-earner afford that nice detached house with garden and the time and expense this entails?
“Do-it-yourself fixer-upper” is another bit of happy horse manure. It comes from the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer industriously carving out a homestead from the wilderness and providing for his family. Virtue, hard work and — oh, yes — the plunder of a fragile ecosystem are all it takes to capture the glam of isolated self-reliance. The reality is of course that only a few people have the correct combination of time, money and skills to rebuild an old house. Most cannot accomplish this and certainly not at the scale required to lift up the neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to economic neglect. Furthermore, many of the properties in these neglected neighborhoods are in fact money pits. Teardown-and-rebuild is often less costly and more effective. Look around to see evidence of this practice.
So questions for the critics: How much assistance and financing are we willing to provide to support DIY projects? What should the city do when success fails to materialize? How do we hold the borrowers accountable? How can this type of program be scaled up to provide meaningful housing options for large numbers of people?
It’s easy to criticize a plan. It is much more difficult to construct a framework that is future-oriented and open-ended and (gasp) does not protect entrenched interests. (Full disclosure: I own a nice house in a high-priced neighborhood.) What I’m thinking is that without a reasonable framework for growth, the value of these desirable places will dissolve. Wealth is a shared experience created by groups of people with common goals and aspirations. The more who share these values, the greater our collective wealth. Strangling the growth of a city in a doomed effort to exclude newcomers by pricing them out of a place to live is contrary to our values.
George Hutchinson lives in Minneapolis.