The Belle of the Block

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

Donna Ellringer's home is a place of contradictions. It has three stories and nine bedrooms, yet Ellringer and her husband Maurice reside in only a few rooms at the front of the first floor, snaking through the back door and an unfinished, unheated hallway to reach the relative comfort of home. Imposing windows are covered by makeshift drapes Ellringer fashioned from tablecloths. The wood floors are rotted and warped in places, beaten down by years under a leaking roof. The ceiling remains in ruin, with exposed beams and wiring. Ancient, yellowed wallpaper glue sticks to the cracked plaster.

Yet the air teems with the buoyant scent of perfume oil, in Seaspray. Plump pillows rest on overstuffed sofas in velvety fabrics and rich colors--cocoa, bordeaux. Dainty lace doilies laze on the backs of chairs and ornately carved coffee tables. Cut-crystal vases hold out bouquets of silk flowers, while candy dishes offer wrapped chocolates. Antique clocks, gilt-edged mirrors, and portraits of ladies with porcelain skin adorn the unfinished walls. And a shotgun always sits discreetly in the corner of the front foyer, loaded, ready.

Just as delicate touches don't fit into their dilapidated surroundings, Donna Ellringer doesn't seem to fit into the 1800 block of Park Avenue in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis, which at best is a sketchy strip with more than its share of drug dealers and prostitutes, and at worst is the most embattled front line in the inner city. It was the house, at 1823 Park, with its ornate woodwork, that brought Ellringer to the neighborhood four and a half years ago. It's the house--or rather, the dream of what it will someday be--that has kept her here. And it's the house that has stood in defiance of its surroundings, forging out of Ellringer, who had spent the previous 15 years rehabbing Victorians in southeastern Minnesota's sleepy St. Charles, a neighborhood figure who is part crusader, part busybody, part vigilante.

Conversation with Ellringer, whether during a casual lunch or a weekly meeting of her block club, is peppered with tales of how she has gone nose to nose with drug dealers and gang members, protecting her home like a stocky, frizzy-haired, 42-year-old Wyatt Earp. "You had to stand up to them! If you don't they will run you over. They will run...you...over," she slows, shading each word with extra gravity. "And someone had to stand up to them around here." She likes to tell the story of a spring day a couple of years back when some of the gang members in the apartment building across the street were yelling angry insults at her for having them evicted. "I just thought, I have a right to be in my yard and do what I want to do. These guys, they don't pay taxes, they don't work, they just strip everything from people. You know, and they take, take, take, and do their own thing, and have no regard for human life or anything. I think that they should have to go and I should be able to do what I have to do," she says. So she brought that 12-gauge shotgun into the driveway and loaded it, slowly, deliberately, while they watched. "I propped it up against the side of my house and planted my flowers."

It's that plainspoken manner (and frequent appearances in the media, in the Cities, nationally, globally) that has made her something of a local legend, an odd amalgam as concerned with flower boxes and wallpaper as she is with ridding her block of crime. But while she shares the Everyman appeal made fashionable by leaders like Jesse Ventura ("He didn't put up with nothing. He's like me. I admire him for that," Ellringer says of the governor.), Ellringer is easily as reviled as she is revered. She has been the center of racial controversy, especially after an infamous political rally in north Minneapolis during the last mayoral race. She and her husband carried signs protesting against Sharon Sayles Belton to an event at Lucille's Kitchen in north Minneapolis (some critics called it disrespectful for the couple to come to a black forum in a largely black neighborhood and protest the city's first black mayor). The action caused a melee between the Ellringers and some of Sayles Belton's black supporters; the resulting fracas included Maurice Ellringer's almost running over one of the mayor's bodyguards, who fired a shot at him. Donna Ellringer has been accused of moving middle-class white folks into the inner city, where houses are cheap, then working to force the poor and people of color out of the neighborhood, out of town. She has also been called a savior of the neighborhood, a leader, a fighter of the good fight. There is probably someone like her in your neighborhood, squeaking, shrieking to make people listen. And, as abrasive and disliked as she may be, her way appears to be making change happen.

Donna Ellringer has a dream. It rises as much from her research about her home's history as from the historical romance novels she reads or the many times she has watched her favorite movie, The Age of Innocence, the opulent adaptation of Edith Wharton's classic novel about the suffocating manners and mores of Victorian New York. Her dream begins with this house: Where others see peeling paint outside, she sees, one day, a mossy-green shade with accents in tones of burgundy. Where the floor has rotted, she sees plush carpeting. Where the walls are cracking, she sees high-Victorian wallpaper leading up toward gilded ceilings. Behind the No Trespassing sign, she sees a statue--a winged Victory--as big as her own five-foot frame, keeping watch over the garden.

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..."

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?"

 

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 Timesof 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."

 

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."

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.

"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.")

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?"

The answer lies in whether you see the Victorian dream, or the dream of exclusion. Ellringer is in her car again, scouting the streets of her neighborhood. Sailing past the corner of Portland and Franklin avenues, she points out the window. That, she exclaims, is where the Starbucks could go! One day, she contemplates, she might like to trade in her vigilante role for a nine-to-five job managing that Starbucks. Then, really only then, will she know her mission has been accomplished. Ellringer trains her watchful eye back on the road, on all the people clustered here and there on the sidewalks, her cell phone at the ready. "Hi, Minneapolis Police Department? Donna Ellringer here..."

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