Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Local Gospel

A college-aged man comes to the porch of Rosemary William’s home, flourescent orange and green bracelets dangling from his wrists. He scans the lawn and takes in the somber people milling about before announcing, “Anyone that plans to be arrested today, please come inside the house.”

The atmosphere is tense in the front yard where an assortment of college students, white-bearded activists, and young families linger amidst hand-painted signs. A pink Orwellian pig exclaims, “You could be next!” Bold lettering asks, “Did we bail out GM so they could steal Rosemary’s house?”

We are stopped here in this strange juxtaposition: attending a protest against a foreclosure on our way to Mall of America. Of the two events, it is Rosemary and her house that frame the mood of the day.

Rosemary Williams has lived on the same block for 55 years; in order to afford her house after her mother passed, she refinanced into a adjustable rate mortgage. One day in 2008, her mortgage shot up from $1200 to $2200. Sheriffs arrived the Friday before the protest and ordered Rosemary to leave. Then, locksmiths hired by GMAC mortgage changed the locks.

That night, friends and neighbors broke into the house and have occupied it ever since, noting that Rosemary is a natural caregiver for this home in an area where dozens of vacant homes are falling into disrepair. In the first three months of 2009, 15% of U.S. homes stood vacant-- more than 19 million homes.

Rosemary’s house has become the focal point of a larger movement: the Minnesota Coalition for a People’s Bailout, an organization demanding a moratorium on foreclosures.

Protecting one’s neighbors, buying from your neighbors, in a word localism, seems to be the Twin Cities Gospel. From activism against foreclosures to supporting local business to promoting sustainable business practices, Twin Cities is way ahead of the curve... Though Brian and I headed to Mall of America that fine August day, we then took a tour of some of Minneapolis’s finest local businesses to exorcise ourselves of our consumer sins.

Our first stop of the evening was to the Green Institute, a green building set in the Philips neighborhood of Minneapolis. The mission of the Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center (aka Green Institute) “was to be a model for environmental and social justice- an incubator, research and development center, job training complex and home to progressive tenant organizations where all endeavors addressed the principle of sustainability.” (Agatha Vaaler in "Phase 1 The Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center: A Retrospective)

The Green Institute was founded with the same spirit as the movement now protecting Rosemary’s home. Where the Green Institute is now located was once the future site of a high-volume garbage transfer station. The neighborhood fought against the plan arguing that the “transfer station would stigmatize an already disadvantaged area and hinder its chances for development.” Eventually, the county digressed and offered grant funds to the neighborhood activists to develop a building materials exchange site and re-use facility. Today, the Green Institute is home to a salvage yard where homeowners can buy salvaged toilets, sinks, rain barrels, windows, doors, and cabinets. Upstairs, the roof is home to a 4000 sq. ft. living roof that retains more than 1.5 million gallons of runoff each year. Next to the rooftop garden, a solar array provides 1/4 of the total energy needs of the Green Institute.

Walking into the Green Institute, I notice a van decked out in Peace Coffee regalia. The van features a sign reading “Powered by Biodiesel.” Having been unable to locate Minneapolis biodiesel, Brian and I decide to venture into Peace Coffee and inquire about where they find their fuel. Inside, we are met by the arousing odor of coffee and a super cool guy, Andy Lambert, who shows us around the warehouse and tells us about direct trade, which is a step above fair trade, cutting out the middleman and dealing directly with the farmers producing coffee. In an email, Andy tells me that “It’s actually fairly commonplace these days for coffee roasters themselves to visit the farms where the coffee is grown. They see first hand the labor involved in producing a pound of green coffee and have to ask themselves, “Am I paying a fair price for this?”

In addition to its ethical business practices, Peace Coffee is light on the environment: deliveries are made via biodiesel van or bicycle. When I opened my bag of Peace Coffee beans and smelled the deep, fresh aroma brewing, I could enjoy guilt-free the little great pleasure bought direct from Guatemala...and Andy directed me to TnT automotive where I was able to fill up and store about 30 gallons of B80 biodiesel...enough to take me all the way to Bozeman, Montana!

From the Green Institute, Brian and I moved from coffee to food at the local food store D’Lish where “every product in the store is grown or made right here in Minnesota and the Mid-west region. Every purchase from Local D’Lish is helping to support our own local farmers and small businesses.”

Co-owner of D’Lish Ann Yin shows us around the store and bursts with conversation. It’s the local store where the owner wants to know you by name and tell you about what you’re buying. Ann is a roladex of information, flittering from anecdote to anecdote. The popcorn that I’m buying was produced on a farm by the Lower Brule Lakota Sioux Tribe near Rapid City who are trying to “find alternatives to a casino economy.” The postcards that she kindly gifts me are made by a local artist and even though the state fair postcard is the more popular one, the one depicting a hot dish is more...Minnesota. The pastries and breads are baked fresh locally daily and the cupcakes she gives us on our way out are in a word, divine. Ann doesn’t send us off without another destination, oh no. That would not be in alignment with the local gospel. Instead, she entreats us to check out Sen Yai Sen Lek where the food is not dumbed down for popular consumption and “the owner actually works there. It’s not something where there’s an invisible investor up here somewhere and someone down here making the magic happen.” No sir (or ma’am). Instead, it’s a locally-owned, locally-run, organically produced Thai restaurant. Their billboard outside reads “Supporting local business!”

Our last stop of the evening was Brian’s local COOP where I learned about the eat local challenge, a group of folks dedicated to eating local foods for ten really good reasons:

1- Eating local is better for the local economy.

2- Local food is fresher (and healthier).

3- Local food tastes better.

4- Produce gets longer to ripen.

5- It’s better for the environment (“the miles that organic food often travels to our plate creates environmental damage that outweighs the benefit of buying organic.”)

6- Buying local keeps us in touch with the seasons.

7- Buying local creates great story fodder (Yes! See above!)

8- It protects from bio-terrorism.

9- It translates into greater food variety.

10- It supports sustainable land development.

Now, if that’s not 10 excellent reasons to say goodbye to supermarket packaging and tasteless non-foods, I don’t know what are. The local gospel of Minneapolis has sparked activism at home in the form of the Coalition for a People’s Bailout and the Green Institute. It has produced some awesome local businesses, inspired locals to eat local, and it has inspired a passerby to go home and rely extensively on farmer’s markets and local businesses. Thank you Twin Cities, for your local gospel.

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