Gayle Bonneville has spent much of her life advocating for Northeast neighborhoods, the last 21 years as part-time coordinator for both the St. Anthony West Neighborhood Organization (STAWNO) and Windom Park Citizens in Action (WPCiA). She recently decided to step away from these positions to slow down and pursue other interests.
Bonneville was born in Minneapolis and grew up in St. Anthony Village, where her parents built a house. She attended St. Catherine University, where she intended to major in social work. About halfway through, however, “something clicked,” she said, and she changed her focus to journalism, which she studied at the University of St. Thomas through an arrangement with St. Kate’s. After graduation, she moved west to Rock Springs, Wyoming, near the Wyoming-Utah border, where she worked for the local paper.
As a newspaper reporter, she learned to maintain a neutral stance, a skill she relied on while working with the neighborhood organizations. Although she holds many opinions and has not been shy about expressing them, Bonneville, who lives in the Waite Park neighborhood, could not let her thoughts influence the actions of the volunteers on the boards of the neighborhood associations. “It’s their agenda, not mine,” she said.
After a couple of years, although she would have liked to have stayed out West, Bonneville returned to the Twin Cities to be near family. She worked in the publicity department of a custom publishing company in St. Paul. When the company was bought out and dismantled, she had time to think about her next career move. She also wondered about ways to get involved in the community.
A friend told her about the “Breakfast Club” that met about monthly to discuss various issues relating to Central Avenue in the late 1990s to early 2000s. It was at one of those 6 a.m. meetings that she learned about a part time community coordinator with STAWNO. Shortly afterward, she heard about a similar position with Windom Park. By piecing the two together, she was able to create a flexible full-time job.
Northeast was different 20 years ago. St. Anthony West was not the “hot” neighborhood to live in that it is today. Much of the housing stock was old and in need of repair. The neighborhood organization used Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) funds from the city to offer low-cost home improvement loans to residents. The program was popular, and interest from the loans allowed STAWNO to continue the program. Windom Park is still working with NRP money.
Funding for neighborhood associations is moving out of their hands and into the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations department. Bonneville mourns this loss of local control. “This program [NRP] won an award from the United Nations!” she exclaimed. “Other cities copied Minneapolis on this, and now it’s being abandoned.”
She said STAWNO and WPCiA already had NRP Neighborhood Action Plans in place, and she fears Northeast will not get its fair share under the Neighborhoods 2020 program, which kicks off Jan. 1, 2022. “Northeast sometimes gets the bum’s rush from the city,” she said. She also fears the city will not listen to the volunteers in the neighborhoods who work to get things done. “They’ll be shuffled off to the sidelines.”
Her biggest disappointment, perhaps, was demolition of the roundhouse at Shoreham Yards in 2019. Many neighborhood groups fought in vain with Canadian Pacific Railway to save the historic structure.
Bonneville is proud of the things the neighborhoods she’s worked with have accomplished.
She recalled how concerned Windom Park neighbors were when the Quarry Shopping Center was built in 1997: Would Central Avenue businesses survive? Folks from Windom Park worked with the Holland, Logan and Audubon neighborhood associations to help out Central Avenue businesses. “What we see today is because of their work,” she said.
Bonneville also remembered the 2008 battle over Porky’s Drive-in, which wanted to locate a Minneapolis version of its iconic St. Paul restaurant on 19th and Central. Afraid of the traffic and hot rodders the drive-in might entice to the area, neighbors insisted on a masonry wall between the restaurant and the alley, as well as a no-right-turn exit onto 19th Avenue. The owner of Porky’s balked. The neighborhood prevailed, and the much more sedate The Mill Northeast now stands were Porky’s operated for just a few months, wall and all.
She’s seen the pain and struggle in St. Anthony West as single family homes have been replaced by apartment developments. The neighborhood is “almost unrecognizable.” She called the city council’s push for higher rental densities on the one hand and their talk about lower income people building equity through home ownership on the other hand, as “schizophrenic.”
She sees a neighborhood coordinator’s job as vital to neighborhoods. “There’s an ebb and flow of volunteers,” Bonneville noted. “People move into the neighborhood, they get involved. Then they have kids and it’s tough to get away for meetings. Later on they come back. The coordinator provides some continuity.” Through it all, she’s used her communication skills to keep people informed of what’s going on. “In a way, I guess it’s been a form of social work,” she mused.
Bonneville isn’t sure what the next chapter of her life will bring, but she will most likely winter in Ft. Meyers, Fla., in the manufactured home her parents left her. This summer, she’s concentrating on deferred maintenance and gardening around her home in Northeast.
During the pandemic, she watched a series of online programs put on by the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum. An interest in astronomy was reawakened in Bonneville, and she’s looking into getting a telescope and learning more about the stars.
She’s also thinking about taking piano lessons. And maybe she’ll find a volunteer activity or two.
Below: Gayle Bonneville staffed the Windom Park Citizens in Action and the St. Anthony West Neighborhood Organization. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)