North Minneapolis is the area of my city that often gets pegged as an African American neighborhood by outsiders, but it wasn’t always that way. A few years ago, I learned about the diversity of immigrants who lived on the Northside in previous decades but I also learned that many of them have since relocated. This week I dove into a couple local resources to find out more about the different Northside communities and how they interacted with one another historically.
Many minority communities took root on the Northside because it was one of the few areas that would rent to them when more blatant discrimination abounded in housing practices. Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe moved into the Northside during a general period of immigration—the early 1900s. They built a Hebrew school in 1910— Talmud Torah—which is still well known today. At that time, it offered social services in addition to education at a nearby community center. Jewish businesses also cropped up in the area. Meanwhile, African Americans made their homes throughout North Minneapolis before this time, but they appeared in larger numbers after World War II. (A wave of Asian immigrants joined the Northside community later still—during the 1970s.)
Both Jews and African Americans provided a significant portion of residents in a North Minneapolis public housing project, Sumner Field Homes, which was built during the New Deal. These projects were racially segregated, but interviews with past residents in a PBS documentary suggest that children from different backgrounds played together and other mingling occurred. Plymouth Avenue, a central corridor on the Northside, was a location of interaction as Jews and African Americans frequented each other’s businesses along this street.
Nonetheless, it seems that the divide between different ethnic and religious communities made its mark on the Northside. For instance, African Americans and Jews each had their own cultural and social organizations based in the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House and the Emmanuel Cohen Center, respectively. Both of these organizations are important elements of Minnesota history—the former hailed as the “center of the black renaissance in Minnesota” and the latter later becoming the prominent “Jewish Community Center” located in St. Louis Park, Minnesota (Cornerstones film).
During the 1940s and 50s, the divide was made more permanent. Hundreds of North Minneapolis Jews chose St. Louis Park as their new home, partaking in the general migration “out of the urban core” (Cornerstones film). Many of them had ascended in class and wealth since they or their parents immigrated to America, and this allowed them more control over their housing along with more opportunity to be treated fairly in the housing market. Especially after the “long hot summers” at the end of the Civil Rights Era, many Jews saw the escalating tension and resulting riots on Plymouth Avenue as their cue to exit.
Today, North Minneapolis is much more homogenously African American. Synagogues that were left behind by the Jewish community have been repurposed as African American churches. Additionally, as with many minority neighborhoods, the Northside faces a lack of resources, prejudice from the surrounding city, and an isolation that was furthered by the additions of highways through and around the area. In 2011, North Minneapolis suffered a devastating tornado that damaged 3,700 homes, some of which have still not been fully repaired (source).
Though many Minnesotans continue to perceive North Minneapolis as only black, the Northside still houses pockets of diverse residents—some of whom claim roots in the area for over a century. Today, a small percentage of Jews remain. The history of the neighborhood illustrates multiple minority communities living side by side. Both felt the threat of oppression from outsiders and they reacted by anchoring or relocating themselves when opportunities presented themselves. To me, this brief history of the Northside shows communities who held onto their distinct cultural identities while at the same time coexisting peacefully for several decades when no other area of the city would accept them.
Rhoda Lewin, Jewish Community of North Minneapolis, (Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2001)
Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis created by the University of Minnesota Urban Outreach-Engagement Center and Twin Cities Public Television
Phyllis Wheatley Community Center website
Photos from: The Grossman Project