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Community development is about creating places where people can live, work, and thrive. It’s about building safe and affordable housing, using art and culture to bring people together, and making sure people have access to economic opportunities that contribute to a better tomorrow. Transforming our neighborhoods block by block takes risk and a willingness to try something new.
As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, Twin Cities LISC brought more than 200 community leaders together this September to do just that. For a morning, people from across the region shared ideas and learned from one another in order to push the edge of what’s possible in our neighborhoods, cities and communities.
Andriana Abariotes, the executive director at Twin Cities LISC, sat down with three Midwest leaders:
Dr. Craig L Wilkins: an architect, author, critic, and winner of a 2017 National Design Award, who also serves as a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
DeAnna Cummings: the CEO and co-founder of Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), a cultural development center and teen staffed design firm in North Minneapolis.
Ravi Norman: the CEO of THOR companies, a real estate and construction partner for clients seeking innovative and sustainable solutions in the built environment — to dig into the opportunities those in the community development field face next.
Twin Cities LISC is committed to working alongside local communities to honor their history in a place they love.
How do you transform disinvested communities into dynamic places? How do you activate abandoned buildings and unused resources into assets for the community? In Detroit, people have taken the answers to these questions into their own hands. For the longest time, Detroit didn’t have money to invest in the city’s neighborhoods. The community development corporations (CDCs) and nonprofit community realized if they wanted to see change, they would have to do it themselves.
“Over the years, neighbors and organizations have taken it upon themselves to own the lot or two next to them,” says Dr. Wilkins, who moved from Minneapolis to Detroit in 2005.
People have turned neglected areas like vacant lots and unoccupied buildings into art installations, mini parks, and urban farms. “So many people were doing this that the city began to formalize it,” says Dr. Wilkins. People can now buy adjacent lots for a dollar if they promise to care for them, or get a permit from the city to rent land temporarily in an area they don’t live. “All of that came from people just deciding ‘I’m tired of this. I’m going to take ownership.’”
The community development field is often asking self-reflective questions like, “What should we be doing better?” That’s not the right question to ask, argues Dr. Wilkins. Instead, he believes the more useful question is: “How do we get people to leverage us?” In other words, community development is doing great work, how does the field bring other people into the fold and help them understand its’ value?
Like the people of Detroit, JXTA is taking a similar approach to vacant spaces in North Minneapolis. On the corner of Emerson and West Broadway, JXTA recently demolished two buildings to make room for a new facility they will build over the next several years. However the organization didn’t want to leave the space empty while it raised money for construction. “We recognized we couldn’t leave a lot on a major commercial intersection sodded over with a chain link fence,” says DeAnna. “That would be a huge disrespect to our community.” So JXTA had youth employees from its environmental design studio collaborate with public artists, city workers, business coalitions, and other partners to design and build a temporary park. “We’re big believers in pockets parks,” says DeAnna.
“We’ve created a public space where our neighbors can gather and come together to be in dialogue.”
Not only is the park a place for play, but JXTA has also turned it into a sounding board where community members can engage with the organization about what the future of the corner will look like. As a result of that work, JXTA is working with the Lake Street Council, the mayor’s office, and the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition to create a more formal vacant lot activation program that leverages arts and culture.
To improve life on the Northside, JXTA likes to make sure the people who are directly impacted by decisions get to have a say in them. “We serve as translators,” says DeAnna. Though the people who do that job best aren’t always the most experienced. “The young people in our program do a much better job at engaging our neighborhood than traditional evaluators and researchers with clipboards, and all of us who hold five o’clock cheese and cracker meetings [where we] show our displays and ask people to vote,” says DeAnna. “We utilize the genius young people bring to the work in service of bigger and broader communities.”
No one washes a rental car. In other words, ownership matters. The CEO of THOR Companies is in the middle of mapping out a leadership vision. “I don’t want to own it by myself,” says Ravi. “I’m not interested in a hierarchical model. I want something that is transformational and creates sustainable returns for the entire community.”
Creating sustainable organizations means redefining how businesses and foundations think about partnerships.
THOR Companies recently opened a new headquarters in North Minneapolis, creating the Regional Acceleration Center. In September, Ravi was working at the office when he saw the conference room filled with people. Some he knew, others he didn’t. When he popped in to see what was going on, he realized it was a meeting with members from several local gangs in town. “They were talking about trauma, but they were also saying, ‘We have dreams, too.’ They didn’t just want to be categorized as the criminals inside their communities that someone had to come save,” says Ravi. As he continued to sit in on the conversation, Ravi learned members of the gangs had done their own research and found they could bring $40 million to the table.This idea unlocked a slew of questions for Ravi: What could public private partnerships for businesses look like in the future? Who do we actually think of when we say donors? How do we unlock opportunities we never expected?
With the advent of technology, there is a huge opportunity to scale and democratize information related to urban and community planning. That data would not only help people understand the baseline of the field, but also allow more people to define what success should look like and evaluate the intended impacts and benefits of a proposed project or plan.
When you’re working to transform neighborhoods, big ideas are important. Really important. Block X Block invested in spotlighting some of the most relevant and forward-pushing ideas that are creating the best places to live in the Twin Cities. And over the next four years we’ll keep that Block X Block spotlight burning bright. There are incredible projects of innovation, risk, and creativity that are reshaping how our communities grow, and we’re giddy to share these stories with you. But more importantly, we want to continue to hear from you. What ideas do you see creating equitable ways to invest in the people, places, and projects that strengthen Twin Cities communities?
As we move into our next 30 years, we’re committed to getting behind these big ideas and doubling our investment in the people, places, and projects that help Twin Cities residents thrive in the places they love.