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Culture

Did You Know You Have a Friend in Stevens Square?

At 70, Denny Jacobson has been a familiar face in the neighborhood for years.

Denny Jacobson
Anna Koenning

Denny Jacobson watched a man die through the window of his favorite Minneapolis coffee shop last September. 

“That was the first time I’d ever seen someone be shot and die. You saw the life going out of him,” he remembers. “His name was Christopher.”

It’s unsurprising that Jacobson knows the man’s name despite never meeting him. He’s the kind of person who takes the time to say hello and learn everyone’s name. At Boiler Room Coffee, located on the eastern end of Stevens Square, he greets each barista and customer by their name, including the dogs.  

Jacobson, 70, is as much of a fixture there as the espresso machines or the walls, adorned with art by local artists. Each day, he sips his small coffee at the shop while chatting with everyone, from neighborhood friends to complete strangers. 

While there are high levels of crime in the downtown-abutting neighborhood, Jacobson doesn’t think he’ll ever leave.

“I don’t have a gun; all I have is a frying pan” he says when asked about violence in the area. “But I love my community.”

The Stevens Square Community Organization, which is run by elected officials and community members, works to increase public safety and engage neighbors. They hold monthly meetings and organize safety teams of people who walk the area.

Meanwhile, Jacobson approaches public safety from his chair at the Boiler Room, donning his mask decorated with Civil Rights leaders and a Star of David around his neck.

Much like the community org, he believes that knowing his neighbors provides security in the area, though he doesn’t call Stevens Square a dangerous place.

“I told Cynthia,” Jacobson says of a neighbor. “‘Honey, if you feel threatened or something and you see me, just fucking come towards me. And the same thing for me.’”

Life in Stevens Square

It’s rare to catch a still moment in the area, as Stevens Square is the both the smallest and densest neighborhood in Minneapolis. U-Hauls often clog the area at the beginning of each month, as old renters leave and new ones move in, a phenomenon that gives the neighborhood a continuously fresh energy.

Still, Jacobson, a Minnesota native, notes that the neighborhood “hasn’t changed too much” over the years he’s lived there.

Century-old brick buildings line its namesake rectangular park, which has a walking path, a basketball hoop, and a portable toilet. A corner store just outside the park sells basic necessities and half-priced Air Jordans.

The historic buildings provide affordable housing these days, meaning that the apartments are cheap without being subsidized, as the buildings’ costs have been well covered in the decades of renters staying there. 

Jacobson has spent the past 15 years in Stevens Square and plans to live there for the rest of his life. 

“They’ll have to take me out once I die,” he says.

Jacobson loves to discuss politics with the baristas and customers at Boiler Room. As a gay white man married to a Black man, social justice is important to him. He regularly votes, donates to racial justice organizations, and has protested against both the Vietnam War and the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Jacobson condemns, as he calls them, the “stupid cops” and “evil cops” who kill people. He believes that we should practice empathy toward the people who steal. He says his personal experiences with addiction and mental health struggles inspire his sympathy towards people grappling with similar problems. 

His opinions are in line with his community. People in the Stevens Square neighborhood voted in favor of the failed ballot question that would have replaced the police department with a public health approach to safety. Their city councilor, Jamal Osman, supported the amendment, too.

Love in Stevens Square

A 1973 party in Brooklyn Park brought Jacobson and his husband, Daniel Jackson, together. 

“I met him and I saw stars and sparkles,” he says, tears in his eyes.

They were married at Minneapolis City Hall in 2013, 40 years later, just days after Minnesota legalized same-sex marriages. They chose to live separately and keep their names, though they share the same initials. He points out that interracial marriages like his weren’t even legal federally until six years before he met Jackson.

“As a gay person, it’s better now. But it can be worse again, too,” he says. “You couldn’t just talk about this stuff back in the day.”

Throughout his life, Jacobson’s faced homophobia and has lived through many historic events, including the Stonewall Riots, Harvey Milk’s assassination, the AIDS pandemic, and Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade in late ‘70s/early ‘80s.

As an older man, Jacobson says he avoids walking in Stevens Square alone at night for fear of getting jumped. But knowing people in his community makes him feel more safe.

“The more people you know in your neighborhood, it gives you protection,” he reiterates.

Jacobson’s role in the community means that there’s no shortage of familiar faces in the area. And he truly believes he will always love the neighborhood.

“When I go to heaven, it’s going to be like this,” he says of Stevens Square.