BY KAY SCHROVEN
There was plenty of sun and the temps were above freezing on Sunday, Feb. 26, as the East Phillips and Little Earth communities and their supporters celebrated Judge Edward Wahl’s recent injunction to allow the Minnesota Court of Appeals to review the activists’ request to permanently stop the city’s controversial, impending demolition of the Roof Depot building.
In summary, the years-long battle involves the city of Minneapolis’s plan to destroy the Roof Depot at 1860 E. 28th St. in the East Phillips neighborhood in order to create a public works facility which would house water and sewage systems and a large parking lot versus the organized resistance advocates’ proposal to turn the property into a community center with an urban farm, cooperatively-owned businesses and small shelters for the community’s unsheltered population. The fight has been led by a coalition of grassroots organizations including the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), Little Earth Protectors, environmental groups, the American Indian Movement and more. The effort is known as “Defend the Depot.”
Given its history, the property is believed to be contaminated and a source of pollution, namely arsenic trioxide. It was established as a Superfund site in 2007 on the heels of a long defunct pesticide plant. The outcome was removal of 50,000 tons of contaminated soil. The concern is that the soil underneath the building remains contaminated and if disturbed would release more toxins into the area.
Seventy percent of East Phillips residents are Indigenous, Black and people of color (BIPOC). The neighborhood is also home to Little Earth – a historic urban Native housing community. Traditionally this is a working-class community. The city’s plan to place a public works facility in a neighborhood already challenged financially and with a history of housing industrial businesses and facilities is known as environmental racism. A 2022 Minnesota Department of Health report found that a high number of residents of the neighborhood died of particulate matter pollution, in addition to high numbers of illnesses such as asthma. While the city has offered compromises such as reduction and mitigation of pollution, the activists have rejected the offers.
The recent injunction followed a 12-hour standoff on Feb. 21, during a major snowstorm, at the Roof Depot site between activists and residents and the Minneapolis Police Department. This event was in reaction to the City Council’s recent 7-6 vote to proceed with the demolition project. The resistance set up tents, built fires and flew banners in defense of their position, noting that this is “stolen land.” Rachel Thunder of the American Indian Movement reported being arrested, along with seven others, for misdemeanor trespassing.
In a celebratory spirit the Feb. 26 event provided information and a variety of resources free of charge. There were boxes of canned goods, loaves of bread, large bags of lettuce, racks of coats and sweaters, mittens and general clothing, and shoes and boots for children and adults. Susie from Sisters’ Camelot, along with the Walker Church, dished up delicious hot soup, rice and beans, coffee and desserts. There was live music, and vendors were available to answer questions and provide handouts about their organizations and efforts, including Southside Street Medics, Warriors Publication, Atlas Defense, Climate Justice MN, and Defend the Depot, all in solidarity against the city’s plan while awaiting the decision of the Court of Appeals. Rep. Hodan Hassan has introduced legislation to fund the EPNI urban farm.
The vision of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute
EPNI Board President
Daniel Colten Schmidt,
EPNI Communications Team
East Phillips is not an industrial area, it is a neighborhood, and it should be respected as such. East Phillips residents have been fighting the city plan for over a decade because any added pollution to the neighborhood would exacerbate the already disproportionate rates of asthma, heart conditions and cancer that residents endure.
Our vision for the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm and Community Hub reverses centuries of environmental injustice that BIPOC residents have been forced to endure. The Urban Farm would be a guiding star, exemplifying to the whole nation how a cooperative relationship with land and each other can also be economically profitable.
The heart of the Urban Farm plan is its economic structure. The building and its programs would be owned cooperatively: one-third owned by homeowners, their share cost subsidized to 30% area median income; one-third owned by small businesses and nonprofit tenants, their share cost subsidized to 70% area median lease cost; and one-third owned by outside investors, their share cost at 100%. Subsidies would be made possible by legislative grants and the profits of the indoor urban farm, solar array, bike shop and restaurants.
With the cooperative structure, East Phillips residents who have been unable to afford a home for generations would have the opportunity to build generational wealth. Over half of the building space would be an aquaponics/hydroponics farm. The solar array would be one of the largest in the state of Minnesota. The east wall of the building adjacent to the Green-way would be turned into a farmers’ market, bike shop, coffee shop and restaurant. Finally, a green careers training facility would prepare Minneapolis residents for jobs of the future.
Imagine a community-led, cooperatively organized, economically vibrant, indoor organic farm and sustainable energy generator right in the heart of your neighborhood.
Publisher’s note: We wrote to Mayor Frey: You could come out of this smelling like a rose. Pick a new site for the Water Department. Someplace industrial and undeveloped. It doesn’t have to be in the city. Meadowbrook, Gross and Wirth golf courses aren’t in the city. Brand new buildings. Dream up the ideal plan – it would please the department, the unions, and the building trades. Then give the land to Little Earth as sanctuary for the homeless. It would be genius. You would be a canonized saint.