New Roots in Grand Forks: Youth feel deepened respect, responsibility after flood and fire


St. Paul Pioneer Press; August 3, 1997©

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Like a lot of other teenagers here, Matt McGlynn cares, but doesn’t grieve. And if you ask if his soaked, charred town will ever be the same, his answer is no.

That’s why, among other reasons, he’d like to spend the rest of his life in Grand Forks, N.D.

“Just because of the flood, you don’t have to hold hands on the edge of the river and sing `Kumbaya,’ ” says McGlynn, 19, whose family lives three blocks away from the waterway that, three months ago, overflowed and buried Grand Forks, along with its twin to the east.

“This was a great town before the flood and, in some ways, it’s even better now because it brought people together,” he says. “And when we rebuild, this place is gonna be awesome.”

Washed out of saturated and condemned homes, dozens of families are still living in trailers, lined up like white dominoes along the Grand Forks fringe. Many more people are simply gone, God-knows-where. Nobody knows if they’re coming back.

Still, most teens here say life’s good, that they basked in the spectacle of activity and attention that came with the disaster of spring. Tireless sandbaggers and dike-builders as the Red River rose, teens believe their work and shared experience not only bought new respect from adults here, but strengthened their own connections and commitments to Grand Forks.

While some believe the floods were the beginning of the end for Grand Forks, many of its young people, undaunted by the challenges ahead, say this is where they want to plant their futures.

“Before the flood, I would have said I’m outta here. But now I can’t see leaving, especially after what’s happened the past few months,” says Aaron Dunphy, a student at the University of North Dakota, who has lived all of his 21 years in Grand Forks.

“We used to just take this town for granted. But I think in some way, the flood was a blessing,” Dunphy says. “Downtown was dying, anyway. Now we can make it better. And all my friends, almost everyone I know says they’re sticking around.”

“I didn’t see the flood as traumatic as a lot of people did,” says Andrew Johnson, 18, whose family home took in a basement full of water in April. “Before, it was like `Oh, this is just Grand Forks.’ But now we have a claim to fame. It’s a conversation-starter. I don’t think too many people ever thought or cared much about making this place better. Now everyone’s thinking and talking about the possibilities.”

Born into adversity

You don’t grow up in Grand Forks without developing a spinal immunity to ice blizzards and bone-rattling winters, relentless mosquitoes and the yearly threat of a dike-bursting Red River. Of course, nobody could have planned for the April fire that, at the height of the century’s worst flooding, destroyed downtown.

Even without nature’s help, though, young people here live with conditions that would strangle most teens from larger cities. There are no theme parks or rock concerts, no youth centers or summer arts programs. The lone dance club opens to minors only on Wednesdays and Sundays. There’s talk about building a skate park here, but it hasn’t happened.

In summer, kids work and play sports, shoot pool or swim at the university, go to the movies or whittle time at Columbia Mall. Some catch the Grand Forks Varmints baseball team when it’s in town or cruise Washington Street until curfew chases them home. The closest metropolitan center, the Twin Cities, is a five-hour drive.

Simple pleasures are found in places like Andrew Johnson’s backyard, where, on this day, Johnson and eight friends from Central High School are barbecuing hot dogs and hand-patted burgers, just for the sake of being together.

On the boombox, Jamiroqai layers a dance-beat soundtrack to a game of bocci ball. Soon, Beka Lafferty, Nicole Maroney and Sabrina Rowe break away and start bumping a beach ball to each other. Johnson and Chris Schultz are heating up a game of one-on-one basketball. Kristen Anderson is tossing grapes into Maroney’s mouth.

Everyone’s smiling, laughing. They’re so comfortable with each other that, without conscious thought, any of them can suddenly flick out a hand to slap a neighbor’s back, arm or leg. It goes without warning or comment that the target is a mosquito.

“The guys try to have these once a week so they can revere us,” Sarah Davis says of the barbecues.

“No,” says Schultz, “we’re just hungry.”

For these teens, barbecues were sanctuaries of normalcy during the floods. Friends pushed from their homes would go to Janice Anderson’s house, outside the flood plain, to watch videos and stay up all night. Schultz camped at Anderson’s home for a week.

Now, Anderson is flipping through a scrapbook she’s kept since 10th grade. There are pictures of the 1996 Valentine’s Day dance, a playbill from the school production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” newspaper clippings of volleyball games and the championship girls’ soccer season.

“I can’t believe you’re standing next to Dave Pirner,” Maroney says to Anderson while pointing to a photo from the recent prom, which featured an appearance by Pirner’s renowned band, Soul Asylum.

Conspicuous in their absence are pictures and other artifacts of the flood. Since the adversity, though, Anderson says she clings more tightly to her memories — bound and otherwise.

“I’m an air force brat, so I’m used to moving around. But this was just such a strange, special year,” says Anderson, a high school senior this fall, who is soon moving with her family to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

“Our soccer team came back after the flood and won the state championship. It just seemed like we wanted it more,” she says. “It was kind of like, `Well, if the flood didn’t stop us, we weren’t going to let any team beat us, either.’ ”

Cruising through life

“The flood didn’t change anything,” 15-year-old Randy Bosma says. “This town still sucks.”

Bosma and a truckload of friends are rolling away a Thursday night by cruising “The Wash”—a stretch of Washington Street between Demers Avenue and the Rydell Chevrolet dealership.

There’s a cigarette in Bosma’s left hand, a fresh pack of Marlboros and two lighters next to the gear shift, a radar detector high attached to the windshield and rapper Too Short thumping through a pair of 12-inch speakers. A half-dozen friends are laughing and yelling in the bed of Bosma’s red, gray and dented-up Durango pickup.

“I didn’t really care because, when the flood happened, I was on vacation,” Bosma says as he cooly waves to two girls passing by in a yellow Dodge convertible. “Our school helped out, but I didn’t get into any of that. I don’t think none of these guys did. Some people say `Blah, blah, blah, we should have helped,’ you know, but they wouldn’t have built the dikes any higher if we were there.’ ”

Ask anyone in the truck and they’ll say their chief complaint about Grand Forks is there’s nothing to do. They’re bored, so they cruise, smoke and drink. At least the flood has given them the now-barren parking lot of the Red Ray Lanes bowling alley.

It’s there where, tonight, several girls in another car jam up close to Bosma’s truck, swerve a few feet from the passenger side and threaten to beat a girl in the back. One of Bosma’s friends grabs an aluminum bat from inside the cab, but the girls peel off in a war-cry before anything happens.

Skirmishes like this, one boy says, happen all the time.

Despite their supposed boredom, these teens can’t say what, if anything, would make Grand Forks a better place for young people.

“If I was old enough, I’d go bar-hopping,” Bosma says. “We used to have a pool hall, but they changed it into one of those clean places where kids could hang out, and they screwed it up. Anytime adults get involved, it ruins it. You couldn’t smoke in there anymore or nothing. But then it flooded, anyway, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”

A flood of opportunity

There’s more than hope here in the wake of disaster. There are jobs, plenty of them.

When postal employees left work to repair their homes, Matt McGlynn scored an $8-an-hour job delivering mail. He’s now working between 50 and 60 hours a week. The flood was a real boon to Mike Marcotte. After losing his job at a flooded-out market, he made $10 an hour cleaning out basements. Then he received a $3,000 federal education grant — flood-related money allowing him to attend Concordia College this fall.

Around 200 teenagers and adults displaced from washed-out, burned-out businesses are doing maintenance work for the city’s Urban Development Park Division.

“This kind of work seems more important after you go through what we just did,” says 18-year-old Denise Bukowski, who spent a recent Friday morning with seven other high schoolers and university students hacking heat and weeds in a bed of pansies at the corner of 6th and Demers. “The little things can make a big difference in how you feel about living here.”

Sabrina Rowe and Nicole Maroney are among local teens working long, humid days in Grand Forks County’s vast crop fields (agriculture accounts for 84 percent of the county’s land.). This morning, they’re wearing aprons, green headnets and pungent sheets of “Cutter” mosquito repellent. Their jobs, as part of a controlled-pollination test in an acre of corn, are to place tasselbags over the top chutes in each 6-foot stalk.

It’s tedious, physical labor and, at the height of testing, these kids work seven days a week. Some teens won’t last the season. Others start working here when they’re 14 and return every summer, through high school and beyond.

“It’s okay work, but not great—just like a lot of other mediocre jobs around here,” says 20-year-old Joel Rosenthal. “It’s kind of a trap because if you need the work, it keeps you here. But at least we’re working; at least it’s money.”

Mitch Bollman, also on the pollination crew, has perhaps the oddest moonlighting job of all. When the Grand Forks Varmints are in town, he dons a padded cloth-and-felt costume fashioned after a Subway sandwich.

In the fourth inning of every game, he races children around the bases as part of a Subway promotion. He spends the rest of his time fielding insults, fending off a variety of hurled objects and trying to keep kids from ripping the red cape off his back. He makes $20 a game.

“The best part is hitting on girls when they don’t know who I am,” Bollman says. “The little turds get on my nerves, but it’ll get better when the real mascot comes. I think they’re just waiting for the rat suit.”

Frozen in place

Despite the climate—culturally and seasonally—it’s easy to understand why so many young people want to stay in Grand Forks.

Most college-bound students look no further than the University of North Dakota, the strongest liberal arts college in the area, or enroll at the technical college in nearby Mayville. A pallet of blue-collar jobs contributes to a 2.5 percent pre-flood unemployment rate. The planned Aurora Civic Center promises to bring nationally touring entertainment to Grand Forks.

Some teens recite the small-town mantra—no gangs, no crime to speak of, quiet streets and familiar faces—as reasons for Grand Forks’ appeal. This isolation, though, also breeds a constrictive comfort zone: Many teens are intimidated by the prospect of moving away.

“You lead a sheltered life here, but at least you’re not exposed,” says 19-year-old Jenny Kelley.

Sara Hoff, 13, dreams of moving someplace warm — “like Puerto Rico,” she says — but would miss her friends too much. Jeff Lemke, 15, wants to move to a larger city. So does 18-year-old Josh Soeby.

“I think if you want to do anything in life, you have to get out of here,” Soeby says. “But it’s weird to think about starting over somewhere else.”

“If someone dropped me in the middle of New York City, I think I’d die of fright,” says 15-year-old Tyler Gensich of Thompson, a farm town 10 miles south of Grand Forks. “Where would I go? What would I do on a Friday night? Play scrabble?”

Brooks Bollinger, 17, is one of the few who are committed to moving: He’s accepted a full scholarship to play football at the University of Wisconsin. Even so, Central High School’s returning senior quarterback says he wouldn’t mind making a home in Grand Forks after graduating college.

“I’ll miss my friends, but I’m really going to miss the place, too,” he says. “This will always be where my heart is.”

As for any limitations that come with living in a small community, Gensich says you can’t miss what you’ve never had.

“It’s so cold here and we’re in our own little corner of nowhere, but you just get used to it,” he says. “I guess we’re just rugged, cold-blooded North Dakotans.”

Looking up river

Some young people who had never looked past their own bedroom windows are now taking acute interests in the town’s future, its politics and, particularly, the plans for rebuilding.

Indeed, some say, local officials should involve teenagers in reshaping the town, for today’s young people will ultimately shoulder the responsibility for keeping Grand Forks alive. DeAnna Larter, a Grand Forks native with a 13-year-old daughter, agrees.

“Sometimes kids don’t take the little things in life so seriously, but they had to become adults real fast,” she says. “How often do you have any community saying to its teenagers `We need your help?’ They took that to heart, and we shouldn’t let that end there. Our youth is a resource. Let’s use it.”

As it is, teens feel confusion, mistrust and anger—some of it passed down from parents—over the immediate and long-term plans.

Some young people are bandying rumors that, when others had no electricity, the mayor managed to have electricity turned back on so she could pump water from her house. Others are grousing about “conservative adults” who balk at proposed taxes to pay for the new civic center and skate park. As for school, there’s talk of sending students from flood-damaged Central High School to Red River High School, where school days on the split campus would start as early as 6 a.m., throwing off job and sports schedules for the afternoon students.

And while some teens are easily moving on with their lives, others are struggling to redefine them.

Molly Straub, 13, rattles off the names Jamie, Jeremy, Colin, Miranda, Jenny, Nicky—friends she hasn’t seen since they lost their houses. The Straubs didn’t get off any easier.

Wood shavings, sheet rock, strips of green turf, a fold-out bed, a bicycle and brown plastic bags full of garbage all lay in the rubble of a garage that looks as if it has imploded. Then there’s her house, its yellow paint lined with mud streaks up to the second story.

The Straubs are fighting federal officials who want them to abandon 505 Maple Ave., in the heart of Lincoln Park, the hardest-hit residential area of Grand Forks. Molly just wants her friends.

“I’m tired of us being the oddballs,” she says as an NBC News crew interviews her father on the front lawn. “I just want things back to normal, but I don’t think that can ever happen.”

Outside Lincoln Park, though, particularly among youth here, resilience appears thicker than any residue left by the flood.

“We worked our butts off for a month. We fought and we lost. But in a way, we won because we get to start over,” Andrew Johnson says. “A lot of people have moved, but a lot of them are staying, and you realize the material things don’t matter so much. The things that made this town great are still here.”