Placemaker William (Holly) Whyte (1917-1999) elevated observation to an art form. Intent on improving civic life, Whyte took to the streets of New York City to observe how people moved, how people used public spaces (or did not), in order to understand how place shapes livable communities. He encouraged planners, politicians and thought leaders to “look hard, with a clean, clear mind, and then look again – and believe what you see.”
Minneapolis journalist Steve Brandt has been an inveterate observer of community as well. He may not have set out to be a placemaker, but Steve’s stories chronicled a particular place – Minneapolis - and highlighted that particular place in time. The questions he asked and the profiles he wrote spurred others to question the How and the Why of the city (sometimes people pointedly questioned him, challenging how and why he wrote what he did). Surely, Steve’s work has inspired others to create change or tackle improvements with “good will and intelligence,” and with a civic pride that both Mr. Whyte and Mr. Brandt exemplified.
Steve started reporting at the Minnesota Daily as a student in the early 1970’s, then interned at a small paper in Red Wing, then at a weekly paper in Prior Lake. He landed a full-time gig at the Minneapolis Tribune (now the Star-Tribune) and gained a reputation as a tough but fair journalist, deeply committed to what he called a “dispassionate vetting of facts” in the stories he covered. He is described by one colleague as “more skeptical and less interested in going along to get along” while getting his angle right. Getting to the point of the story was Steve’s interest, not popularity. “My job is not to be supportive [of a given issue or person],” he states, “but rather to ask critical questions, regardless of the topic.”
Over his 40-plus year career, Steve perfected observation. He was known for showing up, for seemingly being at every relevant event: town hall meetings, Park Board hearings, neighborhood cook outs, protest rallies, ground breakings and ribbon cuttings, swearing in ceremonies, policy announcements, and yellow-tape police investigations - anywhere people gathered to celebrate, or challenge, public affairs. His familiarity brought him access: “If you show up in a neighborhood when times are good,” Steve says, “they will talk to you when things are bad. My presence laid the foundation. I could get through when my colleagues couldn’t.”
In his reporting, Steve watched, waited, listened, wandered alleys, knocked on doors, scribbled notes, asked questions, returned with follow up questions, and analyzed how policies, perceptions and people shaped the place he called home. Though he spent years covering state politics, agriculture and the farm crisis of the 1980’s, institutional goings-on at Minneapolis Public Schools and other exacting assignments, he found his comfort covering local stories. Never one to assume the expected role, “I sought out the beat following Minneapolis neighborhoods,” he admits. “Not following City Hall, but the fabric of the city.”
The fabric of Minneapolis has stretched, changed shape, and taken on new colors and textures over time. Steve Brandt has been there for all of it. “When I moved in, Kingfield [his residential neighborhood] was a middle class enclave, centered around its churches. It’s an older population now, more diverse, there are more young people pushing baby carriages.” He felt drawn to write about neighborhoods, and the individuals and ideas fueling them, because the trending “news of the day” offered broad strokes and, he noticed, an increasing sensationalism. “After the 1980’s, people were getting a sense that Minneapolis was a hell-hole,” he says. “There were tough neighborhoods. But that wasn’t the full story. There was life happening there. There were other things happening, too.”
His storytelling leaned toward change agency. “As a reporter, you are not supposed to affect change, but you do change things,” Steve offers, recognizing that his queries shone light both on what wasn’t working, and what was. In the 1990’s, Minneapolis engaged in an interesting experiment called “The Neighborhood Revitalization Program,” a citywide initiative that decentralized decision-making and empowered citizens – through their neighborhood organizations – to engage with neighbors and spend public funds on neighborhood improvements. Tree plantings, home security, community gardens, crosswalks, police buy backs to control noise or speeding cars, park improvements – all were on the table for the choosing and the program brought thousands of Minneapolis residents to get things done, together. Different neighborhoods elicited different designations from the City and received different amounts of money and other resources to achieve improvements. “I was drawn to profile ‘Redirection’ neighborhoods,” Steve admits. “The neighborhoods that had the greatest challenges.”
Steve may be longer in the tooth these days, enjoying his “retirement” by riding slightly fewer than 2,800 miles each year on his bicycle and writing an “occasional” column for the weekly local paper, The Southwest Journal, but his community observations haven’t waned. “Being retired allows me to do things I couldn’t do before,” Steve shares. “I can work on political campaigns. I can write columns that are more personal and opinionated. I can bike, and be with my grandchildren more. As a former boss said after she retired, ‘it’s a big world out there.’” He volunteers with two non-profits: Second Chance Coalition, which seeks restored voting rights for felons; and Mapping Prejudice, which notes and maps Minneapolis housing deeds that contain racial covenants.
What does Steve know for sure about Minneapolis, after all these years of storytelling? He closes his eyes, pauses, and takes a deep breath. “It’s getting harder to be a poor person in Minneapolis,” he says with a sigh.
Steve can now be an intentional placemaker, acting on, and not just telling, local stories. Overall, he’s feeling positive. “One thing I’m hopeful about, I started noticing as I neared the end of my career. I noticed that people who have been marginalized are taking more ownership and agency in the city.” Add to that what Steve and his wife observe from their front porch: “I am excited by more kids going to Washburn and Ramsey [now Justice Page Middle School] on bikes. It’s an incredible change, a healthy change. We talk to people as they walk by. We see people walking with their dogs, with each other, walking with canes, walking with strollers. There is a renewal of generations. It gives you great hope for the city.”
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Photo credits: Tracy Nordstrom, Southwest Journal, Star—Tribune