Bringing Down the House
THE EARLY-SUMMER SUN HASN'T YET BURNED THE DEW FROM the grassy back yard when the yellow John Deere fires up its engine and arches to full size, its hydraulic arm towering over the little two-story house. Rubber tracks dig into soft ground; a mulberry tree snaps like a sprig of parsley in the grip of the large, toothy bucket. Then the ground shudders again and the excavator--jaws dribbling with leaves and shredded branches--lumbers toward its prey.
The teeth hover over the back of the house, then dig in with a loud, splintering crunch. A few bites make short work of a wooden addition. Without the sagging lean-to, the brick Victorian looks slimmed down, strikingly handsome, much the way it must have appeared when it was built more than a century ago.
The yellow machine lurches back on its tracks as if to admire the two-story one last time. The engine idles. Then the Deere jerks in and takes a bite of brick. "There goes Vanessa's kitchen," says Katrina Harrison as an inside wall appears, the off-white paint still showing the outlines of a stove and refrigerator.
Harrison lives next door to 1816 15th Ave. S.; she has brought her preschool daughter to watch the demolition. Her husband John Strot stands a few steps away, puffing furiously on an American Spirit. A handful of other neighbors wander in from the alley. All eyes are solemnly focused on the jerky motion of the Deere's jaws.
"You know," muses Harrison, "when the water guys came last week to shut off the water, they had to call in and double-check. They couldn't believe that this was the right house. It looked too good."
Harrison glances over her shoulder, hikes the sleepy girl up on her hip, and heads toward a woman with long, gray hair standing alone in a narrow patch of sun. "We deserved 24-hour notice, Edie," she says, then nods toward the four police officers who stand side by side, arms crossed, near the edge of the lot. "Seems like everyone knew but us."
The woman takes a breath and seems about to reply, then turns her gaze to the ground. Finally she says, flatly, "I was unaware that they had guaranteed a 24-hour notice."
"They" are the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, which owns the building, and "they" haven't guaranteed anything in the year during which Harrison and her neighbors struggled to save 1816. The advocates held rallies at city hall, asked for meetings with Minneapolis's powers that be, even lined up a buyer willing to make more than $100,000 worth of renovations on the house.
The way Edie Oliveto-Oates, the MCDA's project coordinator for the Phillips neighborhood, sees it, it was all futile, an effort to preserve a house too far gone. And today she and her bosses are determined to put an end to the nonsense.
There's a loud crash, and all heads turn toward the yellow excavator, now standing in the middle of what used to be the kitchen, a four-foot mound of detritus under its tracks. Its jaws have fastened on a toilet, effortlessly shearing it into pieces; motes of debris fly through the air, causing the spectators to squint and cover their mouths with T-shirts.
The head of the demo crew walks deliberately through the crowd and up to Oates. "Brick houses are more time-consuming," he says. "But we're making good progress." By noon, he predicts, the little Victorian will be nothing more than a sodden mass of brick, lumber, and insulation.
It won't be the first, or the last, to end up this way. In some form or another, the scene playing out at 1816 15th this morning of June 17 is repeated hundreds of times in Minneapolis each year; in 1998, according to the Department of Inspections, the city issued permits to demolish 281 single-family homes and duplexes. More than a quarter of those structures were owned by the MCDA.
Which is why a growing number of residents, real estate experts, and historic preservationists have taken to calling it the "Minneapolis Community Destruction Agency." Many of the buildings the agency is tearing down, they argue, are structurally sound and could be renovated by buyers eager to snap up historic, affordable properties. "Right now, the market is starving for housing stock," says Dean Eichaker, a real estate agent who lives four blocks from the brick Victorian. "That house--built with care and deliberation--would have sold, no question in my mind."
Architect and Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission member Bob Roscoe concurs, adding that the MCDA seems mired in a time when "the bulldozer [was] the revitalization tool of choice. We should know better by now. But we're having a relapse." And nowhere, Roscoe and other advocates say, is the relapse more apparent than in Phillips, the city neighborhood richest in turn-of-the-century houses.
Corinne Zala lives in one of those houses, and she has developed and sold dozens of others through her one-woman nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors. Its headquarters is a closet-sized nook with lots of windows, a big desk, and a computer that is never more than a few mouse clicks away from the online neighborhood gathering place www.pnn.org.
After setting up a guest with a big glass of water, Zala points the browser at the site, set up and maintained by the Phillips Neighborhood Network, a volunteer group supported by a gaggle of University of Minnesota interns. (The area's official organization, People of Phillips, collapsed last year amid controversy over its spending of city funds.) She hits a hyperlink and up pops an inventory of vacant and boarded-up properties compiled by the network--page after page of addresses and a summary noting that between 1997 and 1998, the number of abandoned houses in Phillips nearly doubled, rising from 130 to 257.
But the site's pièce de résistance is yet to come. Zala brings up a map of the neighborhood, with boarded-up houses marked in red and vacant properties highlighted in blue. In the eastern half of Phillips, the map looks like a Chinese checkerboard crammed full of marbles, with some blocks almost completely covered in red and blue dots. It's a stunning graphic, and Zala knows it; she waits for her visitor to take it in, then offers the conclusion: "We call this a crisis."
About half of the board-ups in Phillips, according to PNN's 1998 inventory and property-tax records, belong to public entities including the MCDA, Hennepin County--which takes over properties whose owners quit paying taxes--and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which picks up houses when their federally insured mortgages default. The MCDA frequently buys properties from the county and HUD; it also inherits properties from failed development schemes. In 1997 it took over 30 structures, including the brick Victorian at 1816 15th Ave. S., from the Phillips Neighborhood Housing Trust (PNHT), an affordable-housing nonprofit gone bankrupt.
Even the MCDA's staunchest critics admit that saving those houses can be a tall order. By the time a structure is boarded up, it has often suffered years of deferred maintenance, and the deterioration accelerates as the house sits empty. Abandoned buildings are often targets for vandals and architectural thieves; time and the weather also take their toll as tiny leaks turn into gushers and siding rots under chipped paint.
And the neighbors get irritated. Until a few years ago, activists in Phillips and elsewhere routinely criticized the MCDA for not tearing down board-ups fast enough. "The neighborhood could sit and look at a burned-out house for years," recalls Jennifer Naglak, who has been volunteering as the area's housing facilitator. But, she adds, once the city cleared out its backlog of burned-out shells, the climate shifted; now, activists tour each property slated for demolition and work to save buildings whenever possible. "It's been two or three years since neighbors were wildly saying 'tear these blighted buildings down.'"
Something else changed in those two or three years: "Sold" signs started popping up on Phillips blocks. A "back to the city movement" has put the neighborhood back on the real estate map, according to Sandy Loescher of Sandy Green Realty, a Phillips resident who has sold inner-city real estate for years. "Last year was the best housing market I'd ever seen," she says. "This year the supply is smaller, but the prices are up."
Phillips is particularly attractive, Green and other real estate agents say, to people who couldn't own a home anywhere else: The neighborhood is among the poorest in the city, and its properties are within reach of families unable to cough up the six-figure amounts "starter" homes elsewhere routinely fetch. "People are looking at Phillips because the same house would cost a whole lot more in any other neighborhood," Green says. "The good houses have been selling very quickly; many in less than a month, which is new. I used to take a listing in Phillips and prepare people for six months."
Corinne Zala is seeing the same patterns in her real estate business: "Right now, properties we know as dogs have five or six buyers." Historic buildings, she adds, are sought after almost no matter what their condition. But, cautions Zala, the bull market will not last forever--and when prices drop, her neighborhood will be the first to feel the pinch. "The time is right to sell these houses," she concludes.
Vanessa Stephens first saw the brick house at 1816 15th Ave. S. a few years ago, when she visited Katrina Harrison as an educator for the Phillips Lead Poisoning Prevention Project. The two women, both mothers of preschool children, soon became friends. From time to time, Stephens would tell Harrison how much she liked the quiet block near downtown and, specifically, the Victorian next door. "I'd lived on Franklin and Portland for three years," she says. "And we--me, my husband and kids--needed more space."
Casual conversations turned into urgent discussion in May 1998, when Harrison learned that the MCDA had asked for bids for the demolition of 1816. She got on the phone to Stephens, who immediately set to developing a rehab plan. When she pitched it to the Phillips Community Housing Committee, the volunteer-run board voted to reverse its previous approval of the demolition. The committee also recommended that the MCDA "accept a viable proposal from Vanessa Stephens to rehab the house at 1816 15th."
But it wasn't that easy. Before the MCDA board could accept any offer from Stephens it would have to circulate a formal Request for Proposals, inviting any member of the public to offer a plan for the house. Stephens still has her calendar for the months she spent putting together a pitch that would satisfy the agency's complex regulations: The pages for July and August 1998 are filled with notations in green, black, blue, and red pen, meetings about bids, financing, engineering reports.
Bringing 1816 up to code, she found, would require plenty of work. The house needed several thousand dollars' worth of tuckpointing and masonry work on the exterior; $11,000 worth of reconstruction for a bowed-out section of bricks on the north wall; and $86,500 for miscellaneous repairs such as adding central air, repairing floors, remodeling the bathrooms and kitchen, adding fences, a garage, and a porch.
On August 10 Stephens sent a proposal to the MCDA, pegging the price to completely rehab the property at $112,102.29. She attached architectural drawings and bids from two well-known local restoration firms. To raise the money, she said, she would take out a $67,000 mortgage and apply for a $45,000 Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) subsidy. As the purchase price, she put down $1; she says the MCDA's manager of housing development, Earl Pettiford, had told her he couldn't imagine the house going for more than a dollar.
Two months later, Stephens got a letter from Edie Oates. "The purchase price of this property is $55,000," it said. "Your proposal does not meet the basic requirements for the sale of this property and as a consequence must be rejected."
Pettiford denies telling Stephens that the house would sell for a dollar: "That dollar-house thing only comes up when [a property] is in public hands," he scoffs. "Some people think that they no longer have to pay market prices." The MCDA once did offer "dollar houses" through its Urban Homestead Program, but it abandoned the idea a few years ago. "Sweat equity was a big part of that," explains Pettiford. "But, in most households, both people are working and then coming home to a house that they have to work on at night. It got to be so there had to be a marriage counselor involved. There were some great success stories, but there were also divorces and jobs that just plain never got completed."
Fine, Stephens says she told Pettiford, maybe the dollar-house idea was unrealistic. But why $55,000? Behind that figure, she learned, was one of the more arcane loops of municipal financing: When PNHT disintegrated in 1997, the neighborhood group had tried to pick up the nonprofit's buildings. But the organization was barred by its charter from owning property, so the MCDA stepped in and purchased the buildings using NRP dollars. And that money, Pettiford told Stephens, had to be paid back to the NRP.
Stephens says she was willing to negotiate. "We would have met them somewhere in the middle," she says. But the agency stood fast on the $55,000 figure. She argued that the MCDA would have to pay the NRP even if it tore the house down, but to no avail.
Pettiford says it wasn't just Stephens's suggested purchase price he objected to: "Whether she paid $55,000 or $1, what she proposed to do was infeasible. The dollar amounts involved didn't make sense. It was a poor investment." As for the city's own investment, Pettiford says: "I know that I swallowed real hard a couple of times. The dollar amount was pretty large. We wanted to save these houses."
Stephens says it didn't look that way to her, though. "It didn't matter what we did, they just didn't want to sell it to us," she fumes. "Here's someone who works in the neighborhood, really wants to live here, has ties to the block. I don't understand why they wouldn't help--do everything they can--to get someone in there."
In November Stephens received another letter from Edie Oates. Since she hadn't responded to the earlier missive, it said, the MCDA would "be proceeding to the Phillips Housing Committee in December recommending demolition of this building." Later that month Stephens, discouraged and weary, closed on a house in the Powderhorn neighborhood. "I do feel some resentment," she says now. "No one likes being kept in the dark. No one wants to jump through hoops for nothing."
Phillips residents and realtors Corinne Zala and Dean Eichaker have dealt with plenty of buyers like Stephens over the years--people who fell in love with a government-owned, boarded-up house and the idea of saving a piece of history from the bulldozers. But, they say, many give up frustrated with the delays, inefficiencies, and sheer bureaucratic hassles of dealing with the MCDA.
For starters, no one seems to know exactly how many houses the agency owns--and which ones are for sale. Activists claim that in addition to nearly 200 vacant lots, the MCDA has some 50 houses in Phillips alone. Officials peg the number of buildings at closer to 25. They explain the discrepancy by noting that some homes inherited from other government agencies don't have clear title, and that others are considered the property of local nonprofit developers working in partnership with the MCDA.
Whatever the total number of MCDA houses, advocates charge, the agency doesn't seem eager to find buyers for them. Few MCDA houses are included in the Multiple Listing Service, a catalog of all available properties in Twin Cities. There are no information sheets--a standard of the real estate industry--to show what a house has to offer, and what work may need to be done. Hardly any MCDA houses are fitted with the combination-lock boxes realtors use to show a house without making an appointment with the seller; gaining access to a building, Zala and other agents say, requires tenacity and myriad phone calls.
The agency's rehab standards also help scare off potential buyers. According to a report compiled in 1997 at the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, the MCDA "assumes, for instance, that a house that lies unheated through a Minnesota winter requires new interior plaster. Generally, the MCDA has a low tolerance for uncertainty in the state of repair of a house, which tends to produce relatively expensive rehabilitation estimates." Finally, realtors complain, the MCDA requires buyers to wade through a sea of paperwork that can delay a closing by months, even years.
Zala is quick to say that she has some sympathy for the agency's staff: "If I were Edie Oates, I'd throw up my hands," she says. "We're willing to offer some partnering." Eichaker, who works with Coldwell Banker Burnet in the agency's Minneapolis Lakes office, says he has volunteered to give the MCDA lock boxes for its houses, and to hand out a list of agency properties to interested realtors.
But it's not that easy, Oates and Pettiford say. A step as simple as installing combination locks can create massive headaches for the city, Pettiford explains. "Some of the properties have hazards--a floor about ready to give way, basement stairs that have been removed. I've had houses where I've had to have an area cordoned off because there's a giant hole in the floor. I don't want to put [buyers] at risk and put the city at risk. If someone goes off the edge into the basement, the liability goes back to the public."
More fundamentally, adds Oates, neighborhood activists--and even realtors like Zala and Eichaker--may be a little starry-eyed about the agency's properties. "I can take buyer after buyer through some of these houses. These people like the idea, [but] they agonize about whether all the work can be done--often it's just too much. That's because 99.9 percent of the time, houses sit vacant long before they become available to a public entity. Many of them have significant problems."
Ultimately, Oates and her MCDA colleagues say, buyers often can get "more house" in new construction. The agency contracts with several developers to build homes on lots where it has demolished older structures; since 1995 it has put up 236 single-family homes citywide, mostly through the Greater Minneapolis Metropolitan Housing Corporation (GMMHC). "When GMMHC builds a house on an MCDA lot, it's carpeted, has a two-car garage, is energy-efficient," says Pettiford. "It's high-quality, and yet, if you compare it with rehab, we can produce it for a substantially lower cost." Pettiford says the MCDA's typical rehab subsidy is $45,000 for a single-family home and $75,000 for a duplex; by contrast, a new GMMHC house receives about $30,000 in public assistance. Demolition costs add another $8,000 to $10,000 to the price tag.
Pettiford says the agency does its best to get input from residents before choosing to demolish a house. "We move forward with recommendations when there is agreement from neighbors," he explains. "When there is a difference in opinion, we go to our board." (The MCDA Board of Commissioners consists of all 13 members of the Minneapolis City Council.) But, he says, the agency isn't accountable just to preservationists: "Most of us believe that safe, decent, affordable housing is our priority. If George Washington slept in some house, we might spend the money to preserve it. But if we're saving it just because it's old, that's the wrong reason. In my list of priorities, saving old houses is down toward the bottom."
Sue Anderson discovered as much when she volunteered to help look for a house for her new pastor at Salem Evangelical Free Church. The pastor's wife, Nora Elifson, wanted an old house, the kind of Midwestern beauty she remembered from growing up in Chicago. She didn't like what realtors had to offer, so Anderson--an account manager for Seward-based Tiro Industries, and a Phillips homeowner--took her on a tour of the neighborhood.
As the pair scoured the streets, both were startled at the number of what seemed to be solid structures with boards for windows. They were even more surprised when they contacted the Phillips housing committee and learned that many of the structures were owned by the city and slated for demolition.
Elifson eventually bought a house from a private seller and began refurbishing it with Anderson's help. Between patching plaster and pulling out old wires, the two women kept up their walks, growing more anxious as they went: "Sometimes," says Anderson, "it seemed like every time we turned around, there was that house cruncher, ready to pull down another gorgeous, gorgeous old house." The buildings didn't always look like much from the outside, Anderson says, but her experience as a rehabber told her that they were treasure troves of woodwork, buffets, ceramic tile, and other reminders of Minneapolis's fin-de-siècle boom years.
Most Phillips houses were built in the late 1800s, Anderson notes, when Minneapolis's population more than doubled in the span of a decade. Affluent families, squeezed out by downtown's expanding business district, built mansions along Park and Portland avenues; workers from the flour and lumber mills soon followed, building houses "in the country" south of Franklin Avenue.
Just as the working class moved in the shadow of the barons, their houses echoed the architecture of affluence. The brick structure at 1816 15th Ave. S. was a good example of the "folk Victorian" trend, says architect Roscoe: "Folk Victorians used some of the same ornament that is seen in the houses of the very wealthy. But the ornament is used sparingly and where it counts most, to spice up surfaces that are otherwise plain."
Those houses, and the neighborhood, remained unchanged for half a century--until they, and the neighborhood, faced the one-two punch of demographic change and federal policy. Returning WWII soldiers, who had grown up in the big city buildings that housed parents and grandparents under one roof, used the G.I. Bill to build new, single-family homes in the suburbs. As residents and businesses left the city, property values dropped. Federal and city "urban renewal" programs encouraged developers to tear down the old structures and replace them with boxy apartment buildings. Homes that remained standing were often snatched up by absentee landlords, who skimped on upkeep and finally abandoned the buildings to foreclosure, forfeiture, and demolition.
So a lot of history had already been erased, Anderson says, by the time she stepped into the picture. Perhaps, she reasoned, some blocks could be protected by historic designation, the way the Healy Block near I-35W had been in the 1980s. She did some research and found that in many cases, it was already too late: Seventy-five percent of a block had to be intact for the state to declare it historic, and eighty percent for the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the blocks in Phillips didn't have that many of their original houses left standing.
Then Anderson remembered reading somewhere that the small resorts of northern Minnesota had won recognition--as one entity--in an annual historic-preservation contest. She called around and discovered that the competition had been sponsored by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, a statewide group that advocates for historic buildings and properties. There was still time to submit a proposal for the 1999 deadline. Anderson decided to focus on the area the Phillips Neighborhood Network's map identified as being home to vast numbers of abandoned properties--the portion extending from 12th Avenue South in the west to Hiawatha on the east, from Franklin Avenue in the north to Lake Street on the south.
And so, in the middle of this year's March snowstorms, the administrator and the pastor's wife trudged through the slush documenting the handiwork of long-gone craftsmen. While Elifson photographed houses from various angles, Anderson, a self-taught architecture expert, jotted down the details: "Queen Anne-style featuring a pent roof, porch fretwork, and corner brackets." "A belt course on this shirtwaist foursquare separates the upper clapboards from the wider lower clapboards."
The effort paid off: In early May the Preservation Alliance announced that the boarded and vacant houses of East Phillips had made its 1999 Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties List, along with high-profile structures like the Stillwater Lift Bridge and Seventh Place in downtown St. Paul. George Edwards, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, says the group chose the proposal because "we want people to remember that historic preservation is more than the James J. Hill house and the Basilica--that it's about everyday, yet distinct, architecture that helped to define neighborhoods. Plus we thought there was a potential for portions of Phillips to be local historic districts, and we wanted to draw attention to that."
Draw attention they did. On May 10 the Star Tribune listed the Preservation Alliance's Top 10 on the cover of its Variety section. There were also rumblings in city hall, where Sixth Ward council member Jim Niland convened a meeting between soon-to-be MCDA head Steve Cramer and Phillips residents, realtors, and preservationists.
At the meeting, Cramer listened to a long list of complaints from the activists, then made an announcement. He was "deeply interested," he said, in seeing houses move out of public hands and into the ownership of private buyers. The MCDA needed to undergo "a paradigm shift.
"I don't think that the way that the agency looks at things will change overnight," Cramer said. "But we can take some practical steps from today's meeting."
Niland suggested some of those practical steps at the end of the gathering. He would continue a temporary moratorium on new demolition permits in the neighborhood, he said, and work with Cramer to "get the MCDA working using some of the tools [real estate] agents use across town, lock boxes for instance." The city, Niland promised, would also look into revising rehab standards and explore options to sell dollar houses.
Like Cramer, Niland said he expected the MCDA to undergo a fundamental transformation--though, he cautioned, maybe not right away. "I liken it to turning around an oil tanker," he said. "It takes some miles and it takes some time."
Katrina Harrison wasn't at the city hall meeting. But she heard about it, and the Preservation Alliance's recognition for East Phillips, through the neighborhood grapevine, and the news rekindled her hope for the little house next door. She'd pretty much given up, she says, after seeing Vanessa Stephens's efforts fail. She knew that the neighborhood group had approved another demolition permit, and that the bulldozers could show up any day. But as the lawn at 1816 turned green, she resolved to try one more time.
On June 15 Harrison, Stephens, various neighbors, and a phalanx of fresh-faced volunteers from the community group ACORN staged a protest in front of the MCDA's downtown headquarters. After a few chants of "Save our homes!" director-designate Cramer came out and promised to meet with the protesters the following afternoon.
Anderson slept well that night. As she was sipping her coffee the next morning, though, she heard "a beep-beep-beep. I looked out the window, and there was the bulldozer." She raced out and begged the demolition crew to wait. As luck would have it, the workers said they had another job nearby. They'd tackle it first, they promised, and return the next Monday.
The meeting Cramer had promised was held at the Project for Pride in Living headquarters on Chicago Avenue, in a small conference room around a big table. Harrison told her story; then Sue Anderson spoke up. Very little progress had been made, she said, since Cramer's talk of a "paradigm shift" nearly a month before. Realtor Dean Eichaker had compiled a list of 20 agents from Coldwell alone who wanted to sell MCDA houses. "But he has not received any marketing sheets, he has no information about lock boxes, and it took three weeks for the MCDA to come up with a list of the houses that they own in the Phillips neighborhood."
Cramer said he was "disappointed" to hear that. But, he added, the agenda today was not to rehash the earlier discussion, only to talk about 1816 15th Ave. S.
At that, Bob Roscoe weighed in from across the table. "It seems as though something could be done here," he said. "For death-row prisoners, all it takes is one phone call from the governor." But MCDA policy, Cramer replied, allowed no last-minute pardons. "This has gone through a process, as flawed as you think it is," he explained. "What's helpful about this [meeting] is learning what we can do better."
What the residents didn't know was that even before they sat down at the table, Edie Oates had begun making phone calls to seal the fate of 1816. She'd called Niland to discuss the dispatching of officers from the Minneapolis Police Department's C.C.P./SAFE unit. She'd phoned her MCDA co-worker, engineering inspector Mike Williams, to arrange for a demolition crew the next morning.
"It was a political deal," Williams says. "I was instructed to tear it down with the least political opposition. Edie called and said we need to get this one down. So--it cost us some money to do this--but I pulled this crew off another job and brought them up here."
Oates says she took action because the controversy had gone on too long. "There comes a time when there's got to be a line in the sand," she explains. "Otherwise the MCDA becomes part of the problem, the owner of vacant, boarded, and condemned houses that are causing problems in the neighborhood."
"You know," she continues with a hint of frustration, "the only houses you ever hear about are the ones where we throw up our hands and say we need to demolish. I do think that it's unfortunate that this house wasn't savable. But I would be a liar if I didn't say that a part of me is relieved, thinking, 'Good, we don't have to fight about this anymore.'"
She pauses, her eyes fixed on the ground. "I am sad to see it go down," she finally says. "But not every old house is worth saving. Some old houses are just that--old houses."
It's almost noon on the 1800 block of 15th Avenue South. The crew is working on the back end of the lot while the excavator levels what remains of the brick façade. The pile of rubble under the Deere's tracks is now nearly six feet high.
But the neighbors seem reluctant to leave. They've fallen quiet, wandering around aimlessly, occasionally picking up chunks of debris. Katrina Harrison fingers a brick and idly brushes off a cobweb. "Fifteenth Avenue was once quite glamorous," she says moodily. "It had a trolley line that neighbors could look down all the way into downtown."
She walks over to her own house, built in the 1980s by an MCDA-contracted nonprofit developer. "I'm happy to have my home," she says. "But the woodwork is put together with staples. It's popping out.
"My mom bought an old Victorian two doors down. It was a house that Edie felt should come down. But HUD got it--gave it an asking price of $12,000 and 47 people signed in to see it. At the time Edie said, 'Oh, HUD would sell an outhouse.' But it's beautiful. My house can never compare."
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."
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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