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What should become of the place where George Floyd was killed?

It’s more than just an intersection. It’s become a site of global importance.

What should become of the place where George Floyd was killed?
[Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images]
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The intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis was a pocket of commercial activity in an otherwise residential area—a few busy bus stops, a gas station, a bodega on the corner. Now, it’s a makeshift memorial. Since the death of George Floyd there on May 25, and the subsequent protests it sparked in cities around the world, the area has turned into a hybrid space of activism, remembrance, tourism, and lawlessness.

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“It’s become a memorial site that is barricaded off, that’s really kind of a beautiful, respectful commemoration thing during the day,” says Minneapolis City Councilmember Andrea Jenkins, who represents the area. “And then at night it devolves.”

Daytime protests and gatherings have been peaceful, but nighttime shootings have been common in recent weeks, Jenkins says. In the short term, she says, a balance needs to be struck between the needs of a community trying to heal and the needs of residents in this historically Black neighborhood trying to navigate their suddenly teeming neighborhood.

Beyond that, though, the future of the intersection is unclear. Jenkins says people have called for the site to become a permanent memorial or a museum or the site of a statue of Floyd. In many ways, it’s no longer just an intersection, nor even just the site of an extreme instance of police brutality. It has become a site of national and global importance.

[Photo: Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto/Getty Images]
“I’m not new. I live here,” says Jenkins of the historically Black neighborhood where Floyd was killed. She was sworn into office in 2018, as the first Black, openly transgender woman elected to public office in the U.S., and before that was a policy aide under the previous councilperson. She has seen the neighborhood change from one of neglect and near-complete commercial vacancy to one where new businesses and art studios are opening and storefronts are at 90% occupancy. “I’ve been working in this community for over 20 years,” Jenkins says. She’s been a big part of the neighborhood’s gradual change, and knows the local stakeholders with deep ties to the area.

But since Floyd’s killing, the community has been overrun with activists and others who have flocked to the site as a center of the movement against systemic racism. This influx has meant that, all of a sudden, what happens to the intersection is a matter of concern for more than the community groups, residents, and business owners of the immediate area.

“I think the fact that it’s sparked that [movement] has given so many people ownership or perceived ownership in this issue that is really making it challenging to know who to talk to, who to understand, who to listen to, who to pull together,” Jenkins says. She recently held a community meeting over Zoom to begin the conversation about what should happen to the site. At its peak, she says, 183 people were on the call.

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This diversity of voices will likely slow the process, but that may be a good thing, says Tali Hatuka, a professor in the Department of Geography and Human Environment at Tel Aviv University. “The performance of protest is always a process of negotiation between the citizens and the government. The question nowadays, with the current dynamic, is how adjustable the two sides will be.”

In her 2018 book, The Design of Protest, Hatuka argues that protests are intended to challenge existing narratives, and the more the protesters stay involved, the more power they’ll have to shape whatever comes next. Rushing to build a statue or install a plaque may seem like a way to honor what happened there, Hatuka says, but it can also serve to lock in a specific idea of what the event means.

But the meanings of places can change over time, she says, and the physical environment can reflect that change. Recent efforts around the U.S. to remove statues of racist figures are clear examples. “We have to remember that this memory is always elastic and it can always be replaceable. Either by forced events, like another violent conflict, or by discursive change, like changing ideology,” Hatuka says. For the site of George Floyd’s death, whatever is to come will have to contend with the death as a single event and also as part of a larger story.

“From a placemaking point of view, as an urban planner and architect, I would say that the protests are a very important part of changing the narrative, and ongoing protests are crucial for creating new narratives both for the local and national scale,” she says. If those who’ve been protesting and mourning at the site want to shape how the intersection commemorates this moment and movement, she says they “need continuity and endurance.”

For one local business, George Floyd’s murder had an immediate effect. Within a day or so, “we could already see that the corner wasn’t probably going to ever go back to the way that it was,” says Joe P. Hasler. He’s the shopkeeper at Flotsam + Fork, a kitchenware and knife shop founded by his wife, Adrianna Fie. The shop, located for the past year in a rented space on Chicago Avenue, looked out on the site where Floyd died. Though most of the initial unrest, including numerous building fires, happened several blocks away, the shop was among multiple businesses and storefronts at the intersection that were soon boarded up.

The site of Floyd’s death also happens to be a stop for one of the busiest buses in the city. “I just remember the buses trying to operate the day after,” Hasler says, as the memorial spread into the street and then into the intersection before barricades were eventually put in place. “So you could see the city and the corner kind of working it out in real time.”

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For Flotsam + Fork, which relies almost entirely on mail delivery and pickup for its imports and sales, it wasn’t feasible to continue operating in a space that’s still blocked to traffic and in the midst of an ongoing commemoration process, Hasler says. The business conditions on the ground were further complicated by the coronavirus, as well as the uncomfortable fact that the crowds and nighttime violence created a potential problem for a shop that primarily sells knives. Hasler says that within a few days, he and Fie decided they had to close.

The business is now operating out of their duplex basement, a few blocks away. The bus has been rerouted from the closed section of Chicago Avenue to their street. Hasler says the future of the intersection should be determined by people who have deeper ties to the neighborhood. “The folks who either live on the block or grew up on that block, those people need to be able to have the center stage,” he says. “Deference, solidarity, respect. I would say those were the kinds of things that drove our decision making” to close the shop.

[Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images]
Long before the killing, efforts were underway to give locals more ownership of the neighborhood. For the past three years, Jenkins’s office had been working on a plan for the area called 38th Street Thrive—a redevelopment effort aimed at honoring the area’s African American history amid changing demographics and supporting Black entrepreneurship. Now, she says, the need for this plan is even more acute, as the area’s relationship with the Black community has taken on a deeper meaning. “We’re going to have to shift that plan to try to create some kind of memorial,” Jenkins says.

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests spurred by Floyd’s death may even help Jenkins gather the political and financial support to realize an idea she’s been working on since taking office: the creation of a center for racial healing. “The reason why that became my number-one thing was because I knew three years ago—and probably 30 years ago but wasn’t thinking about it in these terms—[that] Black people are in so much pain, so much trauma. Just suffering, I think, from PTSD,” she says. “And, actually, you can’t even say PTSD because there’s no ‘post.'”

Such a center could provide the space to memorialize the killing of Floyd while putting his death, and the movement it catalyzed, in the broader context of systemic racism in the U.S. But, Jenkins says, such a project may not be what the city and the community decides is appropriate. These conversations are ongoing and necessary.

Jenkins says a reasonable place to start in terms of the intersection itself would be a discussion around infrastructure. “The idea is to start with something concrete. Like literally, concrete.”

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Her idea is to turn what’s become a memorial-turned-roundabout in the center of the intersection into an actual traffic roundabout—the kind of everyday city project that can make the intersection safer for pedestrians in the future. It won’t be the only thing that changes on the site, nor will it be the one thing that’s meant to commemorate the killing, Jenkins says. It will merely be an idea to start the process of transformation.

“We want to start the conversation there,” Jenkins says. “And I think having that a concrete discussion topic can help lead to broader discussions around what happens next.”