Oh, for the old days in Frogtown, when the forces allied against gentrification labored so mightily!
When my wife and I bought our first home here in 1980, the corner of Dale and University was famous for its repellent nature. On one corner was the notorious Faust theater, an old-school porn house. On another stood the Belmont Club, a strip joint. On the third corner, the Flick, a porn mag/peep show operation.
Our house was a duplex. We lived on the top, rented the bottom. Among the tenant interviews I conducted was with a woman who listed her occupation as Manager, Belmont Club. “Do you have a problem with that?” she wondered. Before I could answer, she added, “I don’t really have much furniture. Just a mattress …” I said I’d get back to her.
About the same time, the wave of crack cocaine crashed on Frogtown’s shore. Talk about keeping housing prices reasonable! Tombstone-eyed guys would knock on our door at 10 or 11 at night to inform us they needed money “for the bus.” Young pharmaceutical workers staked out the corners day and night, at times telling other residents that they had to pay a toll to use the sidewalks. It was possible back then to pull up to a University Avenue intersection and have multiple prostitutes converge on your car.
If you were searching for cheap rent or a bargain on a house, this was your moment. That duplex we bought for $58,000? Eighteen years later we sold it for $56,000. Of course we did the only thing sensible people would do. We bought another Frogtown home.
OK, we’re nuts. Or weirdly motivated. We got to know a lot of neighbors who were willing to put up a fight to stay in the neighborhood. I guess we enjoyed the tussle. And also, we would have been embarrassed to jump ship.
So we’re still here. The concern these days, as pointed out in your recent piece, “In Frogtown, fears of being squeezed out” (July 3), is that Frogtown isn’t the place it used to be — a place where no reasonably intelligent person would invest a dime and expect a return, except, perhaps, for a slumlord. Of which, back in the day, there were plenty, and of which there remain more than a few.
On my Frogtown street, there are still those waging their personal war against gentrification. For example, the young marksman who unloaded a clip of 9mm rounds on a Sunday afternoon, managing not to harm his hated enemies, but nonetheless putting two bullet holes in my truck and taking out a bunch of neighbors’ auto glass. Last week, before I managed to put down a morning cup of coffee, a young woman, fidgeting like spiders had gotten under her skin, stood screaming at my gate that her boyfriend, whose name she couldn’t recall, was trying to kill her.
In short, I don’t believe the gentrifiers have won quite yet. I admit they’re out there, pushing baby strollers and walking their dogs. I don’t figure most of them are from a branch of the Rockefeller family, because if they were, they wouldn’t be buying a Frogtown home. They’d head for St. Anthony Park and plant an “All Are Welcome Here” sign in their front yard. To vilify these newcomers seems like a classic case of pitting the poor against the slightly less poor.
Mostly the hated gentrifiers seem to be kids who are trying to do what people have always wanted to do: Buy a house, build some equity, create a little wealth within their family. Pass it on to their children. They’re less colorful than some of our old neighbors, but they’re safer to be around.
Everyone deserves to live in a healthy neighborhood. A healthy neighborhood is safe. There are parks and greenspace. There’s a range of decent, well-maintained housing, both for people struggling to get ahead and for those who have more or less arrived. People who need help to get their lives on track should be able to get it close to home. But there should also be people around who have the time and resources to coach youth sports, volunteer in schools and serve as mentors and models for kids on their block.
In short, Frogtown shouldn’t be a preserve for people who have no other choice. There should be a place for everybody. It shouldn’t be a neighborhood you flee as soon as you are able. It should be a place you’re happy to call your permanent home, where you can mix it up with people who are like you and people who aren’t.
If all the tut-tutting about gentrification is another way to say, Keep Frogtown poor forever, then put that on a banner and see who salutes. The real answer to the gentrification problem is to show genuine commitment to building the affordable housing we need, to seeing that people are ready to work and ensuring that they earn decent wages in those jobs.
We all know there’s money to rebuild the freeways. There’s always dough for a stadium or two. Money is never really the problem. It’s desire and will to help forge a better life for people who aren’t particularly glamorous and who occasionally need a hand. That is to say, my neighbors.
Anthony Schmitz is editor of the Greening Frogtown newspaper.