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Minneapolis As the New Black Mecca

Deep North

When he moved to Minnesota some 25 years ago, Irv Boone expected that his Ford sedan wouldn't start on some icy morning. Growing up on Chicago's South Side had taught him about hardship. And Vietnam had tested him more than Canadian winds ever could.

But nothing had prepared him for the moment when a neighbor of his, a white man he'd never met, tramped outside with a pair of jumper cables and offered to help.

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"Things like that just didn't happen in Chicago," Mr. Boone recalls. "I knew right then that this was a special place."

In the last two decades, stories like Boone's, combined with a roaring economy, have helped turn Minnesota into a magnet for African-Americans. Although the state's black population remains small, it has nearly tripled since 1980 to more than 140,000.

In Minneapolis, where most of these migrants have settled, interaction between blacks and whites often produces bewilderment. This is still an insular place governed by a Scandinavian work ethic and an emphasis on politeness. By contrast, many black newcomers hail from distant urban neighborhoods rife with drugs, gangs, and poverty.

It's a cultural clash that poses a serious challenge to a city with plenty of jobs and a long tradition of liberalism. In coming years, Minneapolis could become a national symbol of enlightened urban policy, or fall victim to the same racial balkanization common elsewhere.

"This is the home of Hubert Humphrey," notes Tim Penny, a former Minnesota congressman. "As a state, we really do feel an obligation to live up to our principles of acceptance and tolerance and mutual respect. I think that works in favor of those who hope to make their homes here."

Unlike blacks migrating to Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C., most of the newcomers here are poor, coming from Midwestern Rust Belt cities. They're drawn by the job opportunities (at 2.6 percent, Minneapolis has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation), good schools, and social services.

And people in Minneapolis and St. Paul seem committed to embracing diversity. A recent University of Minnesota study found that 90 percent of blacks and whites in the Twin Cities said they would prefer to live in integrated communities. In 1993, Minneapolis voters elected the city's first African-American mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton.

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Moreover, experts say, Minneapolis benefits from a longstanding tradition of civic activism and corporate benevolence: Several of the city's homegrown Fortune 500 companies donate 3 percent of their annual profits to charity. The city is also fortunate, they say, to be contending with a racial shift in the midst of an economic boom.

But below the surface, problems are taking root. According to John Powell, a University of Minnesota law professor, 47 percent of all African Americans in the Twin Cities lived in ghetto areas in 1990, up from just 27 percent 10 years before. In 1970, he adds, there were 11 Census tracts in the Twin Cities in which the majority of residents lived in poverty. Today there are more than 33.

Changing face of a city

"Blacks who move here end up in central cities, but most of the job growth is in the outer ring suburbs," Mr. Powell says. "Those are pretty closed communities, and few of them are interested in building low-income housing."

These concentrations of poverty have changed the face of Minneapolis. Many middle-class whites have fled to the suburbs. Minority enrollment in Minneapolis public schools has peaked at 70 percent and the city's crime rate - although still low by national standards - has grown significantly.

"Most people in Minnesota aren't used to gang shootouts or big drug busts, and they've never dealt with people that don't want to work," says Emmett Carson, president of the Minneapolis Foundation, a philanthropic organization. "Now they perceive these problems as the work of people who aren't from here, and in their minds that usually means people of color."

By all accounts, issues of crime and poverty have begun to play a more prominent role in Minnesota politics. Barbara Carlson, Mayor Belton's Republican challenger in this year's Minneapolis mayoral race, angered many African-Americans here recently by holding a press conference on crime in a poor black neighborhood at the site of a drive-by shooting. Although the city's crime rate has leveled off this year, Ms. Carlson has made law and order a key campaign theme, demanding that the city hire 300 additional police officers.

Too generous?

State lawmakers, concerned that Minnesota's generous welfare benefits were attracting many poor migrants from other states, established a 30-day residency requirement for families seeking public assistance and passed a provision that will pay newcomers only what their previous state paid them for the first year they live in Minnesota.

To some community activists, these are the first signs that longtime Minnesotans are circling their wagons against a wave of immigration they consider ominous.

"It's always easy to be progressive when you're in the majority," says Bob Cooper, a neighborhood organizer at the Minnesota Community Development Association. "But now that crime is higher than it used to be and the social problems are greater, this city's tolerance is being taxed."

But some observers argue that the debate about black migration is only one part of a larger civic dialogue about what kind of city Minneapolis should be. Despite its aggressive economic expansion, this is one of the last large American cities whose social services are administered by the surrounding county. It's also one of the only cities its size without a light-rail transit system.

"People in Minneapolis have not made a conscious decision whether or not they want this city to become a major metropolis." Mr. Carson says. "We either have to start making decisions to facilitate that, or I think we're going to be dragged that way kicking and screaming."

In the meantime, this plain-spoken city on the nation's northern edge will remain a popular destination for black families. And many here see it as America's best chance yet to build a city that works, however awkwardly, for both blacks and whites.

"It's true that Minnesotans are not used to seeing people of color, and they don't always know how to deal with them," Mr. Boone says. "But if you want to work hard, you can make it here."

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