A journalist who’s passionate about neighborhoods

He gets paid to cover local issues, but the Star Tribune’s Steve Brandt helps make Minneapolis better on his own time

Steve Brandt is an observer and a translator, watching the life of Minneapolis and deciphering it in the pages of the Star Tribune.

For nine years, the reporter watched the city’s neighborhoods like a combination Jewish mother, Father confessor and soft-spoken inquisitor, keeping readers up on the who, what, where, why, when and how of Minneapolis in microcosm.

He’s not just an observer, though. Brandt is also a neighborhood activist, a former Kingfield Neighborhood Association board member, the person who kicked off the 40th Street Greenway effort and a guy who’s quietly been going to St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Whittier once a month for 19 years to mop up, do the dishes and the other little things that help the progressive church keep its human services programs going. And he’s a guy working at the city’s biggest media voice who offers up blunt assessments of his employer.

Offbeat

Late last year, people all over the city expressed chagrin when Brandt’s editors at the Strib moved him off of his beloved neighborhoods beat.

Former City Councilmember Pat Scott is active in her Kenwood neighborhood, especially on issues surrounding the Walker Library. She said, "Whenever I would see Steve’s byline on an article [on neighborhoods], I felt immediately reassured that I could count on the accuracy of the facts he was presenting.

"It came as a great surprise to me that all of a sudden, he seemed to be covering schools. I’ve been appalled in a couple of instances where stories were written by people who had very little background."

Many Minneapolitans felt that their hometown paper was focusing too much on the sprawling suburbs and too little on the here and now.

"I agree with them," Brandt said as he sat outside a Kingfield caf/ sipping coffee. "And I don’t hesitate to say so because I’ve said so inside [the newspaper’s offices].

"If you look at crime and City Hall, we still cover Minneapolis more than any other city. But if you get into the fabric of what makes a city tick, I don’t think we cover Minneapolis as well as we do St. Paul, even."

He said he wasn’t happy when he was switched from covering neighborhoods to writing about the city’s schools.

"That had nothing to do with schools; it was that I really liked the broader intellectual range of neighborhoods. I was replaced by somebody who … at best, can do half-time work on Minneapolis issues and the other half has to be general assignment anywhere in the metro area. I don’t think we’re giving Minneapolis what it deserves in terms of coverage."

Star Tribune Managing Editor Scott Gillespie said his newspaper is "filled with stories about Minneapolis every day and every week from front to back."

He added that he’d like to see "more coverage of people in all the communities we’re responsible for covering: the suburbs, St. Paul, Minneapolis. It’s something we talk about a lot. We believe people are very interested in those kinds of stories…Steve definitely did a very good job with those kinds of pieces."

Brandt said that if he were to be returned to neighborhoods, he would approach the beat differently, focusing more on the stories revealing the human tapestry of the town than its government and institutions.

"There’s a fabric and a heartbeat to a city, and in Minneapolis it’s more than crime and it’s more than what happens at City Hall. And we don’t give readers inside the city that and we don’t give readers in the suburbs that sense of Minneapolis. And that distorts everybody’s perception of the city.

"We have fewer editors, particularly editors in charge of making things happen, who are grounded in the community; who grew up here, who know Minnesota, the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and Kingfield culture. Who know what distinguishes Northeast Minneapolis from Southwest Minneapolis, who know where Frogtown is and how it differs from the East Side, and [they] probably don’t care."

Gillespie, who has been with the paper since 1991, disagrees with Brandt.

"This newsroom has a tremendous amount of knowledge about the Twin Cities. If you look at us in comparison to most big, metro daily papers, we probably have more people who’ve lived here for a longer period time because we are a paper that people aspire to come and work for."

Lessons learned

Brandt’s own perceptions of the city changed over those years he spent on the neighborhoods beat.

"I think I gained a fuller understanding of neighborhoods that are unlike my block," he said. "I gained something of a better understanding of the lives of poor people and what it’s like to be on the edge. What it’s like to struggle with poor housing conditions, with lack of income, unexpected crises that put you in financial jeopardy.

"That’s probably deepened my perspective on not just the city but my life and the accidents of circumstance and birth that affect our lives."

Brandt said he realizes, as all reporters must, that he can’t change or fix the lives of those he comes in contact with. That’s not his job.

"It’s something you learn over the years. You start with routine journalism and less wrenching stories and you learn to distance yourself. You’re there as an observer, a person who’s documenting but you’re not there to fix it."

Sometimes, however, a little light shone into a previously dark corner can get a bureaucracy moving, as when Brandt uncovered the financial machinations of Robert Zeman in the 1990s.

Zeman rented apartments that sometimes didn’t have locks on the doors, were overrun with insects and were hubs of violence, including killings.

Said Brandt, "We were able to shine a spotlight on this guy as essentially a slumlord and eventually, a year or two later, the city took away his largest building, which had been a real perennial source of complaints."

Though Brandt takes no credit for the city’s actions, he will quietly admit, "that was satisfying."

40th Street Greenway

Brandt, a certifiable running addict, also gets satisfaction from running along the 40th Street Greenway between I-35W and Lyndale Avenue, which is near his home.

While serving four years on the Kingfield neighborhood board, he came up with the idea for the greenway in 1995, when the Neighborhood Revitalization Program was still on the horizon.

"At the time I was doing a lot of youth soccer coaching and I was always running back and forth between Lyndale Farmstead Park and [Dr. Martin Luther] King Park and I thought, ‘Kids are riding their bikes to soccer practice and games and wouldn’t it be great if they had a bikelane going up and down this street?"

That thought propelled him into years of meeting with area residents to find out what they wanted and didn’t want in a greenway.

Though the 10-block section he originally envisioned between I-35W and Lyndale Avenue has been constructed, the project continues into East Harriet — and it won’t stop there.

"The idea is to go all the way to the Mississippi River," Brandt said.

Co-coordinator of the project Steve Jevning said, "The most incredible thing about him [Brandt] is that he has this encyclopedic knowledge of the city of Minneapolis."

Jevning said that whenever city engineers raised objections to some aspect or another of the plans, it seemed that Brandt always had an example of an exception to city zoning ordinances and other regulations that helped persuade the engineers to relent.

Plus, said Jevning, "He’s pretty smart about the community organizing stuff, if only because he’s watched it work and not work in so many different instances over the years."

Brandt, Jevning and others working on the Greenway aim to replace the footbridge at 40th Street and the I-35W with something that will be a signature for the neighborhoods.

"Something that almost frames the entrance to the city, something distinctive akin to the Whitney Bridge by the Sculpture Garden or the Third Avenue Bridge by the Art Institute — which some people like and some people don’t like."

Conflict of interest?

Some people might wonder how a reporter assigned to cover neighborhoods can, at the same time, be a neighborhood activist without crossing an ethical line etched in a code of conduct somewhere.

Brandt said that he avoided crossing that line by keeping distance between himself and City Hall when working on the Greenway project.

"Basically, when it involved politics or conversations with people in public office, I let other people handle that. I felt it was important to keep my distance."

He also, of course, didn’t write any articles about the Greenway.

"I made a decision early on, both because I live in the neighborhood and because I had been on the neighborhood board when I started the beat, that I wasn’t going to write about Kingfield. When something interesting came up in Kingfield, I’d mention it to [columnist] Doug Grow or somebody else.

"We conceived the Greenway as a community entity and I wasn’t getting anything personally out of it," said Brandt, who lives about half a block away from the now-verdant boulevard.

"I figured as long as it was a general community improvement and it was [NRP] money that had been allocated to my neighborhood, so it was a question within the neighborhood of how do we spend it, I was comfortable."

It’s interesting that this unpaid and unheralded effort to create a greenspace with bikepath and flora-decorated bump-outs on the street fits so neatly into a description Brandt has of the Strib: "We don’t do the stories about the small triumphs of neighborhood life, about how people interact in the city that raises the common good."