Elder skelter

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January 26, 2004 // UPDATED 2:43 pm - April 24, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

Two teens uncover the wild lives of Elliot Park seniors

Violet Kloth, known as the "Flower of the Control Tower" during her World War II service, made sure fighter pilot John Glenn and others who depended upon her landed safe and sound. Helen Pedersen nursed an African leper colony, where she helped establish an elders' governing council and a school. Isabel Buri helped shut down a liquor store and a bar in Elliot Park, which were replaced with a building named in her honor.

These are not the stories Deonta Cunningham, 12, and Danielle Carson, 14, expected to hear when they enlisted in a summer video project to capture Elliot Park seniors' life stories. They also didn't expect to produce an artwork that reflects the neighborhood's eclectic, rough-hewn history.

Cunningham and Carson first entered Augustana Care Center warily. Cunningham expected to dodge cane slaps or umbrella bops from curmudgeonly seniors, as he'd seen in the movies. Carson expected the sort of verbal assaults she had heard from the "mean and nasty" residents of a nursing home where her mother worked.

These days, the seniors do attack the duo -- with cheek-coddling, hand-shaking and forehead-kissing. Through it all, the teens never wince -- they positively beam.

Project organizers hoped this would happen when they planned the video project last spring. Karen Coons, Augustana's volunteer director, met with Elliot Park representatives and members of local Swedish Lutheran churches about connecting youth and elders at Augustana and in the community.

Coons said organizers figured they could lure teens with "high-tech stuff" such as video cameras.

It worked. Over a dozen teens signed up for the eight-week project.

However, four weeks later, only Cunningham and Carson remained. The rest dropped out due to personal problems, scheduling conflicts and because the task -- interviewing strangers, steadying the camera and editing massive amounts of footage -- was more challenging than anticipated.

For finishing the project, the two teens earned a small stipend from their church but said they stayed mostly because they always keep their promises. They wound up producing an impressive work, considering they had never held a camera before. (Filmmaker Nicole Erdman assisted them.) For the most part, the video's transitions are smooth and the close-ups and long-distance shots happen at just the right moments. The occasional camera wiggle or lost transition only seems to better reflect the up-and-down atmosphere that is Elliot Park.

Still, as they excitedly recount the lives of their new friends, it's clear they also stayed because of the people involved.

The stories

The two teens refer to "Life Stories of Elliot Park" star Isabel Buri as "Izzie." They trip over one another's words as they speak of her battles to better the neighborhood:

"She helped shut down that old liquor store, what was that?"

"Little Judge's."

"Yeah and then there was..."

"Oh yeah, that bar, too."

"What was that called?"

"Dolly's, I think."

It is obvious that Buri grew comfortable with the teen interviewers, telling them that she's never been one for husbands or boyfriends. Instead, she focused her energy on improving her community.

In bits and spurts, the video reveals the octogenarian's booze-battling war stories. Threads of thought dangle between live shots of Buri and relic images: she rests her wrinkled cheek on her cane, then there's a picture of a crowd with signs reading "Little Judge's must go," Buri talks about how she walked right in to Dolly's Bar and told the owner about how it was hurting the neighborhood. Then there's a photo of a building -- Buri Manor, named in her honor -- where Dolly's used to be.

Community activist Jim Anderson pops up here and there in the video. As he lounges on the patio of the beloved Band Box Diner on a sunny afternoon, Anderson tells the teen interviewers "this area here used to be white people's" -- including some rather haughty ones. According to him, the home of the wealthy Snyders Drug Stores founders stood where upscale condo tower Grant Park rises just a few blocks away.

"Black people didn't come around here, or Downtown," he said, chiefly because there weren't other black people around. Most worked on the trains as porters and cooks and lived near the tracks closer to the Mississippi river.

Anderson explained that eventually a group of blacks found homes in the southeast part of Elliot Park -- only to have their area wiped out by construction of Interstate-35W.

Reconnecting

Cunningham and Carson, who live in South Minneapolis, now understand why many people, themselves included, never get to know Elliot Park. The neighborhood is an urban island, bounded by highways, the looming Metrodome and the massive Hennepin County Medical Center.

This island is studded with several large institutions that can form distinct subcommunities: the Augustana center, North Central University and various facilities for people with mental disabilities and/or chemical dependency.

"It's easy to just stay in here and forget about what's going on 'out there,'" said Ruben Pederson, in a Skyway News interview from his 11th floor Augustana Towers apartment overlooking a tangle of freeways. Ruben and his wife Helen were featured in the video for their decades of missionary work in Africa and for the story of their 52-years-strong union.

In the video they said they are always looking for ways to meet more people in the community, especially kids and recent immigrants (Helen loves to shock them by speaking Swahili). Helen said they enjoyed participating in the video project as it provided an entry point, "You can't just walk up to strangers and say, 'Hi, I'd like to know more about you.'"

Augustana resident Violet Kloth, whose story about being a World War II control tower pilot appears in the video, discovered during the course of the project that the Pedersens had known her aunt who also served as a missionary in Africa.

Kloth also traveled the globe, never settling into one place for more than two years. She and the Pedersons have put away their frequent flyer cards, and Kloth, an Augustan resident for just over a year, said getting to know people through the project was a way of planting herself more firmly in the area.

The teens and the adults are all charged up about the idea of doing more projects like this -- they say they just need someone to help organize it. According to Coons and church representatives, there is great interest in continuing with the work, but no specific plans as of yet.

Meeting up for a group photo to accompany this article, the Pedersons, Kloth, Carson and Cunningham squeeze into the shell-print couch in the Pederson's living room. Kloth opens her hands, palms up, and Carson and Cunningham slip their own right in. When the shoot is over, they remain seated, their hands intertwined, not quite ready to let go.

For more information on the video or on other, more traditional volunteer opportunities at Augustana Care Center, contact Karen Coons at 238-5441.