How we create boundaries

Can we create a place where anyone—regardless of age, race, gender identity, religion—can walk into a city, be welcomed and find the footing they need to succeed?

When Bill Remmer left his home in Melvin, Iowa, in his mid-30s, to walk 230 miles to Minneapolis to find a better source of income for his growing family, his wife was understandably concerned.

Yet with the kindness of strangers—primarily two women he met along the way—he was deposited around Nicollet and Grant Avenue, after walking only six of those miles, with suggestions about where to find housing and work.

Bill Remmer
Bill Remmer

The year was 1950, and the neighborhood he was deposited in was rough, with lots of bars and open prostitution. “I knew none of that,” he says. But what he did know was hard work. His father, an immigrant from Germany, took him out of school at age 13 and set him to work on the farm. He was paid a penny for each bushel of corn he harvested. When he arrived in Minneapolis he had $10, which bought him 6-cent hamburgers at White Castle and nickel cups of coffee.

He worked multiple odd jobs throughout his many years—church custodian, recycling metals, snow plowing, building management. He relocated his family, raising two boys and two girls with his wife Helen, who died in 1992. At the age of 99, he was still paid for custodial work—and crushing cans for recycling—at the Calhoun Shores apartment building near the lake, where he has lived since 1977. He visited family in northern Minnesota, but returned after one day. “The loneliest place I’ve ever been,” he says. He likes the sound of his neighbors talking outside his apartment and his long-term friends there.

Remmer’s building was sold recently to new owners. His rent went from $650 to $1,350. He and seven other long-term residents are moving. At 101 years old, Remmer is relocating to an apartment in Hopkins.

In a 1.5-hour conversation, the only thing he repeated, three times, was that he wishes he could find the women, or their descendants, who helped him get safely to Minneapolis, find a place to stay, and secure work. Their kindness enabled him to create a new life. If he could find those women today, he said, he would give them a big check.

Displacing the core of community

The following day, I had a 90-minute chat with School Board member Don Samuels, the former Minneapolis City Council member who finished third in the 35-candidate 2013 mayoral race.

We talked about black lives, poverty, and the inability to “create a bigger plan for long-term sustainable change” because we’re afraid to speak up about ideas that don’t lead to successful outcomes. We distract ourselves with details, he said, rather than addressing our values as a society.

This values conversation is at the heart of so many of the “Sustainable We” conversations I’ve been having.

Where is the neighborliness in pushing out a 101-year-old man from his home of 40 years so rent can be raised in a building that already has tenants now paying $2,200 for a two-bedroom apartment?

We also segregate along race lines, noted Samuels, who moved to the East Coast from Jamaica when he was 20 and relocated to Minneapolis in 1990. The Jordan neighborhood of North Minneapolis at that time was 65 percent white. After black families worked to rise out of poverty and moved across the “dividing line,” the white businesses and home-owners closed doors and moved away.

Why can’t we “stop running away from low income and black people?” he asks. “Who said we shouldn’t cohabit the same space? Wasn’t the idea of America to develop a classless society? What happened to that ideal?”

Instead we have black people shot and ticketed for “overstepping bounds” in driving through white neighborhoods. We have white families who do live near him in North Minneapolis—lovely homes with great square footage and location—asked by police “why do you live here?” With that vision of boundaries about areas of people and place of worth, Samuels wonders, what does service to the community look like?

Samuels says we have a tendency to stick with the tip of the iceberg, without addressing the mass. “Where is the respectability in ignoring the needs of a 4-year-old child who has just witnessed a policeman kill a loved one for no reason. Deciding it is more important to handcuff her mother than to let her hold and comfort her little girl? It’s inhumane. Insulting to human life. Yet so routine that we aren’t even outraged about that.”

It is not simply about police officers—or social workers or pastors or teachers or attorneys—who earn their keep in the community but tend not to live in the area they serve. It is about the fact that “we continue to grind people down,” Samuels says. “The greatest gift of America is to be a neighbor to each other. Can we just be American and be together?”

Can we create a place where anyone—regardless of age, race, gender identity, religion—can walk into a city, be welcomed and find the footing they need to succeed?