R.T. Rybak bustles into the downtown Peace Coffee right on time. He’s wearing a suit, no tie. It’s well-appointed, the suit, just not to the point of asserting itself as the defining trait of the guy wearing it. Naturally buzzing, he declines a coffee in favor of grabbing a seat and getting right to it. We pick a booth in the corner, and before his iPad—all he’s carrying—even hits the table, he’s answering questions even though nothing’s yet been asked. As people shuffle through the busy lobby behind him—at one point even his successor, mayor Betsy Hodges, passes by—the great Minneapolis believer barely notices, focused solely on doing what he does best: espousing the virtues of his city.
New book and a new job. When it rains it pours, eh?
Well, I didn’t expect both [Pothole Confidential] and the Minneapolis Foundation to happen at the same time—almost the same week. To me, the book is a wonderful way to put my past in context, and the Minneapolis Foundation job is a wonderful way to answer a question I always knew the answer to: Yes, I’m going to stay here, and yes, it’s going to be about public work.
You’ve been a reporter for the Strib, a pitchman for the Downtown Council, mayor, and executive director of education nonprofit Generation Next, just to name a few of your locally facing careers to date. Now, on July 1, you’ll start yet another.
People’ve often had difficulty figuring out what I have done at every stage, except when I was mayor. But there’s a pretty consistent through line. I wanted to do civic public work in my hometown. That has meant that I was a reporter in the city, a publisher, worked at the Downtown Council, did a lot of community political work, was the mayor, worked on closing the achievement gap, and now I’m leading an incredible foundation. It sounds like a guy who can’t keep a job, but I hope people realize what it really is is someone who believes very deeply in the place that he lives and the public realm. The work that I was doing as mayor was just another version of what I got to do at Generation Next and what I’ll get to do at the Minneapolis Foundation.
What’s your vision for the foundation?
It’s a really unique opportunity because I grew up in this place where I had massive privilege given to me because of generous people who came before me. They purchased the land around the lakes instead of letting just a few rich people own it. They built public institutions—libraries and schools and arts and so much more. They built the most charitable infrastructure of a community our size in the country by far. But I think the lore has been that there were, like, five white guys with their name on a company who disappeared in the Minneapolis Club and wrote some big checks. I don’t know if that was ever the case, but it’s absolutely not the case now, and I committed [to] this job at a moment where it’s really important for a community that’s benefited from generosity to understand that our well-being depends on all of us giving something. Philanthropy of the past was more about large sums from a relatively small base of people, and now it really has to be smaller amounts from far more people. That’s super exciting to me, because we’re in a period of the democratization of philanthropy.
People are probably familiar with your overall narrative, but what’s the essence of your Minneapolis story?
My parents met when my dad was running the Walgreens [on Nicollet downtown], but then he opened a store at 26th and 4th. When the freeway tore that down, they opened one at Chicago and Franklin. There were two things about that that I think matter about what I wound up being. One is, I was growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in south Minneapolis [Fulton] and going to a school [Breck] where almost everyone was richer—usually a lot richer—than me. And then, when my dad died, going down to his store that my mom was running at Chicago and Franklin, where I got to really see poverty. So every single day I was crossing boundaries in Minneapolis, and I got a very important early lesson on my place on the continuum of privilege at that point when I was bouncing between these three worlds. When my dad died, my mom ran the drugstore—it was a really rough period down there. It just seemed so incongruous about the issues that I would be talking about with my friends at school and then seeing at night and in my neighborhood.
When did your famously intense Minneapolis pride first start clicking?
It was just, to me, a magic place from the beginning. I always had a push-pull about the city I wanted it to be and the city it was. I was reading Barbara Flanagan since almost the time I could read, which was this super optimistic view of the city that I still see. But I also went with my dad when his store got broken into, and knew that my mom [once] had a gun put to her head at the store, and when I was delivering prescriptions saw people in real poverty. Or, when I went to the Star Tribune and wanted to write real chirpy things, I wound up writing about crime every night. When I was mayor, I had to navigate all those worlds. Everything about my life in Minneapolis has been about the very, very optimistic view of a city that is phenomenal, mixed with some serious reality therapy like standing out on corners when people are shot, or seeing a bridge in the water or a tornado go through town. I’m a very optimistic person, especially about my city, but I’m a stark realist as well about how much more needs to be done.
In March 2015, The Atlantic wrote “The Miracle of Minneapolis,” and then The Washington Post promptly asserted how imperfect Minneapolis actually is. How do we become more miraculous?
I think there’s a problem with the way we’ve looked at building the great city here. The reality is, the majority of the people in this community are deeply blessed, but there are deep challenges, too. The way we have collectively talked about that has been to bring this part of the population up to where this part of the population is. That won’t get us where we need to be, because all of the population needs to move to a new place—and I don’t mean physically. We’re going to become a much better city not by being the same Minneapolis that more people can share, but by being a different and, I think, much better Minneapolis. A much more global city, where the majority culture is not just trying to wedge other people into their reality but instead trying to create something new.
What does that Minneapolis look like?
When I go to the Midtown Global Market, that’s the city that I see as the city of the future. It’s not an attraction where I get food—even though I do do that—it’s the personification of how we’re going to be together in a better place, in this same spot. In my education work, I stopped trying to think about the quote-unquote achievement gap, where people of color would catch up to white people, and I started thinking about how all of us will be different and that the majority population here will be better off because our diversity is more diverse than other places, and the white kid going to school next to someone who was born in a refugee camp somewhere on the African continent is better off and more globally fluent and better able to compete. Once we stop trying to take the pie and shave off a little bit to share with a few other people, and instead bake a bigger pie, that’s where we go.
How do schools play into this?
If you really look at the data about academic outcomes, there are huge gaps that break solidly along lines that separate the majority culture from people of color. But if you bring character skills in, it shuffles the deck. When you take a measure like commitment to learning, white students are about the middle, and above them are African American, Hmong, Asian, Somali. Yet for all those groups except Somalis, the measure on self-confidence plunges. That tells us that those kids of color in the classroom bring more commitment to learning, but we have to work with them on personal identity. When you’re trying to take something like math, where you have to fail to learn, these kids, the data shows, don’t need a lecture on buckling down and working harder. They need support to understand that they can succeed. Work on the self-confidence, not the commitment to learning. There’s incredible insight when you recognize that we’re not all trying to be the same. The melting pot is not as helpful as the jambalaya we’re going to create here. As hard as it is to really create a community where we’re speaking this many languages and with this many cultures, it also means that every one of our kids is going to be better able to compete around the world because they’re part of this new Minneapolis.
But there are parts of Minneapolis that are insular, and that insularity can be vastly different, whether you’re looking at a place like North Minneapolis or Linden Hills.
We have tremendous segregation here, but there are a couple interesting things. I live in southwest Minneapolis near Bryant Avenue, a few blocks from Lake Harriet. The people who live on the lake have dramatically more expensive houses than ours, and ours is much more expensive than the houses two blocks away. Why is that? On one hand, there’s a lake that’s a phenomenal amenity, but Bryant was a streetcar line, and that means that there are all sorts of multi-family apartment buildings up and down that strip, and that allows someone who is just starting out in their career, or a single mom with two kids, to be living four blocks from Lake Harriet, near people in other income areas. Take that model, and realize that by rebuilding these transit lines and allowing more density in the city, we can create the Minneapolis that has more of an economic mix—which, by the way, is what it used to be like, and is one of the reasons I was so hot on having a streetcar.
If you look at the West Bank right now, the most expensive real estate in the state of Minnesota is on the Mississippi riverfront, which now moves closer and closer to the university as all that gets developed. Meanwhile, we’ve built the light rail line through the West Bank, and one thing I’m proud of as mayor is that we were part of a $100 million renovation of Cedar Riverside, which has been our Ellis Island and has the largest concentration of Somalis outside of Mogadishu. And now, there is some other housing near the light rail and East Town—all of it’s going to come together—to be a place where people live in proximity. We’re so far geographically from where we need to get with integrating our neighborhoods, but if we allow our communities to get more dense along transit corridors, if we allow more ranges of housing, if we’re really intentional about building affordable housing in those, we can build the kind of city we want.
Historically, what have been the obstacles to this sort of transit-based integration?
My father’s drugstore at 26th and 4th is no longer there; it was torn down for the freeway. My father was a white pharmacist whose business depended almost exclusively on either Honeywell or prescriptions from the two black doctors in town. And so, my white family was dependent upon African Americans for their economic well-being, and that was the story in what is now 35W, the one part of town where there was an economic melting pot. My first view of Minneapolis was that it was perfectly normal to have white and black people economically interdependent. When the freeway came, it ripped the common ground out, and people went to their different boundaries. So then when my parents opened their drugstore at Chicago and Franklin, I saw a much more segregated world. I lived on one side of the freeway and went to the drugstore on the other. You can’t ever heal a 35W, but we can do more along our transit corridors.
Was the creation of 35W about as devastating as it gets?
Completely. Rondo was eviscerated in St. Paul [when I-94 was built]. We don’t talk as much about what happened in south Minneapolis, but I saw that, personally, as a little kid, and I saw what that meant for the city. I had the advantage of being an eyewitness, even a young one, to some of the real big mistakes we made and what it meant for our community, so that’s really where I got grounded. I was raised by an amazing mother who was constantly helping us see what was going on—“this is being torn up, this and this.” She drove us through the Gateway District and said, “Memorize this, it’s going to be gone.”
This is you witnessing urban renewal ripping history from downtown firsthand, right?
Let me put it this way: For the first 45 years of my life, cities were surviving as counterculture. The popular culture was moving against cities, there was a huge push to the suburbs, and there were huge mistakes made in Minneapolis, including tearing down some things. But I really credit a lot of people for stepping up and taking some intentional action that prevented this from being what happened in other places. Obviously there were some massive mistakes, the Gateway being one, but this city did some intentional things that I believe saved our downtown.
Speaking of saving downtown, what’s it like to run this city during a crisis?
I came to understand something about myself—that it was, on some strange level, easier to be on the spot, able to do something, than to be watching from the sidelines. When the 35W bridge collapsed, I worked myself into complete exhaustion and tried to do everything I possibly could, but it was easier to do that than to be one of the many, many people who came up to me so horrified, begging me to tell them something they could do to help. When I’m in the middle of my work now, which is really complicated and sometimes really depressing to see how deep the issue is of achievement gap, I still can do something about it, while people come up to me on the street and say, “Just tell me anything I can do to help these kids.” In my new job, it will continue to be a great gift that I can do something, so I don’t ever run from the point when I can do something. I would really worry if I was marginalized to the point where there was nothing I could do about anything. Maybe it’s being an action junkie. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I happen to just, physically, love this place, and I’m just really lucky that I can be in these different roles where I can actually do something to make things better.
Let’s talk about Prince. When he died in April, it became clear that he had this one profound meaning to the world, and this other more profound meaning to this place. What was he for us?
I was sad when Prince died, but I was surprised by how it stayed with me for a long time. I eventually came to the conclusion that Prince was a much deeper part of our cultural coming of age than we give him credit for. In that period where Prince was just starting to crest, this community was. I’d come back from college in Boston and had gotten demystified of this whole East Coast thing, and I was really getting grounded in—I think this community was getting grounded in—“No. We’re not the Mini-Apple. We’re this one-of-a-kind place, and we’re gonna write our own rules.” That was personified in Prince more than any other person. The biggest star you could possibly find didn’t need to go running to other places. He crafted his own deal here. That was a reflection of what was happening here on so many levels. In art, in food, in music, in all forms of popular culture, in writing, and it was just this vibe that started to happen. And so out of that began the crafting of this very different sort of spirit that we’re now putting this “North” frame on. Bike culture, the local music culture, beer culture; all of that is really about saying, “No, we’re not like anywhere else, and that’s a good thing.” So I think Prince’s death acted as a sort of acknowledgement that we’ve come a long way.
What does Minneapolis owe Prince? How do we memorialize him?
For starters, we continue to support institutions like First Avenue and the Electric Fetus. The bigger part is just to keep being the Prince of American cities. Just don’t follow some rule. Invent it ourselves. And that’s the beauty of this place. That goes back to this population that we’re growing here. There are a lot of cities with a larger population of non-white people, but it’s very, very rare to find a place with this kind of diversity from around the globe, and it’s not an accident. It’s because this community has been unbelievably generous in times of conflict, welcoming people with institutions like the Center for Victims of Torture, Advocates for Human Rights, Children’s Heart Link—all these global operations. We’re just making it up, in our own way, and that’s the beautiful thing about this moment in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis. You refer to it almost exclusively. What about St. Paul?
Every time I say Minneapolis, I mean Minneapolis-St. Paul. There are two terms I don’t use anymore: “Midwest”—because we’re “North”—and “Twin Cities,” which is half as good as Quad Cities, and we’re better than that. There’s history here, but the competition between the two cities died a generation ago, and I love everything about St. Paul except the fact that every time I go there, somebody says, “Oh mayor, did you bring your passport?” I live here! This is my town. It’s Minneapolis-St. Paul. And there’s no border. There’s no other things.
You mentioned North. What is North?
I’m sorry, [but] we’re not part of the Midwest. The middle of the west is Colorado, OK? We’re North. We’re the Star of the North, and it’s cold here. Get over it.
So what does that mean to you?
North is an important word, because it’s been connected with cold and winter, which we’ve tried to pretend didn’t happen. One of the, if not the, most beautiful nights of the year is Luminary Loppet, where there are 10 thousand people on Lake of the Isles with two-story-high ice globes and dogsled races and drinking hot chocolate and hearing cool street music. You’re not going to see that in Miami. I think we’ve got to bring back this theater of seasons idea, because to me, San Diego is kabuki theater—one boring act going on forever. It’s a really important way of living, because you feel differently in these seasons. You have to go into the abyss and come back out.
North is sort of about saying, “Screw it, we’re here for a reason, and part of that reason is winter”?
That’s exactly it.
Shifting gears: East Town. Do you like that name?
It’s fine. It’s not what I would have picked. I think it’s turning out really nice though.
The NFL can be a big, scary machine and publicly funded stadiums aren’t always well-loved—but there’s also this whole side of Minneapolis now that kind of didn’t exist before. How should we feel about East Town all things considered?
It’s a great thing to remake a part of town, and it’s a phenomenal boon economically for anyone who pays taxes or gets services from this. I’ll defend that to the hilt. Start with this: Pro-sports economics are sick. I didn’t set out to say, “Gee, let’s go be part of a football stadium.” I came to the conclusion that it was going to be built, that I didn’t want the sales tax dollars for the city of Minneapolis used to move one of our attractions to Arden Hills while we’re left with a white elephant surrounded by a bunch of parking lots and no future. So, I decided to look at an imperfect situation and roll up my sleeves. We crafted the most complicated development deal in the history of Minneapolis, and here’s what it did: It kept the stadium, the Vikings, and a whole lot of events there; it allowed us to take Target Center off the property tax roll (lowering taxes) and renovate it. It allowed us to guarantee an ongoing revenue stream for the convention center. We negotiated something that allowed us to keep any excess tax revenue over a certain amount, which would mean about maybe a million dollars a year to the city. It helped us attract a $400-million-dollar Wells Fargo deal that’s probably the largest private relocation in the city’s history. That will mean about a million dollars a year, at the start, to the county and the schools, and about $400,000 in property taxes to the city. And all that will keep escalating. It allowed us to attract another half a billion dollars of investment in the area, which will lead to millions more. A public park. Compare that to a white elephant and no future. I’ll take it any day of the week.
Lemonade out of lemons.
If you accept the fact that sometimes in public life, you don’t get to pick the perfect situations but you can make the most out of something. There are people I fully respect who say under no circumstances should there be any partnership in a stadium. If you believe that, period, and there’s no black or white, then I accept that, because I understand where people come from. I don’t like pro-sports economics. If you look at what we did, I believe it’s one of the best development and business decisions in the city. I’m very proud of the fact that I walked into a massive financial crisis in the city and steered us out, paid off two, three hundred million dollars of debt, restored bond ratings, merged apartments together. We did a lot of really good things. But there’s also a moment in which a great city has to grow. And in one fell swoop we remade a part of town and created some really good economic outcomes. I’m darn proud of that.
What are the real economics of the publically funded portion of the stadium for a Minneapolis resident?
Well, as a Minneapolis resident, think about this for a second. You were paying the equivalent of a 2 percent property tax increase for the Target Center. Originally, Target Center was what everybody wants: a private owner paying for their stadium. That’s what Harvey Ratner did. Then the savings and loan crisis came, Midwest Federal collapsed, they lost a lot of their money, and they couldn’t afford it. It fell back on the city, the city went to the state, the state said, “No way, it’s up to you guys.” And the city had to step in—this was before me—and put it on the tax rolls, which was not good, but it was the only way to do it. It was made worse then when the state, under Arne Carlson, stepped in and built Xcel in St. Paul. I’m really happy Xcel’s in St. Paul, but it created this financial mess over here. So when I came in, we spent many years going to the Capitol saying, “We can’t have the property tax payer paying 2 percent for this stadium.” And by the way, what most people didn’t know is that the contract didn’t oblige us to keep that competitive, so where were we going to get those millions? So now the part of your public money that goes in is the sales tax to the city, not your property tax. So we got that off the property tax and put it on the sales tax. Sixty percent of the work force, as I understand it, doesn’t even live in the city. So all these people coming in to the bars and the restaurants, all these sales taxes, are paying for it, too. So that was part of the deal.
A deal that didn’t always make you super popular.
I wrote a chapter in my book about the thin line between love and respect. It was about having to do tough things and [getting] all these people mad at me, but then to my surprise, winning [my reelection] by a lot. I came to the conclusion that people were going to judge me not on a single act but on the body of my work. So I had to make a tough call on something that I think many people just—there are people who will never understand that, and I get it because I don’t like pro sports economics either. But I do think that in political life right now, we really miss leaders doing things that may be unpopular if they think it’s right. I’m not saying people should justify people, you know, making the deal I made necessarily, but I do think, ultimately, people respected the fact that I looked at the facts in an extremely intense way over a long period of time and came up with a solution that was the best for that problem.
And it all really came together at the tail end of your time as mayor.
When I announced I wasn’t running again, I said, “I’m going to do four years of work in one year,” and I really did. And I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked in a pretty hard working career, because there was just so much that I wanted to get done. I look at pictures now and realize how bad I looked, and I wound up not being surprised that I had a heart attack.
When all is said and done, you’ve been a pretty lucky guy.
I’m a hometown kid who’s gotten to be part of some of the best institutions in this town, and I may be going into the best one yet. But as someone who’s benefited from all these institutions, we all better roll up our sleeves for this generation and make sure they go further. One of the best things that the Minneapolis Foundation did is that they have this pay-it-forward strategy, where there’s a fund that’s been created that’s raised millions of dollars to be used in the future. Now what community does that? What community takes some of their best philanthropists and has them give money into the future? So that’s super exciting to me. And what I want to do now is try to get a broader community of giving—all of us, everybody, can give something.
Because not everybody is in the position to give money, but they want to help.
Yeah. I think one of the things is, so much goes on already. We don’t lack compassion, but we do lack alignment, and we lack strategies on things that work. My work with Generation Next has been about really surgically analyzing data, and listening hard to people out doing the work, and understanding, among the myriad of good things you can do, what’s the best way to have the most impact. And that’s a place that I really want us to do even more at the Minneapolis Foundation, is be the one place you go if you really want to make something happen. Not just the intent, but the impact. That’s exciting work.