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North Minneapolis community members say AG’s anti-crime push at Merwin Liquors just moved the problem elsewhere

A housing nonprofit and community groups are asking Minneapolis city officials to invest more resources into addressing ongoing crime in the area.

The parking lot shared by Merwin Liquors and Winner Gas Station has long been a site of shootings and other violent crimes, drug dealing and solicitation that has concerned nearby residents.
The parking lot shared by Merwin Liquors and Winner Gas Station has long been a site of shootings and other violent crimes, drug dealing and solicitation that has concerned nearby residents.
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson

The parking lot of Merwin Liquors and Winner Gas Station at the Lyndale Avenue and West Broadway Avenue intersection has long been a hotbed of violence and criminal activity. 

Community members last week created a petition asking Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and the Minneapolis City Council to prevent Merwin Liquors’ owners from obtaining a new liquor license. It already has more than 800 signatures. 

A campaign last year involving local, state and federal agencies cracked down on criminal activity in the liquor store parking lot. But Urban Homeworks, a north Minneapolis housing nonprofit, says the bulk of the activity has moved a few blocks over, and they’re calling on city officials to invest more short-term and longer-term resources to remedy the problem.

The city is holding a public hearing Tuesday night at the Northside Community Center to listen to community members’ thoughts on whether to issue the new owners of Merwin Liquors a liquor license.

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Historic hotbed for crime

The parking lot shared by Merwin Liquors and Winner Gas Station has long been a site of shootings and other violent crimes, drug dealing and solicitation that has concerned nearby residents. Gang activity would concentrate in the area, and neighbors have often been victims of stray bullets, said Charles Caine, a Northside resident of more than 20 years and founder of community organization Brothers EMpowered.

“That used to be a no-go zone for a lot of people, a lot of people avoided that neighborhood. A lot of crime, a lot of murders have taken place in that area,” Caine said. “I’ve worked with a lot of families that have lost loved ones in that area, so it was an infamous area.”

Last fall, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, along with then-Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Minneapolis City Attorney Kristyn Anderson, announced a civil probe into the properties. 

The investigation found that “unlawful public nuisances” were being allowed to go on by property owners, and a failure to abate the nuisances would result in a “complaint for relief” to be filed in district court. The document from Ellison’s office detailed 14 different instances in 2022 alone that included shootings, drug transactions, fighting and strong-arm robbery.

Urban Homeworks, a nonprofit based in north Minneapolis that helps provide stable rental homes for low-income residents, has employed community peacekeeping groups like Brothers EMpowered since 2020 to help de-escalate potentially violent interactions at the intersection.

In the past year or so, however, there has been a significant decrease in the criminal activity at the intersection, and Merwin Liquors is transitioning to new ownership. Earlier this spring, Ellison announced he would forgo filing a lawsuit against the owners of the properties, citing the decreases.

“I’m using the powers of my office to take new approaches to stemming the epidemic of gun violence, like using civil law to hold companies accountable for illegal behavior in their businesses or on their properties that can spiral out of control and threaten a whole community,” Ellison said in the announcement. “For those that don’t take steps to stem violence and illegal activity on their property, my office will be there to ensure all Minnesotans feel safe in their neighborhood.” 

Continued activity next door

Despite Ellison and city officials pointing to a decrease in crime at the intersection, and community members’ efforts to help in that de-escalation, residents say it hasn’t been eradicated — it has only moved over a few blocks. 

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Urban Homeworks has been consistently hearing from residents in the area that a lot of the activity, namely the drug use and transactions, has migrated to the 21st Avenue corridor along Emerson and Fremont Avenues. And Caine, along with the 25 peacekeeping members of Brothers EMpowered who patrol the area on foot, has seen that shift firsthand. 

“A lot of the drug activity and loitering has moved over to that area,” Caine said. “And wherever there’s drug dealing, there’s drug use. The customers are going to be where the dealers are at.”

The nonprofit put out a release late this summer asking Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and other city officials to refocus their attention on the West Broadway corridor and invest more resources in the shift in activity to 21st Avenue. 

“Our sense is that now that it’s off the public radar, it’s not getting the attention that it needs, the attention that our residents need,” said Paul Vliem, Urban Homeworks’ development director, in an interview. “That activity that has come to the 21st Avenue corridor is out of sight, out of mind for city officials, and we are calling on them to come to the table with resources.”

Vliem said that in order to root out this issue, police need to be more deeply connected to neighborhoods and the community. He said the occasional squad car rolling by won’t help fix the situation, but a few beat cops patrolling the area on foot might. 

Community peacekeeping and intervention efforts like Brothers EMpowered see success because residents are more likely to trust their neighbors, he said. 

“A lot of our guys have lived in the community for a long time and know a lot of community members, so it helps to be invested in the community,” said Caine. 

Though a boost in enforcement efforts should be part of the solution, Vliem said the city needs to invest more resources into longer term solutions, like providing treatment for those suffering from drug addiction and options for those experiencing homelessness. 

“We’ve got to address this with the resources to invest in addiction counseling and support, and with an understanding that when a drug dealer is apprehended, that the job isn’t done,” Vliem said. “You need to fill that dealer’s place with mental health support so that all those individuals who were looking for that drug dealer to get a fix, have somewhere else to look to actually find healing.”