Stroll along the West Bank of the Mississippi riverfront under the double-decked Washington Avenue Bridge, festooned with its giant golden Ms, ablaze in the iconic maroon-and-gold University of Minnesota colors, and you’re reminded that a great treasure dwells above — buildings and people humming with wisdom and learning.

Now head up from the river on one of the steep streets of the West Bank to where Cedar and Riverside avenues intersect. Look south and you’ll find Riverside Plaza, a massive complex of brutalist-style concrete high-rises, doors ablaze in Crayola reds, yellows and blues, reminding locals who pass by of another great treasure dwelling here — a sizable portion of Minnesota’s African-born residents.

High above the river on the U’s East Bank sits Rapson Hall, the School of Architecture/College of Design, designed by its famous namesake, Minnesota architect Ralph Rapson. Through its doors, as throughout the rest of the campus, students, faculty, administrators and professionals bustle and hustle, pursuing lives of studious concentration, most with goals to make better lives for themselves.

High above the river on the U’s West Bank sits this Riverside Plaza, also designed by Rapson and recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, dubbed “Little Mogadishu,” a symbol of our state’s immigrant community, buzzing with approximately 4,400 mothers, fathers, children, business owners and nurses, teachers, and other professionals, most with goals to make better lives for themselves.

Our state’s foremost institution of learning sits cheek-to-jowl with the complex that houses our significant immigrant population. It is notable that both now suffer equally from the fear imposed by certain shortsighted politicians whose stated platforms seem not to value human learning or human striving.

I think this juxtaposition of higher learning and higher striving is an apt metaphor for exactly what makes this country great: students and faculty from those hallowed halls of learning seek to lift themselves, and hopefully society as well; our immigrants, many who have fled such cruelty as hunger, torture, genocide, infanticide and rape, seek to lift themselves, and hopefully society as well.

This hierarchy of needs, wants, desires and dreams unites all people. We are united as a nation founded by immigrants — many of whom also fled from despair and tyranny; many of whom also built our great universities with the intent to advance humankind.

May we pause during this holiday season to remember that we are more united than divided by shared values, and to remind our elected officials of this at every opportunity.


Susan Schaefer is a consultant, adjunct professor and writer/photographer living on the West Bank.