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Steve Meldahl, Don Samuels, Northside Blogs, and the Lost Generation

This will be an interpretive piece with possible factual errors or omissions. I can refer to a “lost generation” in general terms but now want to tie it to a phenomenon in north Minneapolis exemplified by such political/cultural blogs as the “Adventures of Johnny Northside” and “Irving Inquisition”. The persons who create these blogs are topical writers, as am I.

Some people I know personally have been demonized in these blogs as “slumlords”. “Wanted” posters featuring these individuals appear in the blogs. Photographs of their supposedly dilapidated properties (some of which look pretty good to me) also appear. These blogs are “exposing” supposedly unworthy persons who live in our midst, or at least own property there, so that the community will be suitably outraged and someone will take action.

The best person to take action against these property-owning vermin would be Don Samuels, who represents the fifth ward (north Minneapolis) on the city council. Samuels is more than willing to to take up the cause. A particular target at this time is landlord Steve Meldahl. I have known Steve for years. I respect and admire him, both personally and professionally. Steve Meldahl is a knowledgeable, hard-working property owner and manager who after many years has achieved a measure of success.

For some reason, of which I am not fully aware, Council Member Samuels and some of his Northside supporters are planning to picket Meldahl’s house in Edina and distribute leaflets to his neighbors to explain how unworthy a person Steve is.

Samuels sent this email to some of his followers: “Ready to take it to the next level whenever we decide. This would include an emotionally introduced version of the facts laid out in the email from Eric (Johnson), which would be hand dropped to all Steve’s neighbors; a press release about our intent and preparation for an early spring (?) demonstration. I say spring only because I am tundra-averse but I would sacrifice comfort for this gig.”

One of the chief complaints against Steve Meldahl is that he has not paid his taxes. The “Irving Inquisition” blog claims that Meldahl owes the city of Minneapolis $204,000 in back taxes. Steve told in response: “It’s totally false!  All of my properties are in Tax Court.  All of them are extremely over assessed in value and by statute, I only have to pay 1/2 the 2nd half taxes.  Until we go to trial and or settle, the County will show them as delinquent.  I also have two pending assessment appeal district court cases so these improper assessments will be settled at trial or at pretrial settlement.  I won the last trial 4 years ago before Judge Porter and it took two years for the City to pay me after my judgment was entered.”

During his forty years in the rental housing business, Steve Meldahl has rehabbed over 300 homes. He could have sold out at the height of the housing bubble but chose to remain in this business. Steve’s rents are 20 percent below average. When the bubble burst, he bought more properties and hired four additional permanent workers, all of whom live in north Minneapolis.

The purpose here, however, is not to get into Steve Meldahl’s business but the business of the people hounding him. The problem is that I don’t know much about them. The man behind “the adventures of Johnny Northside” is John Hoff, a single father who acquired a house in north Minneapolis not long ago. The people on the attack in ”Irving Inquisition” identify themselves in the blog as “II” and “Anonymous”, which doesn’t give me much to go on. But who cares? I’ll psychoanalyze them anyhow.

Why the Northside bloggers should dislike Steve Meldahl is complicated. To the best of my knowledge, none of them has ever rented from him. I doubt if any has even met Steve. If their complaint was that they or a relative or friend had been injured in a poorly maintained house rented from Steve or that his rent was too high, I could understand the complaint better. I think the heart of it is simply that Steve owns a large number of buildings in their community. He seems to be getting rich in a poor neighborhood.

As the bloggers and their fans dislike Steve Meldahl, they love and admire Council Member Don Samuels. Maybe it is because he is a powerful person who caters to them and their point of view. Samuels is a handsome man with a pleasant, soothing voice who, like President Obama, heads an intact family and has attractive, young daughters. Race may add to his stature given the idea that successful blacks must have overcome much adversity to get where they are. Don Samuels is also an ordained minister which gives him a certain spiritual appeal. It’s almost as if this charismatic man is at the center of a political and religious cult. He’s a redeemer figure. The lost generation needs someone to instill purpose in a troublesome world.

When Samuels started out as a political activist, he was concerned about neighborhood violence. Young black men in the neighborhood were killing each other. Don Samuels rightly put the spotlight of attention on this problem. But then he started associating the violence with particular businesses such as convenience stores. He was claiming that uncaring store owners were “getting rich” off gang or drug activity happening near their buildings. He personally closed down several such stores - Big Stop, Wafanas, and Uncle Bill’s Food Market - calling them “inconvenience stores”. (link) That was exactly what some in the lost generation were wanting to hear.

Some people were making money in poor neighborhoods through real-estate deals. They must have been “profiting” from other people’s misery. Take Steve Meldahl. He owned lots of houses in north Minneapolis before the foreclosure crisis and he bought lots more after the crisis hit. In fact, the banks were coming to him to unload their foreclosed properties. Buildings that had once sold for $150,000 or $200,000 were now selling for $20,000 or $30,000.

Yes, Steve Meldahl was potentially getting rich - if one assumed that the housing market would rebound some day. Steve Meldahl happened to have cash or credit when the opportunity to buy cheaply arose. Unlike most, he happened also to have the knowledge and experience to run a rental-property business. In the meanwhile, Steve and his work crews were fixing up these buildings and filling them with tenants as quickly as possible.

Don Samuels’ message was that certain property owners were profiting from situations that were miserable for others, whether it be crime or housing foreclosures. This message fell upon receptive ears. In the case of the Northside bloggers, it was reaching a group of middle-aged whites who, I would assume, were reasonably well educated. They prided themselves on their writing. In their own eyes at least, they cut a dashing figure in the neighborhood as observers of the scene whose well-crafted writings exhibited a certain political edge.

I consider them part of the lost generation. They might also be called “educated proletarians”. Why should that be?

Let’s start with the idea of the American dream. You go to school, study hard, get into a good college and then you become eligible to take some high-paying, white-collar job that will put you socially and economically above the people who work with their hands. If you stay on the beaten career path, the American dream promises that you will be a success. The ones who best master literacy skills in school will rise to the top of society, becoming doctors, lawyers, politicians, college professors, journalists, and the like.

Well, the Northside bloggers acquired the literacy skills but wound up living in north Minneapolis. They did not accumulate much property. Instead, they saw to their dismay someone like Steve Meldahl making money. Steve might have graduated from college or maybe he had only a high-school education; it didn’t matter. His career involved unglamorous, blue-collar kinds of activity such as fixing leaky plumbing or replacing faulty refrigerators. The post-industrial economy has a need for this function, so he was able to make a living at it while the college-trained writers were struggling.

Being a writer myself, I can sympathize with the Northside bloggers even if I disagree with their point of view. We are kind of in this boat together. I, too, went to college and pursued a nice, white-collar career until I lost my job fifteen years ago and became a landlord. Then, I discovered to my surprise that I meant more to the community as a provider of rental housing than I did crunching numbers in an office, although the price of this increased personal significance was vilification by community groups.

Steve Meldahl, who has been doing this for a longer period of time, is a better landlord than I. He’s less into writing and political pursuits although he does have great proficiency in the legal field and could have been a success in that profession. Steve went off the beaten career path and made more money being an inner-city landlord than if he had heeded the conventional advice about pursuing the American dream through education and professional employment.

The New York Times has recently published an article about young men and women who have graduated from law school. They are on a track to career success but somehow find themselves driving buses or waitressing tables in restaurants while having to service $100,000 student loans. This is the pattern these days, not the exception.

Salvation lies, I think, in recognizing the unpleasant reality that greets college graduates in this generation even more than it did in previous ones. Our personal identities require a certain realignment. Either we can be more like Steve Meldahl, able and willing to fix toilets, or we can remain white-collar writers who deal honestly with our own situation. Maybe the latter concern can translate into a political agenda that addresses the depressing job situation for educated people.

Don Samuels, however, offers another option for helping persons in the “lost generation” overcome unfavorable comparisons between Meldahl and themselves. Even if Steve Meldahl is a self-made millionaire who has accumulated ninety properties in Minneapolis, he is a “slumlord” and therefore to be reviled. So let’s all show up at Meldahl’s house, shake our fists at him, and then go home, feeling better about ourselves.

The bottom line is that we are each concerned with our personal dignity. If someone is educated (and therefore expected to succeed) but finds himself or herself economically marginalized, a semblance of dignity can be maintained by agitating on behalf of the community. We are then selflessly working on behalf of others as the enlightened nobility typically does.

Unfortunately, the moral dualism inherent in Northside political activity has its destructive aspect. If we must prove ourselves at least as good as others, persons like Steve Meldahl, symbolic of our shame, will be caught in the crossfire. A society based primarily on social advancement will lead to that result.

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