Fifty years later and two doors down

Don and Arvonne Fraser on the porch of their Southeast Seventh Street home.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Marcy-Holmes is an anchor for the Frasers — and vice versa

In the early 1950s, a young Minneapolis attorney named Don Fraser was recruited to join the board of his local neighborhood group. Soon Don was elected chair of the group, then known as the University District Improvement Association UDIA, and he helped lead the organization as it grappled with the development pressures confronting its historic Southeast neighborhood.

Now, more than 50 years later, Don’s wife, Arvonne, is dealing with similar pressures as chair of UDIA’s successor organization, the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA).

In many ways, their work at the neighborhood level provides fitting bookends for the careers of one of Southeast’s best known and most highly esteemed couples. During their decades of high-profile activism on a broad range of local, national and international fronts, Don and Arvonne have always been drawn back to Southeast Seventh Street, where Don was born and where the couple now lives.

When they were married in 1950, Don and Arvonne moved into the substantial frame home at 813 SE Seventh St. where the Fraser family had lived when Don’s father, Everett, was dean of the University Law School.

A student there himself, Don graduated from the law school in 1948. After graduation, he turned the family house into something of a bachelor’s pad, renting rooms to a group of friends, including another young lawyer named Walter Mondale.

When the roommates moved out, Don and Arvonne made the Southeast Seventh Street house their home. They lived there, with their growing family, until 1962, when Don was elected to Congress and the Frasers moved to Washington.

But the house stayed in the family during the congressional years. Later, when a developer threatened to purchase and convert to a parking lot the small house next door at 817 SE Seventh St., the Frasers bought that house, as well. Eventually, the Frasers sold the original family home; Don lived at the 817 house when he came back to Minneapolis to run for mayor, while Arvonne stayed in Washington as a high-ranking official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

When Arvonne’s job at USAID was over, she came back to Minneapolis and the couple started looking for a new house. They settled on the rambling two-story duplex at 821 SE Seventh St., where they now live.

“A complex of emotions, including plain sentimentality, drove us to buy a large old house just two doors down … from the house we left in 1962,” Arvonne would later write in her autobiography.

Today, the Frasers use the Southeast Seventh Street house as a home office for their wide-ranging civic endeavors, including Arvonne’s new volunteer job as chair of the MHNA.

“I find it fascinating, and I also find it terrible that I have to be the chair at my age,’ said Arvonne, who celebrated her 83rd birthday Sept. 1. “There should have been a lot of younger people coming up to take that job. But I understand that most young people are busy, or think they are too busy.”

“Arvonne was recruited to become chair of the Marcy-Holmes group because no one else was ready to take the job,” said Don. “I suspect that also happened when I became chair of UDIA in the early 1950s. I certainly don’t remember going after the job.”

During Don’s time as chair of UDIA, the organization was faced with a contentious zoning battle over property at Southeast Fourth Street, which was about to be converted to commercial use. “We won that battle, and we were able to keep that site for neighborhood use,” Don recalled. Today, Marcy School and Holmes Park occupy the site.

More than 50 years after the Fourth Street zoning battle was settled, Arvonne was embroiled in a new land-use controversy only a few blocks away, at the Pillsbury “A” Mill site. The MHNA has given qualified support to a proposal by local developer Shafer Richardson for an ambitious new mixed-use development anchored by the historic mill.

“Our neighborhood, which includes the southeast riverfront, is going to develop because of its strategic location between Downtown and the university,” Arvonne said. “The question is: how is it going to develop? Some people want our area to stay as it is, but I don’t think that is realistic. We need to help guide development so it happens in a way that meets neighborhood needs.

“Community groups like Marcy-Holmes have an important role to play in linking bricks-and-mortar development with more intangible factors like safety and livability,” she continued. “We help create a sense of community, which is so important to the quality of life in an urban place like Minneapolis.”

Don takes a somewhat more critical view of neighborhood associations. He thinks these geographically-targeted organizations have failed to engage with the serious social problems affecting educational performance by children in Minneapolis public schools.

“The neighborhood groups have no role in dealing with the major issue facing this city — families living in poverty, and how that impacts their children’s education,” Fraser said.

“There are a few neighborhood groups that connect with their schools, but those are the exception,” he said. “Every school can benefit from community support, whether it is in a high poverty area or not. Neighborhood residents can be volunteers in the schools. They can be more attentive as to how the schools are doing. They can get to know the principal and the teachers. They can take ownership of the schools. That is true even for a school like Marcy [Open School], which is an open school so people come here without some well-defined boundaries in place. Nevertheless, it is still seen as the school in our neighborhood, and children from this neighborhood go there.

“The point I keep trying to make is that one of the single most important elements in determining the health of the neighborhood is the health of the school,” said Don. If students are doing well at the local school, the neighborhood is going to be much more attractive, and people are going to want to live there.”

Iric Nathanson worked as a staff member for Congressman Don Fraser from 1967 to 1978.

last revised: November 10, 2008