By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Inside the wood-paneled bar, working-class whites, Latinos, and Native Americans shoot pool over pitchers of Budweiser and play George Strait on the jukebox. The clientele is a little rough around the edges, but there's nothing inside this bar you wouldn't find at any other watering hole in town. Step outside for a breath of fresh air, however, and the scene gets very bleak, very fast.
Kitty-corner from the bar, on the northeast corner of 25th Street and Bloomington, people loiter on the sidewalk near the SuperAmerica. Couriers and prostitutes shuffle from corner to corner, surveying the bar's clientele and the store's customers with furtive glances and muted whoops.
When they approach, the dealers--sometimes white, usually black, almost always male--will reveal rocks of crack clenched between their front teeth; this is more discreet than showing a hand, but still gives buyers a chance to survey the merchandise. If you're not interested, there's plenty of pot and crystal meth to whet your appetite.
On one drizzly Saturday night in April, guys in Lexus SUVs, rusted-out Buicks, and Dodge minivans troll up and down the street, tooting their horns at the working girls and pulling over to let them in their back seats. A group of teenage girls is mistaken for prostitutes and propositioned while waiting for an 8:00 p.m. bus. It's wishful thinking on the part of the consumer. The real hookers are overweight, bug-eyed women of all races, typically dressed in baggy knit sweaters, worn jeans, and snow-white tennis shoes. Most of them are bruised and missing a few teeth, and they work just enough to buy an eight ball of crack--an eighth of an ounce, for $125 to $175--every few hours.
At about 8:45 p.m., a police car pulls up and casts a spotlight into an alley near the Commodore Bar, where between five and ten people are gathered around a Honda Accord. Cars have been pulling in and out of the alley for the past 30 minutes, but most everyone manages to scatter before the cops can catch them doing anything illegal. Even so, an officer gets out of the squad and shines his flashlight into a blank face or two. He gets back in his car, which idles for about ten minutes, then he drives off; another group crops up as soon as the car is gone.
As summer approaches, there are rumblings that this is now the worst block in Minneapolis, something neither Inspector Sharon Lubinski of the MPD's Third Precinct nor Sixth Ward city council member Dean Zimmermann, who currently represents the area, will dispute. Mark Welna, whose family has owned a hardware store next to the SuperAmerica for 50 years, believes things are worse than they have ever been: "I've got cars stopping in the alley behind the store like it's a McDonald's drive-through," he says.
How bad is it on the little stretch of Bloomington Avenue? Bad enough that a grown man can get thrown to the ground and cut on the forehead one afternoon at the SA over five bucks, and the police--overworked and, some say, understaffed--never answer a call from the clerk. Bad enough that a security guard working in the neighborhood claims to witness over 100 drug transactions in one four-hour shift. Bad enough that the action outside the Commodore is no longer reserved for Saturday nights. The same harrowing scenes are replayed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"If I had a magic wand to wave to make it go away, that would be great," Zimmermann says. "If someone has a solution, I'd love to hear it, because we are spending vast police resources to just tread water. I'm at a loss. The police are at a loss. The neighborhood is at a loss."
"There's a great amount of frustration from the neighbors, but there's great frustration from the police too," says Lubinski. She notes that there has been a huge influx of narcotics coming into Minneapolis this winter, because dealers--challenged by the tightened security after 9/11--have figured out new and improved ways to move product. Despite the city's current budget crunch, however, Lubinski insists that all police precincts are operating at full capacity. (Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak adamantly echoes that observation.) "We can have unlimited resources and arrest as many people as possible," Lubinski observes. "But with the prostitutes and the dealers, the court system often turns them back out on the street in a few hours. We're arresting the same people."
The understandable reaction is to avoid the neighborhood altogether. But class segregation has ripple effects throughout the city and beyond. Even if these problems didn't spill over or move on to other neighborhoods (and they always do) there's no getting around the fact that Minneapolis, for more than three decades, has been rotten at its core. "It's like squeezing one end of a water balloon and having it pop somewhere else," says Zimmermann. He ought to know. He's lived in Phillips for 20 years.
In the first half of the 20th Century, Franklin Avenue was home to a streetcar line that thrived on what was Minneapolis's economic district. There was a mixture of working-class immigrants and wealthy families living in large houses up and down Portland and Park avenues, and the Phillips neighborhood--a sprawling swath of land that represents the geographic heart of the city--was bustling.