The "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul have a reputation as extremely progressive cities - Democratic politics; redistributive tax policies; bike lanes and re-zoning initiatives. It's also an uncommonly beautiful metro area, with many lakes and parks, a pedestrian-friendly downtown and an undeveloped river corridor which courses between the two cities. If you visit in the summer, you might even be forgiven for thinking the weather is perfect, too.
The eruption of unrest following George Floyd's murder in June 2020, however, laid bare the reality that the progressivism celebrated by so many has failed to materially uplift minority households at the same rate as their white counterparts. In fact, the Twin Cities has the highest discrepancy between whites and POC of any of the top 25 metro areas in the USA by population in poverty rates, home ownership, employment, and level of education. According to the Washington Post, black households earn less than half the income of white households, and redistributive tax policies and spending have not changed the reality of physical segregation and racial architecture which continues to hem minorities into clearly defined areas within the city. A series of high-profile police shootings and videotaped killings of unarmed black men only served to reinforce the notion that the city works only for the wealthy white population.
The divisions between whites and non-whites in Minneapolis can be traced, as in many American cities, to decades of racially exclusive urban policies. One way in which racism was codified was through racially exclusive housing covenants. These contracts, in place in much of America, explicitly forbade non-whites from living in certain areas of the city and accelerated a process of containment that de facto institutionalized racial divisions and prevented the building of wealth in non-white neighborhoods for decades.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota digitized these covenants in a project called Mapping Prejudice. This celebrated project visualizes the way in which non-white populations were squeezed into just a few locations in northwest and south Minneapolis, effectively making it impossible to buy or even rent land in the suburbs for non-whites. This was a version of segregation just as racist, and just as effective, as overt Jim Crow legislation or other more explicit forms of separation in other parts of the country.
Coupled with the restrictive lending practices enshrined in the FHA redlining maps from the 1930s, racial covenants set the stage for the gradual depression and lack of investment which characterized historically non-white neighborhoods, including Near North, Frogtown, and Powderhorn. This history has been denied and willfully forgotten for decades, and through the activism of dedicated researchers, students, NGOs and individuals is now being brought to light in a widespread fashion with the use of digital tools.
In July 2020, dozens of boarded-up shops and burnt husks of buildings tell a history of the recent unrest on Lake St. Hundreds of tents dot city parks in the wake of an emergency decree stating that overnight camping was acceptable (since rescinded). Just blocks away, masked market-goers eat Moroccan food at the bougie Midtown Market, and cyclists whizz along the midtown greenway bike path. Several blocks west of George Floyd's memorial (a four-block section cordoned off to traffic and a police "no-go" zone), paddleboarders jockey for position with kayakers on the waters of Bde Maka Ska, one of the "chain of lakes" near downtown famous for its public beaches and nearby boutique ice cream parlors. The divisions are real in the city, and attempts to placate critics of city policy (by, for example, "defunding" the police) are more complicated and drawn out than some had expected.
The sad reality is that nothing about Minneapolis is unique. Racism is endemic, systemic, and baked into the very concrete upon which American cities are built on. Bringing to light the designed architecture of exclusion in cities is a first step towards justice and promoting harmonious urban practices in the future.
Unequal Scenes supports Black Lives Matter, the fight for justice for the killing by police of unarmed men and women, redistribution of wealth due to historic disenfranchisement, and above all else a heightened recognition of the reality of the ground truth as seen from above.