by Hunter Simonson
Many students at MSUM may not remember what the Downtown FM area was like only a decade ago. I know that I can’t. I grew up in Fargo, but my memories of downtown are hazy and sporadic before my teenage years. The popular narrative is that the 1980s and 90s were not good to downtowns, nationwide. Urban centers gave way to long suburban avenues and pop-up neighborhoods. Slowly, I became conscious of downtown as it grew and became relevant to me.
Businesses trickled in, catering to the aging millennial crowd who were still unable to go to the bars but were desperately in need of somewhere to hang out other than their mom’s basement. Before long, Fargo was almost cool-ish. Now its pretty cool-ish. We have decent, cheap restaurants with chalk board menus and bright signs, almost like a real city! But it’s all just a little bit phony. The new restaurants and cafes are just a little too eager, and the wood is just a little too “reclaimed.” A shiny veneer has been slapped onto downtown Fargo.
Whether or not you are welcome to enjoy the new downtown, according to the city of Fargo, depends on if you have a home to return to or enough money to enter the bar. Before recently, this has only been implied. But last Thursday, the city of Fargo, urged by downtown businesses, replaced several benches on Broadway. Instead of swapping them with benches that don’t look like tacky patio furniture, they replicated the benches without backs. This is to discourage “transients” from spending too much time on them, according to Mike Hahn, CEO of the Downtown Community Partnership.
I find this insulting. It solidifies my belief that downtown Fargo is only for alcoholics of a certain age, housing status and racial background. The city is (literally) making the less-fortunate among us more uncomfortable in order to spare entitled bar-goers from their pleas and advances. It’s not always fun to engage someone who is intoxicated, and you certainly don’t have to, but to blatantly dissuade homeless people from using a public space is simply condescending and cruel.
Instead of growing Fargo’s services for desperate people and families, the city has chosen to wage a beautification campaign that does nothing to address the needs of Fargoans. Built into the subtext is the idea that the “bench-sitters” are inherently dangerous or threatening. Yes, they have harassed me as I walked by. I have ignored them and I have engaged them, but never have I been or felt threatened. I have, however, had a friend who was severely concussed by a smug, drunken Bison, completely unprovoked. The idea that these “transients” are to be feared is drawn from the worst aspects of human mentality.
They are the others. They aren’t part of us. They have no place in our squeaky-clean city.
In many European countries, and around the world, bus stops and public areas are built to accommodate desperate citizens. Why is it that we are inclined to punish them further, and in such a petty way? Fargo’s homeless population is not going anywhere, no matter how many benches we replace. It’s whether we treat them as people or problems that matters.