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Scenes from Childhood


Sun, Jul 16th, 2000
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Monday, July 10, 2000

We stand on a cracked sidewalk, looking across a cyclone fence at vacant lots and trees, all that remains of the Sumner Field Housing Projects in North Minneapolis. In 1938, the year he was born, my husband's family became the first residents of the Projects. In 1998, the buildings were demolished due to complaints that they concentrated poverty.
I know Art is seeing more than an empty space when he points to what was 770 Emerson Avenue North, his family's first apartment. A stately elm, one of the few that hasn't died of Dutch Elm disease, stands in front of the empty space. Art recalls his dad watering this tree when it was a sapling. I have heard this story before, along with the others he is about to tell. The stories always seem new.

He points to the empty spaces of their other apartments and shows me where their friends, the Hedding's, lived. He tells me that Mrs. Hedding grew up in Fillmore County. I hear about the little girl who died of leukemia; the handicapped boy and his tame squirrel named Peter; and Donald DeMars, a kid who corrupted all his friends. I hear about the knifings in the neighborhood.

Residents of the Projects included the working poor, the unemployed, and mothers and children waiting for husbands and fathers to come home from World War II. The war fascinated my husband. He still remembers December 7, 1941, just before his third birthday, when he stood by his dad hunched over an old Zenith radio listening to Cedric Adams announce the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Later, near the end of the war, he and his friends waited to meet GI's getting off buses on nearby Olson Highway. Some GI's, of course, never came home.

Across the street from the Projects, Sumner Community Library elicits more stories. Art used to sit in a corner of the children's room in this English Tudor style building, reading encyclopedias. From his corner, he could see a picture of three knights going to the Crusades. The Library, its pictures and its books transported him to worlds removed from the one he usually inhabited and sparked his life-long interest in history.

We meet librarian Dan Kelty who is interested in Art's memories of the area. As they look over old photographs, they point to Sumner Field Park, a central area of the Projects that divided whites from blacks; the Phyllis Wheatly Center on the black side; and the administration building on the white side. Segregation didn't keep the white children from having black friends.

In another photograph, Mr. Kelty points to the Emanuel Cohen settlement house and synagogue, which now belong to the Baptists. Other synagogues are long gone, as is the large Jewish community that used to border the Projects. This community once provided its residents with synagogues, activity centers, kosher butcher shops, meat markets and delicatessens.

The poorest Jews, among them my husband's best friend, lived closest to the Projects. Art and Stanley met in first grade. Stan was small and smart. Art was bigger and tougher than other boys his age and soon became his friend's protector as they walked the mean streets to and from school. Their friendship continues to this day.

From the library, we walk down Olson Highway, which was named for Floyd B. Olson, Minnesota's Populist governor and patron of the poor. We arrive at a large cottonwood that has a growth on its trunk where bark grew around an old sign. Art's older brother, an entrepreneur, nailed the sign to the tree over half a century ago. As women of the neighborhood climbed down from buses carrying bags of groceries, they saw the sign and Jim's young employees waiting to carry their bags for a dime.

Our last stop is the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, which used to be one of Art's favorite places. The garden is a refuge from the bustle of the city; it contains woodlands, wetlands, uplands and prairie. Some of the flowers we see blooming are Wild Calla, Marsh Marigold and Yellow Trillium. A few Yellow Lady's-slippers are still hanging on. Birdsong fills the air.

When we leave the garden, we join the thousands of anonymous faces sitting in cars waiting for traffic to move through a Minneapolis rush hour. It is good to get back to the Big Woods and its array of wildflowers planted by the Great Mother herself.

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