June 4, 2020 / 5:02 PM / 2 months ago

Black architect who knew George Floyd hopes to rebuild a more just Twin Cities

ST. PAUL, Minn. (Reuters) - George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis while in police custody, and the destruction that followed during demonstrations throughout the region, cut especially deep for Saint Paul architect James Garrett Jr., a fifth-generation black resident of Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

The 48-year-old Garrett, whose grandfather was Saint Paul’s first black deputy police chief, said he was committed to helping rebuild his community, the state’s capital city. Civil disturbances and looting have marred demonstrations in the Twin Cities since Floyd’s death two weeks ago during an encounter with four Minneapolis police officers.

“The challenge for us is how do we not just replace what was lost but create a more equitable ... resilient” community, said Garrett, one of the founders of 4RM+ULA, a Saint Paul architecture firm focused on community development projects.

“That is driving me and that is how I am trying to center myself within the maelstrom,” he said, adding he is “obsessed” with creating a more just community through architecture. “These are growing pains as a society that we have to go through to get to a better place.”

A video circulated that showing Floyd’s death while an officer knelt on his neck hit Garrett especially personally. He used to see the 46-year-old Floyd often and knew him as “Big Floyd,” the doorman at one of his favorite restaurants, Conga Latin Bistro.

“Seeing what happened to him is a reminder that but for the grace of God, it could have been me,” said Garrett, adding he knew immediately that unrest could follow Floyd’s death.

“I felt the anger,” he said. “I was very aware that this city could burn.”

Then vandals set fire to a former auto dealership his firm is turning into an arts center. “It went to another level for me when this building was attacked,” said Garrett, standing outside of the boarded up building.

Thanks to a fire suppression system and flame retardant carpeting, the building suffered only cosmetic damage and will become the home to Springboard For The Arts.

Another of his firm’s projects that suffered damage was the Juxtaposition Arts New Art Center, a youth arts organization.

“In my wildest dreams, I never thought buildings and organizations that represent people and community and positive engagement would be targeted,” he said.

Garrett said his “heart aches” especially for formerly incarcerated men in his community who live at Great River Landing, a supportive housing project his firm designed.

“Those guys are completely traumatized,” he said, noting that many have personally experienced violent arrests.

(Story fixes typographical error in headline)

Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Saint Paul, Minnesota; Editing by David Gregorio

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