On an hourlong tour down West Broadway Avenue, Julián Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), stopped in places he said were evidence that north Minneapolis can develop and thrive.
He chatted with young people at a cafe that offers training in the kitchen, bought cookies at a nonprofit bakery staffed by teens and tried a welding simulator program in a lab at a job-training center. Followed by a phalanx of politicians and government staff — Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and Mayor Betsy Hodges among them — Castro took an up-close look at a neighborhood that recently received a federal designation marking it as a priority for his department.
The Promise Zone designation, which was awarded to Minneapolis and a dozen other communities this spring, doesn’t come with direct financial help. Instead, it offers technical assistance, volunteers and priority status when the city applies for federal grants.
Castro, who served as mayor of San Antonio before he was appointed to the president’s Cabinet last year, said he was pleased to see the work already underway to connect young people with jobs and boost the economy of one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
“There are plenty of strong ingredients for neighborhood success here in north Minneapolis,” he said. “The fact that you have this kind of program, like Emerge, that you have Breaking Bread (Café) and the Cookie Cart, it shows a level of initiative and civic-mindedness that is essential to lift up neighborhoods.”
At the Cookie Cart, 16-year-old Damarean Bible told Castro that his job at the bakery has allowed him to help support his family. Without it, he said, it would have been easy to end up getting into trouble.
“I’d probably be on the street, because there’s a lot of that in the neighborhood,” he said. “But the Cookie Cart took me away from that and it pushed me away from the streets. Because why would you want to be on the streets when you could have a job and save money?”
Castro said he was encouraged by the teens’ work and later encouraged local officials to continue to apply for funds dedicated to job-training efforts.
But the housing secretary also faced some tougher questions. One came from a young man at Breaking Bread Café, who wanted to know what Castro thought of gentrification. Castro offered that cities often don’t do well with balancing growth and development with the needs of residents whose incomes don’t match up. He later explained that HUD aims to help people find and stay in stable homes, and the young man pushed again.
“So do you think you’re doing a good job with that?” he asked.
“I hope so,” Castro answered.
Down the street, people waiting at the bus stop at the corner of Broadway and Fremont Av. N. shouted out questions of their own as the parade of officials — and the multiple police vehicles escorting them — passed by.
Lakima Moore, a nurse’s assistant, said Castro should know about how hard many people find it to afford housing in her neighborhood. She said she works two jobs but she and her husband are still struggling to provide for their three children.
Had she heard of the Promise Zone?
“Uh-uh,” she said. “No. See that’s more stuff that you know … it’s fliers and stuff. The houses are falling apart. There’s too much gang violence going on.”
Travonne Jones, who was also unfamiliar with the Promise Zone, said she and her teen daughter ended up in a homeless shelter after a late rent payment marked her as a risk for would-be landlords. She said she wants to see changes that would protect renters like her.
“It’s ridiculous,” she said.
Castro said “it’s not unexpected” that people have questions or are unfamiliar with the program. But he said he believes the program is different from other similar initiatives that have come before and people will see results.
“That will change over time as even more momentum builds up,” he said. “As part of the Promise Zone, north Minneapolis is going to be more competitive for federal grants and we look forward to doing what we can at HUD.”