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AARP Speaks with Mayors Melvin Carter (Saint Paul) and Jacob Frey (Minneapolis)

The Twin Cities’ leaders talk about ensuring that their communities are livable for people of all ages

In November 2017, the neighboring cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul each elected a mayor under the age of 40. But Minneapolis’ Jacob Frey (36 when elected) and Saint Paul’s Melvin Carter (elected at 38) are not a mayoral version of Minnesota Twins. Although the two are very friendly and often work together, they come from different backgrounds and have different temperaments — much like the two cities they lead. (Minneapolis more resembles Seattle, while Saint Paul invites comparisons to Boston.) They also share much in common.

Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey

Images courtesy of the Mayoral Offices

Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

Melvin Carter comes from a family steeped in Saint Paul’s civic life — his mother, a teacher, serves as a county commissioner; his father was one of the first African-Americans on the Saint Paul police force. Jacob Frey grew up in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., and fell in love with Minneapolis on his first visit. Carter was a sprinter, who was named a high school All-American and won a scholarship to Florida A&M. Frey was a long-distance runner, whose strong finish in the Twin Cities Marathon won him a spot on Team USA for the 2007 Pan American games.

Prior to being elected to the Saint Paul City Council in 2007, Carter — who was student body president at Florida A&M — studied business and earned a master’s in public policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Frey was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 2013, after graduating from Villanova Law School and practicing civil rights and business law in Minneapolis.

Despite their relative youth, Carter and Frey both performed rousing versions of classic rock hits at a fundraiser for a local news website shortly after their inaugurations. Carter brought down the house with “Brown Eyed Mayor” (his version of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl"). It was a tough act to follow, but Frey held his own with a rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”

Among the similarities the men share: Both spoke in their inaugural addresses about the discrimination faced by their ancestors due to race (Carter) and ethnicity or religion (Frey).

Noting Minneapolis’ anti-Semitic past, Frey said: “Today a Jewish man is delivering this speech as your mayor. Not long ago, I would have been red-lined out and denied employment in many places.” Carter declared, “My love for Saint Paul goes back 100 years to when my great-grandparents fled here from the hatred and violence of the Deep South.” After singing the city’s praises (“We have more places than ever to enjoy art and music and eat a great meal; we have big development opportunities ahead”), he reminded the audience that “We’re also a place of deep inequity. And I live that too. I know firsthand how it feels to live on a block devastated by foreclosures; to long for a teacher who looks like my child; and to be stopped by police, over and over again.” Carter added, “My grandfather, Melvin Carter Sr., owned over a half-dozen properties in our historic Rondo neighborhood, which was destroyed to build the freeway just below us.… That freeway cost my family everything.”

The two mayors have similar visions for their cities. They both seek to create more housing that's affordable, and both want to close the opportunity gap between whites and people of color in education, income and home-ownership. Each believes a municipal government must work to benefit and improve life for people of all ages.

On assignment for AARP, Minneapolis-based writer Jay Walljasper spoke with mayors Carter and Frey, asking them the same questions but in separate interviews.

1. AARP: While the nation as a whole is aging, many cities, including yours, are getting younger. What are you focusing on to ensure that your city is livable for people of all ages?

MELVIN CARTER: Our mean age is getting younger, but our community is growing along various spectrums — including age, culture, race and language. We’ve got young professionals and millennials coming out of college and moving to Saint Paul. We’ve got people who moved into the suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s who are now moving back to the city. We also have new Americans coming into Saint Paul from Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. Our senior population is growing as well.

All of that is exciting for Saint Paul, and our goal is to build a city that works for all of us. That’s why the three pillars of my administration are public safety, economic justice and lifelong learning.

Older people are a big part of accomplishing this. The involvement of grandparents makes a key difference in overcoming disparities. In order to build a city that works for everyone, we need to ensure that our processes are as inclusive as possible. We want our libraries and recreation centers, for example, to be a great resource that serves our aging population. So we need the voices of older people shaping how we run the city. And we want to draw on seniors’ experience and knowledge across the board — not just for volunteering on our advisory task force on aging, but also on the bicycle task force and many others.  

JACOB FREY: I’m a firm believer that people should be able to age in their neighborhood. That means to have affordable housing for people fresh out of school; homes with more space for when people have kids; places to downsize when they leave home; and later to have access to services that enable people to stay in the neighborhood as they get older and need help.

People who have worked through the years to make their neighborhoods better places to live deserve to be able to stay in their neighborhood. When I was the 3rd Ward council member [a neighborhood adjacent to downtown seeing rapid redevelopment] we helped three aging-in-place projects.

Younger people and older people are moving into the city for the same reasons — they want multi-modal transportation; they want to walk to the grocery store. That’s why you see these city neighborhoods springing back — that’s how people want to live today. 

But keeping older people involved in the city is not just benevolent, it’s critical to our economy. Older residents are important to the workforce. And we want to see some kind of program like AmeriCorps for retired people, maybe call it Minne-Apple Corp. [Looking over at a staff member, Frey says, “Let’s remember that name.“]

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, with wife Sarah Clarke, and Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III with wife Sakeena Futrell-Carter

Image from Twitter@Jacob_Frey

Jacob Frey, with his wife Sarah Clarke, an attorney, and Melvin Carter, with his wife Sakeena Futrell-Carter, a doctor of nursing practice, at Carter's inaugural ball on January 5, 2018. Three days later, Frey interrupted his own inaugural address to lead the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to Carter.

2. AARP: What needs to be done to make sure Saint Paul and Minneapolis are good places for people of all incomes and races?

MELVIN CARTER: My focus is not just on closing gaps but on opening doors. I believe the disparities we have in Saint Paul are the inevitable result of exclusive economic and political processes that leave people out. We need to hear everyone’s point of view when making decisions. With our plans to improve libraries, recreation centers, public transit and housing stock, we are seeking people’s ideas about how we should do that.

That’s why we’re creating an affordable housing trust fund, and programs for people to make their homes more energy-efficient and accessible. That’s why we’re connecting kids, cradle-to-career, to people in the community who can help them. We’ve got kids who want tutors and we have retirees from 3M and other companies all over the place.

And Saint Paul needs everyone’s participation to build a stronger economy. That’s why we’re prioritizing programs to make sure young people are well-prepared for the workforce, and that’s why we’re establishing a savings account with $50 in it for every kid in the city in order to help families start saving for college. 

JACOB FREY: One of our biggest hurdles is housing — homelessness, affordability and instability. We know 8.5 percent of kids in city schools experience homelessness each year, and 30 percent move a lot. Stable homes make stable schools. We also need to undo the racial red-lining and intentional segregation that was done in Minneapolis for 80 years. Lower-income people are still excluded from certain parts of town. We need to look at how city government regulates land, and push back on intentional barriers to communities of color and low-income people.  

I want to see a city where you go down the street and see businesses owned by people of every possible background right next to one another. Communities of color are deprived of capital access. We need to make sure they have the same access to the levers of economic gains as other communities. That’s why we’re working with Village Trust, the only black-owned bank in Minnesota. And we need to strengthen public amenities in low-income areas. A little girl growing up in North Minneapolis should be able to get to nature and parks on the river as easily as kids elsewhere in the city.  

Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III, rapper Snoop Dogg and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey

Image from Twitter @MayorCarter_

In Minneapolis for 2018's Super Bowl LII, rapper Snoop Dogg posed with mayors Carter and Frey at the 19th annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration.

3. AARP: What are your city's key assets as a livable city?

MELVIN CARTER: The Mississippi River is the reason Saint Paul is here in the first place. We have as much river frontage as any city in the country. I was once in a city I will not name that didn’t even have a river — only a brook. Yet they made a big deal out of it with festivals and events. We can do more with the Mississippi. Then there’s our diversity — kids in our schools collectively speak more than 100 languages at home.

JACOB FREY: Our chief asset is our people — of all ages, incomes and ethnicities — especially their willingness to contribute.  When I first moved here I went to a neighborhood meeting and they were talking about a mural focusing on world peace. At first, I thought, “C’mon we have problems right here to solve first.” But I’ve come to realize that the “Minneapolis Mentality” is that we can make a difference in the world and right here at home, too.   

4. AARP: Historically, Minneapolis and Saint Paul have been fierce rivals. Even today there are two chambers of commerce, two convention and visitor bureaus. What kind of relationship do you want to have with your "twin" city?

MELVIN CARTER What city did you say? Minneapolis? Oh, I haven’t heard of it. [Laughs] I think healthy competition is good for everybody. Our two cities are quite distinct from one another. But instead of facing off with each other, I am working with Mayor Frey to make sure that, together, we can compete with Singapore and Paris. 

JACOB FREY: Melvin and I use the phrase co-opetition — where you push each city to do better but you work together, too. We live in an international economy so neither Minneapolis nor Saint Paul can get ahead alone — whether it’s improving workforce development, providing affordable housing or making use of the skills of older people.

Map showing the locations of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota

Courtesy images

Minneapolis (population 410,000) and Saint Paul (population 300,000) are less than 15 miles apart.

5. Saint Paul sometimes calls itself the “Most livable city in America.” Minneapolis may think it’s the most livable city in America. What makes your city livable — and what place, program, project or livability effort in your city would you like to tell readers and other community leaders about?”

MELVIN CARTER: We are a growing, vibrant city with the wind in our sails and big opportunities ahead. The former Ford Plant in Highland and the former Hillcrest Golf Course on the Eastside give us not one, but two iconic opportunities to design a 21st-century neighborhood from the ground up. Areas like Little Mekong, Little Africa, District del Sol and others are redefining our city and leveraging our cultural diversity to create exciting job and business opportunities. 

JACOB FREY: Minneapolis is such a livable city because of our community’s commitment to making our city better for everyone. It’s why I fell in love with Minneapolis. That same spirit is alive in an effort called Stable Homes, Stable Schools, an initiative that will provide housing to more than 600 students in Minneapolis public schools whose families are facing homelessness. It ties together commitments from our city government, our public school district, nonprofit partners, community members, families and students, all united behind the goal of making Minneapolis a more livable city for families that could use a helping hand.

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about how to improve communities of all kinds. He is the author of The Great Neighborhood Book.

Page published September 2018

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