The Pandemic in Pictures
An American suburb revealed during six months of dog walks
BY MARK SAXENMEYER
It began out of boredom. When the pandemic shut the country down in March, I quickly became stir-crazy. Walking my best pal Desi to and from our favorite squirrel-chasing destination (Augsburg Park) near our home in Richfield, Minnesota was about the only exercise I was getting (like almost everything, my gym had closed).
But that routine was getting old. To shake things up, I thought to myself, “Hey, now’s a good time to really get to know good ol’ Richfield.” All seven square miles of this rectangular-shaped, first-ring suburb of Minneapolis were ripe for exploring.
Little did I know that six months later, a daily trek that started on a whim would help transform my attitude and perspective about the town I call home–a town that, frankly, I had always found to be a bit underwhelming at best, and embarrassing at worst.
Desi and I began walking Richfield’s wide, eerily empty residential streets almost daily in mid-March, the goal being to hit every last one of them, round all four corners, and really get a better sense of this ‘burb of approximately 36,000. And along the way, I started snapping photos, mostly of homes and yards that I found to be, well, let’s call them eccentric. Many a Richfield lawn is filled with sculptures and carvings and trinkets and, uh, other stuff.
At first, I took these photos in an admittedly arrogant and mocking ‘can you believe this sh*t’ kind of way, but as the weeks turned into months, the tone of my photos and the mood of my mind shifted slowly to understanding and, later, even appreciation. No one could have been more surprised than me.
Under no other circumstance, or for any other reason, would I have ever had the time or interest to jaunt across this definitely middle class, middle American suburb. But the pandemic has propelled all our lives in unusual, unexpected directions.
My partner and I moved to Richfield in the winter of 2014. The reasons are varied but the main ones are these: we’d been renting and enjoying a townhouse in the heart of lively downtown Minneapolis but we now wanted to buy a house and get a dog (Desi was only a glimmer in this daddy’s eye at that point). Yes, the suburbs and middle age were calling us. We needed a home that was close to my partner’s job in Minneapolis, ideally one with an attached two-car garage, that had central air, and a decent yard. Oh, and the price had to be right, of course.
Today, the median home price in Richfield is $211,700. In Minneapolis, it’s slightly higher at $235,900, and in Edina, Richfield’s suburban next-door neighbor to the west, the median price is $459,200. Edina is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the state; growing up in Bloomington (the suburb to the south of both Richfield and Edina, where the median house price is now $240,100), we’d always cackle at this joke: “What do Edina housewives make for Thanksgiving? Reservations.”
Now, mind you, home-buying in Richfield wasn’t some kind of finally-achieved American Dream. We’d owned a condo in Chicago’s near-north Lincoln Park neighborhood and had lived the big city high life for years. Richfield, in many ways, is the antithesis of Chicago. It’s a simple place, much simpler. As the noted drag queen Miss Richfield (who actually grew up in Richfield) always says: “Richfield! Where butter is a spice and gravy is a beverage!” (Richfield’s other glitterati include a member of the 1980 gold medal-winning USA men’s hockey team and the drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.)
As a teenager, I always thought of Richfield as the small, forgettable suburb I had to drive through to get to the clubs and restaurants in Minneapolis. Think of John Cougar Mellencamp when he sings his hit song about a man and his cat, living in a house with an interstate running though their front yard: “Oh, ain’t that America. Little pink houses for you and me?”
Four different highways form the boundaries of all four sides of rectangular Richfield, and Interstate 35W shoots straight through the middle of the city. Towering sound barrier walls stand on either side of 35W, every inch of the way.
I haven’t come came across any actual pink houses on my walks yet, but there are definitely plenty of little homes. About 40 percent of Richfield’s single-family houses were built in the 1940s and 1950s, after World War II, as veterans returned to start families. (Today about six percent of residents are veterans.) As a result of this boom, Richfield’s population grew from under 10,000 to 42,500 by 1960.
After a short hunt, my partner and I found the perfect house (for us) at the perfect price (for us) and settled into our Richfield routine six years ago. Despite our physical presence here, though, I wouldn’t say we’re immersed in the community in any real tangible way.
Sure, I know my neighbors (we hosted a block party last summer), and I know how to get to the grocery store, the drug store, the post office, the allergist, the hair salon, the vet, the dog groomer, the gas station, the gym, Starbucks, Target and Home Depot (Richfield has them all!) but I wasn’t really paying attention to Richfield–you know, to the side streets and the houses and the buildings and the people and the vibe that actually make a community a community.
Richfield proclaims itself to be “The Urban Hometown.” The slogan appears on signs when you enter the city. I used to joke that a more apropos motto might be “Where Dreams Go to Die.” (Yes, I was in a funk.)
It’s that gloomy mindset that fills the first crop of photos I took on my walks, starting on still-chilly days in mid-March. They focus on scenes and images that somehow look even worse in the stark, grey cold. Everything seems even sadder, more depressing, irreversibly despondent.
In the middle of the city, I stumbled into a trailer park, hidden among trees down a long private road. Who knew? Not me.
Before the pandemic, unemployment in Richfield was at 2.5 percent. Due to the resulting economic collapse, it’s now risen to 7.2 percent. More than nine percent of the suburb’s residents live below the poverty level. Richfield High School has been offering free meals to the needy, even after it shut down and sent students home.
Yet Richfield is fairly crime-free. In the last five years, police report 205 DUIs, 89 burglaries, 83 vehicle thefts, 37 assaults, 21 robberies, 12 sexual assaults and just two homicides. One of those murders remains unsolved, and on my walks I came across tattered reward posters seeking information, and a weathered makeshift memorial for the victim.
24-year-old Jonathan O’Shaughnessy was killed in a drive-by shooting on July 3, 2017. In an interview marking the third anniversary of his murder, a family member pleaded with the community, “With everyone home because of the pandemic, maybe you’ve heard something. Nothing is too small to say or report.”
In 2020 The National Community Survey completed a “Community Livability Report” and, based on the opinions of a representative sample of 566 residents of Richfield, 78 percent of respondents reported feeling ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ about their safety in the community, Only 3 percent felt ‘poor’ about security.
84 percent also said they felt Richfield’s police services were wither excellent or good. The department claims to be one of the most diverse forces in the state; of its 46 sworn officers, eight are female (17 percent), and 11 are people of color (24 percent). However, nearly 40 percent of Richfield’s population consists of people of color. Among them, 17 percent are Latino, 10 percent are Black, and six percent are Asian.
As the weather warmed, I began to see more people on Richfield’s roads as I walked them. The streets are wide enough for pedestrians to remain properly socially-distanced, but many folks still covered their faces, as did people seeking curbside service at nearly every place of business. Life remained orderly, but we all knew that danger and sadness and sickness and loss were all around us.
The city of Richfield created a COVID-19 page on its website to announce the number of people who have tested positive for the virus (the city’s first case was diagnosed on March 6), as well as the number of our neighbors who have died. As of September 15, 919 Richfield citizens have become infected. The virus has killed 12 residents.
Richfield’s communities of color have been hit hardest, accounting for nearly 70 percent of total coronavirus cases. The 12 COVID victims were all over the age of 70, but the majority of infections have been in residents between the ages of 20 and 29. Cases peaked in mid-July.
By May, as the grass turned green, as the trees and flowers (and weeds) bloomed, and as the skies turned sunny and blue, signs of hope and encouragement began popping up in Richfield yards–literal signs.
Residents, tired of being cooped up, began to quarantine outside on their lawns, and neighborhood couples socialized six feet apart in lawn chairs on driveways, as the weather warmed.
Then, as graduation approached, but with ceremonies canceled in the pandemic, the grads were congratulated nonetheless.
Ever so slowly, Richfield began to emanate a beauty that, if it existed before, had previously gone unseen by me.
When a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck in May–just a couple miles north of Richfield–protests erupted throughout the Twin Cities. Richfield was spared any rioting damage but stores boarded up, just in case.
The signs in the yards changed, too. “Black Lives Matter” could be, and still can be, seen and read everywhere you look. And I’m pleased to say I also spotted several LGBT flags waving during Pride month in June.
I readily admit that my glum first round of Richfield photos isn’t truly representative of the city’s overall housing aesthetic. I have to point out that Richfield topped the Minneapolis StarTribune’s annual housing index in both 2018 and 2019. Houses sold faster here than anywhere else in the Twin Cities, attributed to the suburb’s affordability, proximity to key commuter routes, and its walking distances to shops and restaurants.
In the last couple years more than $200 million of redevelopment work commenced within Richfield’s city limits. Mixed in with the mom and pop stops are more of the larger chain stores, and modern apartment buildings are on the rise. The Richfield Rediscovered Housing Program encourages home remodeling, expansion, and reconstruction. The program is gradually changing the face of Richfield’s residential neighborhoods, upgrading the small, post-WWII style houses to larger homes.
Only 336 of the 9,321 single-family homes in Richfield are currently assessed between $300,000 and $500,000, and just nine are valued between $500,000 and $1 million. 31 homes are believed to be worth more than $1 million. But let’s not forget, Richfield wasn’t named for the wealth of its residents or the price of their houses; its moniker comes from the abundance of fertile farmland here back in the 1900s.
All of those farms, of course, are gone today. But we do have a “Pump N Munch.”
As summer ends, the signs in Richfield’s yards have now turned political. Given that the polls indicate most non-college educated Americans prefer Donald Trump, and that college-educated voters prefer Joe Biden, Richfield’s demographics tend to favor Biden.
40 percent of Richfieldians (or is is Richfielders?) have a bachelor’s or graduate degree. 29 percent have an associate’s degree or some college but no degree. 32 percent have a high school degree or didn’t graduate.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the clear victor in Richfield, with 11,924 votes tallied for her in the city’s nine precincts. Trump received 4,839. I’ve not seen a single sign for Trump on any of my walks.
In 2018, the free Minneapolis alternative weekly, City Pages, named Richfield “Best Suburb” in the Twin Cities. The paper wrote, in part, “Is Richfield fancy now? Sorta! The first-ring burb is known for its blue-collar sensibilities and mid-century ramblers, but it recently acquired hipper food and drink options Lyn 65, Pizza Luce, Lakewinds Food Co-Op, Giordano’s, Andale Taqueria and a smoldering-hot real estate market. Gentrification’s fangs can only dig so deep into the 36,000-person suburb, however. Home prices are still (relatively) affordable, burgers at Sandy’s Tavern remain $5, and A World of Fish will outlive us all. More than ever, the freeway-wrapped, character-rich city lives up to its motto: ‘The Urban Hometown.'”
I’ve been to most of those places and yes, City Pages’ raves are warranted. Richfield’s also got 15 miles of on-street bike lanes, 460 acres of parkland, Best Buy’s corporate headquarters are here (it’s Richfield’s largest employer), and this suburb is just five minutes away from both the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America. Something for everyone!
I’m never going to claim Richfield is some kind of Shangri-La, and I’ll never pretend that it’s where my younger, more ambitious self envisioned my future, but it’s comfortable and it’s convenient and it’s safe and it’s calm. As hurricanes and fires rip through other corners of the country, and as the pandemic wreaks havoc in regions run by science-deniers, I’ll take simple over suffering any day of the week.
Yep, Desi and I will continue our walks, shuffling silently through the streets of this small suburb. Ain’t that America, indeed.
Cause they told me, when I was younger
Sayin’ “Boy, you’re gonna be president”
But just like everything else, those old crazy dreams
Just kinda came and went
Oh, ain’t that America, we’re something to see
Ain’t that America, home of the free
Little pink houses
For you and me
The Reporters Inc. is a proud member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a consortium of more than 300 nonprofit newsrooms dedicated to serving the public interest. Our articles are syndicated and shared with hundreds of other media organizations, online magazines, top blogs, etc. Please send news, feature and investigative story tips and ideas to .
Looking for one of our previous articles, investigations, commentaries, essays or book excerpts? Search our archives by typing key words into our SEARCH bar above, or at the top left corner of our site!