Under new leadership, McKinley neighborhood makes a comeback

McKinley Community's new executive director Markella Smith has spent her spring evenings doorknocking in the neighborhood with her young sons. She says her goals are to “Show my kids something different and make some changes on the Northside that positively impact the people that are here.” Photo by David Pierini

McKinley Community's new executive director Markella Smith has spent her spring evenings doorknocking in the neighborhood with her young sons. She says her goals are to “Show my kids something different and make some changes on the Northside that positively impact the people that are here.” Photo by David Pierini

By Kenzie O'Keefe Editor

For the past three years, McKinley Community (MC), the city-recognized neighborhood association for the McKinley neighborhood, has been quiet. A handful of beleaguered board members and fluctuating part time staff and contractors have kept basic operations going since a former executive director was accused of embezzling MC’s funds in 2015. 

But as pressure on the neighborhood mounts—from having one of the “hottest housing markets” in the Twin Cities (according to Zillow) to the dramatic changes the Upper Harbor Terminal Development will bring, to the lack of adequate programming for youth and seniors—a few devoted residents are trying to recenter MC as a genuine voice for the neighborhood’s people. 

“We are undergoing a big transformation right now,” said new Executive Director Markella Smith who joined McKinley staff in late 2018 to help "straighten out" the organization’s paperwork and finances. “It started there and kind of grew,” she said. 

Reflecting on her childhood growing up in the Victory neighborhood, Smith says she remembers a more “close-knit community.” She hopes to bring that back through her new role. As the parent of three boys, she says her motivation is to “show my kids something different and make some changes on the Northside that positively impact the people that are here,” she said.

On June 2, McKinley will host its annual board elections at the MC building from 5:30-7:30pm. They hope to fill seven board seats. 

"All McKinley residents are encouraged to attend [and are] eligible to be on the Board," said MC Board Chair Lane Cunningham, who has been in his position since last fall. Cunningham is married to Ward 4 City Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham.

With the new leadership in place, Smith hopes to collaboratively dream up new programming and purposes for their building at 3300 Lyndale Ave. N (which has been home to the soon-to-shutter Serendripity Spot Coffee Shop) and new ways to build community power, while exploring community members’ capacities to engage in organizational work.  “There’s tons of creativity on the Northside,” she said.

When Serendripity Spot will permanently close and when MC will bring new programming in remains to be determined.

"The timeline for when it’s going to close and when we’re going to reopen is a little fuzzy right now. We’re really trying to focus on board elections,” said Smith.

To raise awareness for those upcoming elections and MC’s resurgence, and to gather community input to guide forward movement, Smith has been door knocking in the neighborhood in the evenings—after she finishes her full-time day job. 

“We’re just trying to get our name out there and understand what the community needs,” said Cunningham.

We’re one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the entire city,” Cunningham said. “It’s a gift and it’s something that hasn’t been harnessed in a way that’s beneficial or resourceful,” he added.

Smith says people are surprised but comforted to see her knocking on their doors. “I think it helps to see someone of my complexion and background actually doing the work and setting things into motion,” she said.

As she leans into her new leadership role, she says she is “taking a lot of notes from Victory, Folwell, and Cleveland” neighborhood organizations. “They’re amazing. They took me under their wings. …I’m truly able to call on them,” she said.

Cunningham is confident MC can overcome the struggles of recent years. “In the past, the organization was taken advantage of by a criminal. The organization and the community’s trust were taken advanatage of through the actions of a previous administrative staff. This led to a period of hardship for the organization—financially and in terms of morale. Since then the organization has struggled to regain its sense of identity. Now we’re doing it,” he said. 

Smith agrees: “We come from a good place. There’s passion here. There’s really a need and a want to see good happen, not just in McKinley, but in North Minneapolis in general,” she said. 

Kenzie O'Keefe