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How “save the bees” keeps Northfield white

On September 23, 2021, The Olaf Messenger published a letter by Northfield resident Randolph Jennings in support of  new housing development in Northfield. In this issue, St. Olaf student and Northfield native Elijah Leer ’22 continues the discussion.


I’ve lived in Northfield for 17 years. I’m white, I was born into an upper middle class family, and I’m a cisgender male. Both of my parents have PhDs. I ride a mountain of privilege everywhere I go. I’m not an expert on the subject upon which I’m about to foist my opinion. Just wanted to open with that.

On Northfield’s west side, a housing development is currently in the works. The property in question lies between Greenvale Avenue and Lincoln Parkway, and the development would add 130 new homes to the neighborhood. 30 of these are single family houses, while the rest are apartments of varying sizes, contained in one building. The developers ostensibly want the property to be a conglomeration of low-cost housing and more expensive, upper middle class homes. The neighborhood currently features far more of the latter, and I believe that creating more socially inclusive housing is an inherently good thing.

That said, many Northfielders, particularly those living in the neighborhood, are discontent with the proposed project. Several hundred trees will be cut down to make way for construction, and the area’s prairie grasses are a natural habitat for the federally endangered Rusty Patched Bumblebee. Several homeowners have taken up the environmental cause and have recently been encouraging their neighbors (and St. Olaf students) to “Save the Bees and Trees” via a petition to the city to temporarily stop development. 

I love bees. And I love trees. And I’m sure the environmentally conscious Northfielders do too. But I question the suddent strength of their convictions.

When the project was initially proposed in March 2020, the city of Northfield held a public forum for its citizens to weigh in on the project. Many of the “Save the Bees” people vocally opposed the project then, too, but at the time, their discontent was instead aimed at the increased traffic the development would bring. Looking through city hall’s records, the vast majority of comments discuss how many new cars would come through the area, endangering students at the school across the street. They lambast the developers for not completing a traffic assessment of the area, saying they’d feel more comfortable if the proper preparatory steps were taken. And now a traffic assessment has been completed. And now we care about the bees.

Comparing more recent complaints to the ones from March, I’ve noticed a through line. “This neighborhood just isn’t suited for this development.” “We need to meet the needs of Northfield residents.” “The new housing doesn’t fit with the present housing.” The proposed development just doesn’t belong.

But what does it mean to belong? Northfield is an overwhelmingly white, upper middle class city, and we really like it that way. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it’s safe. We project a welcoming, progressive attitude, but couldn’t the new, more economically- or racially-diverse residents just live in a different part of town? 

It seems such a shame to disrupt the nice, white neighborhood.

The public comments back me up. “Why not build a new complex out by Florella’s trailer park. If these developers want to buy property, buy that one.” “We’re in favor of housing, but we’re a mile and a half from the city…build new housing downtown.”

I don’t want to suggest that efforts to Save the Bees and Trees are intentionally motivated by anything more than staunch environmentalism. But would we care so much if the development wasn’t in our own pleasantly-wooded backyard? St. Olaf itself cut down several trees to make way for the new set of dorms. I saw no petition. I also have to think that the people currently living in and around Greenvale and Lincoln cut down a fair share of trees in order to build their own houses. My uncle likes to say that everyone’s an environmentalist once they have their own lake cabin, and I can’t help but think of him now. I know the involved individuals mean no harm, but they’ve reminded me of Northfield’s history of classism, racism, and general hypocrisy, and maybe that’s a problem.

Elijah Leer is from 

Northfield, Minn.

His major is music education.