Where Others Fear To Tread

V.J. Smith traded his gun for a Bible a decade ago. Now he runs the night watch on Central's troubled streets. The payoff? Amazing grace and a good night's sleep.

It's not unusual for some members of MAD DADS to remain behind on any given Saturday night to provide "prayer cover" for those out on street patrol. It is typical of Smith to utter a God bless or two when first meeting people on his rounds. And if someone group members encounter in the field wants to pray (and "80 percent of the time they do," Sandy Fliehs says), there will be a prayer. Still, MAD DADS' national office cautions satellites against banging the Bible in public, in large part because the organization means to set itself apart from the hordes of street preachers and sky pilots crowding the hearts of American cities with more to offer, as it's been said, in the afterlife than in this one. "I don't know how many churches are out there passing out tracts, but there are lots of them," Smith notes. "These kids are getting handed tracts and tracts and tracts. And no, that's just not going to do it."

Calvin Declouet is still in the habit of waving his Bible and quoting Scripture as soon as he meets someone; and he likes to hand out tracts from his own church in north Minneapolis when he's out with MAD DADS. Still, as Smith watches Declouet barrel from corner to corner on Saturday nights, he can't help but break into an approving belly laugh. Declouet will learn, after all. And what he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in pure energy. "I don't know, man," Smith exclaims, holding his chest in mock exhaustion. "I don't know if we can keep up with Calvin."

Declouet is almost a half-block ahead of the group, chatting up a couple of teenagers loitering in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, his arms raised to the heavens. "Wait up, Calvin!" Smith shouts theatrically. "Wait up, brother."

 

In the early 1980s a spike in crack use led to an explosion of gang activity in Central. Dealers set up shop in abandoned houses or took over entire apartment buildings, and shootings, a number of which were fatal, weren't unusual. In the early 1990s neighborhood activists stepped up their pressure on the city for help in rehabilitating Central's dilapidated housing stock and bad reputation.

In June 1996 the Minneapolis Police Department conducted a series of "street sweeps" and raids on residents with the aim of making life difficult for leaders of the Rolling 30s Bloods, a gang that still considers Central its home territory. In the ten-month period after the crackdown, according to the Star Tribune, there were 807 criminal offenses reported in the neighborhood, down from the 1052 in the same period the previous year. According to preliminary statistics provided by Karen Skrivseth, Central's crime prevention specialist at the MPD, these lower crime stats held steady or dropped for more than two years. Soon after, housing values increased in concert with the citywide 1998-99 real estate boom. There were still scores of abandoned houses in Central, and boarded-up storefronts lined Lake Street, but until early this year neighborhood activists agreed that the area was enjoying a kind of renaissance. In recent months, though, Skrivseth allows that there has been a revival of gang activity along Fourth Avenue between Lake and 38th streets, and a jump in shootings related to crack-cocaine trafficking.

"On the one hand, we see people getting involved, property values going up," observes city council member Brian Herron, who lives in Central. "On the other hand, we've had a resurgence of drugs and prostitution this past summer that have in some ways been disheartening. It's become intense again. We were on the verge of ridding the neighborhood of that hard-core criminal element. Now, in some ways, we have to start from scratch."

Asked if the MPD has been willing to cooperate with community leaders like V.J. Smith in Central, Herron pauses--then chuckles. "I think it's beginning to happen," he allows diplomatically. Others working in the trenches aren't as generous. They complain that the police are too quick to use force and too reluctant to walk the beat. "The police chief is a weasel," one business owner on Lake Street sniffs. "He needs to tell his people that to say hello to a drug dealer, [that] to learn his name and understand his situation is not compromising their position of authority."

Fliehs says she signed up to be a MAD mom because she loves Central, her home for 27 years. She finally moved out of the neighborhood, in large part because of her frustrations with law enforcement: "When the police are called, they are slow to respond, and then, when they do come, they're very rough. They treat people like they're subhuman. That's because they don't get out of their cars, walk the streets, get to know the people they're supposed to serve."

MAD DADS members, for their part, do just that: hit the pavement, mix it up with whoever crosses their path, become a familiar presence on the street, all of which Smith believes helps to prevent violence where it tends to start. "I think if I can get to a kid before the police have to, then maybe I can make a difference out there. That's what it's all about."

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