Burned Out

When the best intentions aren't enough

When my best man rented an apartment there 15 years ago, he says, it was the sole sweet spot on an otherwise troubled inner-city-Minneapolis block: smooth hardwood floors, built-in cabinets, a remodeled kitchen. On the Fourth of July, he'd invite friends over for barbecues in the backyard, where there was a makeshift wooden deck, a well-kept garden, and a sturdy, single-car garage. At dusk everyone would stroll a few blocks east to watch the fireworks at Powderhorn Park. A few neighbors claim they still have pictures of the place. They say you wouldn't believe it.

Nine years ago the house was sold to a woman I'll call Alice. She was a nurse, a single mother with two young daughters. To help make ends meet, the girls sometimes helped Alice baby-sit neighborhood kids. Alice was known as a "Christian woman"--a person who could be trusted to keep her nose clean and, just as important in this part of town, out of everyone else's business. She was respectful; in return she commanded respect on a block where crack vials could be found on the sidewalk and used condoms in the alley.

Early one evening, a grease fire started in Alice's kitchen. Everyone got out, but the blaze gutted the house. While Alice and her daughters huddled in the yard watching firefighters pump water through their front door, hardly anyone bothered to come outside to lend a hand. Alice's longtime neighbors--the parents whose children her family had helped raise--locked the doors and turned away.

The house was boarded up, and Alice found an apartment across town. Work was done in fits and starts for the next two years--a new roof, some fresh paint, an outlet or two. For months at a time, nothing would happen. No one knows for sure what became of the insurance money. Alice would tell city inspectors that crooked contractors had done shoddy work; contractors, complaining that they hadn't been paid, put liens on the property.

Meanwhile the surrounding blocks began to benefit from a seemingly endless economic boom and its accompanying housing shortage. Old buildings were bought on the cheap, remodeled with city money, and sold at a profit. Younger, more affluent homeowners organized block clubs and pushed for a greater police presence. Crack houses were raided; landlords were pressured to evict bad tenants. And homes like Alice's started to stick out. The boarded windows, the littered, unkempt lawns and unlit yards attracted dealers and prostitutes. On a few occasions, police were called to shoo squatters out of Alice's house. The single-car garage, now listing to one side, became a popular place to score dope.

Neighbors rallied, encouraging the city to force Alice to move in or sell. The house still needed a lot of work, but in less than two months some new windows and doors were installed and Alice moved back with her daughters and a grandchild. Not long after they unpacked their bags, some teenagers who lived nearby--teenagers Alice had cared for when they were younger--threw rocks through her windows. Alice and her daughters boarded up the broken windows, put newspaper in front of what was left, locked the doors, and kept mostly to themselves. The glass was never replaced.

Alice was gone for days at a time, working long shifts as live-in nurse. Her kids came and went through the back door; the front door had been boarded again. In winter the walk was buried in snow. In summer trash piled up in the grass, which was often knee-high. Drug dealers began to use the backyard as an office again. The neighbors got nervous.

Suddenly everyone wanted to help.

A block-club meeting was held. It was decided that a clean-up crew should be assembled to get a start on Alice's yard. But she refused the gesture when they approached her, believing that the only thing any of them really cared about was their own property values. The one man who had helped her out after the fire mowed the lawn a few times without asking. When she cursed him out, he stopped. Another couple briefly earned her trust and were allowed to help with the yard, but they never got inside the house and eventually fell out of touch. Members of a nearby church painted the house and tried to hook Alice up with various social services. She resented the intrusion. When one church member asked why she wouldn't accept assistance, she said that if she needed help God would show her a sign. It was suggested that the people who were knocking on her door, no matter what their motives, might be that sign. She wasn't buying it.

Every now and then, the utilities were shut off. The city would occasionally come by and mow the lawn or clean the sidewalk, then levy fines that mounted into thousands of dollars.

Finally, about a month ago, the Hennepin County Sheriff put a padlock on the door and escorted Alice's family from the premises: The bank had foreclosed. No one on the block is sure where they've gone, but it's certain they won't be back.

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