The Belle of the Block

Tame the wilds of Park Avenue? There's the right way, the wrong way, and the Donna Ellringer way

Donna Ellringer's home is a place of contradictions. It has three stories and nine bedrooms, yet Ellringer and her husband Maurice reside in only a few rooms at the front of the first floor, snaking through the back door and an unfinished, unheated hallway to reach the relative comfort of home. Imposing windows are covered by makeshift drapes Ellringer fashioned from tablecloths. The wood floors are rotted and warped in places, beaten down by years under a leaking roof. The ceiling remains in ruin, with exposed beams and wiring. Ancient, yellowed wallpaper glue sticks to the cracked plaster.

Yet the air teems with the buoyant scent of perfume oil, in Seaspray. Plump pillows rest on overstuffed sofas in velvety fabrics and rich colors--cocoa, bordeaux. Dainty lace doilies laze on the backs of chairs and ornately carved coffee tables. Cut-crystal vases hold out bouquets of silk flowers, while candy dishes offer wrapped chocolates. Antique clocks, gilt-edged mirrors, and portraits of ladies with porcelain skin adorn the unfinished walls. And a shotgun always sits discreetly in the corner of the front foyer, loaded, ready.

Just as delicate touches don't fit into their dilapidated surroundings, Donna Ellringer doesn't seem to fit into the 1800 block of Park Avenue in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis, which at best is a sketchy strip with more than its share of drug dealers and prostitutes, and at worst is the most embattled front line in the inner city. It was the house, at 1823 Park, with its ornate woodwork, that brought Ellringer to the neighborhood four and a half years ago. It's the house--or rather, the dream of what it will someday be--that has kept her here. And it's the house that has stood in defiance of its surroundings, forging out of Ellringer, who had spent the previous 15 years rehabbing Victorians in southeastern Minnesota's sleepy St. Charles, a neighborhood figure who is part crusader, part busybody, part vigilante.

Conversation with Ellringer, whether during a casual lunch or a weekly meeting of her block club, is peppered with tales of how she has gone nose to nose with drug dealers and gang members, protecting her home like a stocky, frizzy-haired, 42-year-old Wyatt Earp. "You had to stand up to them! If you don't they will run you over. They will run...you...over," she slows, shading each word with extra gravity. "And someone had to stand up to them around here." She likes to tell the story of a spring day a couple of years back when some of the gang members in the apartment building across the street were yelling angry insults at her for having them evicted. "I just thought, I have a right to be in my yard and do what I want to do. These guys, they don't pay taxes, they don't work, they just strip everything from people. You know, and they take, take, take, and do their own thing, and have no regard for human life or anything. I think that they should have to go and I should be able to do what I have to do," she says. So she brought that 12-gauge shotgun into the driveway and loaded it, slowly, deliberately, while they watched. "I propped it up against the side of my house and planted my flowers."

It's that plainspoken manner (and frequent appearances in the media, in the Cities, nationally, globally) that has made her something of a local legend, an odd amalgam as concerned with flower boxes and wallpaper as she is with ridding her block of crime. But while she shares the Everyman appeal made fashionable by leaders like Jesse Ventura ("He didn't put up with nothing. He's like me. I admire him for that," Ellringer says of the governor.), Ellringer is easily as reviled as she is revered. She has been the center of racial controversy, especially after an infamous political rally in north Minneapolis during the last mayoral race. She and her husband carried signs protesting against Sharon Sayles Belton to an event at Lucille's Kitchen in north Minneapolis (some critics called it disrespectful for the couple to come to a black forum in a largely black neighborhood and protest the city's first black mayor). The action caused a melee between the Ellringers and some of Sayles Belton's black supporters; the resulting fracas included Maurice Ellringer's almost running over one of the mayor's bodyguards, who fired a shot at him. Donna Ellringer has been accused of moving middle-class white folks into the inner city, where houses are cheap, then working to force the poor and people of color out of the neighborhood, out of town. She has also been called a savior of the neighborhood, a leader, a fighter of the good fight. There is probably someone like her in your neighborhood, squeaking, shrieking to make people listen. And, as abrasive and disliked as she may be, her way appears to be making change happen.

Donna Ellringer has a dream. It rises as much from her research about her home's history as from the historical romance novels she reads or the many times she has watched her favorite movie, The Age of Innocence, the opulent adaptation of Edith Wharton's classic novel about the suffocating manners and mores of Victorian New York. Her dream begins with this house: Where others see peeling paint outside, she sees, one day, a mossy-green shade with accents in tones of burgundy. Where the floor has rotted, she sees plush carpeting. Where the walls are cracking, she sees high-Victorian wallpaper leading up toward gilded ceilings. Behind the No Trespassing sign, she sees a statue--a winged Victory--as big as her own five-foot frame, keeping watch over the garden.

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