It was simple, and on the surface, easy to scoff at — another “Kumbaya” community-engagement idea seemingly created out of warm fuzzies.
“Transforming front lawns from empty expanses of grass to vibrant places full of life through the development of a toolkit that encourages residents to create community hubs on their doorsteps,” the pitch read.
But a surprising response made one of the city’s biggest grant organizations take notice.
Out of the dozen or so finalists for the Knight Foundation’s largest annual contest, the “friendly front lawns” project generated — by far — the most local buzz, foundation officials said in April.
The pitch: Get people out of their back yards and into their front lawns — seen as “dead spaces,” where nobody hangs out.
“It’s all about having a place to sit,” said Max Musicant, whose Musicant Group headed the pitch, partnering with an aptly named St. Paul nonprofit called the Friendly Streets Initiative.
The reception was big. Apparently, living in the middle of a 3 million-strong metro area, isolation can be a concern. The task of a simple conversation with a neighbor — breaching the façade city dwellers erect for social or even physical protection — can be daunting.
The project landed $82,400 in foundation funding and months later workshops began. Twenty-two families from the city’s old Rondo neighborhood and others from Frogtown and Hamline-Midway met in a library basement.
There, a pair of perky, smiling millennials pitched ways for people to sit in their front yards and meet their neighbors.
They had a system: Ways to arrange chairs, grills and plants in your yard so you could sit there and not seem like you were accosting every passer-by. But also seem approachable, or at least worthy of a friendly wave of the hand.
Vivian Mims, who’s lived in the city’s historically black Rondo neighborhood for decades — and already sits on her front steps — threw some shade at the idea.
“People walk by, you say ‘hi’ and they don’t say anything. It’s like, ‘Who are you?’ ”
“It’s almost like it’s taboo to get to know people,” Frogtown resident Tasha Rose said.
And the idea of putting benches out front — or anything that could go missing overnight — struck some as naive.
“I got two benches in the back I could bring out. But I’m always afraid somebody will take it,” said Lori Mitchell, who’s lived in Rondo for 29 years. “I’d be really pissed if somebody took that, because it’s a really nice bench.”
A TALE OF TWO CHAIRS
Musicant’s smile didn’t falter. A couple of years ago, he’d debated that, too.
One night while living in a big brick building in Minneapolis’s Whittier neighborhood, he left his apartment for a fire alarm. Milling around on the street, waiting for the all-clear, he glanced around at his neighbors. He knew one, maybe two of them, after living there two years.
It was ironic, considering that his day job was to create “community spaces” for large office complexes.
“I’m doing this for money for other people; why am I not doing this in my own living situation?” Musicant said.
So he bought a pair of orange plastic chairs from Home Depot and put them in the front of the building – a tiny wedge of space between the brick wall and the sidewalk. He put a sign on them that said ‘Please sit here.’ And he followed suit: sitting there in the sun nearly every day.
Neighbor Andrea Gyenge remembers first seeing the chairs, empty at the time.
“My first thought was, ‘Somebody’s going to steal these chairs,’ ” she said. “I didn’t understand what they were at first. And then I saw the sign on it and I was like … ‘cool.’ ”
She walked by another time and met Max. Then she sat down, too.
“If you were sitting there and anybody was walking by, you’d have to have some kind of exchange. You wouldn’t be in their way, but it would be awkward if you didn’t.”
By the first week Max knew half the building’s residents by name. And other people on the street began to sit in the chairs, too.
“It really became this community hub, just from the simple act of putting two chairs out by the door,” he said, before repeating, “It’s all about having a good place to sit.”
Still, Gyenge remembers, the chairs couldn’t perform miracles.
“It didn’t solve the problem of meeting your building weirdos. When I say hello to them they kind of look at me askance. And some people didn’t care at all.”
The building’s management frowned on the idea — first saying the chairs were an eyesore, then citing clearance issues in case of a fire.
The chairs were moved inside the foyer, then to a cramped space under some stairs, Gyenge said. Then into the bike room, where nobody went.
Musicant circulated a petition — “Save the Chairs!” — to no avail.
Still, no hard feelings.
“They weren’t bad people. Property managers are incentivized to not have bad things happen, and not necessarily to have good things happen. It’s about minimizing the strike-outs.”
Gyenge, who still lives in the building, said once the chairs were gone, her connections dried up too.
“There’s nobody I met new that I still talk to. The only person I still talked to was Max. But now, I don’t talk to anybody.”
TEARING DOWN BORDERS
Musicant’s theory has a lot to do with borders: tearing down big ones, or putting one up, just small and permeable enough — a short row of potted plants, perhaps — to make other people comfortable.
In the city, that helps.
And seating’s a big thing. Never in the middle of the lawn — that’s just plain awkward.
“It’s like a junior high dance,” Musicant said. “The middle of the gym is really scary.”
A month after the kickoff, Rondo resident Mitchell brought her bench out to her front yard, and put some plants and lights around it. Then she went further: transforming a small space of grass to brick, and adding some plants, a table and two chairs.
“Nobody wants to come to a raggedy spot,” she says.
So far, her bench has stayed put.
“I look out here every day to see if it’s still here. I painted it, and I said, ‘I’m gonna take a chance.’ ”
She gets waves — but on the other hand, she knew a lot of people already. She just never got to see them as much.
She reminisces about the old Rondo. “I always liked sitting in front. Remember watching cars go by. Then all of a sudden, there was a drive-by (shooting), and I stopped.”
Carolyn Brown, another Frogtown resident, planted a cactus garden out front and sits there about once a week.
“More people stop now, just to ask more questions about what’s going on. The garden’s a big draw. Neighbors who have been here awhile, if they didn’t know me, they’d probably think somebody else is here.”
It’s true that most of the people attracted to the program weren’t exactly wallflowers. Mitchell, for instance, sat on two neighborhood councils and headed her block party. Many were attracted by the Knight Foundation’s proffered funding, though it wasn’t much: $300 to $500 a yard, at a cost of sitting through a couple meetings and following up.
But Amber Finke, in the 1400 block of Charles, didn’t know a soul when she moved there last July.
She did something a bit unorthodox: tearing up grass from the city boulevard, and putting in a bench bordered by a rocks and plants.
So far she’s gotten a couple of bites — a neighbor several doors down came by with her kids, offered some plants — and a dozen passing salutations.
“If they’re inside their house peeking out and not coming out, it’s almost like you’re surrounded by voyeurs,” Finke said.
Andrea Giles moved into her grandmother’s old home in the 900 block of Iglehart Avenue last October. She tore out the front bushes and replaced them with a table and a pair of chairs. A family member built some beanbag boards, which she leaves on her sidewalk.
Her two sons now have the most popular house on the block — a go-to spot for neighborhood kids.
“You’re welcome in my yard, as long as you play nice,” says Giles, who works the overnight shift and gets about four or five hours of sleep a day. She said her next-door neighbor comes over a lot more often, saying, “I’ve been fishing. Do you want some fish?”
“Was I social before? No, not like this,” Giles says. “I just wasn’t really outside. Or if I was outside, I was in back. I always thought like, it’s so hard to meet your neighbors, how do you do that? Now, sitting in front, you just say ‘hi’ and that’s how it starts.”
AN AVENUE EXPERIMENTS
Then there’s Charles Avenue, where in some ways, the “front lawn” theory has been going on for years. Only now, more so: Of all the people who responded to Musicant’s social call, at least a half-dozen came from within a few blocks where Charles meets Lexington Avenue.
Some ambitious projects there reflect it: One, a musician, tore down his front fence to put up a stage. One woman used the money to install a big movie screen on her front lawn once a week with a sign in the city boulevard broadcasting show times.
“It was really exciting to me to see so many new faces,” said Martha Burton Santibanez, the outdoor-theater owner.
But efforts at that corner of Charles started years ago — with many residents pointing to a single couple as the instigators. The Hunts.
“We’d lived there six or seven years, and we did a ‘time inventory.’ We realized that when we had free time, we left the neighborhood, went to see college friends in Roseville and White Bear Lake,” said Dan Hunt.
He was familiar with local block clubs, and found them ill-fitted for getting up close and personal with his neighbors.
“They were what most block clubs are, which is in my opinion about white home owners getting together and talking about all the ‘bad people.’ Talking about ‘what’s wrong and let’s fix it,’ not ‘what’s right and how do we improve it.’ ”
So he went to a neighbor he knew, and invited him to a potluck in his back yard. Then knocked on some more doors, introducing himself.
Every week, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Hunt had a Monday night dinner in his yard. By the summer’s last meal, about eight families — 50 people — were participating.
“For me and my wife, we got what we wanted out of the deal. We know so many people that walk by now,” Hunt said.
A book club and knitting club sprung up — along with a Facebook group, of course.
But the neighbors decided to keep it closed, with 139 members, all of whom knew each other. Hunt compares open, thousands-strong neighborhood Facebook groups to block clubs with their worst aspects amplified, where “trolls and people take a rather benign topic and turn it into a big fight.”
And in the end, he prefers the meals for the same reason Musicant bought two orange plastic chairs, years ago.
“I’m a much bigger fan of the face-to-face.”
By Tad, Vezner, Pioneer Press
To read the full article, go here.