What I learned about Minneapolis in the Pacific Northwest

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As I pulled my bike up the street where Shiki’s had been since 2001, I narrowly dodged a pothole while looking at the graffiti on the abandoned building next door. The neighborhood clearly had gone through changes, some good and some bad. But the unique character of the community didn’t deter me from trying it out.  

In the modestly sized sushi restaurant an elderly Japanese man spoke little English while preparing fresh prawns swimming in a tank in front of him. I knew it was going to be good.  

Ken and his wife Edsuko own the restaurant and manage all operations. When I told him I was traveling from Minneapolis he proceeded to treat me to small delicacies such as jellyfish with lemon, sesame, and ginger, deep fried shrimp heads with a house made seaweed paste that he described as, “tastes like ocean” and the best damn sashimi I’ve ever had.

But this isn’t a restaurant review. Shiki’s is an example of the character of the region, the appreciation for local business, the lack of pretension, and the progressive culture that thrives there. I spent a week traveling through the Pacific Northwest and this is what I learned about Minneapolis along the way.

Minneapolis is a great place. We live in a clean, liberal city with lots of beautiful green space, but Portland, Seattle and Vancouver showed me that we have a long way to go.  From the Beacon Food Forest where parkland has been converted into a public permaculture system providing produce for the community to the bike, transit and pedestrian infrastructure, the city of Seattle operates in sustainable synergy.

Similarly there was a noticeable difference in the lassez faire approach to living with those experiencing homelessness. When I walked past shelters with men and women lined up to get a bed, I was greeted with smiles and asked how my night was going. Their home, whether a tent in a camp or a mat in a shelter was treated as their home, and the community lived together peacefully amongst them. With such gorgeous scenery who could be anything but at peace there. 

Being in the mountains of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia put me face to face with climate change. Waterfalls flowed from melting glaciers in the record high heat, topping 100 degrees on some days. In an area known for lush green landscapes brown grass and thirsty trees lined the highways. The drought in California had made its way up to the PNW with the worst snowpack in years and the people are taking precautions.
Farmers are holding off watering crops to exchange for state issued lease payments while others are utilizing emergency wells. Water sources residents depend on have been shut off to brace for what’s to come.

Out here climate change is in your face; you can feel it. When you are surrounded by such a varied and beautiful landscape, it is difficult not to notice when the environment is changing. 

As sweat dripped off my forehead standing on top of Howe Sound in Squamish, Canada I told my friend, “This isn’t normal.” As an employee of the National Parks Service he wholeheartedly agreed, adding that the ecosystems here cannot sustain without significant changes to the way we go about business as usual. 

Out there sustainability is inherent in the culture and progressive values are embraced not feared. Everywhere you look from the cyclists climbing the steeps hills or the Teslas driving past buildings with roof top gardens, organics recycling in public parks or the local farmers feeding their communities the people here value maintaining the beauty that surrounds them. 

When problems arise the people in the Pacific Northwest finds their own solutions. These values are consistent in the public and their elected leaders.

Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant is running for reelection with a platform including rent control. The leader elected out of the Occupy movement set a national precedent by passing $15 minimum wage last year, with several other cities following suit. Over half of the city is comprised of renters who have experienced similar growth and gentrification as seen in Minneapolis. Market rate for a one-bedroom apartment goes for around $1,200, which is nearly a $100 increase from a year ago. People are being driven out but Sawant wants to keep them in their homes. 

Currently there is a ban on rent control in the state of Washington, but Sawant is mobilizing the city to urge lawmakers to remove it. Rent control is one part of a broader strategy for Sawant that includes investment in thousands of affordable housing units.

Economic policies that push back on corporate agendas, such as rent control may create anxiety for some. The potential for profit loss for a few are compromised by increased access and opportunity for many. Letting go of these conditioned beliefs benefits both the public and private sector by adding to the amount of spending dollars in consumers’ pockets. It’s a self-sustaining model and an example that progressive values are nothing to be afraid of.

Another misunderstood issue in the general public is the criminalization of cannabis. 

With California, Washington, British Columbia, and as of July 1, Oregon all legalizing either medicinal and/or recreational cannabis use, nearly the entire west coast of North America has earned millions of dollars in annual revenue, created hundreds of jobs and have seen no “reefer madness” like chaos in the streets. There was no point during my entire trip that I felt unsafe, including times that I was walking around at night in neighborhoods I didn’t know with the smell of weed smoke in the air.

The cannabis movement on the West Coast showed no signs of negative consequences, and only benefits to the community. It’s time that Governor Dayton make Minnesota the next state to take our country one step closer to ending the war on drugs.

When planning our next housing development in a city becoming saturated with luxury apartments let’s think not of the recently graduated Chicago frat boy and instead consider the family who has lived here their entire life just trying to get by. When approving another high-end grocery store in the most competitive market in the country let’s look to support our local farmers and residents who are able to provide for the own city’s food needs by starting a coop.

When wondering whether or not climate change is real let’s not wait until it is slapping us in the face and allow our residents and environmental organizations to create their own solutions for renewable energy and emission reduction. When putting another family of color into the child protection system or locking up another young black man let’s think of how arbitrary and antiquated our cannabis laws are and consider the benefits of decriminalizing marijuana. When we look at our city let us not fear becoming a truly progressive community and look at the Pacific Northwest for the sustainable future that we can achieve.

Ryan Stopera is a social worker and community organizer in Minneapolis. He is on the board of directors of MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.