On The Corner

Overwhelmed activists, embattled police, and perplexed politicians brace for a long, hot summer in South Minneapolis

In the Sixties, when large residential sections were cleared to make way for I-94, I-35W, and Hiawatha Avenue, houses were abandoned, storefronts were boarded up, and Phillips fell prey to white flight. By 1970, the neighborhood was really suffering. "We lost 350 families and we lost access to the surrounding communities," recalls Dean Dovolis, who has worked in the neighborhood for more than 30 years and is known by locals to be a sort of unofficial historian for the area. "When you lose families, you lose economic trade. The commercial district was suddenly gutted. More important, it became an isolated area. When you're isolated geographically, you're isolated politically. We haven't had anyone representing our interests for years."

To be fair, Phillips has had its share of concerned politicians and community leaders over the years, determined to sprinkle stardust on the urban blight. After Sharon Sayles Belton was elected the city's first black mayor in 1993, for instance, pockets of Phillips began to see improvement, in large part because of increased investment in local business and residential development. Some of the area's housing stock was salvaged, and a new wave of homeowners caused a rise in property values. These new residents were also younger, wealthier, and more apt to push for community activism.

For every baby step taken by organizations like the Green Institute, an environmental nonprofit on the eastern edge of Phillips, or the Midtown YWCA, however, there always seemed to be higher-profile proposals for downtown development. And while some areas in south Minneapolis have thrived, others--like those blocks on Bloomington Avenue between Franklin and Lake Street--were ignored. Simply put, the trouble moves and becomes even more concentrated.

"It's just a forgotten area," Dovolis says. "If you say Nicollet and Lake, people know where you are talking about. Same with Franklin and Chicago. And these areas are where revitalization efforts have gone. But if you hold up a map in front of someone and say find 25th and Bloomington, they don't know where it is. It's a no man's zone."

"Drug activity flourishes here because there are resources here for the labor of the industry," argues council member Zimmermann. "We have a system that oppressed young black men for years and they have to decide between flipping burgers and making a couple hundred bucks a night running dope. There's a significant customer base from the suburbs and wealthier parts of the city. The black community in this town has been on an economic downturn for 50 years, and drugs and prostitution are an important part of the economics of the [Phillips] area. A lot of people pay rent with that money."

During his mayoral campaign, R.T. Rybak promised to be a voice for all the people of Phillips, especially those who had been forgotten. He launched his campaign on Franklin Avenue, where his parents once owned a drugstore (his late stepfather managed apartment buildings near 25th and Bloomington); and before being elected last fall he repeatedly pledged that continued housing and business development in Phillips would be a priority for his administration.

"I've known for a while that the troubles there are significant," Rybak says. "Block to block, the Phillips experience changes, and while patrols on Franklin and Lake have been good for businesses, they seem to have pushed the problems into the residential streets. Unfortunately, when things were going well in the area, we ignored this."

Rybak may not be ignoring the problems now, but his short tenure has been punctuated by a kind of politics as usual, owing in large part to a number of snafus that have sidetracked solutions to street-level problems. Even while campaigning, Rybak made no secret of his dislike for Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson, citing the embattled leader's inability to establish a trust between the police force and the citizenry. Last March, when the police shot and killed a machete-wielding Somali immigrant on Franklin Avenue, many activists called for Olson's ouster. Rybak tried to do just that in April, but failed when the city council made it clear they would not buy out Olson's contract--dealing the mayor his first public political defeat and making more than a few people wonder if the city and its police have either the resources or the will to get on the same page.

While Rybak is careful to not point fingers or assign blame, he is quick to say that keeping officers on the streets in Phillips was the "highest priority" while the city cut $5.2 million from its 2002 budget, and that the crime wave is "absolutely not" related to the city's financial shortfalls. "We are committed to getting a handle on these problems in that neighborhood," he says, specifically citing the need for new affordable housing up and down Bloomington. "Still, I'd love to give you a magic bullet, but I can't."

 

"I'm a black man and I'm a traitor," says George Bray, nervously rolling an unlit cigarette in the fingers of his left hand. "If I call the police, I'm a snitch. If I don't, then I'm a criminal."

It's been nearly two years since Bray signed on as the caretaker of a nine-unit apartment building on the southeast corner of 25th and Bloomington, neighboring the SuperAmerica and the Commodore Bar. When he started, the gray brick building, with its neatly painted black trim, wrought-iron fence, and hardwood entryway, was "infested with drugs and hookers."

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