In the 1990s, when the major industrial employers had abandoned Northeast Minneapolis, squatters and partyers filled the old brick buildings they left behind. It was a time when Northeast was known for vacant buildings and abandoned streets, rather than breweries and artists.
Under the surface, though, there was a vibrant cultural pulse, according to Anthony Huonder, a local potter who operates Ash Pottery. While in high school, he would visit the stretch of Quincy Street NE between 15th Ave. and Broadway with friends and hang out in what’s now the Q.arma Building. “You’d come downstairs and it doesn’t look anything like what it does now…you just walked into the space, and there was a wall, and a really narrow hallway, and red-painted floors.” Through the hallway, there were jam spaces for punk and metal bands.
Anthony moved away from Minnesota, and spent time working and traveling in Europe. When he returned in March of 2007, he didn’t have much money, but began looking for studio space for his pottery business. Another clay artist informed him about the burgeoning artist scene in Northeast and he set out to find an apartment and studio in the area.
He toured several spaces, and was set to rent out a space in the Carriage House behind the Casket Arts Building. Before he could sign a lease, Jono Query, the owner of the Q.arma Building, called him up with an opportunity to reconnect with the basement he used to visit in high school. He had talked with Jono before and found the space ideal—just a few blocks from his apartment, large, and workable. But it was too expensive for him at the time without a studiomate. The two had connected during their conversation though, and Jono felt that Anthony would be an asset to the building. He offered to rent the studio to Anthony at a reduced rent for four months while he looked for a studiomate.
After sharing the studio with other artists for a few years, Anthony and his dog are now the sole occupants of the rugged corner studio in the basement. Mugs and bowls, glazed and unglazed, sit upon wooden shelves set against limestone walls. Even though Jono had cleaned up the basement from its metal band days, Anthony said it was still “really raw” when he first moved into the Q.arma Building. The bathroom was “third world,” and the studio would occasionally flood because vines had cracked the foundation.
Still, he didn’t mind. “Artists just need a place they can get dirty and functions…I can’t have power outages; certain things are unacceptable. As long as it works, it can be as rugged as this is. I don’t care that there are pipes running through my space. It functions. It works.” He stressed that he recognizes that it’s an old building—it’s going to have problems. But if he can have a big space at a reasonable price, none of that matters. If he had a nicer space, he quipped, he not only wouldn’t be able to afford it, he’d also probably break it.
Besides, there’s also something meaningful about working in a gritty environment like this. “There was a romance to going to space that a lot of people would cringe at. Like, ‘Oh, yeah. I go there. You might not wanna go there.’ I like the cobblestones, I like the old railcar tracks…the tree that’s growing through the fence that didn’t get trimmed,” he said. “We’re here to work, we’re here to make, we’re here to create.”
The grittiness acts as a filter, and fosters an environment of independence and innovation. It has afforded Northeasters the opportunity to fly under the radar and to create a community according to the standards of flexibility and necessity rather than permits and regulations. With the public eye increasingly centered on Northeast, Anthony lamented the requisite hurdles to navigate just to play live music or sell food or have parties. “That risk is always there if you’re going to try something new and exciting.” Logistics can stifle innovation and creativity.
The building’s owner, Jono Query, tries to maintain that spirit of freedom at least within his walls. Jono started rehabbing the building and providing space for artists out of a passion for the neighborhood and creating a vibrant arts scene. The building’s revitalization has been slow, yet organic (the bathrooms are no longer third world quality, however). Jono told the tenants that they were chiefly accountable to each other as neighbors for their projects and events, rather than him as landlord. He trusts them to act responsibly.
Thanks to this independence and density, many artists have built connections that keep relations amicable and spur creativity. When Jono extended an opportunity for Anthony to work in the Q.arma Building, he specifically mentioned wanting to have a potter in the building because they didn’t have one. Anthony said there’s tremendous value to have a diversity of mediums, experiences, skillsets and processes. Say he’s throwing a party but doesn’t know about sound equipment. He can go over to the musicians nearby and they can tell him what to rent and lend him what he needs. If they’re going to a wedding, he can return the favor by setting them up with a great gift.
“My buddy Rabi would lend me tools all the time. He was a tool collector. I’d come across a new project I wanted to figure out and wouldn’t have the tool for it or wouldn’t really know how to do it, and he would help me then, because he’s a specialist in metal and metalworking tools, and I’m not.” In return, he could answer Rabi’s questions about insulation when melting metal.
He went over to a shelf and pulled out a couple of wooden items. “I can get custom-made tools in my own building. I don’t have to outsource it or look on the internet for that. I can go talk to the person and get it made.”
Much of the time, the artistic interaction yields a tangible product or a collaborative project. But the dense concentration of artists in one area also produces intangible benefits through serendipitous interactions and day-to-day chit-chat: “Sometimes it’s just the brainstorming you can have because I have this set of knowledge from my existence and my craft, and somebody else has their own, and I don’t know anything about it. Through random conversations, I’ll have an epiphany, or vice versa.”
Those relationships, Anthony believes, have been integral to the identity of Northeast. Whether it’s his landlord, the barista at Matchbox Coffee, or the bartender at the 331 Club, he values seeing and forming connections with the people who run the community institutions. “The more you like them, the more you want to support whatever they’re doing,” he said. “That was part of the initial success within the neighborhood. When something started, you knew who started it, so you really wanted to support them, and so you spread the word and it got out there far and wide, and that brought in more people.”
“So maybe that’s how it all happened,” he mused.
“It” being the growth of the neighborhood—a controversial subject. As someone who’s been coming to Northeast for roughly two decades, Anthony has been able to watch the transformation of the neighborhood take place. It was sad, he said, to see places bulldozed and bought out and evicted because of their own success. “Those pioneers are being priced out of the area they helped create.” Just before we spoke, Anthony discovered the house he was renting was going up for sale and he’d have to find a new place even further away from the Q.arma Building.
Just as much as he lamented the current condition in Northeast, he was quick to acknowledge the contradiction in wanting a place to remain a hidden gem forever, and wanting that place to succeed. He also recognized his role in it: “Whoever was here before me, they probably didn’t want to leave. And then they got priced out and I stepped in. And then I’m going to get priced out and someone else will step in.”
Solutions also proved elusive. Existential questions about who gets to be the arbiter of a neighborhood loomed. “Who are we to say, ‘We like how we are now, so you can’t have any more success?’ You can’t say that. We’re all striving to make something better.” No one wants stagnation, no one wants to embargo success. He seemed resigned to the inevitability to the natural course of revitalization and displacement, of his own fate and that of the neighborhood. For Anthony, the instant you harness something good and organic with rules, you ruin it.
It only makes sense that his wish for Northeast is to somehow preserve the ethos of what it made it great through cultivating a type of community, not crafting laws. “Everybody was willing to give their time and their energy and their expertise at something to help make whatever you’re doing better.”
“Whether it’s me or somebody else, it doesn’t matter which specific person it is, it’s just that they have those kinds of ambitions and that kind of spirit,” he said. “That was the spirit of Northeast. People were engaged in what they were doing and getting good at it and also using it to help the one next to them get better at what they’re doing.”