Johnny Northside is perched on the sagging porch of an abandoned apartment in North Minneapolis, swinging his hammer at a nail half-buried in the door frame as he holds a flimsy piece of plywood over the opening.
He grunts and sweats as he pounds at the nail; whap, whap, whap, the hammer strikes, echoing like gunshots along the Corridor of Safety.
That’s the name he has given to the stretch of North Sixth Street that runs from his house to the bus shelter on Lowry Avenue. The name, along with so much else in this neighborhood, is all dream and no reality at this point. That’s why he’s here.
The nail bends over across the plywood. Johnny steps back and puts
his hands on his hips. The plywood holds. Johnny grins. He digs in his
pocket for more nails.
“Hey,” a voice calls from behind him. “What are you doing?”
Johnny starts a little and holds the hammer loosely in his right hand as he turns around, his mind suddenly swarmed with ideas about who might be standing behind him.
He’s perfectly clear, though, on what he’s doing.
He’s securing his block.
What are you doing?
Not the first time John Hoff has heard that question. The first time was when the University of Minnesota grad student announced plans early this year to buy a house in North Minneapolis, and it keeps coming now that he’s there, the same question from everyone — neighbors, Realtors, prostitutes, friends — all emphasizing different words in the sentence.
The 42-year-old doesn’t have a clear answer, other than that he needs to be close to his 10-year-old son. He has followed his son and his ex-wife from Seattle to Grand Forks to here, but didn’t have money for Golden Valley. The Hawthorne neighborhood was better suited to his bank account.
In late March, after four months of searching, he closed on a tiny two-story on North Sixth Street near Lowry Avenue for around $9,000. At least one contractor has told him the house is best off demolished, but Hoff doesn’t care. Maybe he’ll fix it, or maybe sell it for the lot and find another neighborhood house. Either way, he’s in.
Sometime before that, he read somewhere that the city of Minneapolis was asking North Side residents to adopt houses. So after he bought his house, he figured the best way to adopt the others on his block was to secure them. He called the city about several properties, but when it didn’t respond fast enough to his liking, he started boarding them himself.
He also started a blog to detail his experience and called it “The Adventures of Johnny Northside.” He planned to write about foreclosures, but other things caught his attention. Like electricity and copper theft. Abandoned properties turned into suspected bases for drugs and prostitution. He files several stories a week on his work boarding up abandoned houses, his encounters with neighborhood personalities and the police, his frustration with levels of bureaucracy, and other stories too numerous to mention here.
His blog (and presence) has already turned him into a neighborhood celebrity, though Hoff is the first to admit he shouldn’t be getting any credit, let alone attention. Hundreds, thousands came before him — neighborhood groups, housing organizations, block-watch leaders, city leaders — and will continue after he’s gone. They’re the ones in position to enact sustainable change.
But until that day arrives, he figures, they could always use a henchman, securing houses and empowering other residents to do the same.
So one morning a guy nobody has ever seen before pulls up in a rusted Celebrity to the most ramshackle house on a block littered with them. He eases his wrestler-meets-bowler frame out of the car and there’s no clipboard, no tie, no government insignia on his driver’s side door, nothing but a cheap craft hammer and a box of 3-inch galvanized nails.
Minutes later he’s tromping through backyards, and soon after he’s on the sidewalk with plywood sheets balanced on his back.
He steps up to a front door — or a side door or a garage door — and hefts the plywood in front of him. Then he begins, whap, whap, whap, the sound bounding from empty buildings and filling the street.
That’s Johnny Northside, swinging his hammer.
People hear that and they start paying attention real quick.
John (aka Johnny Northside) makes two security rounds a day, morning and night. He boards up new discoveries, reboards doors and windows that have been torn open, and calls the city about properties that need attention.
On each board he writes, with a Sharpie, “Boarded by a neighborhood volunteer,” and adds the date. Then, for no particular reason, he writes: “Keep out.”
And then: “No copper inside.”
On a recent Wednesday he has company for his morning rounds: Jeff Skrenes, the housing director for the Hawthorne Area Community Council; Pete Treachout, a contractor and John’s neighbor; and Kevin Gulden, a manager for Project for Pride in Living and leader of a project called the Hawthorne Eco-Village, a dream several magnitudes removed from John’s Corridor of Safety.
The guys start the rounds in a nearby alley, admiring John’s creative boarding of a large garage door (two-by-fours on the corners) as they consider comparisons for what sometimes feels like a Sisyphean task.
“It’s like that old game, whack-a-mole,” Jeff says. “You hammer one board down and another pops up somewhere else.”
“It’s like pulling dandelions,” John says.
“We could go on like this for a while,” Pete says, and they all begin to laugh, because sometimes there isn’t much else to be done.
The Latino family on North 31st Street disappeared one day.
Maybe this winter, maybe last fall, no one’s sure exactly. Gone just like that, their stories abandoned to rumor.
You rarely know the totality of the circumstances. Maybe they found a better place. Maybe they ran out of money. Maybe they weren’t behind on their mortgage payments but knew it was only a matter of time and everyone knows it’s best to move to a new place while your credit is clean.
And sometimes, it’s true, people just go.
The place was a hotbed of suspected illegal activity for some time, despite the “For Sale” sign in front, and it’s one of John’s first stops. He stands on the sidewalk in his tattered white T-shirt and stonewashed jeans, his mess of dirt-blond hair flapping like a flag in the spring wind, and sizes up the house.
There are crowbar marks on the front-door board, but other than that the house looks secure. It’s boarded with the city’s expensive gray boards, which don’t break when kicked, and attached with what are called “public screws,” which can’t be pried off and require a special tool to remove.
Kevin and Jeff fill John in on what little details of the family they have: Friendly. Committed to the neighborhood despite getting harassed. Paved the driveway, fixed the porch, put out decorative brick poles.
Now there are cracks in the driveway. One of the brick poles is broken in two and the porch railings droop. There’s a half-full bag of concrete mix spilled across the front steps as if whoever was pouring it just walked away.
John swivels the hammer in his hand and nods.
“Well, it’s secure,” he says.
John’s block is almost as bad as every impression outsiders have of the North Side. Dealers sell on nearby corners. Prostitutes use nearby houses. Garbage is strewn across the streets and yards, and in some garages and houses it’s piled up knee-high. You can stand at any one of the four intersections and turn around and see almost nothing but vacant houses.
The block, along with the houses that circle it, is also almost impossibly alive with promise.
The big picture is the Eco-Village, a collaboration among the Hawthorne neighborhood council, the Project for Pride in Living, and others. The idea is to buy up four square blocks — from Lowry Avenue to 30th Avenue North north to south, and Sixth Street to Fourth Street North west to east — and turn it into a sustainable, affordable community.
The smaller picture is simply suggestions of honest living. Clotheslines with fresh laundry draped over them, a neighbor collecting trash that had accumulated around his fence, an elderly woman with a prodigious side-yard garden who talked with John at length about the woman next door who gets drunk and yells at her for cleaning so much.
“You know, [the elderly woman] never once said anything about leaving,” John muses later. “I bet she’s never even thought about it.”
Near the end of his rounds, John runs into Jane, a neighbor he just met this morning. They knew about each other for a few weeks, but people on his block are careful sometimes; they like to size each other up before approaching. Jane isn’t her real name. She was afraid to have it printed for fear of her safety if certain people, she says, found out who she was talking to and who she was talking about.
She tells John that she’s been evacuated from her house five times in recent months because nobody got around to turning off the gas in abandoned homes nearby. Every now and then somebody reports a smell, the fire department arrives, and everyone on the block has to leave until the gas is shut off.
She talks to him about the group of boys that hang out on her corner, how they only begin to gather in midafternoon after schools have let out, how they’ve threatened her and they scare her but she won’t back down.
She’s learned how to talk to them. She doesn’t tell them to leave. Instead, she only tells them to throw their trash in nearby garbage cans. Mostly they don’t, but sometimes they do.
“Hey Jane, I can’t help but notice you wear scrubs,” John says, gesturing to her pants adorned with SpongeBob SquarePants images.
“I’m a personal care assistant,” she tells him.
“You know what I like about SpongeBob, he’s always going around rallying people,” John says. “He’s got some crazy plans, you know, and nothing bad is going to happen to SpongeBob, because he’s a cartoon. And every now and then SpongeBob is in a tough position, like when he got all dried out and one of his arms fell off, but he just grew a new arm.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just grow new starts?” Jane says.
“I have an unpublished theory,” John says. “Basically it says you should try to be as much like a cartoon as possible. Live in this world where it’s fantastic and anything’s possible, and every time something’s not superb you get back up again.”
“We’re living in a world with a lot of opportunities,” Jane says. “Like I tell everyone, life is what you make it. It’s just how people want to live their lives. If they want to live like that” — and here she waves her hand broadly; she’s talking about the boys on the corner but not just them — “then they choose to. But in Minnesota we don’t have to. We have too many programs, too much to offer.”
“Yes,” John says.
“Way too much,” Jane says.
Jane tells John about an open side door on an abandoned two-story apartment complex across the street.
John tells her he’ll board it up immediately.
“You be safe,” she says.
“Don’t worry,” he says, and starts for one of his plywood stashes in a nearby backyard.
“He’s crazy,” Jane says, to nobody in particular.
John tracks down two pieces of plywood and nails one across the lower half of the door no problem — whap, whap, whap — but now he’s struggling with the second. It’s too wide and he doesn’t have a saw, so he’s trying to break a section off with the hammer.
Suddenly the voice: “Hey, what are you doing?”
John turns around and sees a middle-aged man and woman standing before him.
“Boarding it up,” he says.
“Oh,” the man says. His face relaxes and he lights a cigarette. “Just checking, just checking.”
John discovers they live in an upstairs apartment. They tell him they don’t know what to do about the open apartment, that they called the police but the police said they had to catch someone inside the place for anything to happen. Meanwhile, the house filled with garbage and broken electronics and gas cans and golf bags and stuffed animals and baseball cards and baby strollers and clothes and dog food rotting in open cans. Piled so high you can’t help but step on it.
“We were expecting someone to come,” the woman says. John explains that he’s not from the city, he’s just a neighbor.
“Oh,” she says. “Well, we appreciate it.”
The couple returns upstairs and John tries again with the board, but it’s not going to fit. He swears and steps off the porch. “I feel terrible,” he says. “I really promised Jane I would get this one today.”
He heads back to his car. Soon he’s going to be late for class. He pauses in his driveway.
“No,” he mutters to himself. “I have to take care of it now.”
And there Johnny Northside goes, tromping through a trash-strewn backyard toward another plywood stash, the hammer swinging freely in his hand.
Brian Voerding, a free-lance journalist who has written for the Rake, Minnesota Law & Politics and Minnesota Monthly, reports on agriculture and food, higher education and other topics. He can be reached at bvoerding [at] minnpost [dot] com.