By Andy Mannix
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On the corner of 26th and Lowry avenues, a camera hangs from a light post. It stares down at north Minneapolis and records. Mayor R.T. Rybak sees it as a way to deter crime. But since the start of 2008, there hasn't been much to film. Crime is down and homicides are less than half of what they were at the same time in 2007.
Some credit the initiatives undertaken in the neighborhoods, but another force is also at work. Plywood boards cover the windows of foreclosed homes that stretch for blocks. More than a thousand homes are vacant. There's simply fewer people to commit crime or be victimized by it.
Since 1967, the neighborhoods of Hawthorne and Jordan have been the epicenters of homicide and violence in Minneapolis. On city maps that plot crime, the two neighborhoods have the highest density of dots. "You can see how striking the difference is compared to the rest of the city," says Dallas Drake, the Minneapolis co-founder of the Center for Homicide Research. He produces map after map that shows the same thing: a tight density of dots in the Hawthorne and Jordan neighborhoods. "And remember," he adds, "that each one of these dots represents a homicide."
Beginning in the early 1990s, Minneapolis made it a priority to help Hawthorne and Jordan. First, the city established a neighborhood revitalization program that offered extra money for community centers and help cleaning up graffiti tags and litter that marred the streets.
In 2006, three things happened at once: Home foreclosures increased, the city installed "shot spotter" technology, and 20-year-old Brian Cole was shot to death in a drive-by shooting.
For Jerry Moore, director of the Jordan Area Community Council, the 283 foreclosed homes that year changed the dynamic of the neighborhood. "You could go out and look around and not see folks you were used to seeing," he says. "Along with the vacant homes, it was an indicator that families have moved on."
While this happened, the city established a grid of shot-spotting sensors. The sensors triangulate the sound of gunfire and make an automatic call to the police. "That kind of thing has made a difference," says Sondra Samuels, wife of City Council member Don Samuels and director of the Peace Foundation. "It acts as a mental deterrent."
But Roberta Englund, executive director of the Folwell Neighborhood Association, thinks the most significant event was the loss of Cole. "He was an honor student," she says. "I think that that was a marker for how devastated the communities could be. After his death, the populations—both black and white—drew a line that says, 'No more!'"
The start of 2007 didn't provide much reason for optimism. Seven homicides occurred in the two neighborhoods from January to June, equaling the total from the same period in 2006. Under the direction of Councilman Samuels, the city installed 50 cameras. Those formed a rectangle of electronic eyes from Penn to Lyndale avenues and Lowry to West Broadway. "And crime has gone down 62 percent in that area," adds Samuels with a note of pride.
While this happened, 540 homes went vacant. The first part of 2007 saw an up-tick in crime, with 1,008 reported incidents. Then came "termites," a collection of street parasites who strip the copper piping from existing homes and sell it for a quick buck. The council talked of leveling entire blocks.
But toward the very end of the year, crime began to decline. From January to June, the number of homicides in the two neighborhoods was just three. And the amount of overall crime declined by 301 incidents. This sudden drop leads folks like Drake to suspect it's due primarily to foreclosures. "While it's just a hypothesis, I'm pretty certain."
Jill Keiner with the Northside Home Fund is skeptical. "I've heard people make that statement before," she says. "I wouldn't attribute all the reduction in murder rates and crime to the fact there are fewer people."
Englund scoffs at the notion of a crime drop directly relating to home foreclosure. "It's too convenient to decide that because we have vacant and boarded up homes we have fewer criminals. Not every home that is now vacant was full of criminals carrying guns. Families lived in those homes."
As for Drake, he believes the crime reduction will continue, but it won't last. "I think once the foreclosure mess finishes, we will see a dramatic rise in crime once again," he says. "But it's just a prediction."