The Belle of the Block

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

Some things, it seems, don't fit into Donna's dream. She has put so much effort into making her neighborhood the way she wants it that now, more than ever, she's unwilling to put up with changes that don't suit her. Take, for example, the controversy over a fourplex two doors down from her house. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency, the city's development wing, put the property up for sale, and two serious bidders emerged. One was Michael Chaney, a longtime Phillips resident and property owner; the other, Mark Orfield, owns some of the larger buildings down the block near Peavey Park. Chaney says that he was the only bidder to meet the MCDA's requirements for the property, yet Orfield was favored by the neighborhood group. The sale of the abandoned fourplex has been tied up since last fall because Chaney has been exploring a potential lawsuit against the city if it rubber-stamps the sale to Orfield, in large part for allegedly ignoring its own rules for the bid process and the possibility that racial discrimination has been a part of that. (Chaney is black and planned to rent to minority families; Orfield is white.) Though it's unclear how the situation will resolve itself, Chaney maintains some bitterness toward the neighborhood and its leaders, including Ellringer.

"The neighborhood will be as they deem it. They've decided who will be a good neighbor and who won't," he says. "Mark Orfield is the great white hope."

It's true that at block-club meetings, Ellringer and the other members speak reverentially of Orfield (he put video cameras up in all his buildings to watch for crime, they report with a cheer). Ellringer says the neighborhood's decision to back Orfield has nothing to do with race; rather Orfield maintains better buildings, selects more reliable tenants, and was open to the idea of helping to create a little park in the empty lot next door, landscaping a bit of green space with a Victorian birdbath.

David Kern

"We want people who drive down Park to say, 'Hey, this looks cool!' We know Mark would do that," Ellringer explains. "[Chaney] isn't historical-minded like we are on Park. He's more geared toward helping people," she explains, then pauses. "He was hoping to help people, give them a break, even if they have a criminal record. That's fine, but we don't want that on Park again. It gets out of control. It took too long to clean this up."

For his part, Chaney sees the action as an indication, "straight and plain," of a swing toward flushing low-income and minority residents out. "Get a grip," he cracks, dryly. "This is Park Avenue and Franklin, not Park Avenue, New York."

 

Donna Ellringer perches precariously in a sliver of a space between two worlds. What she sees as a return to her Victorian dream, others recognize as bald gentrification, an exiling of the poor and different. She is proud of her work with the block club. Her research shows her that it takes about a decade for a distressed neighborhood to rid itself of crime and build up bountiful owner-occupied housing and a steady business base; through her efforts and those of the other members, that timeline has been advanced three years, she says. "We've done so much hard work. It'd be foolish to move now."

Crime appears to be on the decline since its peak in the mid-1990s, at least in Phillips overall. According to Minneapolis Police Department statistics, however, the neighborhood remains among the most dangerous stretches in the city: in the two-year period from January 1998 through December 1999, Phillips saw 22 murders, 137 rapes, 606 aggravated assaults, 589 burglaries, and 772 car thefts. Drug dealing is still widespread, though it too has decreased in the past few years, says Sixth Ward city council member Jim Niland, and "property values are rising, there's all sorts of positive signs. That kind of activism has paid off." Though statistics are difficult to find, property values in Phillips have risen five to seven percent over the past few years, estimates the Community Design Center's Murphy. And Ellringer's dream of a renaissance in her neighborhood appears to have the increasing support of powerful people. Even while she has been rallying the neighbors against crime, other activists have joined forces to forge what they've come to call "Ventura Village: a Victorian Dream."

A little over a year ago, a group of fed-up residents came together, eager to carve off a slice of north Phillips that would eventually secede from the larger neighborhood. The reasons were twofold: to get a fresh start and disassociate the group from the negative, dangerous image the name Phillips conjures up; and to be in charge of its own finances and development plans, rather than watch public funding go to projects farther south, usually on Lake Street, that don't help develop north Phillips. "The residents are seizing control of our own destiny," says Jim Graham, one of the founders of Ventura Village, which according to early sketches will encompass a tract delineated on the north by I-94, on the south by 24th Street, on the west by I-35W, and on the east by the Soo Line railroad tracks. (The name, Graham is quick to stress, has nothing to do with the governor, though the timing is uncanny; rather it means "good luck and happiness.")

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