Is Lower North Gentrifying?

It’s no secret that the Mankato housing market is doing well. Houses are on the market for sometimes hours and usually at most a few days. This article from last year does a good job of explaining the quandary that we’re in when it comes to housing. Not enough single family, not enough affordable rentals, not enough affordable single family.

Markets like this are often driven by, well, the market. The job situation in Mankato is particularly good (The U.S. as a whole is crushing it) and people are most likely moving here for said jobs. The push to live in and around Mankato is causing the most desirable neighborhoods to sell the most houses or, at the least, sell them the quickest and at a premium.

When you combine the positive economic factors along with couples having children later in life and/or just simply not having them at all, you start to realize that the “big house in the burbs” narrative is evaporating. Likewise, younger people are looking for more traditional, walkable neighborhoods  more than their parents were. The value that my generation has put on the  proximity to shops, parks, things to do are the reason the “urban millennial” trope has gained so much steam.

However, this push for old school neighborhoods has lead some to decry the plight of “Gentrification.” The definition I pulled for Gentrification is described as: the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste (per my two second Google search.) I think that Lower North has probably always been “middle class.” If we were to use a more colloquial definition of gentrification, a place that’s becoming “hip,” Lower North fits the bill.

The proof is in the pudding. Anyone of you that’s been around Lower North can tell that things are notably improving. Houses are getting snatched up and ones that are in disrepair (like mine) are getting fixed. Furthermore, its no question that the central business district is improving. A quaint little barber shop, a cool new coffee place and a soon-to-be rooftop restaurant are hallmarks of a place becoming “cool.” The only thing holding back Belgrade right now are the two worst building projects in the valley, the Marigold…thing and the F-bomb inducing suburban “townhomes” built last summer right behind.

I will never, ever stop hating these


The city is now also offering low interest loans to help improve properties. The Northside Revivals program is meant to improve existing housing stock in North Mankato (specifically Lower North.) This coupled with the improvements to the Spring Lake Park aquatic facility, roads, the plans for the library, etc… are signs that the area is about to “improve.”

All this sounds good, but there’s obviously a darker side to gentrification: it pushes people out, or at the very least, sets a bar of who’s allowed in. As an area improves it demands more money and makes it more unaffordable for working class or lower income people. While I can see this happening to a degree, it seems unlikely that Lower North will command any real semblance of “high end” market rates (despite what this cringe-inducing Marigold video would have you believe), the city as a whole is just too small and the demand probably won’t be high enough to really threaten anyone. Furthermore, a lot of the people that already live in Lower North are middle class working families or retired (or close) boomers already. They’re probably not going to leave because they own their home.

This is an important point to remember, Lower North probably is “gentrifying”, in so much as its becoming a cool place to live, but the vast majority of the neighborhood is still single family, so “rent” won’t probably go up.

If I had to coin a term for what’s happening to Lower North, I’d call it psuedo-gentrifamaybecation. The reason its easy to see what’s going on in Lower North and identify that things are indeed improving is because Lower North is so easily definable, thus making any type of widespread improvement obvious and more susceptible to a label. It has very obvious borders and no real bleeding edges into other parts. I would say one of the only other neighborhood in Mankato with such rigid boundaries is West Mankato, which has been a mainstay of upper middle class homes for quite some time now.

I’d also surmise that the lack of college student rentals makes Lower North a bit more desirable than some of Mankato’s traditional neighborhoods (like Lincoln Park). We obviously have rentals, but they generally tend to be more stable or more working class than the college student scene (though, I’m open to hearing an argument against this.)

In the coming years, it honestly wouldn’t surprise me to see Southern MSP suburban commuters come down to Lower North given its proximity to 169, its distance from the southern burbs and its affordable housing (comparatively) which would only exacerbate what we have going on now. 

This whole argument begs the question of what makes a desirable neighborhood to begin with? Well, its pretty clear that Lower North is walkable, dense(ish) and has local amenities. Maybe if some of our suburban builders in town would take a hint, they could replicate it in other places and we would have great neighborhoods all across Mankato.

I’m curious to hear what other Lower North residents think. Leave some comments on the Facebook page.

No, snowbanks don’t make streets more dangerous

Every winter I’m plagued with the same argument on Facebook: “Those snowbanks pile up on the curbs and then that makes the street narrower and more dangerous!” I’m sure you’ve heard a similar argument at some point or even had that idea yourself, however, the fact is that it’s not true. “Fake News” if you will.

Mankato has foolishly adopted many blanket “no parking” ordinances that cater to this misconception. Along 6th street, there’s no parking on the east side of the street from November 1 to April 1, even if there’s no snow on the ground (because you know we can’t predict the weather).

Usually, I’m not one to complain about parking, but I have a friend that I frequent on sixth street and I’m always annoyed when I can’t park there because of this misguided ordinance. Its particularly annoying because most people rely on off-street parking in that neighborhood and the city is artificially restricting a public asset for no reason.

The problem with “muh snowbank” argument is that we’ve wrongly defined what “dangerous” is. Smaller streets are not more dangerous, they are more inconvenient. It’s important to note the difference because our lazy asses think they are the same when it comes to cars.

If you’re driving down a street with snow banks and cars parked on both sides, you slow down, you have no option. You can’t go fast because you know that you have less time to react to obstacles, be they cars, cats, or cyclists (say that with a hard “c” so you get the alliteration.)

What are you at a greater risk for? Maybe scratching your paint, knocking a mirror or not carelessly flying down the road. Those things are not dangerous, annoying, sure, but not dangerous.

Even if someone were to step out in front of your car and you did hit them, the chances that you will kill them is far, far less likely. I’ve posted this image before on here and I’ll reference it again. The slower the car is going, the more likely the person you hit is to survive.

The same complaint goes for intersections. “That snow piles up and then I can’t see around the corner! It’s dangerous!!” What happens when you can’t see around a corner? You slowly ease your way into the intersection, paying close attention to see if cars are coming from either direction.

I experienced this just the other day on the way up Mulberry street. I came to the below intersection and all the cars parked on the west side of the street plus the snow made it pretty hard to see around that corner. I crept out into the intersection making sure cars had ample time to see me and brake. Guess what? I didn’t die, neither did anyone else and it would have been pretty impossible for me to die because everyone was going slow.

We’ve been fed this lie that it is narrow space that is dangerous. People constantly get up at city council meetings asking for the ordinances to be passed or rules to be made about parking and snow and this and that. The fact is that we should leave it all alone, or communicate the removal of snow and/or the temporary reduction in parking that comes along with it. In Lower North, where I live, the city did this. They came by, told us to move our cars and then they came and plowed the boulevards. It was simple, effective and non-disruptive. Likewise, it didn’t require a 5 MONTH PARKING BAN.

Interestingly enough, snow is a really good way of showing that we don’t need extra space on our roads. Sneckdowns are a natural way of showing where cars don’t drive and how we could actually eliminate the for cars and use it for people or traffic calming measures.

However, the real underlying problem here is that American urban planning and city government reward meddling. We love to enact and tweak rules for our cities, every city manager and council think they are “helping” every time they come up with some convoluted ordinance instead of letting cities grow organically. Whether it’s over zoning, parking regulation or side setbacks, city councils love to make rules (see the stupid 21+ smoking ban that thankfully died) because it looks like they are doing something, when in the long run, things usually just sort themselves out.

So next time that grumpy neighbor is telling you how someone “going to die” because of some snow on the boulevard, tell him that it actually makes the street safer and they should read this article.

Do We Owe Waldorf Anything?

We’ve all heard that the current administration is hoping to pump $1 Trillion dollars into infrastructure spending in the coming years. This type of rhetoric has been slung by almost every President since I’ve been alive and probably more. “We need to fix our roads and bridges!” often evoking the painful memories of the 35W bridge collapse in Minnesota. Who could be so heartless as to not want to fix a bridge?

These proposals are often innocuous, or at least so vanilla that they are palatable to members of any political affiliation (except members of the Strong Towns party). They often claim to have bipartisan support or at least aim to.

The problem with these bills is that they are high-level. Drafted almost like there is some kind of infrastructure vending machine that we can throw money into and expect great results. The reality, however, is obviously far tougher.

This is becoming evident in the tiny town of Waldorf, MN. They have asked the state legislature for $2m (a paltry amount) to fix their near defunct sewer and water system. The residents and local officials have already figured out a way to raise $10m to cover the rest of the expenses, the amount they are requesting from the state is the gap. A city of 250ish people, Waldorf’s bill would settle up at around $40k per person (not including the tip.)

However, this begs the awkward question… Why should we pay for this?

Literally Waldorf

On the outside, it’s pretty clear that Waldorf does very little for the state as a whole and that even fixing its infrastructure is probably not going to save it from its inevitable death. It’s not on a railway, it’s not on a river, and it’s not on a major highway, this would be giving a new liver to stage 5 cancer patient.

It’s somewhat in the American ethos to “settle the land” and I think some of that “manifest destiny” ideology has held on for a long time, but a loss is a loss any way you cut the cake. While what they are asking for is small, it simply serves no purpose and benefits a stark minority. This is not taking into account the LGA that the city probably already receives or the subsidies for the highway that appears to serve them alone.

Waldorf is a canary in the coal mine for many Minnesota communities, it’s the victim of the urbanization and suburbanization along with the death of family farms. I actually feel quite bad, I think that small towns just like Waldorf add to the rich tapestry of rural culture that we have in Minnesota, but feelings don’t repair necessary infrastructure.

If we are not going to fix their infrastructure, the question now is does the state resettle them? Does the state owe them, as citizens, money to move somewhere else? No matter your view on what should happen, I think that the Waldorf situation and others like it will raise serious ethical questions in the years to come.

Thanks to Lakes  n Woods for the feature image

Not Worth Defending

I work in the movie “Office Space.” If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s basically the existential crisis of one man realizes that he’s another cog in a corporatist Rube Goldberg machine. He comes to work, laments the mundanity of his job, goes home. A nihilistic, albeit, realistic, interpretation of “Ground Hogs Day” if you will.

I find myself questioning my existence, day in, day out. Why am I here? What I’m supposed to do? How I can leave an impact in the world?

In my semi-descent into madness, I’ve found myself researching, browsing or simply putzing about every subject imaginable. Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about our new president, his rise to power and the populous movements that have been sweeping a lot of countries.

People are desperate to cling to something. They realize that their time on this earth is short and they want to pass on something worth defending—something that wouldn’t be a far cry from the childhood they had growing up.

What is worth defending? Or maybe we should ask what do we build to defend things? Nowadays, it’s firewalls and RFID locks, but once we built permanent structures to defend our places, like castles, fortresses and keeps.

On my journey through the internet, I stumbled across this picture:

This is Najac, France. It’s a town that never crested 3,000 souls at any point in the last two centuries. I found the picture on a subreddit called r/beamazed. It’s one of the highest upvoted posts of all time and I thought that was interesting. EDIT: Apparently its since been removed due to copyright, so the above picture is actually something close. 

If you pop out to google maps this is the aerial view of Najac:


Beautiful, right?

Except that’s not France, that’s Wisconsin, just East of La Crosse (French in name alone) in the Driftless Area. Here’s the actual aerial view:


Pretty crazy that we have arguably the same topography and same geographic beauty as Europe, yet we build such boring shit.

If you had a transplantation machine, you could easily move Najac right to Wisconsin (or Minnesota) and it would feel right at home. It would, undoubtedly, be the hottest tourist attraction in the tri-state area. Najac, Wisconsin, would literally make millions of dollars annually.

We don’t build places like Najac, though. We double down on row houses out by our new school.

Town Houses nowhere near the town!

This, I think, plays into the populist message we’re seeing in America. It isn’t, in my opinion, based on racism or idiocy or isolationism; it’s based on emptiness. People today feel so disconnected, so adrift in a sea of global information, that they are longing to attach to something. They want to feel like Americans—an elusive, but critical, part of their identity.

I think our built environment can help do this. They can help root people instead of isolate them. They can make neighbors out of enemies and help people find the common ground. They can be places worth defending. If you wanted to feel connected, truly in-tune, with your city and the history that built it, you would start with buildings. You would start with the things your ancestors left for you to take care of and left you to build on top of. 

In Jane Jacobs “A Wealth of Nations,” she writes about visiting the familial Hamlet of Higgins, North Carolina. This was the height of the great depression and, to her surprise, even a rural village tucked away in the remoteness of Appalachia was impacted, but not for the reasons you might think. She recalls how the founders of the hamlet and their families held a variety of skills:
spinning and weaving, loom construction, cabinetmaking, corn milling, house and water-mill construction, dairying, poultry and hog raising, gardening, whiskey distilling, hound breeding, molasses making from sorghum cane, basket weaving, biscuit baking, music making with violins …”

But these skills were not being put to use. An excerpt from this Atlantic article, summarizes what she found:

Candles were a vanishing luxury. After the few remaining cows died, there would be no more milk or butter. One woman still remembered how to weave baskets, but she was close to death. When Robison suggested building the church with large stones from the creek, the community elders rebuked her. Over generations the townspeople had not only forgotten how to build with stone. They had lost the knowledge that such a thing was possible.”

This remote village no longer had the ability to sustain itself. The loss of wisdom, ostensibly, the loss of the skills that had given them an identity, had doomed this tiny town.

It’s skills like this, places built by hand, that feed people their identity. No one really wants to defend their slapped-together rambler built by GOODBUILDZ, LLC. They want to secure a shelter for their family and their “irreplaceable” possessions. However, places that craft identity are places like Najac, places that people rally to save, places that make you feel connected to something deeper. Places like we destroyed in the middle of the century.

Downtown Mankato, C. 1961


I changed the title for this article maybe three or four times. I knew the general idea of it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to call it. So, I went to Google. I typed in “not worth defending” and as fate would have it, the third image that popped up was this:


Jim Kunstler is probably one of my favorite people on the planet. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to him a few times and getting kinda drunk in his hotel room at CNU 22 in Buffalo, NY.

We have so many despondent people in the work force that would kill for someone to employ them to build Najac. People who would love to build a place that has meaning, that has character, that has something. In fact, in France, right now, there is a group of people working on restoring a medieval castle in the exact same fashion it would have been built hundreds of years ago. You can check them out here. It is purely a labor of love, no money, no fame, they just know its important to do. Here’s a picture I pulled off their Facebook page.



With all the talk of North Korea and Russia and nuclear annihilation, we have to ask ourselves if we would actually rally around America. Would we want to defend what we’ve built or do we want to defend the soft, consumerist lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves? Do we really want to make Prairie Winds and its subsequent housing the thing we pass on to our children? Or did we build it to be convenient for the parent? Is it for the here and now? Is it for the Happy Motoring culture we’ve created for ourselves? 

There’s an emptiness that’s descending on America, and if we don’t address it, we’ll soon find ourselves consumed by it. Building Najac wouldn’t be a panacea, but it’d be a step in the right direction, a part of a new identity, a place worth defending.  

 

No Salvation in the East

It’s not hard to recall all the headlines of Mankato’s miraculous growth over the past few years.  They were everywhere. We were told we had low unemployment and that the city was growing despite a lot of fundamental problems. Today, we’re still in pretty good shape. Check out the Greater Mankato Growth Blog’s (GMG) Q4 article (keep in mind their job is to promote  Mankato commerce, not that that’s bad) and FRED data saying wages are up.  

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Architecture without urban form: meh.

What’s the best part of Christmas eve? My childhood self leads me to believe it’s seeing all the presents under the tree. The idea that so many gifts have been lavished on us gets us all giddy. Is that one for me? For my sibling? Parents? Who’s it from? What’s inside? WHY CAN’T I OPEN IT?! All of these thoughts whizzing through your eggnog-drenched synapses make the Christmas tree itself look that much more glorious.

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I don’t hate single family housing

A few days ago was Greater Mankato Growth’s “Day at the Capitol.” Unfortunately the Capitol building is undergoing some much needed renovation so we were actually at the Double Tree in St. Paul. Cool place.

Anyway, during a discussion with someone, they told me that “You just want us to all live like you, downtown in an apartment”. While I was somewhat taken aback by the statement, I had to ask: “is this how I present myself?”

Well gosh I hope not.

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