Bus doors open and children jump out, voices echoing against concrete walls that stretch in every direction and leave space for only slivers of sunlight.
Mothers in brightly colored shawls and hijabs wait on the sidewalk as their kids return home from school. Dispersing in six directions, they pull open heavy metal doors and wait to crowd onto elevators and ascend to their apartments in Riverside Plaza, a building that more than 4,500 call home.
For Somali refugees escaping a war-torn homeland, the high-rise towers on the edge of downtown Minneapolis are a chance to integrate into life in America.
Mohamed Jama, 16, grew up moving between Somalia and Kenya to escape the Somali Civil War. Jama has lived in the Plaza for six years, and his activism in the community has made his nickname, “MJ,” well-known.
Jama’s parents moved into the towers after his uncle told the family about them. His story is not unique among the tenants of the Plaza, many of whom are immigrants who heard about the buildings through family and friends.
“I have been told people know about Riverside Plaza on the streets of Mogadishu,” said Fredda Scobey, executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association.
As the years have passed, hundreds of thousands of people have moved through the towers, which have acquired unmistakable signs of decay and offer living conditions below the average Minnesotan’s standards. From the view of many University of Minnesota students crossing the Washington Avenue Bridge, the faded panels and cement walls are a blemish on the Minneapolis skyline.
“People call this ‘crack stacks,’ ‘ghetto in the sky,’ ” Jama said. “I don’t like that... ’cause this is my community.”
A starting point
A playground sits in the middle of the complex, surrounded by a few trees. This has been one of the places Jama has met up with friends.
The huge number of families living in the Plaza meant there was always a big group for Jama to run with. When a new kid moved in from another country, the group would help him learn English — but they didn’t make it easy.
“If you make fun of them, they will learn the language. And that will make them understand that they’re going to keep making fun of me until I correct myself,” Jama said.
More than 90 percent of Riverside Plaza’s tenants are immigrants, a trend that began with an influx of Vietnamese immigrants in 1988. Currently, 60 to 70 percent of the population is Somali, though there are a significant number of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Vietnamese immigrants and a growing Latino population.
“When America opens its doors to immigrants, Riverside Plaza often reflects that,” said George Sherman, the complex’s owner.
The abundance of nearby schools also helps immigrants assimilate, move forward and maybe move out, Sherman said.
“We don’t hope to be everybody’s final stop,” Sherman said.
While the average length of stay is about three years, many of the people who remain choose to stay because of what the neighborhood has to offer — including affordable housing. More than 50 percent of the 1,303 units qualify for Section 8 housing subsidies, a federal program under which a household is required to pay at least a third of their total income as rent, with the government covering the difference.
Despite the poverty in the towers, Jama is adamant that his community needs to be respected.
“There’s people, there’s humans that live in this building,” Jama said. “And I don’t like the way [these] buildings look like. I don’t.”
Jama’s interest in aiding his community is evident every day. After he leaves Ubah Medical Academy, a charter school in Hopkins, Jama heads to his office at the Brian Coyle Center, where he volunteers as president of the Cedar Riverside Youth Council. Throughout the week, he schedules meetings with everyone from the Minneapolis Police Department to representatives from the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College to voice the concerns of the community’s youth. In the evening, he returns home to the apartment he shares with his three younger sisters and his mother.
Jama, who doesn’t know his father, has had to be a strong presence for the family and also the ringleader of his group of friends growing up. He was often the one who would kick the doors on the highest floor of the towers when he and his friends would play “Triple D,” or ding-dong ditch.
One afternoon, an old woman peered out with a gun.
“I did not want to die, and I wasn’t ready,” Jama said.
So they acted like they never kicked her door, and calmly pressed the elevator button. Years later, they admitted to kicking the door.
“We messed around with people, and that is how we communicated with people, adults,” Jama said.
Safety: A matter of perception
For Jama, there has been a dramatically positive change in the safety around the towers since he first moved in.
He said there is a perception that there are gunshots “every second.”
“It only happens — seven, eight months — once, or it never does,” Jama said. “It didn’t happen the whole of this year … there was no gun shots.”
Some residents remember things differently. Fanus Teklesenbet, a member of the tenants association, moved to the towers from her home country of Eritrea almost seven years ago. Teklesenbet said she tries to stay inside her apartment in F Building as much as she can.
“Many gunshots during the night … this is not a safe place,” Teklesenbet said.
Recently, she said she found a bullet in the parking garage and another bullet on her way to church. Teklesenbet said she would have moved out of the towers, but her oldest son is studying engineering and he wanted to remain in the Plaza because of its proximity to the University.
Eduardo Christ has managed Riverside Plaza for Sherman Associates for the past seven months and said the resident service office employees — Jama refers to them as “security officers” — provide an extra layer of communication between the Plaza and Minneapolis police.
“They have been working real close with [police],” Christ said.
Sherman Associates did not make any of the resident service personnel available for this story. Both Christ and Jama said most of the Plaza’s crime comes from nonresidents.
“I know we have kids that are troublemakers,” Jama said. “We’re not perfect, but the majority of the trouble comes from outsiders.”
First Precinct crime prevention specialist Luther Krueger said it is likely that most crime does come from the outside.
“It’s kind of a convenient spot to run into,” Krueger said. “You basically run off of Cedar and into the Riverside Plaza area. It’s like a catacombs; it can be a real maze to find someone.”
Shortcuts hit home
The Halal stores and mosques near the buildings were never intended to be there.
Plans originally called for the neighborhood to be engulfed in up to 16 towers that would have housed 30,000 people. But the failure of that plan allowed for the area to become a more comfortable place for the Somali population.
“There is everything you need here in this community,” Jama said.
Community resistance and insufficient funding killed the project of prestigious architect Ralph Rapson halfway through.
Construction on what was supposed to be a utopian “city within a city” began in 1973. But the developer of what was then called Cedar Square West was forced to resort to using the loans taken for forthcoming towers to pay off the first set of buildings.
One structure depended on another, and the project became a “house of cards,” said Randy Stoecker, a community and environmental sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin. Developers had to make concessions resulting in insufficient elevators and green space, Stoecker said.
The shortcuts taken 37 years ago are hitting home for Sherman, who purchased the property in 1988.
Tearing the complex down and starting over would be too expensive, and the property is on its way to becoming a historical landmark, Sherman said. But renovations are also costly, and if the company rehabilitated everything that people asked for, it would have to dramatically increase rent, Sherman said.
Keeping the rent low is not an easy task at Riverside Plaza, which constantly needs repairs and uses three to four times more utilities than similar apartments due to inefficiencies, Sherman said.
A two-bedroom apartment in the McKnight Tower, the tallest of the six, costs $885 per month, and prices vary depending on location and layout.
Although Rapson designed the structure to house all income levels, the building was initially marketed to young professionals, Stoecker said. The towers even appeared on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” with Moore as a tenant.
“They weren’t even marketed to students because they were too expensive,” Stoecker said.
Ignoring the small things
Cockroaches, mice and black mold found in one Plaza apartment in 2007 prompted the live-in nursing company, which had employees working at Riverside Plaza, to file a complaint with the city.
The company was worried about the health of the patient, a young girl on a ventilator, as well as the nurses who had to work there. Despite repeated calls, Sherman Associates did not fix the problems, said Lori Mueller, who works for the nursing company.
In 2010, there have been four reported housing violations in the buildings, with violations ranging from mold to noncompliant cameras. Since 1995, there have been 372 violations.
“The bathroom system, the heaters, the windows, everything is messed up. It’s like junk,” Jama said. “We’re paying $800 to $900 for junk.”
The rent for the 669 Section 8 apartments in Riverside Plaza is monitored by the Minneapolis Pubic Housing Authority, which makes sure it meets affordability standards.
The market rate apartments are comparably priced, Sherman said. The housing authority checks other properties in the area to make sure the Plaza is similarly priced, but some residents say the quality of the apartments does not compare.
“The standard of living now — not previously — of the buildings are not filling the standard of Minneapolis or anywhere else in the United States,” said Osman Ahmed, president of the building’s tenant association.
Each year, the MPHA checks the Section 8 apartments. In the past year, Riverside Plaza failed 48 percent of its 259 inspections, a failure rate that is average in Minneapolis.
Rita Ytzen, a senior supervisor for Section 8 with the MPHA who works with Sherman Associates, said they’ve been a good partner.
There is “nothing that’s really blown up over there or been brought to my attention,” Ytzen said.
Problems at Riverside Plaza are often neglected by the residents, Ahmed said.
People who just arrived in the United States let issues with snow removal, cleaning and security fall by the wayside, he said. The community doesn’t complain because they’re focused on survival, Ahmed said.
“When you come from an environment that you were thinking you are going to die or you are going to be alive, you ignore very small things … because your focus is still the big stuff.”
Despite his current goals of improving the quality of life in the Plaza, Somalia’s struggles are not lost on Jama. Jama would remain at Riverside Plaza if he attends the University of Minnesota, where he plans to pursue a master’s degree in political science and a doctorate in economics.
“My long-term plans will be working for the U.N. and going back to my country and helping them out and build their political system.”
‘We have a wish list’
For the most part, Riverside Plaza’s interior and exterior have been devoid of renovations since the project was completed almost 40 years ago.
This fall, that will change, thanks to a $42 million to $50 million rehabilitation that Sherman said will be financed through tax credits, grants and the refinancing of existing debt at a more attractive interest rate.
When he first acquired the towers in 1988, Sherman added an elevator to the outside of the McKnight Building, as well as fire safety systems in the hallways throughout the Plaza — the lone alterations in the towers’ history.
With so much of the Plaza in need of attention, there are certain changes that take precedence for Sherman.
“We have a wish list,” he said. New piping, insulation, air conditioning systems, electrical systems, energy-efficient lighting and boiler controls are among the changes Sherman hopes will significantly reduce the Plaza’s utility costs, which currently sit around $3 million per year — roughly 30 percent of the total budget.
Sherman said more efficient apartment buildings spend only 10 percent. Despite the renovation’s high price tag, renters should not expect to shoulder any of the cost, Sherman said, though he did not rule out unrelated rent increases.
“We are forecasting no rent increases whatsoever because of the rehab. If there are rent increases, they’ll be very moderate … they’ll be cost-of-living types of increases related to energy costs.”
New patio doors will be installed, new roofs will be added for structural integrity and repairs will be made to the parking ramps and hallways. Sherman lamented that Plaza residents and the public have certain changes that top their respective wish lists that differ from his No. 1 goal of reducing energy costs.
Topping the public’s list: a new exterior paint job. For the tenants, it’s new washers and dryers — which they’ll get — and more elevators, which they won’t.
Sherman said the issue of more elevators presents the biggest challenge.
“If we could add more elevators, that would be phenomenal,” Sherman said. “But … the only way you can add elevators is to add them to the outside of the building, and every part of that building is like a jigsaw puzzle.”
Ahmed said Sherman has told him that he plans to fix 80 percent to 90 percent of the tenants’ problems.
“We cannot say 100 percent, but our expectation is whatever they promise they have to do it … otherwise it will not be a livable place. That’s the reality,” Ahmed said.
Sherman said $5 million to $6 million of the rehab will go toward partially satisfying the public demand for a new paint job.
A year before Ralph Rapson died, Sherman asked him a question he’d long wondered: What was behind the multicolored panels?
The “ugly beige” was all they could afford, Rapson told him. But the painters cut him a deal: They would color 10 percent of the panels for free. So every week he would point out a panel and pick a color.
Sherman expects to brighten — but not change — what Rapson had chosen, reflecting that “the building has taken on a life bigger than itself.”
While Jama detests the faded panels, he sees a deeper meaning in them.
“I think there’s a symbol into the colors... how different people from all over the world live in this community, that have different, unique cultures, but they still get along. In my opinion, this community should be the example for the whole country.”
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