The Birth of a Gaytion

It’s the first thing you ask about on the road: “Excuse me,” you might inquire, “but where is the Gayborhood?” In just about every town, that question can be met with an exact answer: Greenwich Village in New York, Boystown in Chicago, and Hillcrest in San Diego. Each of these communities conjures images of vibrant nightlife; rainbow-painted byways; and, for me at least, the feeling of home.

(Clockwise from left) Sarah K. Hays, Areba Bennett, and Asher Bennett-Hays, photo by Hubert Bonnet. Michael Pristash (left) and Joel Breeggemann, photo by Hubert Bonnet. Home Tour, July 10. Photos by Duane Atter

The Twin Cities, however, is quite different. In other cities, even the straight community knows where we are. Perhaps it’s as much of a comfort to them as for us. But in Minnesota, the question draws a blank—or, at times, a list. We have Uptown. A lot of us are there. Loring Park has its own reputation. Both Downtowns seem to be magnets for us. Even the suburbs are as well: Eden Prairie, Edina, and Golden Valley.

Minneapolis seems to be a city made up of Gayborhoods (St. Paul, too). And they’re spreading. Minneapolis has one of the largest GLBT populations in the country, so no wonder it’s tough to pin us down. It is my firm belief that with a lesbian’s hammer and a gay boy’s sense of style, any neighborhood can be given rainbow appeal.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to the last place I thought I’d ever find a gay crowd: North Minneapolis. All I could think about was the crime reports that seemed always to come from the area, so, needless to say, I had my reservations.

I was invited to go on a homebuyer’s tour by the GLBT Northsiders. It was to be an information session and tour for people considering a move to that neighborhood. After a few e-mails and phone calls, I was assured that an armored car and a battalion of Minneapolis’s finest would not be necessary for the trip.

On the drive up, I began to see why. I was given directions to a bar and restaurant called Sauced—my kind of place, I thought. As I drove deeper into the area, my ignorance became painfully apparent. Yes, the neighborhood did have its shady places, but I couldn’t help counting the number of rainbow flags I passed along the way.

I decided that my fear of North Minneapolis must be comparable to the West Coast fear of tornadoes, and the Midwest fear of earthquakes. Having lived in both places, I’m finding neither is much of a threat.

Sauced turned out to be a favorite hangout for many GLBT Northsiders. The establishment had a classy, modern feel—the sort of place I easily could learn to call home. A few hors d’ oeuvres and a cocktail later, I myself began to ponder homeownership.

The Northsiders really had gone all out for this event. Someone was there to answer every imaginable question about moving, buying, and rehabbing homes in the area. Though some of the homes may look a little rough around the edges, bargains were to be had and dreams to be made.

One of the first people I met was Joel Breeggemann. He and his partner, Michael Pristash, filled me in on some of the details about this Northsiders group, and why it was so special.

“It started about four years ago as a Internet message board. Now, we have 143 members,” Breeggemann says. “I had no idea there was such a large GLBT population in North Minneapolis.”

The Northsiders is a truly diverse bunch: GLBT folks who all call the area home. Some rent; some own. Some have children, from newborn to grown. What they all seem to have in common is pride in their neighborhood, and the desire to let the rest of the city know people are welcome to move on up and join them. What started as a way to meet new friends has blossomed into a thriving community, and a truly valuable resource for any one interested in the area.

“We thought the housing crisis would be [our] demise,” Breeggemann explains, “so we decided to be more proactive.”

By getting more involved with their community “Get to NOMI [North Minneapolis]” campaign, the Northsiders have been able to draw an enormous amount of attention to the area, with hopes that their home—the Weber, Camden, Victory, and Folwell neighborhoods—can continue to grow and attract GLBT families by educating them about the benefits of moving to the area.

Immediately following the reception, we were off on the tour. The group had grown to some 30-plus strong, a varied crew reflecting the same diversity of the neighborhoods themselves.

Also on the tour were representatives from Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation (GMHC, pronounced “Gimmick”), President Carolyn Olson and Special Projects Coordinator Stephanie Gruver. They made themselves available to answer questions, and explain exactly what they can do to help to put just about anyone in a home. They dispensed an incredible wealth of information.

GMHC, a nonprofit organization that provides resources for low- and moderate-income buyers, also engages in projects to improve affordable housing in the metropolitan area. The tour was to consist of three homes, two that recently had been rehabbed by GHMC, and a third that had been purchased and was awaiting remodeling. The organization not only rehabs properties, but also aids in pairing buyers with the education and financing they need to become homeowners.

“If sometimes there is a house that’s really good for an owner-occupant to buy, but the bank won’t sell it because they won’t wait for a purchase-rehab to happen, GMHC can buy it. We can resell it, and help with a purchase-rehab loan,” Olson states.

Apart from its rehabbed properties, GHMC also has programs to put people in homes. Its “Contract for Deed” program allows buyers who otherwise would not be able to qualify or afford a home to expand their options.

Another option is a land trust, a way to split costs by splitting ownership.

“The land trust is a really good program for people on a really limited income. It allows someone to qualify for more house than they [could otherwise] afford,” Gruver notes.

Olson adds, “We do construction management for the land trust. Our construction manager takes a look at the property, and sees if we can rehab it within the amount under the land trust. If that’s the case, we write the scope, hire the contractor, and do the work on behalf of the land trust and the owner.”

The sort of opportunities available for people looking to buy really is amazing. Some residents of the area began as renters, but because of the incentives available, have decided to make the move toward homeownership.

“The City of Minneapolis came out with the Minneapolis advantage program, where they have $10,000 available as down-payment assistance,” Olson points out.

Many neighborhoods have noticed this trend, and added their own pledges. The Weber-Camden neighborhood, where the tour was held, promised $4,000 in down-payment assistance to anyone who purchases a foreclosed home or home with a foreclosure on the same street. Programs can be combined with low-interest rehab loans through lenders citywide, as well as through GMHC.

The more I learned, the more enticing it became. As an apartment dweller on a fixed income, I always had thought the housing market was out of my reach, especially in the areas I’d consider living. While GHMC does work throughout the Twin Cities, it was amazing to see the transformation of North Minneapolis. To think, only hours before I had been afraid to visit even for a short while. Now, I was considering renting a U-Haul. Before doing anything drastic, however, I wanted to meet someone who already had gone through the process.

Eric Mahannah, a North Minneapolis resident, had made the decision to forgo renting, and buy a home.

According to Mahannah, “I’ve lived there for five years. I knew I liked the area, and knew there was a lot going on in terms of affordability. I sing in the Gay Men’s Chorus, and in the block I used to live on, there are five people from the chorus.”

Mahannah’s experience seemed to echo that of many residents. They don’t deny that some areas are less hospitable than others, but many wouldn’t move for the world.

As one of the GLBT Northsiders wrote on the groups message board: “I live in the Folwell Neighborhood, and I like it. Crime is down quite considerably from what it was when I bought my house six years ago. The neighborhood gets better each year. Neighbors are finally starting to look out for each other. I feel comfortable being outside in and around my neighborhood. I’d definitely give Folwell a ‘thumbs up!’”

North Minneapolis is continuing to grow and evolve. For anyone considering purchasing a home, this area definitely should be on your list. It is the beginning of yet another Gayborhood here in the Cities, one that seems to be gaining momentum beyond all the rest.

The Northsiders has planned another Home Buyer’s tour on August 28. I recommend getting over any fear of the neighborhood, and taking a drive up. The people are welcoming and friendly.

Gruver, a North Minneapolis resident herself, remarks, “There are people that have lived here for 20, 30, 40 years. Every time a house goes on the market, they say, ‘Oh, I hope we get a nice gay couple in there.’”

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