The Belle of the Block

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

 

It's a chilly Friday morning in February, and Donna Ellringer sits hunched over a cup of coffee in Maria's Café on Franklin Avenue. Though the breakfast-and-lunch restaurant opened only a couple of months ago, it's already a favorite meeting place of north Phillips activists. Ellringer comes here often for breakfast before going on her daily detail around the neighborhood. But today is different. There's an antique show at Har Mar Mall in Roseville, and she plans to scout for all things Victorian. Over a quick cup of coffee, the plans are made: She suggests we skip eating breakfast, leaving room for lunch at Roseville's Red Lobster after the show. (When Ellringer shops, she prefers to leave her neighborhood behind for a while, driving to Plymouth or Roseville. Balancing the drugs and crime and noise of her neighborhood with a calmer world, she says, is essential, and that's why she also attends the born-again Speak the Word church in Golden Valley instead of the church across the street from her house.)

We take the Cadillac. Our first stop is at Starbucks, where Ellringer orders a large mocha with whipped cream (her standard morning drink, she spends $84 a month on them). Now she's ready. Under the mall's fluorescent lights, Ellringer is relaxed, talkative, buzzing on about this crystal vase, that Victorian mirror as she strolls through the booths. She comments on the sepia-toned wedding portraits of joyless couples with stern expressions (the women's dresses look like drapes), the delicate chocolate sets of the Victorian age; you can discern them because the pots are taller, more lithe than teapots (women drank hot chocolate in the mornings, not coffee). One clerk recognizes her: "Haven't seen you on the news lately. You're slipping!"

Ellringer laughs, "That's good!"

"Neighborhood's getting better," the clerk says, smiling.

Ellringer spies some pretty lamps on display. But then her cell phone rings, drawing her out of the Victorian reverie. She checks the number on her caller ID, then answers. She leans up against a store window in the mall while she talks to one of her "street sources." After she hangs up she explains that the source (she has many of them; some are gang members themselves) told her that he believes a dealer had gotten one of the Somali kids in the building across the street hooked, and they've started selling crack out of the boy's apartment. Word is the "store" will open at 1:30 a.m. "These guys are so devious," Ellringer says. "They should run businesses. Well, they do--not the right kinds." She plans to call the police's crack team later.

She flits easily back into her surroundings, brushing a hand over antique linens and pillowcases, which she collects. I ask her, Why this passion for the Victorian age? "I like the genteel, kind of elegant, ornate atmosphere they created," she says. There were rules for everything, everyone; even a romantic like Ellringer knows what her place would have been. "I probably would have been a chambermaid or a servant in one of those houses," she remarks with a laugh. "I certainly would never have owned what I own now."

Things were very different then, she muses. Even with all the restoration Ellringer envisions on Park, on some level she knows the street won't return to the full splendor of its Victorian days. "I don't think we'll be having any balls," she guffaws. Although sometimes, she confides, when she and the neighbors are fed up with the apartments across the street, with the kids playing soccer late at night, throwing trash out the windows into the yard, they talk about staging a tea on the lawn. "With real linens, me in my gown. It'd be like..." Her sentence trails off as she tosses back her head of wild curls and flicks her wrist up. It's a prideful gesture that at once proclaims devil-may-care defiance and snubs the neighbors she imagines here in the mall.

It's that kind of attitude that sometimes gets Donna Ellringer in trouble.

 

The problem today, Ellringer explains, is the apartment buildings directly across the street from her. One of them is where, in the spring of 1998, 77-year-old Ann Prazniak, known as "Miss Ann," was murdered by dealers, placed in a box, and shoved in a closet, where she was found two weeks later, in mid-April. That, Ellringer recalls, was the breaking point. That was when she began holding memorial services and press conferences in her home, calling on the mayor and chief of police to do something about the crime in the neighborhood. Now, the problem is less with the gangs than with the large families, many of them Somali, that are squeezing ten people into two bedrooms.

"They say they can't afford to live in the suburbs," Ellringer explains. "They should have thought about that before going and having six or eight kids. That's how I feel. It's not our problem. It's messing up our neighborhood."

Her contempt rises when she talks about the social-service agencies and nonprofits that help new immigrants adjust. "A bunch of bleeding-heart liberals from the suburbs, who come here for an hour and then leave us stuck," she pronounces, irate. It doesn't take much to know that you don't throw garbage on the lawn and let it blow down the street, she says with an exasperated sigh. "You're supposed to be sensitive to everybody's feelings, but we don't all have the same goal. Those buildings across the street are just refugee camps with flat roofs," she says, explaining that the families usually stay there only about a year, until they get on their feet. "They could be more respectful of the work we've put into this neighborhood. We were here first. We did all the groundwork. I feel that has pulled us back."

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