The Belle of the Block

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

By getting rid of the "ball and chain" that is the rest of Phillips, Graham says, Ventura Village will be able to vie for more city and regional government funds--potentially millions of dollars--to further its development plans. Those include rehabbing the many Victorian homes that line the streets. "Ventura Village is a Victorian dream," he proclaims, as he shows off plans to capitalize on the neighborhood's signature architecture (they include streetscapes and building Victorian-style carriage houses that would serve as rental units in back of the big houses). At the same time, Ventura Village's visionaries say they want to see businesses built along Franklin, townhouses in Peavey Park, and rental properties on the eastern edge of the neighborhood that Graham says would help increase the city's inventory of affordable housing.

And, although the secession hasn't officially happened yet (the proposal to create a separate neighborhood has to be approved by the Minneapolis Planning Commission and city council), it seems that Ventura Village's declaration of independence is all but assured. "It's a fait accompli,'' council member Niland pronounces, explaining that the demise of People of Phillips, the previous neighborhood association that collapsed under accusations of fraud and mismanagement, set the stage for Ventura Village to rise. "When People of Phillips was falling apart, a lot of that power had already fallen to those other regions."

But as one of the most vocal proponents of reengineering the northern reaches of the neighborhood, Ellringer has certainly taken some heat. She calls her movement "serious and radical." Others call it repressive, even racist.

Local civil-rights activist Ron Edwards believes the Ellringers are the "vanguard of what I call the 'repressive law-and-order forces,' which turn out to be pretty close to forces of racism. It's clear they're out to do racial cleansing and purification of that community." People of color are more vulnerable to failure, he says, because they don't have the backing of government or institutions, and, as they struggle for basic necessities and survival, they don't have the luxury of time to organize politically. For that reason, Edwards expects the tide of gentrification in Minneapolis's urban neighborhoods to win out.

"Gentrification will take place, purification will take place," Edwards says. "What are they going to do with the people of color they pretended they wanted? Give us your tired, your poor..." He trails off into silence.

Ellringer doesn't agree with the criticism. "[Phillips] has a concentration of poor. It does no one any good. People are accusing us of gentrification, like it's a horrible word," she says brusquely. "Would you rather call it crack alley?"

But to some, the danger isn't just Donna's dream, but her method of pursuing it.

William DeLeon-Granados, a California-based writer, has researched crime and community policing in cities throughout the nation, writing about his experiences in Travels Through Crime and Place: Community Building as Crime Control. In a recent phone interview, he explained that simply booting criminals and drug addicts out of one area won't solve the overall problem of neighborhood deterioration. "They'll go away for a short time, but they'll eventually come back. There's something to be said for 'The buck stops here,' for making a stand, but I'm not sure it will solve the problem.

"If you try to ostracize them, leave them out, they're even further away from the power that resides in the community, the values and norms. In the long run, it's much more effective to draw someone into a community and try and effect change in their lives. It makes us better people, it makes our communities better."

Ellringer has weathered criticism that her crusade has been too negative, for too long, but she disagrees. "It is negative. It is really, really bad. There is nothing good going on," she emphasizes. "Being nice did not work. We tried, but nobody listened. We had to get serious and radical." Her tilt toward the extreme is lauded by the police: "We don't ask people to get out and patrol to the extent that Donna does," offers the police department's Shun Tillman. "If they choose to do it, it's totally their choice. To me, it's a great stance. If you live in the community and you want to make a change, it's something you have to do."

But that creeps into dangerous territory, DeLeon-Granados says: creating a segregated society, where one segment of a community serves as Big Brother, spying on everyone else. That, he stresses, can divide a neighborhood, rather than build a unified spirit. "If something bad happens, you shouldn't have to tolerate that," DeLeon-Granados says. "But that's a lot different from arming residents with walkie-talkies and having them be the eyes and ears of the police."

Though the Ellringer way has led to results, and though Ventura Village seems poised to take off, neighbors do question the tactics. "We're all here. If we can't get along, we should be able to build bridges and communicate," says Michael Chaney. "I don't see that in the brand of leadership in Ventura and other organizations. They are isolationists. I don't see a lot of difference between Donna Ellringer and these crack dealers," Chaney declares. "Is she dealing crack on the corner? No. But is she contributing to the well-being of the community?"

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