Building a community

University neighborhoods provide housing for people of varying needs

Kathryn Nelson

The skeletons of children’s bicycles lay in heaps on a grassless patch of land surrounded by miles of concrete. Pigeons fly in migrant groups toward the aroma of East African spices wafting from the screen door of a balcony.

Riverside Plaza, which opened in 1973, was meant to be an integrated and self-sustained community that catered to every economic, social and cultural background. Thirty-three years later, the community is an epicenter for recent immigrants who are making a new life in Minneapolis.

Starting in 2007, the Bunge Tower in Southeast Como will be transformed into a multi-use housing complex intended to resemble the original Riverside Plaza concept. Abandoned in 2003, the Bunge Tower has lent itself to graffiti and trespassing, but will soon offer stable housing to those in need.

Riverside Plaza

Marked by faded patches of orange, red, yellow and blue, Riverside Plaza was once thought of as a model for future urban neighborhoods. But years have taken their toll on the city within a city.

Still, there’s a vibrant community beneath its dated exterior.

Cedar Square West, now known as Riverside Plaza, was one of five projects planned for 340 acres on Minneapolis’ West Bank and designed by Ralph Rapson and Associates.

The goal was to design a community that integrated economic, social and cultural groups into one vivacious neighborhood, said Rapson, a retired University architecture professor.

The housing complexes were separated into high income, middle income and subsidized apartment units. The original plan incorporated retail and commercial stores, a school, daycare, community center, hotel and performing arts area into one self-sustained environment.

Rapson said he also intended to provide safe urban housing near the University and downtown Minneapolis.

Due to money issues, Riverside Plaza was the only housing complex built, yet “it has been completely occupied since day one,” Rapson said.

Once meant to be a mixed-income complex, the building owners have chosen to provide more subsidized housing than originally conceived, Rapson said.

Creating a diverse community was always the plan, he said. “They’ve served their purpose very well.”

Prejudice and misconceptions

On a brisk fall afternoon, Fredda Scooby, the director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association, walked between towering high rises, occasionally shifting her weight to keep pressure off her sore knees.

“It’s the perfect place to start your life in America,” Scooby said, while standing outside the K-8 school nestled deep inside the Plaza.

Scooby, who has worked at the tenants association for more than three years, said there is a constant waiting list for apartments at Riverside Plaza.

“It’s very, very popular,” she said.

Cedar-Riverside has always been a haven for immigrants, from the Swedish and Germans in the early 1900s, to the East Africans and Vietnamese who populate the area today.

Scooby said there is a great deal of prejudice toward Riverside Plaza, which is sometimes referred to as the “Crack Stacks” or “Ghetto in the Sky.”

“Let me assure you,” she said, “that our mostly Muslim population don’t even drink.”

Scooby said there is a strong misconception of crime in the area.

Although the Plaza was meant to be a self-sustaining community, the area lacks a library and post office.

“I think the city has so neglected this area,” Scooby said.

Marcia Keegan has worked at Global Village in Cedar-Riverside for 30 years. During that time, she said, she has witnessed changes in the neighborhood’s atmosphere.

“We used to be more peaceful,” she said. “It’s very frightening on both sides.”

Keegan said she is aware there are gangs and muggings in her neighborhood, which may be fueled by ethnic clashes between different African-immigrant groups living in the area.

“There’s such a large population in such a small area,” she said.

Keegan said adding more Somali police officers and translators could help the situation.

As they weaved between jungle gym obstacles, sisters Salmo and Yasimine Barre said they enjoy living in Riverside Plaza.

The preteen girls said their parents chose to move to the United States to escape the violence in their home country of Somalia.

“We were going to be born there,” Salmo said, “but there was a war.”

The sisters said they live at the top of the tallest apartment complex in Riverside Plaza.

“It’s like seeing the whole world,” Yasimin said.

Bunge Grain Tower

The dilapidated Bunge Tower in the Como neighborhood is more than an adventure spot for thrill-seeking students. The tragic death of

University undergraduate Germain Vigeant, who fell 100 feet onto concrete, left the Como community more concerned about the state of the abandoned tower.

Project for Pride in Living teamed up with a local transitional home, Cabrini Partnership, to purchase the grain tower. They plan to convert it into a mixed-income housing complex.

James De Sota, neighborhood coordinator for Como, said there will be a mix of Habitat for Humanity homes, townhouses, apartments and high-end condos.

De Sota, who is admittedly optimistic about the project, said the Como neighborhood is now primarily a rental area, but the redevelopment of the Bunge Tower “will be a good shot in the arm for getting back some of these families.”

Life on the edge

An alcohol and crack addiction caused Harry Eggan to lose his house and his job, forcing him to the streets at an age when he should have been prepared to retire.

Sitting bright-eyed Tuesday, Eggan said he has been sober for 41 months, the longest stretch he can remember.

He credits his success to the Cabrini Partnership, a group home in Dinkytown, where he lived for 20 months.

Eggan said he now lives in a separate permanent housing complex in Minneapolis, and he has begun his life again.

“Lord knows where I’d be (without it),” he said.

Children scuttled around the living room of the Cabrini house excitedly waiting for their Thanksgiving feast to begin.

The home accommodates twenty-three residents who have been homeless and struggled with substance-abuse issues.

Residents are welcome to stay at the home for up to two years, said Mary Morris, Cabrini Partnership executive director.

“They’re here because they want to see their lives go in a different direction,” she said.

The partnership may help residents find permanent housing, where they still receive ongoing support, but are able to live more independently, Morris said.

In collaboration with Project for Pride in Living, the partnership will expand its permanent housing options. Ten percent of the remodeled Bunge Tower will be allotted to the Cabrini Partnership, Morris said.

“The (Como) neighborhood really wanted to see homeownership,” she said. “It seems like a very win-win situation.”

Lessons learned

The Riverside Plaza integrated living theory has been controversial since its beginning, yet the idea of mixing diverse income brackets into one neighborhood continued to endure.

Morris said she believes in the success of the Bunge development as something both the community and residents will benefit from.

“Thirty-five years have gone by (since Riverside Plaza was built),” she said. “A lot has been learned in that length of time.”

Both the Cabrini and Riverside Plaza directors said providing a home for all income situations is

important to ending homelessness and

destitution.

“These are real people,” Scooby said, “and they’re good people.”