Edina has a racist past. But is that racist?

For no good reason, I watched 90 minutes of yesterday’s Edina Heritage Preservation Commission meeting. I am the kind of person who will occasionally put a municipal YouTube video on the TV and wait for something weird to happen.

Edina’s swanky Country Club District was the focus of this meeting. Commissioners went into great detail making sure two giant mansions, slated to replace some soon-to-be-bulldozed houses, would be consistent with the character of the neighborhood. Further along in the meeting, they reviewed the work of the city’s preservation consultant, who had been tasked with writing up a “more complete and fully documented biography” of Samuel Skidmore Thorpe, the wealthy real estate tycoon who controlled development of the neighborhood starting in 1924.

The consultant’s initial work, presented at a meeting in June, received public feedback taking issue with certain missing details. Even an outside observer of Edina like myself knows a few things about the Country Club District. Based on local news coverage going back a few years, I was familiar with the fact that this neighborhood was originally developed with race-based restrictions on who could own property.

Observers wrote in to point out that the city’s consultant, Robert C. Vogel, left some important things out of his report. Maybe he’d seen the story about the neighborhood’s Wikipedia entry and wanted to avoid instigating another racial “edit war.” In response to the feedback, Vogel came to yesterday’s meeting with a revised biography of the developer.

I compared the first document with the second. Things I noticed about the first version: it describes Thorpe in terms that make him seem like an innovator in the area of “restrictive covenants”; he is the developer of “one of the first communities in the nation to adopt” a set of planning standards and “architectural controls.” There is no mention of race or race-based restrictions.

It’s important to point out that deed restrictions are not inherently about racial exclusion. These rules are often about limiting how a property owner can alter or use their property. Vogel writes about Thorpe’s use of deed restrictions as if he is a pioneer of the tactic. If all you know is what’s in this document, you can only conclude he is referring to architectural and land-use restrictions — not racial covenants. It’s bizarre to have included one detail without the other.

Vogel’s revision doesn’t delete anything from the first document, but it adds a lengthy paragraph acknowledging Thorpe engaged in the legal exclusion of “African Americans, Jews, and other minorities from owning or renting property” in the Country Club District.

A few sentences later, Vogel adds that “Thorpe did not invent restrictive covenants” and “there is no clear evidence to show he was a virulent racist or anti-Semite” (but you just presented us with some compelling evidence he did a significantly racist thing). The man who — in the previous paragraph — is an innovator in architectural deed restrictions, becomes just a product of his times (“standard practice”) when it comes to racial covenants.

The revisions were well-received. One commissioner congratulated Vogel: “it does a very nice historical — without bias one way or the other… it states the facts… it doesn’t give a judgment one way or the other.” Another called it a “great addition,” and said she looked forward to sharing the biography in the neighborhood magazine. The commission approved it unanimously.

I have an overly generous way to explain this impulse to deny and minimize a history of racist housing practices. People become very sensitive when this discussion gets so specific that it touches their own neighborhood (so sensitive that I knew better than to use the words “white” or “racism” in this sentence). This is especially true of those who are deeply invested in the idea that their neighborhood is a gift from a god-like real estate developer who died a long time ago. If their neighborhood wasn’t divinely-inspired, then that means it might be okay — maybe even necessary — for things to change a little bit. It’s a dangerous mental road to go down.

Here’s an example at the top of mind. More than two years after a random Minneapolis man used the phrase “white pastoralism” at a community meeting, people can’t stop talking about how upsetting it was. Just yesterday, a right-wing think tanker from New York City, scolded Minneapolis about it (“Smart Minneapolis housing policy need not be so divisive”) in our hometown newspaper.

It’s another opportunity for me to mention something that gets overlooked in the aggrieved response to “white pastoralism.” According to the guy who coined the phrase, Zack Mohlis:

I used the phrase “white pastoralism” to describe the way 19th century white Victorian nostalgia is often used as justification for historic preservation, which needs to change in a changing Minneapolis which needs to represent the cultural heritage of all residents.

It’s something to think about the next time you’re watching a Heritage Preservation Commission meeting, during the endless discussion of whether a new mansion will have the correct architectural details to match the old mansions, which were built by a rich white guy who felt compelled to legally bar anyone but Caucasians from owning property in the neighborhood.