The neighborhood scribe

Janelle Nivens, a career counselor in higher education and a resident of the Armatage neighborhood, has embarked on a mission to document life in all of the city’s 81 neighborhoods. So far she’s profiled 10 neighborhoods for her “Minneapolis 81” blog. She’s reached out to friends and asked them to give tours of their neighborhoods and has put out a call for guides on Twitter and Facebook. Besides uncovering some hidden gems in Minneapolis, she’s had a chance to make a lot of new friends. Her goal is to make it to one new neighborhood each week.

SWJ: What was the inspiration for your blog? When did you get started?

Nivens: On a cold March morning [earlier this year], I was on my way to meet friends for brunch at Maria’s Cafe. With some time to kill, I parked a mile away and walked along Franklin Avenue East so I could take photos for my personal 365 photo project in which I post a photo a day every day in 2011.

As I passed through the Seward neighborhood, I was amazed by all I would have missed if I hadn’t left the warm confines of my car and walked: the word fence at the Playwrights’ Center; the homes on Milwaukee Avenue; the ornate doors on the Blue Nile restaurant; and that Welna Hardware has been “helping folks fix things since 1954.”  

Before reaching the restaurant,  I saw a sign for Ventura Village. Despite living in Minneapolis for seven years, I had never heard of this neighborhood, let alone visited it. When I got home, I looked at the city of Minneapolis neighborhood site and discovered that Minneapolis has 81 neighborhoods! I decided right then and there that I needed to tour each of the neighborhoods.

Any favorite discoveries?

My answer may not be what you are anticipating: people!

In addition to getting to know some of the hidden gems of Minneapolis, I have also gotten to know some of the unique and fun people who inhabit and make these neighborhoods true communities. This has given me the chance to meet and interact with some great people I would have otherwise never met.

For example, I didn’t know most of the tour guides prior to this project. Through these tours, I’ve been introduced to artists sharing their work publicly in home studios.  For example, Lauri Svedberg is known by neighbors to occupy the “wolf house” and inside, she’s created a textural wonderland with painted murals and polished stones, beads and shells covering many surfaces.

People volunteering their time for their communities, such as my Armatage tour guide, Lisa, who helps teach art at Armatage preschool and my Kingfield tour guide, Ed, who teaches workshops at Leonardo’s Basement.

Small business owners bringing their passions to customers, such as the three women joining forces to create ALM Cafe in Waite Park. Youth working to make their neighborhoods more beautiful in programs such as Juxtaposition Arts which positively impacts many North Minneapolis neighborhoods. I’ve also discovered how individual community members come together to make their neighborhood a safe and thriving place to live through discussion boards like e-democracy and involvement with their neighborhood association. I’ve been introduced to community organizations who work tirelessly to help solve issues and advocate for issues important to the neighborhood.

Do you have a favorite neighborhood?

I can honestly say I do not have a favorite neighborhood. Just when I think I do have a favorite neighborhood, I am introduced to a new one and I fall in love all over again. For the sake of example, the stretch of Kingfield neighborhood that I was able to visit was a great example of what I believe can make a neighborhood thrive: a weekly farmers market, coffee shops and restaurants, a huge park, public art, interesting shops selling everything from books and records to antiques to clothing and a range of housing options including single family and multiple occupant homes.

Any surprises from your neighborhood tours?

How many neighborhoods have a clear view of the Minneapolis skyline. Since I am barely hanging on to my Minneapolis zip code, living in the southwest corner of the city, I am not able to see it until I get to 46th Street on my bus ride to work so it’s not something I think about at home. I’ve also always known that Minneapolis has an amazing parks system but it has taken walking through several neighborhoods to realize just how great they are. Some neighborhoods have three or more parks which is something to be proud of as a city.

I’ve also been surprised by the number of local, independent businesses and organizations that offer something unique to the neighborhood such as Leonardo’s Basement in Kingfield, Settergren’s Hardware in Armatage and Wise Acre Eatery in Tangletown.

What have you gotten out of this project?

This project combines all of my favorite hobbies: urban hiking, photography, website development, research and writing. One of my favorite moments has been introducing Mayor R.T. Rybak to Minneapolis 81 while standing in line at Hola Arepa, a food truck downtown.
My Facebook status that day: “Just introduced Mayor RT Rybak and his Chief of Staff Jeremy Hanson Willis to while waiting in line at Hola Arepa! I love this city!”

What do you hope people get out of reading your blog?

Take a vacation in your own city! I’d like people to learn that they have amazing people, places and off-beat and unexpected destinations in their backyard. I’d like them to walk or bike through neighborhoods they don’t normally visit. Change up their routine routes and travel streets, sidewalks and trails they haven’t been on. Learn that the city has a large number of business, parks, and pockets worth getting to know.

Introduce your neighborhood to others! Many people tweet or e-mail friends and family after their neighborhood has been featured and are proud to show off where they live.

I’d also love it if people who used to live in Minneapolis discovered the blog so that they could stay connected to us. Also, people visiting the Twin Cities could use it to gain ideas of places off the beaten path to visit.

I’d also welcome people to use the blog as a way to better articulate what are important neighborhood features. Perhaps some neighborhoods will discover or be reminded of amenities they would like to have and as a larger community we can try to figure out how to offer them. An example would be access to healthy food. I’ve learned not all neighborhoods have easily accessible markets and restaurants offering fresh fruits and vegetables.

Any plans for a book or other projects on the horizon?

Right now I have been focusing on improving my website and creating opportunities for people to interact through Twitter and Facebook. I am open to exploring other ways in which people will enjoy discovering Minneapolis neighborhoods. I am definitely open to collaborating with individuals and organizations with similar projects.

To check out Janelle Nivens’ Minneapolis 81 blog, go to Follow blog updates on Twitter @mpls81.