Ed Whitley and his family have lived in their Columbia Heights home for five years. He watches his 5-year-old daughter, Shane, bounce around the Huset Park playground.
Fifteen-year-old Sandra Yang has grown up in Columbia Heights. She and her cousin walk to Huset Park to play some volleyball. A few blocks away, Wayne and Betty Bjerken stroll to the Pit Stop Chill & Grill. Wayne Bjerken was born and raised in Columbia Heights.
They’re all out on the same afternoon. They all speak warmly of the quiet inner-ring suburb on Minneapolis’ north border.
But they all also confess that they don’t really know their neighbors.
It’s the conundrum of the suburbs. Residents laud the quality of life, but often a sense of community and a know-your-neighbor mentality are lagging.
Now a cluster of inner-ring suburbs are trying to foster neighborhoods with that sense of community and identity. Columbia Heights and Brooklyn Park are making efforts, and Brooklyn Center last winter officially designated neighborhood boundaries to help city leaders better communicate with residents. The city hopes some neighborhood associations may eventually blossom.
There could be some challenges, city leaders acknowledge. Neighborhoods are about grass-roots involvement, but in all three instances city government is trying to plant the seed.
The inner-ring suburbs are increasingly diverse. Sometimes people, unsure what to say, shy away from approaching new neighbors with different cultural backgrounds.
Some suburbs, specifically designed decades ago to separate residential areas from businesses and shops, don’t have as many natural gathering spots as urban neighborhoods.
Columbia Heights and Brooklyn Park are each taking their own approach to neighborhood building.
In Columbia Heights, the city is launching a pilot project attempting to create a neighborhood association around Huset Park, between 37th and 40th avenues. The city is hosting an organizational meeting for neighbors at 6 p.m. on Aug. 20 at Murzyn Hall.
City leaders selected Huset Park for the pilot because it is already a natural gathering spot, with a playground, wading pool, ball fields and picnic shelter.
Huset also represents how the city is changing. It is made up of smaller single-family homes built in the 1920s and 1930s. It also includes newer townhouses, built on former industrial sites in the city. Columbia Heights, with its sidewalks and city grid, has a decidedly more urban feel than some other suburbs.
The main goal is to create community pride and bolster the community’s identity, said Sheila Cartney, assistant community development director. Another goal is to get young families that move into the city to connect with each other and with longtime residents.
While the city has set some broad-brush goals, it would like residents to set goals and priorities, too.
“We are hoping the neighborhood takes the ball and runs with it,” said Columbia Heights Police Capt. Lenny Austin. “Having that sense of ownership, it helps with our mission of crime prevention and public safety.”
Residents say they welcome the opportunity to establish some more community connections.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Yang, who attends Columbia Heights High. “I see a lot of my neighbors, but I don’t know them personally. We don’t talk. If we did get to know each other, it could be a really close neighborhood.”
A little nudge from city leaders could help overcome some initial hesitations about different cultures, some say.
“I don’t think people are connecting like they should. When people don’t understand cultures, they tend to be reserved,” said Bill Diggs, owner of the Pit Stop Chill & Grill. Diggs said he supports efforts to establish neighborhoods.
“I think it’s a good thing. People need to get to know each other,” he said.
Neighborhoods will also help raise the profile of their communities.
“A lot of people don’t know about this area, how nice it is, how quiet it is. They don’t realize what an asset it is,” said Betty Bjerken.
Brooklyn Park has just hired a neighborhood relations specialist to help establish neighborhoods. Josie Shardlow, who has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, started in the role this week.
“Her primary duties are to develop and create neighborhoods, working with residents in a grass-roots way,” said Elizabeth Tolzmann, Brooklyn Park community engagement coordinator. “She’s really starting from scratch. We are following the St. Louis Park model. We want to build neighborhood and community connections at a grass-roots level. Residents define the neighborhoods and boundaries.”
The neighborhoods effort is part of the city’s larger community engagement initiative.
Brooklyn Park is using a neighborhood tool kit created by University of Minnesota graduate students to help residents start connecting. The 45-page document provides background, tips and resources for neighborhood organizers.