While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.
In a yearlong series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.
Mike Christenson was in his element sitting amid the lunchtime rush at Midtown Global Market, eating Somali-style sambusas and bantering with shop owners who stopped at his table.
Without Christenson’s leadership none of this would be here, said Manny Gonzalez with a sweeping gesture that took in a veritable United Nations of shops peddling Hmong and Tibetan handicrafts, Middle Eastern groceries, East African rugs and an abundance of Mexican foods.
“Mike has been a tremendous help for this community,” said Gonzalez, co-owner of Manny’s Tortas.
Now, as Christenson prepares to leave his post as director of community planning and economic development for Minneapolis, it is worth revisiting the reasons he’s come to hold such respect.
Turning around ‘Murderapolis’
The neighborhood surrounding this vibrant new market was so dangerous back in the 1990s that it was a key reason Minneapolis came to be called “Murderapolis.”
With the stakes enormously high for the city, Christenson worked at the center of an ambitious bid to salvage this Phillips Neighborhood, reclaiming it leader by leader, house by house and job by job.
“Mike is one of my heroes in this because he understood early on what it meant to engage a community that is in trouble — how to engage the leaders within the community to address its needs,” said Gordon Sprenger, retired top executive of one of the neighborhood’s largest employers, Allina Hospitals & Clinics and Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
Results? The neighborhood’s crime rate dropped 62 percent between 1998 and 2009, according to Minneapolis Police records. Far fewer homes stand vacant. And property values — commercial and residential alike — have risen far faster than in the rest of Minneapolis.
Smart strategies — and passion
Mayor R.T. Rybak said that Christenson’s contribution to that turnaround came partly from smart strategies and partly from passion.
“Mike is extremely bright and has tons of good ideas and is very analytical,” Rybak said. “But the most important part of Mike is that he has a huge heart, and he uses it to often try to get those around him to go the extra mile. … He has been tough when he had to be. But you always knew that at his core he is really into making things better for people, especially those in need.”
The story of the Phillips turnaround also is the story of how Christenson honed leadership skills and instincts that eventually focused on other Minneapolis trouble spots.
“I see that as a formative experience for Mike,” said Steve Cramer, president and executive director of Project for Pride in Living. “I know he draws on those experiences in terms of his leadership.”
Christenson agreed that the initiative, which came to be known as the Phillips Partnership, shaped his thinking for years to come. When it started back in 1997, he was directing the Allina Health Systems Foundation and working with Sprenger to stabilize the increasingly violent neighborhood.
Fearful hospital employees and patients
Nurses and doctors — to say nothing of patients from around the state — feared crossing the urban equivalent of a war zone to get to the Abbott Northwestern complex.
And so, Sprenger faced crucial decisions about the future of the complex in that location. Plans called for a new heart facility as part of the Abbott Northwestern campus. But would cardiologists be willing to work there?
Clearly crime had to be curbed.
At one point, Christenson recalled, Sprenger turned to him and said, tongue in cheek “I’ll take the heart hospital. You deal with murder.”
Seriously, Sprenger said in a recent interview, “we knew that I could not convince my board or even get the financing that we would need for the heart facility … if we did not deal with making it a more livable community.”
Livable meant more than cutting the murder rate.
“It meant dealing with the absentee landlords,” Sprenger said. “With people not only having a place to live that they could afford but also finding jobs and providing for their families.”
Christenson’s had “not a clue” at that time how to curb crime, he said.
One day he walked over to visit his counterparts at a foundation affiliated with Honeywell Inc., which had nearby headquarters at the time.
The conversation Christenson recalls went like this:
Christenson: “Are you doing grants now in South Minneapolis?”
Honeywell folks: “Yes, we are pumping $7 million a year into South Minneapolis.”
Christenson: “Are you satisfied with the results?”
Honeywell: “Are you crazy? Of course not. Things seem to be getting worse, not better.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
Work on the housing front
Neighborhood organizations were working feverishly to clean up the community.
Allina had offered employees forgivable loans with low down payments if they would buy houses in the neighborhood as a counterforce to the boarded up buildings and absentee landlords.
Honeywell had worked with neighborhood groups to develop dozens of new affordable homes.
“We were doing one little piece,” Sprenger said. “Then Honeywell was doing its piece on over on Portland Avenue. And the city had the police cars running up and down the street.”
Gathering CEOs and public officials
Christenson concluded that urgency of the problem called for group action by leaders who could make things happen — including the top executives of Honeywell, Wells Fargo, Allina, Hennepin County and the city.
“That was a beginning premise,” Sprenger said. “It was Mike who really drove that. He said, ‘We have all been doing our separate things, and the only way this is going to change is if the CEOs of all of these entities come together and really make the commitment.’ “
They held a pivotal meeting in the office of then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.
“Michael Bonsignore, the Honeywell CEO, came in a very fancy suit — he was chauffeured in, and I wasn’t used to that,” Christenson recalled. “As we were presenting the problems of Phillips neighborhood and the arguments for forming a partnership, he was looking down and working on something.”
Christenson feared that the Honeywell CEO wasn’t paying attention, that he wasn’t interested in pledging the commitment that would be crucial from an employer as big as Honeywell.
But near the end of the meeting, Bonsignore presented an image he had been charting. It was in the model of an archery target.
“Crime was in the middle and then jobs, housing and infrastructure were in the consecutive rings expanding out from the middle,” Christenson said.
Let’s start in the middle, Bonsignore said, challenging the group to tackle the crime problem. He also urged the other leaders to meet quarterly and assess progress.
It was far easier to make crime the bull’s-eye on a paper target than it was to shut down the crack houses, stem the bloodshed and round up the robbers.
Christenson realized that projects under way at his Allina foundation were largely irrelevant to that challenge. One project aimed to immunize all of the students at Andersen school near Abbott Northwestern.
“That was not going to address the homicide issue,” he said. “It wouldn’t have addressed the homicide issue if we’d done the immunization perfectly for 20 years. … We needed a big intervention, and I needed to try to organize that or help in some way.”
What Christenson needed to do was to make the Phillips Partnership a true partnership, to build coalitions between the neighborhood and the executive group.
“He was connected within the community, and he had this intuitive sense as to who needed to be at the table,” Sprenger said. “We couldn’t just say we are coming in on a white horse and we are going to save the community. We needed the right people to be able to talk to and to get their input and ideas.”
Police and much more
Police, of course, were one major factor — not through crime sweeps alone but through a sustained tough-but-positive presence in the neighborhood, weeding out the worst of the criminals while also making residents feel more secure. Police met monthly with neighborhood groups to address problems and compare notes on safety issues.
Further, leaders began to understand how the concentric rings on Bonsignore’s target model could work together to address crime.
Police Chief Tim Dolan and Christenson argue to this day over who came up with their guiding slogan: “Economic development deters crime, and crime deters economic development.”
Dolan insists it came from Christenson.
“Make sure he gets credit for it,” the police chief said.
They worked with various groups to shore up Native American enterprises along Franklin Avenue and immigrant-owned businesses on Lake Street.
‘This became a destination’
“We love immigrants,” Christenson said. “One of the great big factors of Lake Street’s turnaround was a 900 percent increase in Latino populations over the past 10 years. This became a destination.”
In 1999, Latin American entrepreneurs banded together to open the Mercado Central market on Lake Street. Then Plaza Verde filled a vacant building with shops and a theater. Finally the Midtown Global Market opened in the former Sears Building.
Beyond businesses, the partners came to appreciate the sense of responsibility that comes with a new house and a clean neighborhood.
“You behave a little differently if you are in a place that is well kept,” said Cramer, whose organization, PPL, became part of the solution with its emphasis on housing stability and employment for low-income families.
Allina launched a neighborhood job-training program that all but guaranteed its graduates would get jobs in the medical complex. Various groups set to work tearing down crack houses, sprucing up owner-occupied homes and reclaiming slum apartments. Hennepin County and neighborhood groups worked with the city to extend the Midtown Greenway, a popular bicycle route.
‘We can change anything’
In 2003, the city hired Christenson as its economic development director. And in 2007, he took the helm of the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development. Over lunch at the Global Market, I asked Christenson what lessons he carried from the Phillips initiative to those city jobs.
“I learned what I didn’t know,” he started.
In other words, approach problems with humility. Listen. Learn. Engage others. Build coalitions.
Another lesson, he said, was the importance of public and private sectors pulling together.
“You take any single problem in Minneapolis, and if there’s a solution it’s because all of the sectors agree to address it,” he said. “They set a simple, measurable goal. They measure progress against strategies, and they work together often on those strategies.”
It also guided the city’s response to the collapse of the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in 2007 and the tornado that struck the North Side this year.
“All of them have a similar thread, which is using governmental action well for the purpose of raising up challenged neighborhoods and individuals,” he said. “When we set a simple goal as a community and get the delivery system right, we can change anything.”
In the genes — or the family culture
Christenson claims that he inherited his passion for public service.
His father, Gerald Christenson, was “one of Minnesota’s most influential public policy makers in the past half century,” said an obituary in the Pioneer Press.
Gerald Christenson was a social-studies teacher who rose to serve as state finance commissioner, chancellor of the state’s community college system and an architect of the so-called “Minnesota Miracle” in school financing. His wife, Pearl Christenson, directed choirs at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Brighton.
“So we grew up in a family where service was expected,” said Mike Christenson, who had five siblings.
The family’s four-bedroom house in New Brighton was “one of those households where you never knew who was going to be at the breakfast table,” he said.
“Friends would be over, and people who were alone or had just lost loved ones would be staying with us,” he said. “There was a sense that the house was open to everyone.”
Keeping the passion alive
One of the most dramatic expressions of the family passion for civic duty came when his father was dying from cancer in 2005.
In his last month, Gerald Christenson summoned DFL luminaries to his living room: former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Minnesota Attorney General Warren Spannaus, former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer and others.
The father’s legacy would be an inspired seminar on the virtues of public service.
“I have 54 cousins on one side of my family, and many of them flew in from Maryland and California and Washington, from all over,” Mike Christenson said.
“There must have been 30 young people in the room learning what it meant to be a citizen and a Democrat,” he said. “Walter Mondale stayed four hours. … My dad, literally to the end, never gave up on the notion that you should teach young people how to be citizens.”
One bid for elective office
Meanwhile, Christenson had graduated from St. Olaf College and earned a law degree at the University of Minnesota. At age 27, he ran for the Minnesota Senate, but lost the DFL endorsement to John Marty, who won the seat and still holds it.
“I’ve really enjoyed public service, but running for office is a hard job,” Christenson said. “I wasn’t as good as I thought I would be. I really love people, but I didn’t enjoy selling myself as much as I thought I would.”
Now 53, Christenson hasn’t run for office since.
That is not to say he has dodged the conflicts inherent in political life.
As chief administrator for Metro Transit in the mid-1990s, Christenson increased bus ridership and devised a system for buses to bypass traffic jams, but he ran into opposition from Republicans who tried to oust him. At the Allina Foundation, he was drawn into tumult when then Attorney General Mike Hatch launched a very public investigation into the larger Allina system’s business dealings.
Christenson also served as president of the Citizens League.
New challenge: North Side
Now his trademark image — bow tie topped by a boyish grin — has become a fixture at City Hall.
If you had a city map in front of you, I asked Mayor Rybak, and you could point to one spot where Christenson has made the greatest difference, where you point?
Without hesitation, Rybak said, “North Minneapolis.”
Christenson was determined to “do in North Minneapolis what we did in South Minneapolis,” the mayor said.
The focus this time would be on jobs.
The city was running ambitious job-training programs, but Rybak’s priority had been housing.
“When I ran for office, the biggest way I was going to close the gap between haves and have nots in our city was to focus on affordable housing,” Rybak said. “He convinced me that we had to do much more for getting chronically unemployed people back to work.”
A goal for North Side jobs
They set a goal that officials in other inner cities might have considered crazy: Close the unemployment gap between Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs.
At the time, the city’s unemployment rate stood roughly 1 percent higher than in the suburbs. The key to closing that gap would be the North Side, because that’s where unemployment was highest.
“Through really tough budgets, he convinced me to put more money into the job-training programs,” Rybak said. “We wound up getting literally thousands of people trained and into jobs.”
The gap was gone. Then the Great Recession hit in late 2008.
“We took a setback with the recession, which always hits those most in need the worst,” Rybak said. “But we certainly don’t have the gaps we had before. And that’s Mike’s work.”
Coalitions and partners
In keeping with South Side experience, the effort also involved building coalitions and finding private partners to fund projects like career centers, summer jobs programs and housing projects.
It also involved boosting business along key corridors like Broadway, Lyndale and Lowry Avenues, said Dolan, the police chief.
“It’s not just Mike, but Mike & Company,” Dolan said. “Mike is the kind of person who has tasked himself to being the web, to holding all of the others together and keeping them going. He’s had help.”
Yes, but what makes for an effective web?
Christenson is very personable, Dolan said. He goes to scores of community meetings. He cultivates allies.
“He’s out there,” Dolan said. “He always has to be out on the street. … He’s a good partner who brings things to the table but also tries to keep others motivated. It’s not easy because these are long-term challenges.”
Despite the accomplishments, Christenson is leaving the city with regrets.
“I have made some mistakes,” he said. “And you always leave a job with regret over what you couldn’t get done.”
His wishes that the city had “done a better job on transit-oriented development” along the Hiawatha Light Rail and that bus rapid transit was fully operating along I-35W.
And he isn’t satisfied with progress on the North Side: “We could have promoted hiring more. There are thousands of jobs on the North Side, and that’s not well known.”
As for the Phillips Neighborhood, he said that a stubborn gap persists between the skills of the residents and the high-paying jobs offered by employers like Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
“Most of these jobs appear inaccessible for the people who live here,” he said. “So that’s why I am moving on to the education field. The problem is not with employers being unwilling to hire, but that education levels aren’t where they need to be to get into the highly credentialed workforce.”
Christenson plans to go to work for the Minnesota Business Partnership on education initiatives.
“The next frontier is really about educating the next generation of city residents so that everybody shares equally in the opportunities that exist in Minneapolis,” he said.