Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Decency Dead Zones" And Other Challenges Beyond The Hawthorne EcoVillage Success Story...

Image from video shot by John Hoff, blog post by John Hoff

In the midst of a new and urgent public discourse about cracking down on violent crime--especially in North Minneapolis--the amazing Hawthorne EcoVillage success story has been brought up more than a few times by public officials. This area went from being one of the MOST crime-plagued areas of the city to being one of the LEAST troubled. So the pressing question is: how? And how do we replicate that?

Recently, both Jeff Skrenes (the Hawthorne Hawkman) and The Walking Drum have weighed in with their opinions of how we pulled off the EcoVillage miracle. Click here for The Walking Drum's posting, and here for Hawthorne Hawkman.

They are entitled to their point of view, and I'm not saying it's wrong. But I have my own thoughts on where we were, how we got where we are now, and where we need to go...

Walking Drum will tell you that incessant 911 calling and meetings with public officials made a big difference. And that's true. But perhaps I should mention how this 911 calling was NOT static. It was not done all the time from behind the frilly chiffon curtains of windows.

SUCCESSFUL TACTIC NUMBER ONE: We got in vehicles and physically drove around, calling in criminal activity. We referred to this as "going on patrol."

It was a lot more fun than fishing, let me tell you that. The Bible says "I will make you fishers of men." Well, it was kind of like THAT, only we were just baiting hooks and police had all the fun reeling 'em in. When we'd drive around and see no crime to report, we always had mixed emotions. Did we just fail, or were we succeeding? In any case, we did this week after week, month after month. We did not let up. And sometimes we'd have an incredible success, like the time the police called us back and mentioned the crack hidden in a minor's, well, crack. You don't want to go there.

But the police did. They went there. God bless 'em, every one.


I'm guessing about 100 hours were spent covertly videotaping problem properties to document drug deals. The photo which illustrates this post is a still from some of that videotaping. And we didn't just take our tapes and say to the police, hey, here you go. Check out these hours of videotape.

No, we EDITED the tapes to get the good stuff. In fact, one of the dudes who was editing actually made a MUSIC VIDEO. I wish he'd put that stuff on YouTube. It was heart-rending...made me think about how these poor thugs have an immortal soul which will face eternal judgment, and they'll most likely be pushing rock in Purgatory to work off all their sins for...well, pushing rock.

This videotaping was not always done under comfortable conditions. Often, it was done in a sweltering attic, in summer, with an electric fan to provide only a small degree of comfort. And not just anybody can pull this stuff off. Practicing "light discipline" like a good little soldier was important, so the thugs wouldn't see the guy with the camera.

SUCCESSFUL TACTIC NUMBER THREE: Little stuff matters. Picking up litter, getting grass mowed, calling in graffiti to 311, this kind of thing creates a neighborhood environment where order rules, and disorder slinks away to find itself a hospitable rat hole.

But there are subtle and unique manifestations of this principal which don't always make the list of bullet points. For example, leaving a piece of litter right in front of your house allows you to walk outside, pick up the litter, and (while stooping down) memorize the license plate of a car parked across the street--no doubt buying drugs. Again.

SUCCESSFUL TACTIC NUMBER FOUR: The EcoVillage had political support and stayed on the radar of public officials partially because the story of the EcoVillage struggle was being constantly written about on the internet, in granular detail.

It's hard to fail when so many public officials are paying close attention and cheering each small success, trying to figure out how they can assist. I remember the day I called 311 and--oh, my word--the city sent in a special "A-Team" garbage disposal unit to deal with the trash problem at 416 30th Ave. N., showing up with multiple trucks like a military convoy. At that point I wondered, "To what degree are we getting faster, better service because all this stuff is hitting the internet?"

I always had the strong sense that writing the story was actively helping the story to end well, and NOT telling the story was like throwing in the towel and giving up.

Want to clean up a crime-ridden urban area? Send in the bloggers.

However, the bloggers themselves are merely telling a tale. What's more important are the folks who are DOING THE STORY: people like Peter Teachout who would not back down in their fight to clean up the neighborhood, even after having a truck torched in a terrifying incident of what can only be called "domestic terrorism." Without people like Peter Teachout, the bloggers can't make a meaningful contribution, because there is no good story to tell.

So the next question becomes: where do we find folks like Peter Teachout to move into the empty houses in North Minneapolis? Well, THAT is a whole 'nuther editorial for a different time.

DIFFICULT PROBLEM NUMBER ONE: Applying the lessons of the EcoVillage, and looking at the problems we face, the first issue I see is something I call a Decency Dead Zone. This is an area like Hawthorn (sic) Crossings strip mall, or portions of Penn Avenue North, or the area right in front of the Emerson Food Market, or the Lowry Avenue Market, where there is so much dealing, so much hanging around, so much unsavory activity that decent people avoid the area and do not stick their noses into matters long enough to call 911.

Urban geography contributes to these "dead zones." Like an Iraqi insurgent sniper who picks the perfect spot to shoot at American troops--carefully considering his line of sight, how difficult it is for the Americans to approach or shoot back effectively, how the sniper can get resupplied--experienced street criminals skillfully find areas to pimp and sell drugs where, if there are residences nearby, the folks who live in those residences are either too scared, too busy, too determined to stay uninvolved, or thugs themselves. In some cases--like the massive decency dead zone at Hawthorn (sic) Crossings strip mall--there just aren't residences nearby where somebody will be at a window, calling 911. And the businesses in that area either have their head in the sand or apparently consider the thugs their customer base.

Unfortunately, police resources get distributed on the basis of 911 calls. So it's a vicious cycle: there's not as much police patrol in certain areas because there's few 911 calls, but these areas are full of crime...(ask the neighbors, they KNOW) which pushes the folks who would make 911 calls out even further from the area, creating a "decency dead zone."

The crime from these areas won't STAY in these areas, however...the crime will spill over into other areas. Because of a vendetta that starts in the rough and gritty world of the "decency dead zone," a shooting might happen blocks away, miles away...when some thug sees their drug-sales rival on the street and decides--spur of the moment, opportunistically--to open fire. The PROBLEM didn't start on that started in the "decency dead zone" and spilled over somewhere else.

Neighbors who "patrol" can be part of the solution to a decency dead zone, but only so much can be observed whizzing past. Ultimately, involved citizens need to sit and watch the thugs for a while before the need (one might say "opportunity") to make a 911 call arrives.

The solution for the police is relatively simple: listen to the neighbors and what they say about where crime is located but NOT getting called in, instead of relying so heavily on 911 call data, and set up some kind of concealed observation point where drug dealing and prostitution can be intercepted.

And, by the way, since gung-ho Northside neighbors ARE going to participate in 911 patrols, and these neighbors ARE going to covertly videotape criminal activity, the city may as well support these volunteer efforts in various ways or, at the very least, not discourage this kind of thing or get in the way.

The historic record will show I was in the middle of things during the period of time the EcoVillage turned around. I've thought about this stuff, I've pondered it at length, and I've got it down to these points.

You want to replicate the success of the EcoVillage, do this stuff.


gung-ho Northside neighbor said...

I'm tired of watching the thugs suspiciously yet being unable to spot any truly illegal activity that can be called in. I go for drives on Penn late at night and see all sorts of randoms walking around that are probably up to no good... but I just can't call 911 on those folks.

As far as I know there's nothing illegal about dressing like a ho... nothing illegal about looking like a drug dealer... nothing wrong with standing near a bus stop but never actually getting on a bus. I almost want to start making purchases myself just so I know who's who... or start taking flash photos of the suspected prostitutes so I know who's always out there and who's just minding their own business.

It's maddening to KNOW what these people are doing, yet have no power to stop them.

Do I have to see illegal activity before I call 911 or are mere suspicions enough?

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

A few thoughts:

First off, I've been to the Olympic Cafe a few times now. I actually think the staff AND clientele are better than that of Fire 'N' Ice. The food's better too, although the Greek cheese fries are clearly an abomination.

The jury's still out (in my opinion, at least) about whether the extended hours are good or bad, but I will say this much: I've seen some bad stuff go down in the wee hours of the morning on the rare occasions I made a McDonald's drive-thru run at Hawthorn Crossings. I haven't seen the same dynamic at Olympic so far.

And when residents see things going on at stretches like Penn or Hawthorn Crossings, it's always best to tell the police WHAT TIME things are happening. If they happen all the time, that doesn't really help focus attention. Tell police and city officials when it's the worst so they can focus their attention on it at that time of the day. Or tell them what time(s) of the day you happen to be driving/walking/biking/busing through and see things. Give them something to go on.

Anonymous said...

telling them what time of day = calling 9-1-1

Anonymous said...

Thanks to John Hoff for putting forth this effort over the years. It's because of your direct efforts this neighborhood has done a 180. Please continue to lead this effort and increase the intensity. Without you there would be no Ecovillage for the rest of us to enjoy. Plus he's kind of cute in all those picutures.

Anonymous said...

Two points Hawkman:

1. Saying a place has staff/clientele better than fire and ice (which sells plain white T's) is not much of a compliment; and

2. Bad things happen at Hawthorn(e) sic. Crossings so much that the cops should be FOCUSED there 24 hours a day!

Your Eyedea said...

Maybe the cops should stop putting empty cop cars in front of problem stores/restaurants... cause they are in the store. talking with the cashier.. not on the streets dealing with trash.

Korea Vet said...


Who put that chip on your shoulder? The fine men and woman of the MPD are the ones who keep you safe from that "trash" on the streets.

Cops are human and they're allowed breaks from time to time and are even known to eat food. Unless you know some particular officer's schedule you should keep your little mouth shut. He may have been up all night working a shift and now has to skip much of his sleep to go downtown to testify. Maybe once you've lived a little you'll get a better idea of what the world's like.

This anti-police attitude is way too prevalent on this blog.

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

In regards to the "not much of a compliment" comment, that's right, but I've been rather critical of Olympic Cafe and the place is growing on me. It's only fair that I say so.

And I should clarify what I meant about telling MPD and others what time of the day things are happening. Obviously that gets recorded with a 911 call. But if you're at a community meeting discussing places like this, that's when it's useful to make such distinctions for those who will respond to the problem.

I wish we could get police stationed at certain places 24 hours a day too, but resources are too thin.

Hans said...

I too want to thank John Hoff and Peter Teachout (and others no doubt) for all the work they put in.

I would not be living in my wonderful house if they hadn't taken the risks and endured the stress of taking back this little section of Nomi. I signed the purchase agreement for my house having no clue that just a year earlier my street was crack and prostitute central.

Living here has convinced me that citizens DO have the power to change their environment when they join together and organize. We simply cannot rely on the police/government to fix our neighborhood by themselves.

So much has been given to me and I'm determined to give something back.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, if you think a community meeting is the place where folks like Insp Martin, Lt Lindback, Chief Dolan or whomever finds out what time certain activity happens in a certain place, you got it wrong.

Policing these days is highly dependent on this sort of analytical data and pattern mapping.

But go ahead and tell them what they already know.

Michael Spivak said...

I got a Little Caesar's ad in the mail the other day. It listed a location in the "Hawthorne" shopping center.

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

Anon 3:54, I have been in community meetings with some of the very officers you mention, and have given them this information from people experiencing problems on certain blocks in Hawthorne.

Either they were just being nice or they told the truth when they said that getting that kind of information from residents was helpful. "Always get the time of day, because we can't patrol every block 24 hours," was what Lt. Heimerl said to me.

Johnny Northside said...

The following comment was posted by an anonymous commenter:
Apparently, the 'decency dead zone' extends all the way to Lind-Bohannon. I just got the kids home from the splasher there, and couldn't believe the mess that a group of 'ladies' and their spawn left. There were five soda cans, four empty plastic soda bottles, two dirty diapers (gross!!) and some plastic baggies. And they had to pass a trash can on the way to their black Mercury SUV license plate MN XXX XXX. What a bunch of filthy pigs!

Because I can't confirm whether this is a true account, I have redacted the license plate in question.

Your Eyedea said...

The chip on my shoulder is from the lack of cops in the streets when I was younger, the RNC also... I will not keep my BIG mouth shut..Cause last time I checked I have the right to say what I want.

And I did not make that cop take that shift... nor did I make him become a cop..

I would just like to see more cops reacting to people that park in the bike lanes on Lowry. Or the ladies of the evening on Lyndale, How about the kid that just got his ass kicked after a house party had gotten broken up at 2AM!?

They are quick to react when I call them but why are they not out on the streets investigating?

Sometimes I'm sick of calling 911.

Anonymous said...


Please take some time to review this page and reconsider your hostile attitude towards law enforcement:

Police officers are heroes. They have incredibly difficult jobs. I'm sorry that you don't think more highly of them.

Anonymous said...

John Hoff wrote: "And, by the way, since gung-ho Northside neighbors ARE going to participate in 911 patrols, and these neighbors ARE going to covertly videotape criminal activity, the city may as well support these volunteer efforts in various ways or, at the very least, not discourage this kind of thing or get in the way."

Neighborhood patrols have been very effective in Northeast Minneapolis. They have a very good working relationship with the 2nd Precinct and work closely with the CPS's.

Maybe the NoMi 911 patrol would be more successful and have greater impact if you worked cooperatively with the Police. Rather than tell them as you have stated above, that 'you're doing it whether they like it or not, so stay out of our way'.
Being "Gung Ho" against crime is great. Interfering with police operations is a crime. Why don't you ask the police for guidance and assistance before someone accidentally gets hurt.

gung-ho Northside neighbor said...

anon 4:47...

Who has a regular habit of "interfering with police operations"?

Is it John Hoff? Or is it the thugs who think they own Nomi?

Your Eyedea said...

Oh yeah... Hero's... right.. just like the cop that shot Fong Lee. He SOOO deserved that Medal of Valor AND his job back..

I don't seem to understand why my dislike of cops seems to bother people so much. I have the right to say, think and write what I please.

So....Get over it..

Anonymous said...


You have the right because the cops are there to protect your freedom.

If the cops don't hold back the dark horde of the thug onslaught who will?

Calling 911 alone doesn't stop the thugs, only the police can do that.

Hans said...

This argument is getting old.

The police have little to do with protecting our first amendment rights. In fact, sometimes the cops trample all over our rights.

Some people haven't had good experiences with police in their past so it shouldn't be such a shock that they don't regard ALL officers as heroes. (Some of them are definitely heroes but plenty have been documented as corrupt... like the metro gang task force, etc).

I think the anonymous poster is reading a little too much into Eyedea's comments... almost putting words in her mouth... "anti-police attitude", and "hostile attitude toward law enforcement." I see frustration in her comments but not all out hate for cops.

anon 6:23 said:
"Calling 911 alone doesn't stop the thugs, only the police can do that."

You contradict yourself. Only the police can stop the thugs, huh? Then why do we have to call 911?

IT'S A PARTNERSHIP. There aren't enough cops to be everywhere, and without good neighbors calling 911 the cops will only be partially effective.

Your Eyedea said...

"If the cops don't hold back the dark horde of the thug onslaught who will??"

the people armed with a cell phone and the balls to watch and call