Guilt by Association

A political snipe-fest drowns out residential harmony in Minneapolis's up-and-coming Central neighborhood

It's not personal, according to new board members. There had been general concerns about how Metge was handling her duties. A change was in order. "This has been a long time coming," says Wizard Marks, newly elected vice president of the board. "This is not about Jana. This is about changing the organization's culture. Whether it's Jana or Jesus H. Christ, it would still have to be a different person." The problem with CNIA, Marks continues, is that many of the neighbors believed the former leadership had been "exclusionary" and unwilling to address the needs of the poor.

At the heart of the tussle is the tremendous change sweeping through Central. A neighborhood on the upswing, it's a place where the interests of the poor who've lived there for years and the interests of the middle-class homeowners who've recently moved in have collided. Metge and the old board were seen as allies of the up-and-comers. So amid increasing resentment, the Blue Crew campaigned to take up the low-income cause.

Central is one of Minneapolis's poorer neighborhoods. According to the Fannie Mae Company, Central's median household income in 1998 was only $23,317, compared with the citywide $38,367 figure. It's also one of the city's most racially diverse neighborhoods; in 1998 its population was more than 80 percent minority. In recent years Central has seen a large number of urban pioneers--often white homeowners--buy cheap houses and renovate them, creating a more middle-class area. (According to the Minneapolis assessor's department, median home values in Central nearly doubled between 1994 and 1999, from $35,615 to $70,200.) When neighborhood resources were used to further this sea change, "a lot of people were left out of the mix," says Marks. "They tended to be people of color."

The first thing the new leaders did was fire Jana Metge, the neighborhood group's popular, connected executive director
Diana Watters
The first thing the new leaders did was fire Jana Metge, the neighborhood group's popular, connected executive director

Robert Schmid, who resigned his post as CNIA treasurer at the May 31 meeting, says many of the new arrivals in the neighborhood have invested time and money in their homes and are finally seeing results as property values rise. But those rising prices have made it difficult for poorer people to afford housing. And the personality conflicts within CNIA, he believes, have made it impossible to work out those issues. Zachary Metoyer, the new board president, believes the conflict between old and new board members is also about race. While it's true, he says, that there have always been people of color on the board, they have also tended to quit in frustration. "It's not about the board being elected. There were more people of color at that annual meeting than any other, and they overwhelmingly voted for people of color to represent them in this neighborhood," he says. "What we did was door-knock, talk to neighbors, organizations, businesses in the area. We found more people here--Somalis, Latinos, the African-American community--would be involved in the organization, [but] that they knew nothing about CNIA."

In neighborhoods like Central, which have struggled with high crime rates and neglected homes, it's important to create stability, says john a. powell, executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. New residents are a healthy part of this process, but too often that means white people move into an area and push people of color out, he says. It becomes a problem if the people that already live in the neighborhood don't benefit from the stabilization, he stresses: "You help the neighborhood, but not the neighbors."

Figuring out how to spend NRP money is important, powell adds, but so is promoting affordable housing on a regional and national level. Yet for progress to occur, people need to work together. "People see themselves as winners and losers," he says. "They don't see themselves as collaborators. All we're going to have is bickering and fighting." And there has been plenty of that in Central. Long before the election, there were conflicts between CNIA officials. On one side there were concerns that board members had conflicts of interest in the community; on the other side there were accusations of mismanagement. Who bought which properties? Who got which CNIA grants? Whose phone calls weren't returned? Who was demonized in the monthly meeting? "There's a lot of hurt and misunderstanding that's been allowed to spiral," Metge says. "Speculation and rumor and gossip have led people to believe one thing or another when there is absolutely no fact." And now Metge fears the greater peril is that the infighting might compromise the neighborhood CNIA is supposed to serve. "It could jeopardize funding," she warns. "If you're going to spend six months fighting and not doing the work, funders will jump ship." The James Ford Bell Foundation, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization that has provided nearly $1 million to CNIA and other Central neighborhood organizations for a three-year initiative of community and youth programs, is monitoring the board scuffle. "If one of our partners is in turmoil and isn't functioning, then that has the potential for impeding our ability to work with that individual partner," says program officer Sara Peterson. "We're hoping that the conflict is not a larger conflict in the neighborhood. We're hoping that the work of the neighborhood can go forward."

Joe Horan, the city's NRP specialist who works with Central, says he's also concerned about the current conflicts. Metge's firing, he says, raised red flags in his office. "If that's the way you're going to do business, that puts us a little more on notice that we need to watch things," he explains. The challenge of the new board members is to smooth the transition and continue the work Central has already done, which he considers excellent. "Will they be able to bring along with them new people and at the same time keep those that have been involved?"

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