Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Fed-Up Hawthorne Citizens Band Together And Fight Back Against "Problem Properties"
Photo by John Hoff
ABOVE, 400 31st Ave. North, on my "northern perimeter."
This one now has A BULLDOZER with its name on it, and contrary to some of the actions of my youth, I sure won't be sitting in front of it.
In fact, I'll get behind it and PUSH!!!!
This morning, the decent and fed-up citizens in my "area of operations" huddled together with city officials--police, building inspectors, and more--all for the sake of one longtime home owner whose sense of safety was severely violated due to a burglary last week.
She is seriously thinking of moving. The folks who are trying to make the neighborhood a better place are determined to prevent it, to prove to this ONE DECENT LONG-TIME HOME OWNER that the slow positive transformation of the area is real, it has powerful momentum, and now is not the time to leave, but to dig in and fight.
The crime itself, though minor in terms of all the many crimes in North Minneapolis, was infuriating and mattered greatly to this homeowner. Deeply personal antique stuff which has sentimental value and simply can't be replaced was stolen to buy, one assumes, CRACK COCAINE or TWENTY MINUTES WITH A PROSTITUTE.
Worse yet, the problem tenants who are widely suspected of committing this act are known and notorious, and have been ruining people's lives in the area for about two years, running around like a pack of wild dogs. They live at 416 31st Ave. N., a property owned by a landlord whose name and number I possess, and I had a lovely little chat with her this morning.
No, actually, it really was lovely. Respectful. Businesslike. It appears she is cooperating and willing to be of assistance. She is also fed up to be getting calls all the time about these particular tenants.
I won't say precisely where the burglary was, except it was north of me. Despite how negative and scary this incident was, it seems like the crime may be a kind of positive rallying point to organize decisive, environment-altering actions against the rampant social disorder which has taken root. I can't help but think the fact these stories are being told in a very public way could be contributing to this trend, just a little. I sure hope so.
Oh, my word, the facts which came spilling out this morning, and I was scribbling this stuff down as quickly as I could...
I found out about the meeting at the last minute from Jeff Skrenes, so now it's "even-steven" for the way I sprang Brian the Minn Post reporter on Jeff, et al. I didn't know the location and my car had been left at the efficient and affordable Hmong mechanic who fixed the other problem, so my only choice to avoid missing the important meeting first thing in the morning was to sack out YET AGAIN at my house and meet Jeff for a ride.
I figured I could make myself useful by watching drug and prostitution activity from the window, and calling it in if it was warranted.
Why Metro isn't always an option
I (renowned for my frugality) took a taxi there, not because it was too late for the bus but because I was seriously worried about getting jumped. This is why people like to drive cars instead of ride the bus. Because of who rides the bus. More precisely, because we don't feel PROTECTED from who rides the bus, certainly not at the dark intersection of Lyndale Ave. N. and 31st.
Actually, not even on the bus itself, at least not in the back seats. The response of Metro is to put up signs with images of teddy bears urging customers to "respect the ride" because of the little ears which might be listening. I guess when you don't have money for real security, a slogan will have to fill the dark, gaping void all by its paper-thin self.
While waiting for a taxi in Dinkytown, a green sports car pulled up in the intersection with four black youth, who proceeded to ignore the signal light and ask college students crossing the intersection if they could use a cell phone. Drunken students, truly too dumb to be breathing, proceeded to interact with the aforementioned occupants of the vehicle. (Need I mention, once again, my opinion column which discusses the lack of responsible behavior by students partying in Dinkytown?)
I called in the license plate and description, jotting it down on a sticker affixed to a trash can. The occupants saw me doing this and left right in the middle of their conversation with some intoxicated Gopher. Police arrived momentarily. The response time was extraordinarily quick. I saw multiple squads combing the area.
North Side is too dangerous compared to...Somalia
The taxi driver was from Somalia, and as I usually do with Somali taxi drivers and Hmong bus drivers, I tried to convince him to buy a home on the North Side. Unlike the last Somali taxi driver I spoke to, this one wasn't interested. It was too dangerous, he said.
He would do it if he were all by himself, he stated. Oh, yes, in a heartbeat. But because he had children, he needed to think of their safety.
We talked about his former country. He was concerned because individuals who would soon be 20 years old had never seen peace or political stability in their lifetime. How could such a feral generation run Somalia?
I told him to go in the driveway, as close to my door as he could. He was not willing to go very far into the driveway because it was dark and he couldn't see. I told him I understood.
"But do me a favor?" I asked. "Just stay here until I can get my key in the door and get inside?"
I got inside. I locked the door. And I made my little tactical arrangements, minor as they may be, they gave me psychological comfort.
Faithful old house at the end of its life
I realized I was inside without my car in the driveway, which was bad, because that was like saying, "Nobody is here, break inside." So I turned on the light in the kitchen. I went upstairs. My word, the place was starting to feel as familiar as my bedroom in St. Paul. I was able to reach in the dark and find the cord to recharge my cell phone, out of habit.
For about an hour, every time I heard a car pull up, I watched through the thinly woven blanket covering my "bedroom" window.
A black car parked near my driveway. The passenger got out, and went to stand on the corner. The driver of the car remained inside, sometimes turning on an interior light. After 20 minutes of this, I decided the drug dealing had reached a level of obviousness, and it was time to call the police.
The minute I called, the lights of the car came on and the car pulled away. I wondered if I had been speaking too loudly? Had the pale blue light of my cell phone been visible through the mesh of the blanket? I didn't have a plate number or anything. This one got away. The 911 operator was very nice and said, "If it comes back, just call again."
But I was tired, and couldn't stay awake anymore. "Stationary telephonic patrol" was over. I had done as much as I could do with my limited resources. I laid down, and found I had become familiar with the creaks and groans of the house.
My fondest hope and wish for 3016 6th Street N. is that it be sold to "the good guys" in the neighborhood and bulldozed to create a "rainwater garden." But as I listened to the floorboards croak like bullfrogs, I thought how this 100-year-old house in such rough condition was still protecting me, still sheltering me, still doing its duty.
I will write an ode to it, I thought, right before the wrecking ball. I will get a bundle of sage and burn it in a final smoky send off. Even in the twilight phase of its life, that faithful house was still doing its duty, like a wounded soldier who can, at the very least, call in coordinates.
Banding together for the common good
I was elated at the reasonable price quoted by the mechanic. I noticed a picture he had on the wall of a younger version of himself, serving in the South Vietnamese army. He had the same scowl in that photo as he wore now, calling an auto parts dealer to find out if the exhaust system for my 1988 Celebrity was easily available.
"Is this you, sir?" I asked him, pointing at the photo, though I knew the answer.
I asked how many blocks it was to Emerson Ave. North, and in what direction. I figured out the meeting was within easy walking distance. Though Jeff had promised me a ride, I decided to strike out on my own. I stopped by Star Foods and was delighted to experience, for the first time, pomegranate-flavored 7-Up. Really, all you can taste is the fruit. There's no 7-Up flavor left to experience, so histrionic and effusive is the pomegranate flavor.
Killing time before the meeting, I made a 311 call about a property on Emerson Ave. N. with an open basement window accessible to trespass, and another property in which the word "graffiti" had been painted in red letters, a foot high.
I couldn't help but think the person who tagged the building was at least a little bit clever.
"Operator, there's graffiti on this building!"
"Yes, sir, what does it say?"
"I understand, sir, but what does it SAY?"
The Hawthorne folks have a house owned by a church landlord. I noticed the bathroom had a bathtub, and I thought how often a chronic workaholic like myself could have used a feature such as that at the office. About a dozen of us arrived for the meeting, and Jeff announced we officially had enough people for the conference room. There was even a little agenda. All of this because our neighbor had been robbed, and people were fed up.
3101 31st Ave. N.--A State of Anarchy
In regard to 3101 31st Ave. N., the apartment complex fallen into a state of "nobody is in charge," we were assured "regulatory management" would soon enough take the place of the building's management. The anarchic state of "nobody is in charge" was intolerable and could not last for long.
Jeff pointed out if things really degenerated, the HNA could file a lawsuit. HNA had been known to do things like that.
It turned out the former owner of the apartment, Shirley Guevara, had come around a while ago and tried to collect rent, though she no longer owned the place and it was well past the period of redemption. A tenant who knew the deal (whose name will not be mentioned) urged his fellow tenants not to pay Shirley.
Somebody later threw a brick through his window. Folks figured one of Shirley Guevara's henchmen did it on her orders.
After that, a man named Greg from an entity called "Castle Rock" showed up and demanded rent, and successfully collected it. There are rumors about where Shirley stays, but it is said she "moves around." She has another building in this same state of affairs, at 3119 4th Street. The tenants are, of course, frustrated.
I told the police officer about the social disorder I had witnessed. If the tenants wanted folks to be sympathetic, I said, they needed to be policing themselves more effectively and not allowing the place to fall into a state of social disorder evident even from the outside.
All things considered--and not putting everything on the ol' blog--it sounded like the powers-that-be were on top of the situation. There was intense interest in the question of "by what authority" did Shirley Guevara attempt to collect rents past the period of redemption on the foreclosure?
"By the law of the jungle,"I suggested, helpfully.
One of the legal types at that meeting had the coolest bow tie. He looked like the dude from the popcorn box.
Another "Problem Child Of the Block"
I learned the name of Kathy's Pimp is "Cameron Lake," and as I could observe for myself they reportedly had no home but habitually slept in vacant houses. No wonder my replacement of city boards had caused CAMERON such agitation.
One person at the meeting had witnessed Kathy with a black eye before, beaten by Cameron, and stated this with a tone of sympathy. I would love to have mug shots of Kathy and Cameron to put up on this blog, to show the unsavory characters who habitually occupy the street corners in my area of operations as though they possessed a license to sell sexual services.
They habitually hung out at 416 31st Avenue North, not to be confused with 416 30th Ave. N., the "problem child of the block," but it's interesting how "416" is the "problem child" on both blocks.
I have an emotional attachment to the number "416." It is my old Boy Scout troop from Alexandria, Minnesota. I didn't advance very far in scouting, mostly because my rural family didn't have the money for all those "jamborees" and stuff. But, wow, I sure picked up plenty from close readings of scouting manuals in my youth.
The problem tenants from "416 31st" had driven out the Latino family from 420 31st through constant harassment, leaving the small house to become a crack den and a haven for Kathy and Cameron. Young children of school age were often seen at "416 31st" during times school was in session. I could bear testimony to THAT.
As for the older youth from that house, they had virtually taken over the block with their intimidation.
One solution seemed to involve tearing down the garage at 3112 6th Ave. N., directly behind this problem property at "416 31st," the "scary little garage" where stolen items were sorted and the undesirable stuff was tossed into a pile of refuse, items like the television and aquarium I observed. The city inspector's office was on it. One person at the meeting with valuable historical memory stated the garage fire took place approximately 6 years ago.
Keeping the bulldozer busy
The "fruitful destruction" wouldn't end with the scary little gang garage. The structure at 400 31st Ave. N. needed to come down, too. The city officials were on top of this one, as well.
There was talk of a landlord owning it. I turned over some helpful contact info I had, if that was the case. The structure would get fixed or it would get torn down, even if that meant fighting in court.
She's heard it all before
I had a list of issues I'd observed with properties in the past week, and I was able to turn that information over and get it into the system. This made me happy. Even happier was the way one of the meeting participants whispered to me that he or she had some plywood, and perhaps that stuff might find its way to my porch.
The property owner who had been the victim of the burglary which brought about this meeting--what author John W. Kingdon would call a "focusing event"--sounded a cynical note, saying she had "heard all this before, how something was going to happen, but then nothing really happens."
"Give us a week," one city official said. "Give us a chance to show you. Let's see if you'll be saying the same thing the next time we meet. Give us a chance."
She nodded, arms across her chest. She'd hold out hope for just a little while longer. As for the stolen stuff with sentimental value, there was a $100 reward, no questions asked.
Coincidence or Minn Post Dot Com conspiracy?
Me and Jeff walked a few blocks to have a beverage, checking the security of several buildings along the way. Jeff told me about some amazing work he did in Honduras, documenting the abuses of a corporation which makes glue used by street children to get high, refusing to take rather minor steps to alleviate the problem with its product.
The guy RADIATES cool. But he can't hold a candle to Constance the Real Estate agent, who (by some crazy coincidence) ended up meeting the camera crew in the exact same coffee shop at the exact same moment. She will find a way to show the most positive and safe aspects of the North Side, and creating some good publicity.
I set this up. I want to offset any stereotypical impressions my activities may be creating. My block is not your average block. All the more reason to turn it around and document it in a very public way. If my block can be dramatically turned around, then there is hope for every block in Minneapolis.
But I think citizens must either be given more authority, more discretion to do what is necessary in these truly extraordinary conditions, or just quietly take it on themselves.
Tracking down "Johnny Northside"
A police officer pulled up to talk with me as I walked with Jeff. It was a productive conversation. I learned there was once a program where police could obtain houses from the city for an amount like $10,000. Apparently, the program no longer exists.
Well, I say, bring that program back. Give as many vacant North Side houses to police officers as possible. Let a police officer have my very own lot at 3016 6th Street North. Pop a modular home in there, I say, and paint it blue as a robin's egg.
It was a different police officer who previously pointed out to me how people remember "what sticks" in a conversation, and not everything sticks.
I heard what I needed to hear from the officer about how one is duty bound to obey "the letter of the law" as concerns securing or wishing to secure property wide open to trespass because crack heads have kicked open the front door and it takes, oh gee, 5 or 8 long days for the city to board the place, by which time copper and plumbing fixtures and "built-ins" and anything of value will be gone, windows smashed for fun, nasty tricks turned and crack smoked and the smoldering glass pipe left in a pile of refuse to burn the whole place down.
One must obey the law. One must not trespass. The officer said what his duty required him to say like a good and honorable civic soldier. I aired my legal theory about how, for example, one does not stop and ask for permission before entering a house which is on fire.
"These houses," I said, pointing. "They are on fire. Common sense measures must be taken to save the property from destruction."
I also heard something quite notable about how a lack of "criminal intent" was important when deeds were judged. His overriding concern was for my personal safety. They didn't want anything harmful to happen to me at the hands of some crack head in a vacant building.
I assured the officer he couldn't believe a lot of "media hype." Also, I did have a little bit of military and security training. Nothing like his own extensive police training, of course, but I had been taught a few valuable tricks. I would be careful. I assured the officer I only hoped to find a situation where 911 or 311 could be utilized. I was not eagerly seeking situations to take on by myself.
Also, I inquired what was the average 911 response time in this particular neighborhood? He did not know.
He was a very nice officer. And though I don't know his age, I suppose it is possible he could have been a rookie officer in about 1980, when the Minneapolis Police Department saved my father from dying in the trunk of his taxi cab, beaten by 3 or 4 robbers. For all I know, he could have helped pull my father from that trunk.
Decent people are getting desperate
I have put forward my suggestions about the need for citizens to be given more authority to act in a common sense way as concerns vacant houses left unsecured. It might be good to give the system an opportunity to digest and reflect and see if any response is forthcoming.
Like I told that officer, "I am simply a kind of political response. The decent people are getting fed up and desperate. We can't afford to wait five or eight days when the front door of a house has been kicked in, and the crack heads can just get inside and do whatever. And we can't sit there and babysit the house and wait until we see somebody to call 911."
We just can't.