Bringing Down the House

Taxpayers spent $65,000 to demolish the old Victorian at 1816 15th Ave. S. A buyer wanted to invest at least that much to fix it up. Make sense? You bet, says the Minneapolis Community Development Agency.

Sentiments like that aren't limited to Harrison's block--or the Phillips neighborhood, or Minneapolis. In urban cores across the nation, public agencies have been stepping up demolitions of older housing, says Robert Wilson, editor of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Wilson calls the process a form of "stealth urban renewal, a leveling of city neighborhoods [that] will appall us as much in the future as the urban renewal projects of the Fifties and Sixties appall us today."

Some of the damage, says Wilson, is aesthetic: "Blocks where most of the houses were built in the same period have a certain integrity. Everything goes together. If you tear pieces of it down and build suburban-style houses, you have a visual mishmash that ceases looking urban." The National Trust, he says, has been lobbying HUD--which funds many demolitions in Minneapolis and elsewhere--to review each property's historic value before allowing a teardown.

Architectural cohesion isn't the only thing that suffers when the bulldozers come, preservationists say. Older buildings make a block feel rooted and stable, they argue--connected to a past, and therefore a future. "There's a change the moment a house is torn down," says Zala, the Phillips realtor and developer. "There have been studies done about how vacant lots affect kids. When there's a hole in the ground in place of Mr. Jacobson's house, it can't help but lead to instability."

Michael Dvorak

And so, even as the excavator compacts the remains of 1816, Katrina Harrison and her neighbors huddle to plot their next battle. Last year the MCDA announced plans to demolish the massive Second Empire house two doors down from 1816. The brick structure--a side-by-side duplex built, according to neighborhood legend, for two Belgian bachelor brothers by their mother--was granted a reprieve at the same neighborhood meeting that asked the MCDA to consider Vanessa Stephens's proposal. But this spring, title to the property was transferred to Hennepin County, and residents fear the county will proceed with the demolition.

Or maybe, they say, all the protests over 1816 will yet bear fruit. Maybe Cramer--now firmly installed as head of the MCDA--will grant a stay of execution. Maybe a new neighborhood group will pop up, with money and staff to bolster the ragtag volunteer efforts. Maybe the oil tanker will turn around.

As the conversation quickens, talk turns to how Phillips always has seemed to exist at the intersection of hope and despair; how it has blended middle-class and poor neighbors, longtime residents and new immigrants, social protest and wary conservatism. "Phillips is our Harlem," says Carol Pass. "It's as rich and as complex. As downtrodden and as marvelous. As awful and as glorious. It's a state of mind.

"We want to move our neighborhood toward our own renaissance--that's why we look under rugs, down gutterholes to find somebody with money to take these houses on. We're asking, 'Will you do it? Will you?'"

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