Guilt by Association

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

On May 31 an emergency meeting of the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association's board began on a somber note. Eighth Ward Minneapolis City Council member Brian Herron, whose district includes the Central neighborhood, stood up in the conference room at Sabathani Community Center. He spoke of the neighborhood as his pride and joy. He spoke of CNIA as a model for other community organizations trying to turn their areas around. And he offered an impassioned speech that had the distinct tone of a minister scolding unruly Sunday-school students.

"My heart is breaking," says Herron. "We talk about our young people and how they can't solve conflict. Look at us," he laughed sardonically. "If we can't do it, how can they do it? If this is about you and your personal agenda or being vindictive, maybe you need to rethink why you're here. Maybe you should go do something else. I ain't got time for this," Herron continued. "There's other stuff out there that has to happen. There are folks out there who are hurting. This organization has the resources to help those people who are hurting. We have to be respectful of each other to make it work. If our neighborhood can't get better, then shame on us. All of us, including me."

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

The Central neighborhood, roughly 70 blocks that span Lake Street and 38th Street on the north and south, and I-35W and Chicago Avenue on the east and west, is overflowing with civic industriousness, from housing rehab programs to street cleanups. Driving that process is millions of dollars from the city--including $6 million from the first phase of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and the potential for at least $4 million more in the next phase--and grants from nonprofits. For a while it seemed that with a dedicated, omnipresent executive director, Jana Metge, CNIA couldn't fail to spin those dollars and projects into a strong community web.

But none of this was in evidence in the sparse room at Sabathani where CNIA members had gathered to try to unsnarl a tangle of recriminations produced by the recent election of new representatives to the neighborhood organization's board of directors. His reprimand delivered, Herron announced he had a prior commitment and left. Community leaders seated around the conference table--divided roughly into two factions--took their turns speaking, and the tension rose to a slow boil.

One director made accusations that votes in a recent election had been stacked. Another said he suspected personal agendas to be at work. They called into question each other's competence and said CNIA's paid staff had been treated "unconscionably." They talked over each other, ignored each other, raised their voices. Some got up and left midmeeting. While the purpose of the gathering was to create a smooth transition between the old CNIA board and new members elected just two weeks earlier, the discussion was in keeping with the often-acrimonious tone of neighborhood politics.

To fully understand the tumult that night it's necessary to go back to May 16, when CNIA held its annual meeting to elect new board officers. A slate of ten candidates, largely minorities, known as the "Blue Crew," had prepared for the event by campaigning door to door, explaining to neighbors that CNIA was the body that helped plan revitalization efforts for the neighborhood and promising to bring control of funds--including millions of dollars from the city's Neighborhood Revitalization Program--to the people. The Blue Crew won the May 16 election, and soon after the results were announced someone at the meeting moved to seat the new board members that same evening. Several of the new directors, believing they had been officially sworn in, swung into action. Within two days, the new majority had voted to fire Metge, CNIA's executive director of eight years, and to place her staff on paid leave. A number of holdovers from the old board said the new directors had no power to make those decisions. CNIA's attorney, the new board members' attorney, and a representative of the Minnesota Attorney General's Office met to discuss the situation; they decided to hold an emergency meeting on May 31 to iron out a transition date and--without declaring who was right or wrong--start fresh. When the group gathered at Sabathani, however, things just got worse. For two hours bickering and accusations flitted around the conference table. By the end the old board members voted to let the new board take over the next day, on June 1; the actions taken by the new board in May were not recognized as official, but could be ratified after June 1. The old board also voted to retain CNIA's paid staff, at least until the monthly board meeting scheduled for the last Tuesday in June. They formed a committee made up of old and new board members to smooth the transition.

The next day Metge was all optimism that some of the ill will could be ironed out and still wished for a smooth bridge to the new leadership. But within a few days it appeared that the new board had no intention of returning her to work. "I really thought there was the hope and desire to transition and understand the obligations," Metge says, a slightly bitter edge to her voice. "That doesn't appear to be the case. It makes you question what the rationale is for this. Is it the good of the neighborhood, or is it personal?"

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."

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?"

Members of the new board say they can. CNIA has hired an interim director, and Zachary Metoyer says plans are in the works for a summer forum where neighbors can air their concerns to the board. But peace still seems a long way off. One board member has filed a complaint with city officials alleging that the recent series of hostile meetings were held in violation of state law, so the new neighborhood leaders don't have any authority to spend tax dollars. And in the meantime, there have been more ugly CNIA meetings--one so nasty that the James Ford Bell Foundation's Peterson walked out. From Metge's perspective, the fact that the turmoil follows so much progress in Central is the biggest tragedy. "Too many neighborhood groups get to this point and fall apart," she says. "If we were able to move through this ordeal, it would be a good example for the rest of the city."

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