Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On Writing, and Remembering "Andy Fantastic"


On March 7th 2014, Andy Golebiowski, known on Johnny Northside and North by Northside as "The Artisan of Meat," and nicknamed "Andy Fantastic" among friends and family, passed away.  Andy was a proud husband, father, and grandfather, and that fierce pride carried over into everything Polish.  He and his wife Valeria, aka "The Polish Lady," have been pillars of the Hawthorne community for well over forty years.  Even before my own grandparents passed away, these two wonderful folks had become somewhat like my adopted north Minneapolis grandma and grandpa.  (It's not clear who adopted who; maybe that part got lost in a few rounds of drinking Polish vodka.)

The Golebiowski home on 31st Avenue North was, for a long time, the only occupied property on that block.  You'd never know it by driving through the area now, but at one point literally every other home on their street was foreclosed, boarded, vacant, arson-damaged, or some combination of those three.  It's no stretch to say that the Hawthorne EcoVillage would not be the success story it is today without Andy and Valeria.

Valeria attended most of the meetings, and came out for press conferences, dinners, galas, and gatherings with various politicos who were supportive of the development.  But Andy was no less invested in the community than she was.  He just showed that investment in different ways, like constantly peppering me with questions about the next big thing, who new home owners would be, when the bad actors would be leaving, swearing, bragging about Polish (fill in the blank), drinking Polish vodka, sharing his home with community members, more swearing, celebrating each small neighborhood success with Polish sausage, and then some vodka to top it off (Polish, of course).

The celebratory Polish sausage was at first a pleasant surprise, then a way to sustain revitalization efforts, and eventually a tradition of sorts.  I'll always remember the first time that happened...

...Not too long after one neighbor had her home broken into, our partners at the city put a laser-like focus on every aspect of the EcoVillage that needed attention.  Which was basically everything.  Skepticism ran pretty high in the neighborhood.  They'd heard it all before, and nothing ever seemed to change.  But this time, as we know now, was different.  Real progress was just starting to happen, and it was coming on seemingly all at once.  I had stopped by Valeria's (I only knew Andy as that kind of intimidating grumpy old dude, so it was just "Valeria's house" to me at the time) to tell her the good news, and that's when Andy came home from work.  He had a paper bag of groceries in one hand and a clear plastic bag full of Polish sausage in the other.

"Oh honey!"  Valeria exclaimed, "Jeff has such good news.  Across the street, those houses they be demolished.  Apartments over there, everybody is out.  Bad guy who sneaks in next door, he not be allowed back in neighborhood..."  And the list of Herculean accomplishments continued.  When Valeria was finished, Andy looked at me, and without any acknowledgment of what had just been achieved, jerked his thumb over his shoulder (while still holding the bag of sausages) and snapped, "Vat about ZAT f***ing buildink!"

"Zat buildink" was another apartment complex that was so poorly maintained that it should have been declared uninhabitable long before; raw sewage sometimes made its way into the back yard and the tenants' criminal activities had a poetically similar impact on the community.

"Oh, no one can live there," Valeria responded.  "They give notice.  Two weeks, everybody be goink."

Andy looked at me and nodded his head, which for a grizzled old Eastern European fellow who'd lived a hard life, was the emotional equivalent of a bear hug for most people, and handed over the entire bag of Polish sausage.  "Polish sausage," he clarified, "for you to eat."  I'm not sure what else I'd have done with it anyway, but this was at least three pounds worth.  It lasted well over a week.

And that was the start of a beautiful friendship with "Andy Fantastic," the "Artisan of Meat."

Which leads me in a roundabout way to a reflection on the impact of writing, specifically blogging and more specifically north Minneapolis blogging.  One of the first undertakings I took on, along with John Hoff and others, was a rebranding of north Minneapolis, calling it "NoMi."  Changing how a community was described could, many thought, help to spur changes in the perception and ultimately the reality of the area.  The act of giving something a name allowed us to define things within our community before anyone else could.

Those attempts were met with varying degrees of success.  I can confidently say that "Save 2648 Emerson" would not have had the same impact as "Save the Sheltering Arms House," and were it not for giving that house a name, it might not even be here today.  Conversely, John and I had tried to come up with a term for how north Minneapolis was (and still is) being targeted by unscrupulous investors.  "Reverse redlining" or "greenlining" were the best we could come up with, but nothing seemed to stick.

Where this changes from a broader, almost abstract concept to something intensely personal is with the Hawthorne EcoVillage and Andy and Valeria.  As we were telling the story of revitalization that was happening, we wanted to chronicle the struggles and the progress.  But not everyone in the area was comfortable with having their name put out there for the whole world to see.  "Patty Cake" was one moniker.  Valeria became "The Polish Lady."  And Andy was, of course, "The Artisan of Meat."  There were real-world reasons why pseudonyms were used.  Peter Teachout, then-board chair and a visible opponent of "The Devil," had his truck set on fire in retaliation for his efforts.

Out of this need to keep people safe while telling a neighborhood's story was borne a series of nicknames that last even today.  I was humbled to see that at Andy's funeral, quotes and photos from this blog and Johnny Northside were displayed prominently.  He was even called "The Artisan of Meat" in the biography that was included in the service's bulletin.

That his own family would choose these words as an integral part of how this man would be memorialized forever...that's some pretty heavy stuff. That dynamic serves as an inspiration to keep writing, and to keep up neighborhood revitalization.  And it calls for a swig of Polish vodka.  I think Andy would understand.

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