Everyone loves a makeover story. Women with better hairdos and wardrobes are staples on reality TV. Prettier homes and tastier cooking are popular topics, too. But makeovers don’t get any more dramatic than the one under way in Hawthorne, a north Minneapolis neighborhood with a tough reputation.
By 1980, Hawthorne already had twice the citywide poverty rate. Over the next two decades, the rate doubled again to the point that half of the neighborhood’s population was impoverished and social problems spilled into the streets. No corner of the city was more notorious for crime and disorder than a four-block patch near the Lyndale-Lowry intersection, a few blocks north of Farview Park.
Mike Martin, now the Fourth Precinct’s Inspector, did what few high-ranking police officers ever do; he went to the corner of Sixth Street and 31st Avenue and just watched. What he saw was appalling: a flourishing drug market; a prostitution ring operating out of neglected city-owned properties; a woman collecting rent in an apartment building she didn’t own; houses falling to foreclosure; slumlords buying decaying properties on the cheap and renting them to gangs; responsible neighbors fleeing.
When, in 2008, one of the neighborhood’s top citizens called City Hall to say she had had enough and was moving out, officials decided to ramp up a public/private intervention that had already begun. The Hawthorne EcoVillage project, a neighborhood rehabilitation effort launched in 2006, got a shot of adrenaline.
First came the cops and the housing inspectors. Arrests, indictments, prosecution of slumlords and the demolition of a third of the buildings in the four-block area cleared the way for a fresh start. Serious crime dropped by 73 percent between 2007 and 2009. “Everyone did what they were supposed to do, even the bad guys,” said Martin. “They were supposed to leave, and they left.”
Meanwhile, private money, nonprofit partners and neighborhood volunteers continued to arrive. Key was a $500,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation and the involvement of the nonprofit organization Project for Pride in Living (PPL). A strategy and a theme emerged.
The strategy was to apply an extreme makeover to a four-block cluster just to the southwest of the Lyndale-Lowry intersection. The result would serve as a model for the rest of the North Side and other troubled parts of the metro area.
An important piece of the plan was to keep homes out of the hands of slumlords. Cooperation from local banks gave the city and its partners first crack at buying property before it went on the market. The project’s overall theme, supplied by the neighbors, was sustainability. New housing units and renovations would emphasize green building materials. The landscape would include native plants, sound environmental practices and eventually urban farming. Job training, mixed incomes and healthy living were among the other targets of the plan.
According to the timetable, renovations and new infill housing would be well under way by 2012, with 120 new housing units ultimately added to an improved existing stock. A revived commercial corner at Lyndale and Lowry, as well as landscaped connections to Farview Park, were also part of the plan.
So far, so good.
While the economic downturn has slowed the project, the city and its partners have purchased 39 properties in or near the EcoVillage. The renovation or rebuilding of nine properties have begun, or will soon begin, with construction crews now busy turning dirt along once-neglected streets.
Last Wednesday, Mayor R.T. Rybak led his staff on a tour of the four-block cluster as a prelude to this week’s visit by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. The former president and first lady, long active in Habitat for Humanity, are scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday to help begin construction of a new home on a vacant lot on 30th Avenue.
“We focused on this area because it was the worst of the worst,” Rybak said, standing on the corner. Then, he and his wife, Megan O’Hara, continued their stroll through the neighborhood, ending at what had been a burned-out shell but now is the first newly constructed home sold in the EcoVillage. Standing on a corner lot on 31st Avenue, the two-story, 1,544-square-foot, Craftsman Style home was designed to meet LEED standards. The yard includes trees, native groundcover and a 1½-car garage. Energy savings designed into the structure are expected to keep annual heating and cooling costs to $800. The house was sold at $154,900 to a couple and two children from St. Louis Park.
“This is like you see on those TV hospital shows where they put the paddles on a patient to give the heart a big jolt to bring it back to life. It’s an aggressive, emergency intervention that you probably can’t do every place. The goal is to give the private market in the surrounding blocks a signal of confidence that this area is coming back. People can look and see for themselves.”
To read more about the Hawthorne EcoVillage, check out these links:
• The Northside Home Fund
• Project for Pride in Living