Life in Brooklyn Center is a balance of challenges and opportunity

John Reinan, Star Tribune
·5 min read

Founded by a member of the Ku Klux Klan and now a city where most residents are people of color, Brooklyn Center embodies the challenges and the promise of a rapidly changing America.

Residents old and new say it's a wonderful place to live, where thriving immigrant-owned businesses have emerged in the wake of job losses in traditional industries and people of all kinds get along. Yet the suburb of 31,000 just north of Minneapolis has become an international symbol of racial turmoil in the week since Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer during a traffic stop.

Brooklyn Center has undergone a faster demographic transition than any community in the Twin Cities, according to a study published last week by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota.

The city was 91% white as recently as 1990, according to U.S. Census figures. Now, 30 years later, the white population has dropped by more than half, to 38%. About 29% of its residents are Black, 16% are Asian and 14% are Hispanic.

And people say the mix is working.

"Basically, it's a pretty good community overall," said Jessica Johnson, a 40-year-old white woman who's lived in the city all her life and graduated from Brooklyn Center High School. "Growing up, it was pretty mixed."

A foster mother, Johnson has four children of her own who are multiracial. They don't have problems with other kids, she said, but they do worry about the police.

"My 22-year-old daughter is pretty dark-skinned, and she's terrified to drive right now," Johnson said. "I think she's always had [that feeling], but now it's worse."

Some say the city has struggled with a negative perception among the largely white Twin Cities metro population.

Jill Dalton moved to Brooklyn Center from Minneapolis 30 years ago and loves it. But Dalton, a white fitness center owner and former member of the city's Park Board, said friends often wonder about her choice. "They ask, 'Is it safe there?' "

That's not what the people who live there think.

"It's normal, nice," said Reginald Moore, a Black man who's lived in the city for 11 years and works as a behavior specialist at Brooklyn Center Elementary School. "People get along well, the kids get along.

"My kids went to Park Center [High School]; all the races seem to get along."

Founder belonged to KlanBrooklyn Center was incorporated as a village in 1911 and as a city in 1956. From its beginning until recent years, it was a haven for middle- and working-class white people seeking a suburban escape from the perceived ills of Minneapolis.

Earle Brown, the city's most prominent founding father, was well-known as the Hennepin County sheriff in the 1920s and a founder of the Minnesota State Patrol. The village was first organized at a meeting in his garage.

In recent years, research by Minneapolis historian Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle revealed Brown's racism. Citing court records, Hatle identified Brown as the fourth sworn member of the Minnesota Ku Klux Klan, prompting the school district to take his name off an elementary school and the city to change the name of its annual "Earle Brown Days" festival. Several other buildings and a street still bear his name.

The U study paints a gloomy picture of Brooklyn Center, citing declining income and shrinking jobs. The city lost 11% of its jobs between 2008 and 2015, the report says.

'It's a good place'Yet entrepreneurs — many of them people of color and recent immigrants — have found a foothold serving the community's diverse population.

"It's a good place to do business," said Alhagie Ngai, a native of Gambia whose family runs Value Foods African Market in a strip mall a few blocks from the police station that's been the center of protest activity following Wright's killing.

A few doors down is M & B Hair Braiding & Beauty Supply, owned by Hajah Konneh, a West African native who opened her business three years ago.

The windows of her store, boarded up by a community action group, bear the words "Pigs Go Home" and "Cops Kill" in red spray paint.

"In normal times, it's a good community," said Konneh, restocking her shelves on a quiet day last week. Customer traffic has dried up since the protests began, but she's hopeful of seeing a return to business as usual.

"I just want the community to come together," she said.

In the week since the protests began, a large-scale food shelf has been operating daily at the city's combined middle and high school. Usually a monthly event, the food shelf, organized by the community group Mutual Aid Support, is particularly needed now, said Adrianne Gould, one of the organizers.

'There is room for growth'"It's been an amazing sight to see," said Gould, a 31-year-old Black woman who works for the school district. She's lived in Brooklyn Center for 24 years, calling it "a community where I've always felt I belonged.

"I will say this: There is room for growth," she added. "Despite the tragedy, this is an opportunity for people to do the internal work, use this as an opportunity to build relationships."

Gail Howard has lived in Brooklyn Center since 1976. It's a more diverse community now, she said, but the sense of neighborliness hasn't been lost. On her block, she has Black and Asian neighbors who share native foods and check up on each other.

"Everybody wants to get along," said Howard, a retired dental assistant who's white. "Everyone is heartbroken over what happened.

"I would like to see more Christian loving your neighbors," she added. "The world is watching."

Staff writers Shannon Prather and Tim Harlow contributed to this report.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402