Struggle over Roof Depot redevelopment enters new phase, civil disobedience likely

Roughly 70 people gathered outside in the cold Sunday afternoon to hold a Healing Circle in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. During an open-mic, they expressed sadness, anger and frustration over the city’s plans to expand its Public Works facility near 26th Street onto the Roof Depot site.

The Roof Depot site is vacant, but for an unused warehouse. The city plans to tear down the warehouse to accommodate more Public Works staff and equipment. It would bring more diesel fumes to an already over-polluted community. Neighbors say they can’t take — and shouldn’t have to take — any more air pollution, and the illnesses and death that comes with it.

The resistance entered a new phase Sunday, with talk of direct action to block the warehouse’s demolition. The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) dreams to convert the warehouse into a community-owned asset, with an urban farm, affordable housing, and an income-generating solar array, hangs in the balance.

East Phillips already has multiple pollution sources, from the Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways to the current Public Works yard and Highway 55.

Community organizer Joe Vital emceed the Sunday event. Vital, from Red Lake, expressed “deep sadness and disappointment.” Sadness because “we and all our relatives are in the same position that we have been for hundreds of years, which is fighting back against the U.S. government,”

“This system does not see us or this land as relatives, but as commodities that can be leveraged and exploited for their own benefits.”

The city plans to move its Water Works yard, now in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood, onto the Roof Depot site.

Vital said the city wants to relocate the Water Works facility to redevelop the more valuable Marcy Holmes property and “keep East Phillips the way it is, polluted.”

City leaders also have said that consolidating the Public Works operations would increase efficiency. Yet it’s putting all the burden for creating efficiencies onto one of the city’s poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods.

The Minneapolis City Council voted 7-6 Thursday to spend $1.6 million to demolish the 200,000 square foot warehouse, the Star Tribune reported.

East Phillips supporters packed the Minneapolis City Council meeting Thursday. More than 100 residents and allies attended to oppose demolition.

East Phillips supporters packed the Minneapolis City Council meeting Thursday.

There’s talk of “compromise,” including giving the neighborhood a corner of the Roof Depot parcel to redevelop. But taking the deal also would mean the neighborhood would have to accept the added pollution.

And the compromise wouldn’t include the warehouse building. That adds significant costs to neighborhood development plans, as new construction would be much more expensive than repurposing the warehouse.

Nicole Perez and her family live in Little Earth, just blocks away from the Roof Depot site. (Little Earth is a 212-unit subsidized housing complex, with a preference for Native American renters.)

She was less concerned about the Roof Depot redevelopment itself than the warehouse demolition.

(The Roof Depot site sits atop a former arsenic-laden Superfund site. The area was mostly cleaned, but not the land directly below the warehouse. Residents worry demolition will pollute the neighborhood.)

“We’re more worried about our children and our community’s health,” Perez said. The demolition will stir up lots of toxins, which will land “where our kids play, where our elders sit out in the park.”

“We have a lot of residents that are willing to step up to this,” she said. “We don’t want this to happen in our community. … It scares us very much and we will fight till the end.”

Nicole Perez speaks into the Healing Circle.

Lois Long and her two young children attended the event. They live in Little Earth. Both children suffer from asthma. (East Phillips residents have a disproportionately high asthma rate, and they blame the air pollution.)

“And the little one in the pink,” Long said, pointing to her youngest, “she breathes like she’s a fish out of water.”

“I come here because I fight for the justice of our people.”

Katherine Gould from Climate Justice said the City Council’s vote has brought a lot of clarity. The City Council, regulatory agencies, the legal system — they won’t protect the neighborhood, she said. She lead the crowd in a chant: “The city won’t keep us safe … We keep us safe!”

“We want the places we live to be livable,” Gould said. “We want the air the we breathe to be breathable and we want the water we drink to be drinkable. We all have those same universal human needs. Shame on the city for continually making its residents, especially BIPOC communities, fight continuously just to get these human needs met.”

“What we’re asking for is not unreasonable. It is not unattainable,” she said. “We will not go away quietly. We are not standing down.”

Nina Berglund, an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and Minneapolis resident, said the city’s plans reflect a broader pattern.

“We’ve seen it with the Dakota Access Pipeline, we’ve seen it with [Enbridge] Line 3,” said Berglund, who grew up nearby and has nieces who live in Little Earth who suffer from asthma. “We know that these attacks are happening on our people and it is up to us to stand with one another, to hold each other, and to make sure that our young ones can breathe.”

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