In 1967, a long-escalating racial tension in north Minneapolis neighborhoods culminated in violent riots that left Plymouth Avenue N. in flames. Many residents say the communities affected were unable to fully recover, fueling the high crime rates and economic hardships that would define the area in decades to come.
Forty years later, politicians and residents alike share a sense of optimism that the North Side is changing for the better. City Council member Don Samuels, whose ward covers the bulk of the North Side, attributes some of this change to the housing foreclosure crisis displacing problem residents. Much is also being done on the part of local investors, community activists and the city to aid these troubled communities.
The city attributes recent decreases in crime in part to concerted efforts to stave off illicit activities. Samuels touts the Northforce, a group of multiple city departments formed in 2006 that meets monthly to discuss trends and strategies to mitigate problematic parts of the North Side.
More than $1 million has been invested in crime-deterring technology such as ShotSpotter transmitters, which alert police to gunfire and pinpoint exact locations where shots are fired. In the most crime-ridden areas, the city has also installed cameras, which Samuels says have acted as a preventative measure in Minneapolis’ mission to reduce North Side crime.
After years of intractable poverty and violence, weary residents have adapted to a culture of broken promises and skepticism. But today, with this technology as a manifestation of a larger effort to combat problems, the notorious North Side could overcome its long-held stigma.
“I think we’ve hit a bottom in terms of what the self-concept of Minneapolis would allow, and the question was simply how long would we allow this part of the city to stay at the bottom. And I think that over the last few years the effort has been to lift Minneapolis from this bottom,” Samuels said. “I think the conscience of the community has been pricked, to some degree.”
Today, Pam Patrek’s small bungalow is the only house standing on her block. But it wasn’t always this way.
When Patrek’s uncle first built the house in the 1950s, the four-block Hawthorne neighborhood project now known as the Eco-Village thrived with an influx of Polish immigrants. After inheriting the property in the mid-1980s, Patrek watched as the once-wholesome neighborhood slowly transformed into one of the worst parts of the city.
Slum lords bought up the houses surrounding Patrek’s and rented them to prostitutes and gang members. She recalls with a casual tone the open-air crack deals, police chases and dead bodies she witnessed regularly from her living-room window. Patrek, like many other long-standing north Minneapolis residents, found herself stuck in a house that no honest person would consider buying, in the middle of a neighborhood nothing in her life had prepared her for.
“It wasn’t a question of if we were going to die,” Patrek says, recalling a conversation with one of the few other Polish residents still in the community, “it was a question of when we were going to die.”
But Patrek doesn’t feel stuck anymore. In fact, she says she no longer thinks about moving.
Beginning in 2005, there has been a combined effort from the city and neighborhood organizations to boost the quality of life on the North Side, including razing and rehabilitating problem properties. Since the city destroyed Patrek’s last direct neighbor — a high-crime apartment complex that stood mere feet from her house — in early November, she says the daily calls to the police and weekly calls to the mayor’s office have nearly ceased.
The Eco-Village is a $30 million project that aims to transform the four blocks surrounding 31st Avenue and Sixth Street N. into a livable and environmentally friendly community. In the next few years, the plan is to add 30 to 40 affordable rental units and dozens of for-sale townhome and condo units. This area has been one of the most prominent epicenters of crime on the North Side for more than 10 years, and many see the progress already made — in terms of knocked-down problem properties — as empirical evidence that Minneapolis’ most stigmatized area is finally changing.
Hawthorne Area Community Council (HACC) Chairman Peter Teachout says the destruction of certain problem houses in the Eco-Village, specifically the apartments that neighbored Patrek’s home, served as the “catalyst” for a social revolution in the neighborhood.
“From that point onward, [problem residents] knew we were gunning for them,” Teachout says.
Side effects of foreclosure
In 2005, the housing-foreclosure crisis hit north Minneapolis. Even before the epidemic was nationally recognized, Samuels says it was detectable on the North Side.
But unlike most parts of the nation, many think the crisis has had a positive impact on north Minneapolis communities.
Samuels says the “resilience” north Minneapolis has shown in terms of the foreclosure crisis is evidence that it is one of the “most unusual inner-city neighborhoods in the country.”
“In the typical American city it has exacerbated the crime problem,” Samuels said. “But in Minneapolis, certainly north Minneapolis, the foreclosure crisis has improved the safety situation.”
Though Samuels’ logic may seem counter-intuitive, he’s not the only one who sees a rebirth happening in the face of foreclosures. Amid the crisis, many problem property owners and their seedy renters are gone.
Jeff Skrenes, HACC housing director, says he has seen positive outcomes of the foreclosure crisis as well. He cited newfound partnerships with community councils, revitalization efforts from developers and the opportunity to reform problem areas.
“There are a lot of houses that are beyond redemption,” Skrenes said.
However, Skrenes said the foreclosure crisis has bred new crime, pointing to copper stripping and looting from boarded-up houses.
Hawthorne resident and HACC board member Bryan Thao Worra also says he has seen a negative impact from the foreclosure crisis. Though optimistic that north Minneapolis is on the verge of change, he is skeptical that foreclosures have driven problem residents out of the community.
“Foreclosed properties make me uneasy,” Thao Worra said. “When we know where the trouble is, we could be prepared for it there. But when we’re just trying to displace it without a solution, that should make everyone uncomfortable.”
Following the foreclosure crisis, many types of crime quickly increased in north Minneapolis neighborhoods, but have since dropped dramatically.
For example, reported robberies in neighborhoods in the Camden and Near North areas increased slightly, from about 375 in the last half of 2006 to nearly 475 in the first half of 2007, according to Codefor statistics maintained by Minneapolis police, one way the city tracks crime in its neighborhoods. In the first six months of 2008, less than 225 robberies were reported.
By June of 2007, more than 900 thefts were reported in these same neighborhoods. In the duration of the year, about 575 were reported. This number stayed consistent into 2008, according to Codefor statistics.
Both of these decreases came around the time the Minneapolis police implemented ShotSpotter and increased surveillance measures.
City pushes for change
Minneapolis Regulatory Services organized a sweep in 2005 across the North Side, with curb-to-alley inspections of each house’s exterior, as well as indoor checks to make sure each building met codes.
While the intent was to help rid the area of its blight, some residents felt they were more affected by the initiative because they had a greater stake in the community than irresponsible property owners. Some residents found themselves responsible for making city-sanctioned expensive improvements they felt were unnecessary, especially when run-down buildings littered the neighborhood.
But overall, Samuels called the effort a success.
The push was designed to hold property owners accountable for sub-standard conditions. And since houses connected to crime typically are poorly maintained, it was also an initiative to drive bad landlords and their tenants out, Samuels said.
So-called “crime houses” tend to be rental properties, he said, and slum lords and tenants follow an agreed-upon code of silence.
“They had a symbiotic relationship where ‘you don’t tell on me, I don’t tell on you,'” Samuels said.
At first, the fines for disrepair were low enough that, in some cases, it wasn’t worth making the fix. For example, if a fine was $30 and a repair cost about the same, it wasn’t worth it for landlords to make the improvement, Samuels said.
So the city upped its charges. Fines increased and penalties would double if problems went unfixed for too long.
“It became impossible for a slum lord to own a property and not take care of it,” Samuels said.
The city’s assault on problem landlords intensified when it began aggressively revoking rental licenses based on a failure to address the poor condition of the property, unsavory conduct there and chronic reported problems.
Without a license to lease their houses, the slum lords would need to sell their properties.
Plus, when a property owner loses two of his or her rental licenses, he or she must forfeit any other properties.
These efforts cut down on crime, Samuels said.
“The landlords now had to be responsive because it was just not that you would get a slap on the wrist,” he said. “You would actually lose your license to rent a building and you’d have to sell the building.”
Many irresponsible landlords at first balked at the city’s efforts, Samuels said.
“We have been so tolerant for so long that they did not believe that we would [revoke licenses],” he said. “Several of them took us all the way and then became very upset when they realized they had lost their investment.”
Over time, many properties once shabbily maintained fall into abandoned disrepair. The number of properties on the city’s vacant building registration list has grown since 2004, in conjunction with the foreclosure crisis. In that year, just 207 properties comprised the list, with 104 of them on the North Side.
But marked increases in 2007 and 2008 (through November) show 915 properties citywide now on the list, and 502 — more than half — are in north Minneapolis, according to the Northforce December report.
To combat the rise in boarded-up properties, the city has increased its annual fee for being on the list from $2,000 to $6,000. Additionally, a property owner can postpone payment if he or she enters a restoration agreement with the city, which requires bringing the property up to code within a certain timeframe. As of the Dec. 9 Northforce numbers, there are 26 such agreements in progress.
But without that sort of deal, the city decides whether to demolish the property or rehabilitate it for future use.
Properties deemed risks to public safety are demolished. If a property is simply declared a nuisance, the city decides whether rehabilitation or demolition is more appropriate.
Both property rehabilitations and demolitions have grown in number since 2005. The biggest year-over-year increase, from 2007 to 2008 (through November), brought the number of rehabilitations from 66 throughout the city to 132. The rehabilitations on the North Side, though, increased 189 percent from 28 to 81.
City-sanctioned demolitions saw a similar increase in that two-year span when citywide, demolitions spiked from 97 to 140. North Side properties followed suit, jumping from 66 demolished in 2007 to 110 torn down so far in 2008 — up 66 percent.
Prior to 2005, Minneapolis averaged two city-sanctioned demolitions a year. But with the continuing foreclosure crisis and increased pressure from the city looming over many property owners, Regulatory Services had demolished 96 properties year-to-date, as of Oct. 31.
The city’s target for 2008 was 50 buildings demolished and 10 rehabilitated.
Because the city specifically targeted problem properties, this unprecedented initiative to better the neighborhood led to an influx in rehabilitations and demolitions that weeded out many high-crime landmarks in the community. The long-term effects are yet to be seen.
Convenience store crackdown
In 2005, according to Northforce numbers, there were 2,530 police calls to grocery stores across the city.
Of those, a steep 79.6 percent — 2,014 calls — were to convenience stores in north Minneapolis, popular drug-selling havens that attracted violence.
Eight of the 15 most crime-ridden stores in the city had been on the North Side, until a specialized task force charged with policing these crime hotspots formed in 2006.
Figures from December 2008 indicate the crackdown on illicit convenience store activity has worked. There have been just 30 police calls relating to grocery stores to date in 2008, less than 2 percent of calls received just three years ago.
The task force pressured store owners to cooperate and threatened them with license revocation, Samuels said. About a dozen stores were shuttered, and other store owners agreed to cooperate with the city.
Big Stop, the store police were most frequently called to, was located at 26th and Knox avenues N. The city bought the store Jan. 1 and closed it.
The second-most called to store, Wafana’s, was located at 26th Street and Lyndale Avenue N. The city has also shut that market’s doors.
Beyond being known drug-trafficking stops, the stores also attracted other crime. Inside the Big Stop, a man was shot to death. A number of shootings dot the history of Wafana’s.
In March, Minneapolis officials turned down an investor’s application to re-open Wafana’s under new ownership. Resident backlash contributed, Thao Worra said.
Seeing the shop stay closed, he said, encouraged him that the city was taking charge.
Private developers in north Minneapolis
Various groups have committed to developing parts of the North Side, including the Minneapolis-based Ackerberg Group, led by Stuart Ackerberg.
In 2003, Ackerberg drove through north Minneapolis on a wintry day and noticed a stark difference from his more affluent neighborhood in the southern part of the city. The roads on the North Side weren’t plowed as carefully as the ones near where he lived, Ackerberg said.
Intrigued by the apparent disparity between the conditions of different parts of the city, Ackerberg frequently drove through north Minneapolis to get to know the area, to understand it. He saw an obvious difference in the quality of life there compared to his home neighborhood on the other end of the city.
“After a while, I just couldn’t get the North Side stuff out of my head,” he said. “It just disturbed my peace. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t just.”
That’s when he decided to apply his real estate development expertise to revitalizing the area.
Now, Ackerberg is in the fourth year of a 15-year commitment to better the area. He’s in the midst of launching a nonprofit, Catalyst Community Partners, to take over the endeavor and effectively eliminate the appearance of self-interest in the project.
“It’s very intentional that I will not own anything in north Minneapolis,” he said. “It’s about the community. It’s about doing what’s right.”
In fact, the work Ackerberg is doing doesn’t make financial sense, he said. The North Side is an economically depressed area and pouring so much into it doesn’t guarantee a rejuvenated community.
But based on his work so far, Ackerberg remains optimistic and committed. The first development, a 24-hour daycare, has been a successful and important asset to the community, he said.
Additionally, the successful redevelopment of a building at West Broadway and Emerson avenues that was vacant for nearly 20 years into a credit union and coffee shop has bolstered the community’s image.
Ackerberg noted the credit union purposely has no glass separating tellers from customers, so as to reinforce respect for the customers and heighten community pride.
At the KFC just a few blocks from the credit union, he pointed out, thick bulletproof glass divides patrons and workers and prohibits any direct contact between the two.
“What message are you sending there versus at the bank?” Ackerberg said.
And just off West Broadway Avenue, a small community refurbished by Ackerberg sits.
A few obviously redone houses line the road in Cottage Park, across the street from a new-looking playground that Ackerberg helped install with help from a foundation.
Ackerberg bought the lots where the houses now stand and rebuilt them before selling them to residents he believed shared his goal to spark change on the North Side.
The Jordan Area Community Council, the neighborhood group, calls one of the houses its headquarters.
“Today I can safely say you really don’t see any drug dealing in Cottage Park,” Ackerberg said. “It is a much different environment in Cottage Park today than it was a few years ago when we started.”
And while the residential development is key to bettering the community, Ackerberg said he believes commercial development is at least equally important.
The goal is to attract outside business owners to set up shop on the North Side, Ackerberg said, as well as to inspire community members to pursue their own entrepreneurial interests — specifically on the North Side’s main commercial thoroughfare, West Broadway Avenue.
“We need to get vibrant business conducting business on that corridor,” Ackerberg said, noting the absence of common everyday conveniences like hardware and sporting goods stores and sit-down restaurants.
Drawing these business people would give the community a facelift and in turn make it a more desirable place to be, Ackerberg said.
“We need to create that momentum that people think it will be different this time,” he said, referring to past revitalization efforts and broken promises of positive change.
And while the city’s been doing what it can, Ackerberg said his vision could provoke a real transformation.
“They’ve been helpful but I don’t think they have the ability to effect huge change on their own,” he said.
The investment made thus far by Ackerberg is notable and unmatched, Samuels said.
“This is the first time private developers have come into north Minneapolis without any subsidy at all and invested millions of dollars,” Samuels said.
Ackerberg’s ambitious plan involves specific focuses on developing sections of West Broadway to meet certain community needs. For example, near West Broadway and James avenues would be youth-focused. Near Fremont and Emerson avenues, there’d be heavy commerce. Further east, near the already-standing Cub Foods, would be a place where residents could run their errands.
“A lot of people just don’t have the ability to visualize what’s possible,” he said. And until his vision is realized, Ackerberg says his nonprofit, designed to work only on North Side initiatives, will be around.
When the job’s done, he’d be happy to see his organization go under.
“At the end of the day, Catalyst is going to go somewhere else or hopefully go out of business because it’s not needed,” Ackerberg said.
The day the city demolished Patrek’s last-remaining neighboring property, she took the day off of work to celebrate. She and her friends bought a bottle of champagne, and toasted over the rubble to a welcome change.
Patrek no longer has to be what she and other community members call “basement dwellers,” hiding from the unknown but ever-present threats that for years prevented her from inviting family and friends to her home.
Samuels, like Patrek, also believes the quality of life in north Minneapolis is creeping upward.
“I don’t think North Minneapolis has had a mayor that has been as enthusiastic about turnaround and as deliberate, nor have they seen a council where the South Side members have been willing to be patient and let North Minneapolis get a lion’s share of resources,” he said.
Because of those resources, Patrek believes the change will last.
“It can’t go back,” she said. “Physically, the place has changed so much that it just can’t go back.”
Karlee Weinmann is a senior journalism and sociology student at the University of Minnesota and has written for the Minnesota Daily, the Star Tribune and the Bridge.
Andy Mannix is a senior journalism and English student at the University of Minnesota and has written for City Pages, TIME.com and the Minnesota Daily.
This report is part of a special MinnPost project done in coordination with the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Clarification: To clarify, the 24-hour day-care center referred to in this article was started by Diane Thibodeaux.