The Belle of the Block

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

This is what Donna Ellringer does, each day, every day. She does these "drive-bys," as she terms them, looking for people breaking the law. It's her way of taking back the neighborhood, and by now, after four years, she's known. When she traipses into the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct headquarters with a tip, the cops on duty recognize her. When she walks into a nearby social-service building, the director chats her up, explains his housing plans, cajoles for her support of the idea. Even the dealers--the ones she has called in so many times--blow her mischievous kisses when she marches past them, her shoulders back, chin held high.

Admittedly, Ellringer says, the number of "bad people" in the Phillips neighborhood is tiny compared to the overall population. Over and over, she stresses that it's time to simply move the criminals away from these blocks, and she doesn't care where they go. "If there's 200 to 300 [bad] people here, why don't the rest of the 17,000 people just get baseball bats and drive them out?"


David Kern

There is an us-against-the-world mentality here at the junction of Park and Franklin avenues. It permeates the parlor of Ellringer's home every Monday evening, when her Park Avenue block club meets. They're small, informal gatherings during which conversations bump up against each other; whoever speaks loudest and longest seems to win out. The sessions, lasting three or four hours, are a combination of support group (members swap war stories and talk about prominent dealers back on the streets); prayer meeting (talk turns to the subject of neighborhood demon possessions or healing through prayer); and strategy session (Ellringer reports on her conversations with the police team or city council, they plan visits to the 911 center or the state prison in Stillwater).

It's Valentine's Day, and only a handful of the dozen members make it to the meeting. The block club's members are predominantly white; about half are homeowners or landlords, and the rest rent apartments on the block. One of the neighbors, Dan Meyer, who moved onto the block a year and a half ago to rehab a house, will celebrate his birthday this week. Ellringer brings out a cake, candles lit, and sings "Happy Birthday." She hands him his present, two magazines, explaining that they're important for newcomers to the block. "This is your first subscription," she says, passing him a copy of Guns & Ammo. "Once you take control of your corner, this is your second subscription," she continues, presenting a copy of This Old House magazine. Everyone laughs.

Phillips--which is bound by I-94, I-35, Hiawatha Avenue, and Lake Street--is not an easy place in which to reside. Although serious crime has fallen off in the neighborhood, drug dealing and prostitution are still common, according to Shun Tillman, the Minneapolis Police Department's crime prevention specialist for Ellringer's area. The neighborhood, one of Minneapolis's poorest, is also one of its most diverse, "a point of entry for new immigrants," says Ruth Murphy, executive director of the Community Design Center, a nonprofit that researches community issues. To get a current view of the neighborhood's racial makeup, Murphy pulled together 1998-'99 statistics from Minneapolis Public Schools. Of 4,157 students in Phillips, 51.9 percent were African-American or new African immigrants; 18.4 percent were Native American; 12.7 percent were Asian; 11.4 percent were Hispanic; and 5.7 percent were white.

Living in a rough neighborhood takes its toll on the residents of Ellringer's block. At the meeting, exasperation erupts in almost every conversation, bursting out in rants about shooting the dealers or running them over. "You get a little frustrated," Meyer says. "My rhetoric gets a little extreme at times."

"That's what happens when you live here," Ellringer soothes.

"I was prepared for it to be bad short-term," Meyer reflects. "I wasn't prepared for the constant, nagging anxiety. I wasn't prepared for the feelings--the anger, the pity, the hatred, the bigoted feelings."

Ellringer recalls what her neighbors told her when she moved into the Park Avenue house. One said, "Don't even unpack," she remembers. "You'll change in two years. You're really nice now, and you'll get nasty and hard." She admits they were right. Back in early 1997, when infuriated neighbors demanded that the city take action to reduce crime or they'd ask President Clinton to declare Phillips a federal disaster area, Ellringer moved toward media maneuvers: She chronicled her frustration in such newspapers as the Dallas Morning News, the Washington Post, and the Times of London. Ellringer has hardened during her four-plus years on the block; she has even become a sure shot with her .38 revolver--she needs to go to the gun range for practice only once every three months or so.

So why not move? Unlike the people who've lived in Phillips for decades, or those who can't afford to leave, Ellringer chose to move into the neighborhood when it was at its most hazardous (the Ellringers had lived in Phillips 15 years ago, when it was relatively safe). She chose to be a square peg. She bought the house. She decided to stay. Why?

"The house was so awesome," she says, by way of simple explanation. And the people. "All these great people who you don't see. You only see the bad people." And God. "I have a purpose here," she says. "I guess I'll know when it's time to go. I feel very protected by God. If God put me here, he's gonna watch over me."

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