Northrup King Building property manager Debbie Woodward first noticed the anxiety among artists when the building was being remodeled to add more rooms for people to rent.
More space in the building, some artists worried, would attract more people with money — putting at risk the look and feel of the DIY neighborhood in northeast Minneapolis that for years served as the only affordable option for artists in the area. “We’re done. It’s over — gentrification,” Woodward recalled tenants saying.
That was in 1998.
Flash forward two decades. Minneapolis is in the midst of a construction boom that has seen building permits exceed $1 billion this year alone, and concerns over Northeast’s changing landscape have become even more pervasive. Researchers, community leaders and even elected officials at City Hall are paying attention.
|Median home value||Median rent||Median household income||Residents w/ Bachelors degrees||POCI Residents||Renters||Residents in poverty|
|St. Anthony West||39.49||15.47||20.78||22.02||1.59||-0.63||-12.6|
|St. Anthony East||44.22||26.77||-27.5||9.82||18.76||7.77||8.12|
The struggle for some to deal with Minneapolis’ rising rents and property taxes is not isolated to Northeast. But it’s an issue that especially affects the creative community. In a study of gentrification across Minneapolis, a team of University of Minnesota researchers found Northeast’s economic and demographic shifts since 2000 have created a unique market of winners and losers.
New developers are investing in the neighborhood, seeing the climate now as sufficiently desirable, resulting in higher property values, taxes and other living costs that are good for some businesses and homeowners — and bad for others, especially low- to middle-wage renters and workers. And some artists and residents are now wondering how much longer they can call the area home.
“It’s a common, rolling theme — whether or not the artists are getting kicked out,” said Woodward, whose Northrup King Building is home to studio and office space for more than 200 tenants. “There’s clearly a lot of development pressure.”
The next cheapest place
Before the 1980s, Minneapolis’ art scene thrived in vacant industrial buildings just across the Mississippi river from Northeast, in the part of downtown now known as the North Loop. Attracted to area buildings’ lack of regulations and cheap rent, artists paid as much as $70, or as little as nothing, for space in the neighborhood.
But the city’s economic recovery in the ’80s brought new construction to the North Loop and more attention to the area. Rents soared.
So the artists flocked to the next affordable place: Northeast.
The newcomers mixed with the area’s existing residents — immigrants from Eastern Europe, who had once moved to the neighborhood because of nearby factory jobs — and built workspaces in the area’s deserted industrial buildings. The artists were joined by business owners who had come to Minnesota from around the globe — from Mexico and Laos and Somalia — for the same reason others picked the area: it was affordable. It was a demographic shift that would come to define the tight-knit neighborhood’s next chapter.
But not everyone found space in the shift. “When the artists came to Northeast, they certainly had to displace someone,” said Brittany Lewis, who did the study on gentrification by the University of Minnesota. “It’s this cyclical pushing and shuffling of low-income communities” to left-behind places.
More beer, more problems?
Even as Northeast’s popularity among artists for affordability grew, the industry remained relatively underground. It wasn’t until 1996 when a group of about a dozen artists came up with the idea of opening their studios to the public in an effort to sell a few high-end pieces for extra money. They called it “Art-A-Whirl,” and Northeast hasn’t been the same since.
As Art-a-Whirl gained popularity, attracting more spectators and artists, organizers shifted the annual event from quaint garage spaces to bigger gallery spaces. By then, the founders had also created what’s called the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, which exists today as a nonprofit that organizes events with a board of directors and about 1,000 members.
In 2002, neighborhood and city leaders laid out a plan for dealing with an influx of high-end retail, new residents, more office space and luxury housing, documented it in what’s called the “Arts Action Plan.” In 2003, Minneapolis officials designated a portion of Northeast an official Arts District, a title that comes with certain construction and zoning rules that aim to preserve spaces for the creative community.
Then came the beer.
In 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the “Surly Law,” which allowed breweries and taprooms to sell beer on site for the first time. The change soon initiated a shift in Northeast’s economic base; brewers found a home in the DIY culture and underdeveloped buildings that could house their machinery nicely.
Now, researchers say Northeast has the highest concentration of breweries — from Able Seedhouse + Brewery to Indeed to the recently opened HeadFlyer — in Minnesota. “It seemed overnight that we hit 12 breweries in northeast Minneapolis,” a business owner told Lewis for the University of Minnesota’s study on gentrification.
Over the course of months, the researcher collected stories from people who live or work in Northeast, all of whom talked about the neighborhood’s rising costs and concerns over affordability.
Lewis and co-researcher Ed Goetz, director of the U of M’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, compared those anecdotes with census and housing data and building permits to measure if, or to what extent, Northeast’s population and business changed since 2000. The evidence gave a resounding answer. “No one debunked this economic shift was happening,” Lewis said. “There were differing opinions on whether it is good or bad — or for whom.”
During the interviews, neighborhood residents pointed to Art-a-Whirl as the clearest example of the neighborhood’s shift, how the “commodification of rich artist culture” had come to define it. The annual spring event now includes more than 600 artists and attracts 30,000 people for what the researchers call the country’s biggest open-studio tour: a combination of bands, beer, art and shopping. “Now it’s more like Mardi Gras than any kind of real fine arts event,” one homeowner said in the study.
The transformation has been good for some. Nina Guertin, who makes and teaches ceramics in a home studio, says that Art-a-Whirl’s growth has allowed her to get new customers, and Louisa Podlich, who also runs a ceramics operation, said she has gained stronger name recognition with the event’s increased traffic.
The economic gains go beyond just anecdotal. The Minneapolis Creative Index, which measures the impact of art production and industry, has ranked the Twin Cities and surrounding area as the country’s sixth most creatively vital metro area — meaning creative jobs here play a more significant role in the region’s economy than other places. Northeast is at the core of that grade.
A battle of generations
Lewis, a scholar in urban housing and policy, said this phenomenon unfolding in Northeast extends nationwide: Artists move to an underdeveloped area, make it vibrant and attractive to outsiders and then ultimately can’t afford the new economy —“the success they made possible” — themselves.
In the study, some people said they were making plans to move or have already taken the step as new people move to the neighborhood because of the rising costs. “I’m going to be homeless in a minute if I don’t get out,” Lewis recalled an interviewee saying.
One homeowner put the current scene like this: “A lot of the art buildings are already gone. A lot of the professional artists are gone. … I moved my studio an hour and a half away to rural Wisconsin.”
The interviewees also identified tension between some who have lived or worked in the neighborhood for years — they call themselves “raw” artists who produce very few products annually at high prices — and newcomers who produce mass amounts at lower costs in shorter time. The evolution of digitized industries, including design, architecture and technology firms, is adding a new layer to the neighborhood’s changing landscape. Workers in those fields can often afford higher rents and living costs.
Older artists remember the struggle to make the Arts District what it is, and now some of them feel pushed out, Lewis said. Then, there are new people excited to be a part of the scene. “Generations move in, compared to the other generations, with a different vision. It needs be talked about,” said Josh Blanc, president of Northeast Minneapolis Arts District and one of Art-a-Whirl’s original founders.
He emphasized the importance of thoughtful, new development that considers input from the area’s existing artists. “We all have the same thought: Whenever developers come in, they don’t necessarily know the community extremely well.”
In the search for long-term solutions, Blanc and other community leaders are hoping to measure the extent of the growing pains — again — with a second “Arts Action Plan” to study the demographic shifts at a granular level. They’re currently trying to find the funding to make the assessment happen.
Meanwhile, Lewis hopes city officials use her findings, as well as information about other gentrified neighborhoods citywide, to dedicate more money towards people and programs that help people stay in their homes and workspaces. “We keep getting bogged down by the question of (whether gentrification is) good or bad,” she said. “You can’t just use the word. Gentrification is an end game. When it’s happened it’s too late.”