CoffeeShop Chronicles: The light-rail conundrum

Everyone has a story that should be told about themselves, their neighborhood, or someone they know. Occasionally, I set up at a table in a coffee shop and interview people who stop in. Today, I set up at the SugaRush Coffee Shop on University Avenue in St. Paul. Here’s another story:

cc_seru.jpgEmily Seru, a Washington State native, gives voice to the combination of trepidation and excitement that is accompanying the Central Corridor light-rail project on St. Paul’s University Avenue.

She moved to Frogtown six years ago. “It’s two miles from where I work and right on the bus line to the University of Minnesota, and Hamline, and it was affordable. We wanted to live in a neighborhood that reflected our (biracial) family make-up.”

She says light-rail will bring “stability” to her neighborhood.

“Even in all of the planning and attention, I feel like there’s been more of a focus on the neighborhood. More people care. More people know where I live when I tell them where I live. People are intentionally coming here. I feel like there’s more attention being paid to the parks or the lack of services. There are people invested in solving things and seeing the potential. More people want to move here. More people are seeing that it’s a good thing to live in a neighborhood that has a lot of different kinds of people that is affordable.”


“My political side that works with social justice is very aligned with the low-income and communities of color because they’re on a fixed-income, they’re renters, they’re on a low income and they’re worried they’re going to be pushed out,” she says. “On the other hand, I’m the kind of person who’s going to move in. And it’s hard to be told they don’t want me there. The concerns of me and my husband are very different than theirs. We know we’re going to be able to stay in our house even if the taxes go up.”

Seru says people like her — highly educated, middle-income — are reluctant to voice concerns because they might trump the concerns of those for whom she fights on a daily basis. “Politically, I’m anti-gentrification, but at the same time, personally in my house I would very much like to have it. It’s a conflict and it’s a conflict within the organizations that are working on this. On the one hand, they advocated for more stops because they didn’t want to be left out and they wanted the economic investment. On the other hand, they don’t want gentrification and higher density. But what those stops did was ensure that there will be gentrification and higher density.”

The answer, she says, is to ensure there will be affordable rental properties in Frogtown. She also favors a land trust for businesses “so small businesses can stay here.” Many elderly people also live in Frogtown in houses they inherited from their parents. “I don’t want them to leave.” she says.

Seru left her hometown because there wasn’t much choice.

“I grew up culturally literate,” she said. “My parents are both writers and were living the off-the-land life in Port Townsend, they were part of the ’70s wave of people coming into the region. It’s kind of white, middle-class idealism, but not a whole lot of self-reflection in terms of class and racial justice. Part of Port Townsend is middle-class vibrant, liberal, writers and intentionally live simply and then surrounding Port Townsend, you had very poor, milltown, working class, kids of loggers, lots of trailer parks, and then you had the Indian reservations and those societies are very segregated and growing up you never heard anything but bad things about them. It’s so isolated and self-righteous that they didn’t realize what their own weaknesses were. It took coming to Minneapolis to see that, to see a truly diverse city that’s so integrated.”

Seru works for the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, setting up internship programs for students with social justice organizations. Her job gives her optimism, she says, because she works with 19- and 20-year-olds who think they can make a difference.

“But I also see them get frustrated. I just had a group that worked for an organization that had safe-harbor bills to protect young children who are being prosecuted for sex crimes in the Twin Cities, or bills that would give a tenant bill of rights, and I see this turnover and see their staff literally falling away and organizations that have to shift their advocacy back to direct service because they know they’re not going to be able to get anything done politically.”

Seru, as you’ve perhaps figured out, is a progressive struggling with the movement’s contradictions. “We have a really hard time getting on the same page. We have a really hard time with group-think because there are a lot of people like me who have discomfort with the party line, with having one party line. Part of the values are that we critique and we pick apart and we appreciate our differences and it makes the movement very big, but it makes it really difficult to counter a movement that has all its ducks in a row, that has a party platform crystal clear. I don’t want to be like that, but I also see in the existing system, and even in major social change in the past, that’s been part of it.”

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