The Belle of the Block

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

That vision is what Ellringer clings to, especially when her current reality is filled with trash-talking passersby and crack dealers crossing through her yard. "You need imagination," she declares. "It's kind of like our neighborhood: If you can't envision what it's going to be, forget it." Imagination, and a clear idea of what belongs, what doesn't. From inside the house, Ellringer's dream will seep into the block, then the whole neighborhood, which will be delivered back to a time of dainty detail, pretty things, good manners. Where there was a place for everything, everyone.

 

Like a metronome, Donna Ellringer's head is in constant, steady motion. She cocks her ear to check for strange noises in her back hall, she cranes her neck to look at the street activity outside the restaurant window, she sweeps her head from side to side of the street she's driving along. Rolling down Park Avenue in her gunmetal-blue 1985 Cadillac, Ellringer processes the information as if decoding an alien landscape. The subtle stares of men standing on the corner are offers to sell crack. The young woman hanging out down the block has probably started turning tricks to pay for her drugs. The apartment building across the street from Ellringer's house is a blight, first tainted by the memory of a 77-year-old woman murdered there, now populated with immigrant families who constantly throw trash on the lawns.

On Park Avenue she sees traces of the late 1800s, when Minneapolis's aristocrats--owners of grain elevators, flour mills, lumber yards--built exquisite mansions here, on what was then the outskirts of town, where cows still roamed. Ellringer's own home was constructed by grain merchant Albert Harrington in 1888 and was often the site of such high-society functions as bridge games and lectures on forestry. (Those houses, stresses local-history buff Sue Hunter Weir, were the anomaly of the neighborhood; all around them sprouted the more meager homes of the laborers, carpenters, and railroad workers whose lives, by comparison to the Park Avenue elite, were often destitute and harsh.)

Ellringer waxes wistful about these neglected Victorian homes; many of them were razed to build parking lots or parks. Others have fallen into disrepair. That home, she points out the window, was once a notorious crackhouse and has just been sold. That one had all the woodwork and valuable hardware stolen out of it--even the doorknobs. That one is just gorgeous inside. These houses, you see, are what make this neighborhood great; you can't find homes like these in the suburbs. And one day they'll be lovingly resurrected, painted in gentle colors, with trimmed hedges, fragrant rose gardens, emerald lawns, fountains.

"Hi, Donna Ellringer here. I'm at Walgreens and 13th." She sits forward in the front seat of her Sedan de Ville, gabbing into her cell phone. From behind wire-rimmed glasses her eyes scan the parking lot. There they are. "There are two black males, one was causing a disturbance at Maria's restaurant. He's with his little buddy now." She spits out the words. "He's obviously on drugs. I haven't seen him sell narcotics, but he's causing problems." He's got a gray jacket with a blue lining, she reports. A baseball cap on backward. He's wearing jeans and holding a white bag. "All he's doing is loitering anyway. He ain't up to no good."

She pushes a button and ends what amounts to a standard call from Ellringer to 911. Some days she calls five or six times as she patrols the neighborhood in her Cadillac. The life of crime is not completely unfamiliar to Ellringer, who barely made it through junior high school; she recalls that by her teen years she was selling drugs for a large crime ring before she reformed, thanks in part to the birth of her daughter, the first of her two kids, now grown. Along Franklin Avenue Ellringer spots a suspected crack dealer she wants to call in. Most mornings, she jokes, she talks to the 911 operator even before she talks to her husband. "Now I forgot, what was he wearing? Crap. I got distracted."

No matter. Three blocks later she spies another man who seems to be making eye contact with her. "Look!" she cries, as if it's a game, or a hunt. "He just sold, too. He turned his fat little head. I'm calling him in." She turns the corner and pulls over, peering down an alley where she glimpses the owner of one of the apartment buildings that sit across the street from her house. She backs up the car and debates talking to the man about problem tenants in the building. From behind, a group of four people comes toward the car. In a moment of dizzy activity, Ellringer flips the locks shut while simultaneously rolling down the window, prepared to talk to the approaching quartet. Then, abruptly, she rolls up the window and steers the car up the street.

Out comes the phone.

"Hi, Donna Ellringer here. I just got hit up by three black males and a black female who came up to my car to sell me stuff. One guy who approached had a black knit hat, tan jacket. He had red mittens." She enunciates each word clearly, with the patient, precise yet bubbly tone of a kindergarten teacher. "I pulled over. I was going to talk to the owner of a building, they approached my car. The girl was young, with long braids. She didn't look half bad--for another month or so..."

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