On The Corner

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

It's high noon on a Sunday and J.R. is razor sharp--working the corner of Franklin Avenue East and 11th Avenue South like a pro.

He waves down a white guy in a white Lincoln Navigator, then passes something through the driver's window for a fee. Sixty seconds later, the 34-year-old sells a dime bag of weed to a kid in a Rasta cap, who looks like he wandered over from the U of M's West Bank. Then he peddles a couple of "rocks"--thimble-size pieces of crack cocaine--to four haggard Latinos sitting at a bus stop.

Now and then he pauses to palm beads of sweat from his forehead or to sort through a crumpled wad of tens and twenties. Then he goes back to work.

Michael Dvorak

J.R. made $500 in a blink the other day; today he'll pocket a more typical $200. "It's you white dudes, all rich and suburban, that are big money," he exclaims. "I love that. Quick, no questions, whores and drugs, in and out. Seven days a week."

J.R. looks south toward the heart of Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood, then turns back toward the downtown skyline. You can almost see the light bulb go on over his Jheri curls. The idea: a Sunday tour of J.R.'s neighborhood. Cost of admission: 20 bucks.

The cash is floated, trust is established, and J.R. heads toward a little whorehouse "full of crackheads, three generations of ho's, grandmother to granddaughter." He doesn't know the address, couldn't find the place on a map, but J.R. knows the quickest route. He says that he can find the place without looking. This seems to bother him.

It doesn't bother him to smoke crack in broad daylight, though. So the dealer pauses for a moment in a vacant lot at 24th Street and 13th Avenue South, reaches into a pocket of his gray sweatpants to fumble for a lighter, finds a glass pipe in the right pocket of his matching top, then--seemingly out of thin air--produces a $10 rock. He pops the crack into the burnt end, presses his lips to the other end, and lights up.

J.R. holds the hit in his lungs. "Man, I gotta tell you," he rasps, shaking his head for comic effect. "This crack is ruining my marriage." Then he exhales, a raspy giggle accompanying the smoke.

When he's not getting high, J.R. diligently hits his daily posts: Franklin and Chicago avenues in the morning to catch the prostitutes as they finish their early-morning shift; east to Franklin and 11th at midday, when the street resembles a drive-up retail corridor; and, after the sun goes down, southeast to Bloomington Avenue, between East 24th and 25th streets, where the nightlife revolves around the Commodore Bar and a SuperAmerica convenience store. The pattern is based on supply and demand, but J.R.'s sojourns also keep him a few steps ahead of the police--most of the time, anyway.

Still, the MPD and J.R. cross paths all the time (he claims they even shot his dog during a drug raid). It's a routine both cop and criminal know well: They arrest him, they haul him downtown, he tells a sob story, the charge doesn't stick, and he's back on the street in a couple of hours. J.R. doesn't own a crack house--he's just a middleman, careful never to carry too much product. He knows where those drug houses are, sure. But he's not telling. If he did, he'd be dead.

J.R. says dealing is an easy choice for him. Why work for some cracker for minimum wage when you can make a week's salary in 90 minutes, take the afternoon off, and get high? Why spend a day in a windowless office, making cold calls, waiting for people to curse or hang up or both, when you can be in out in the fresh air, waiting for the customer to come to you? And why not put in a couple of extra hours on Sunday? That will buy a new DVD player or a new ride or, if you're lucky, maybe a little high-grade powder. Yeah, J.R. will take his chances with this small-time thug life.

"I could have more business than ever," he says, lighting up again, then giggling that raspy giggle. "There's more crack, there's other drugs, there's more people smoking than there was a year ago, for sure. Trouble is, I can't sell as much, because I've started smokin' too much of the shit again."

J.R. continues toward the brothel and warns to look out for the police. He's too high to see them coming. Eventually he comes to a stop on 25th Street and Bloomington Avenue, just across from the Commodore Bar, a squat blue building with a sign that reads, "Where friends meet friends." There is a three-story green house on East 25th Street, just west of the bar. That's the whorehouse, J.R. says. "Wait right here. I'll get you in."

 

When a car pulls up to the Commodore, there're always a couple of hookers on call. They will offer "oral for twenty" before you can lock the door and pocket the keys. When you refuse politely, the dealers literally come out of the shadows. If you're not here for the girls, they assume, you have only one other reason to be on this block.

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.

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."

Bray, 46, isn't wearing a shirt--just a black leather trench coat that drapes below the knees of his black jeans. He wears cowboy boots and a leather fedora, and his dull eyes reveal the life of someone who has had to constantly look over his shoulder--a life, he says, that has been peppered with drug abuse, domestic abuse, and petty crime. When he took the caretaking job, he had just done a stint in prison for forging checks and was determined to help the owners clean up their building. "I want to live and prosper here," he says.

But about four months ago, Bray started smoking crack again when he could afford it, and he let things slide at the apartment building. "The pressure from the top dogs of the gangs was relentless," Bray explains. "They wanted to reclaim the building, and they were jumping the fence at night to get in. I got beat up all the time."

After a while, Bray started letting dealers into the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Debra Perry. He tries not to make excuses for his behavior, but is careful to note that he takes people in off the street when they are cold or need a shower. "I did succumb to the pressure somewhat, and there was some crack being smoked in my apartment--I'm no angel in this. But suddenly, I call the police, and they're treating me like I'm the criminal. There's no way out of this for me. I've got eight kids, and I can't let any of them come here and see this. They can't even visit me.

"I want to stay, but I don't think I can live in this anymore," Bray concludes, standing in the backyard, waving his hand out toward the sidewalk. "I'm five-foot-six and 150 pounds soaking wet, but I'll fight as much as I can. I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees, but right now, I'm on my knees."

It's a Saturday evening in late April, and on the sidewalk in front of Bray's building there's a rally going on. The gathering is a direct response to the increased level of activity on the street, which includes a pumped-up, paranoia-inducing police presence and the threat of nightly fights turning into bloody, summer-long turf battles. Just four nights ago, on April 16, there was a shooting half a block away on Bloomington. One 17-year-old boy was killed; two other people were injured.

MAD DADS, a community outreach group that patrols drug-infested streets in the inner city, is hosting the get-together, trying to let drug dealers know that they are no longer welcome. More than 50 people grill burgers and hot dogs, hold signs with slogans like, "Hope not Dope," and groove a little to some classic R&B coming out of a makeshift PA system.

V.J. Smith, the president of MAD DADS, makes an introductory speech to pump up the crowd. "We care about this neighborhood more than ever," he concludes, before passing the microphone to council member Dean Zimmermann.

"We have to stand together and make it too uncomfortable for the druggies to be here," Zimmermann says. "We have the worst situation possible here--with young kids growing up on this block disenfranchised, on the fast track to jail, or being shot. We have to change the culture here."

Inspector Sharon Lubinski takes her turn, saying that she wants to increase police presence on the street when the weather turns warm. "But the only way to do this is together," she cautions. "I want you to know that I look forward to being here while we do this."

There are some "amens" and applause, but for many residents, like Bray, it rings hollow. The shooting finally got some people's attention, but rhetoric at a rally won't change the block. In some ways, the mere presence of MAD DADS--a small group with little money and no authority--indicates how little hope there is.

Smith then introduces a frail black woman who's been "out on this street for 12 years." She bravely takes the microphone and faces the crowd. "I don't like what I do sometimes when I'm on drugs, and I don't want to be out here no more," she says, her voice breaking. "I've been raped out here. I've been jumped on. It's something I got to fix. I don't like what I do. I love my kids."

Then she breaks down and cries.

Later, she tells me her name is Gloria Thomas. She is 38, grew up in Mississippi, and came to Minneapolis 12 years ago via Chicago. She says she was physically and sexually abused as a girl. She's been to 15 different treatment programs. She's illiterate. She sleeps under the bridge on 29th Street. She has ten kids.

"I could write a book, if I knew how to spell," she says. "I love myself, and I hate myself. I know people don't like me because I'm a crackhead, but I accept it."

She starts yelling that she's not embarrassed to be who she is; then she says she's ashamed of her drug abuse. She says she loves crack; then she starts sobbing again.

"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."

A blue Cutlass Ciera comes around the corner with a toot of the horn. Tori crosses the street and walks up to the passenger window. She opens the back door and says over her shoulder, "You just tell 'em the fairy godmother told you all of this." Then she climbs in the back seat, and she's gone.

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