Racial and ethnic minorities have never come close to outnumbering whites in communities in the Twin Cities area -- not even in the central cities. Until now.
Brooklyn Center, which was 96 percent white as recently as the Reagan years, has seen a large and rapid shift in its makeup, the U.S. Bureau of the Census will report today. People of color make up 49.1 percent of the city and the change is driven, in part, by the fastest increase in immigrants among sizable cities in the metro area.
But the city has seen changes in more than just its racial makeup. Immigrant families and those moving out from the core cities have contributed to an accompanying slide in incomes and a runup in poverty, which experts say amounts to a warning signal.
Brooklyn Center Mayor Tim Willson said finding that the city is now roughly half white and half minority doesn't surprise him at all. "That's probably pretty close," he said. "We've seen a large spike in diversity in the last 10 years or so."
Per capita income in Brooklyn Center has sunk so low in comparison to the surrounding metro -- only a little over 60 percent of the metro-wide figure -- that the city risks being added to a list of the nation's most troubled suburbs.
"The change in income this city is seeing is a leading indicator of major social and governmental problems," said William Lucy, a professor at the University of Virginia who has studied the comparative strength of cities and suburbs across the nation.
The city's minorities trend toward younger families: More than 70 percent of kids in the school district are from minority groups.
While the mix of cultures and ethnicities is something to celebrate, Willson said, the income-driven social problems the experts are talking about aren't just approaching, they're here.
"We have a high increase in homes foreclosed on and abandoned. We're a working-class, starter-home, rambler type of community and now those homes are aging pretty good. As jobs dry up across the metro, people have to live somewhere, and we have a fairly high ratio of apartment complexes, more than our fair share in my opinion, which exacerbates the problem."
Jim and Eleanor Swenson say their neighborhood was all white when they moved into their home north of the Brookdale shopping mall in 1959. Now they have Guyanese families on two sides and a Jamaican family kitty-corner across Washburn and 60th Avenues.
"So far it's been nice around here," said Eleanor Swenson. "We couldn't hope for better neighbors," said her husband, standing in his driveway as the snow fell Monday.
Jim Swenson, 83, noted his Guyanese neighbor has a carpet-cleaning business and did a great job on the carpets at the Swensons' Lutheran church. The man also shoveled Swenson's driveway one night.
At the mall on Monday, Linda Serrato, 21, was shopping with her cousin. Her parents moved the family of four nearby three years ago. She was happy to hear about increasing diversity in the city. "I have seen more Latinos than before at the mall and around my apartment," said Serrato, a house cleaner. "It makes me feel more comfortable."
A large number of Brooklyn Center's minority residents are Liberian, most of whom have come to this country, fleeing war, since the mid-1990s, said Kerper Dwanyen, president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, which has an office in the city. He estimated that about two-thirds of the 25,000 Liberians in the state live in Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and Robbinsdale. (The Census survey reported that between 5,000 and 7,000 Liberian immigrants live in Minnesota.)
Brooklyn Center "has been very hospitable to many people from Liberia and given them a chance to rebuild their lives," Dwanyen said. Police have worked well with his people, he said, though a community dialogue group set up to bridge cultural clashes didn't draw any white residents other than city officials. Liberians have opened a number of groceries, salons and other businesses in the city, he said.
"We have had a huge explosion in immigrants in past five to seven years: Hmong, Hispanic and Liberian," said police Commander Stu Robinson. The city recruited, trained and hired a Liberian and a Hmong officer to reach out to their communities.
A fuller picture
The new numbers emerge from what is arguably the most important release of data from the Census Bureau since 2000. They represent the combined results from extensive surveys conducted in 2005, 2006 and 2007, combined into a single figure so as to yield as accurate a figure as possible for smaller cities.
However, it doesn't include cities smaller than 20,000 people. That means that it won't be known for some time what is happening in suburbs such as Columbia Heights, which, judging by its school district numbers, have followed a similar track as Brooklyn Center when it comes to racial and ethnic change accompanied by rising poverty numbers.
One bright spot for Brooklyn Center, and potentially for Columbia Heights: Buoyed by its close-in location and its affordable homes, Brooklyn Center registered one of the strongest increases in the value of its homes since the beginning of the decade.
But the city's spike in poverty puts it in dubious company. The University of Virginia's Lucy, seeking to dramatize the severity of problems in a number of aging, inner-ring suburbs, drew from the 2000 Census a list of 155 suburbs "worse off than Detroit," meaning their per capita incomes were less than 60 percent of their metro area's. No Twin Cities suburbs made that list, but the fact that a suburb like Brooklyn Center is sinking toward that point is "definitely striking," Lucy said.
David Peterson • 952-882-9023