On The Corner

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

"My body is craving drugs," she yells, thumping her chest. "I'm locked in a body and I can't get out. I'm screaming for the key and I can't get it. The Lord is asking me to come to the light, but I don't want to go."

Thomas is consoled by Sandy Fliehs, a volunteer from MAD DADS who knows her by name. Fliehs gives Thomas a hot dog and a bag of Doritos and puts her arm around her. Awhile later, Thomas, who is wearing white Puma tennis shoes with a pink stripe, starts dancing in the street as those gathered start singing "We Shall Overcome."

Fliehs admits there's really not much anyone can do until Thomas decides she wants to quit smoking crack--just like Zimmermann, Lubinski, and Rybak admit that there's no quick fix to the problems plaguing this part of Phillips.

Zimmermann talks of closing SuperAmerica early in the evening and truly believes throwing a barbecue on the corner every night might be the first step. Lubinski hopes bike patrols and better street lighting could begin to combat the problem. Rybak insists that better communication between city hall and beat cops will provide some clues. They all say a tighter-knit community is the hardest but most important first step.

All three may have good intentions. And MAD DADS may well make a mean hot dog. But George Bray believes it's all too little, too late: "This situation has just become too much for a guy like me. And I am not timid. I've fought and lost. Where will all these people be when the real shit goes down, at three in the morning, long after their party is through? I can't even sleep at night, it's so bad. They won't be here after dark."

Soon the sun goes down and the rally is over.

 

A few minutes after J.R. enters the brothel at 25th and Bloomington, those inside get concerned that he wants to show the place to an outsider, and he's shooed off the property. The crack dealer pauses on the northwest corner of the street, as scores of black boys appear on the sidewalks in all directions, trying to wave him down.

It's not clear whether they want to buy or sell, but J.R. pays them little mind. He's got his own Sunday business to tend to. "Shouldn't they all be at church?" he cracks.

"Well, I ain't gonna get you in, but I'll find you a ho'," he says, stroking his coal-black goatee. "It's gonna take another $20." Then he disappears around the corner from the SuperAmerica.

Within five minutes, he's back with a companion, a black woman wearing a crisp white pantsuit, a purple blouse, and matching purple eye shadow. "We cool now," J.R. says before vanishing for good.

"Just call me the fairy godmother," says the woman. Whatever cut of the cash J.R. gave her buys 20 minutes of conversation. Time is money.

Her name is Tori, and she is unfailingly polite, smiling at dealers and users she knows on the street, greeting everyone with "How you doin', honey?"

She tells her story as she walks south toward the bridge at 29th Street. She's 38 years old, part of the "crack generation," and claims she had been clean for five years before relapsing two months ago. "It was just back, all around me," Tori says. "I had the Lord with me, and I was going to church, but I suddenly had no job, no money, and nothing but time."

Tori has five kids of her own, but she doesn't see them much anymore. Instead, she says, she acts as a sort of counselor to some of the younger prostitutes on the street. Almost on cue, a young Hispanic woman in baggy blue sweats ambles up beside her and walks along silently for a block before a maroon minivan slows to a stop on the corner of 27th Street. She climbs in the back seat.

"The thing is, you've got to give people something to do, and something to strive for," Tori says adamantly, unfazed by the pickup. "Otherwise, it's just too easy to start trickin' and smokin' and doin' all the things you know is bad. There's sickness all over this street. There are literally drugs on the sidewalk. All the dealers drop 'em when the police come. See all this litter on the street? You can pick up any plastic bag and find a stash."

Many of the women here, like Tori, are freelancers, doing their own tricks on a sliding scale from $40 to $20, or maybe just for some crack. The women walking the street are small-time hookers, with only a few answering to pimps. It's a vicious circle: The prostitutes take johns to get more crack, and the more crack they get, the more likely it is they'll prostitute themselves.

Tori says it's the only life she's known. She makes a gesture to a group of Hispanic men stationed on the bridge, then does an about-face and heads back toward 25th Street. "Why would I stay away?" Tori says rhetorically. "I make my money, I get my smoke."

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