Best Of :: People & Places
Once, Denny Hecker's kind face, big smile, and grandfatherly white hair graced billboards, television screens, and the sides of buses all over the Twin Cities in ads for his auto empire. Then in late 2008, Hecker began his long and embarrassing fall from grace when the recession began eating away at his heavily leveraged auto dealerships and rent-a-car business. More than a dozen of his businesses were shuttered and hundreds of employees were put out of work. But that was only the beginning of his troubles, as bankruptcies turned into allegations of fraud and salacious tidbits began to surface about Hecker's personal life, including almost comically lavish homes, a DWI charge after driving his Land Rover into a utility pole, and a bankruptcy cat fight over a $60,000 fur coat he gave to a gal pal. Throughout his spectacular collapse, Hecker, along with Tom Petters, has come to represent a local microcosm of all that went wrong in business leading up to the Great Recession: unchecked greed, a misplaced sense of entitlement, an ego large enough to block the sun, and complete disregard for the well-being of the workers who made him wealthy. Even more pathetic, Hecker still refuses to accept responsibility for his actions and behaves like a child in court. He has been known to storm out of courtrooms cursing when things didn't go his way. Then in March Hecker's downfall turned tragic with the suicide of his former father-in-law, Bill Prohofsky, whom Hecker reportedly asked to hide assets from his bankruptcy receiver. It's the rare scandal that even scandalmongers can't bear to watch, but Hecker has managed the feat.
If you're a sex offender who lives in north Minneapolis, Johnny Northside is on to you. If you're a slumlord who owns properties there, Johnny will track your every move. Same goes for drug dealers, shoddy storefront renovators, and proprietors of crime-ridden strip malls. The old "Neighborhood Watch" signs that went up a few decades back might as well have stickers with the Adventures of Johnny Northside's URL pasted over them, because John Hoff's single-minded dedication to shedding light on NoMi blight is matched only by his irreverence for the people causing it. (One memorable headline: "Whorehouse Mattresses Hit the Dumpster at 2700 Morgan Ave. N.") Part police blotter, part political gossip sheet, and part community bulletin, Johnny's blog is widely read among community members and Minneapolis cops alike. And while it's been a lightning rod for controversy—its targets have a habit of trying to get his site pulled off Blogspot—it's also beaten many other publications to the punch in unearthing crimes and clarifying the details that traditional journalism doesn't always follow up on.
He tweets about eats, family, and friends. He invites followers to his "Jasoncam" for live newsroom video chats. He pokes fun at his co-workers in public. For sheer speed in achieving social-media critical mass, it's hard to beat WCCO's "Good Question" man. On August 6, National Cheesecake Day, he tried a little crowd-sourcing for his nightly segment when he tweeted, "How do you get a 'day' anyway? Good Question at 10. (Anyone have power to declare DeRusha Day?)" Within a few days, people who followed him on Twitter (@DeRushaJ), and who had never met him, propelled that idea forward. Minneapolis graphic designer Dusty Fields created a DeRusha Day website. Editor and writer Max Sparber launched an online petition. By late afternoon on August 6, DeRusha was down at the mayor's office, tongue planted firmly in cheek, seeking paperwork to get his day. On September 16, he got the news: Mayor Rybak had declared September 21 Jason DeRusha Day.
It's quite the fashion these days to be angry with government. But, citizens, there's a far more productive (and less annoying) way to channel your frustrations than impotent fuming: get involved. Minnesotans have no excuse for pointless griping, because the state Legislature's website is a marvel of simplicity, ease, and information. Want to know who your elected representatives are? Just type in your address on the home page and a handy list pops up of your state and national reps, with links to their web pages showing their email address, phone number, committee assignments, and bills they've authored. Have a hot-button issue that drives you crazy? You can search pending legislation by topic, from abortion to zoos. You can follow the progress of specific bills and even personalize the site by signing up for alerts anytime action is taken on your pet legislation. It's clean, efficient, and intuitive. So quit your bitching—here's at least one thing government is doing right.
The bike-and-coffee combo is nothing new in Minneapolis (think One-on-One and Cars-R-Coffins), but Minneapolis managed to squeeze another one into the city limits, and it's just begging for you to ride your fixed-gear over for a hot cup of joe. Angry Catfish opened in late 2009 and is still developing its cycle inventory, but it already has a couple of things going for it: a nice bike-repair station and amazing coffee. Minneapolis is finally embracing high-quality java, and Angry Catfish uses Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee beans to up the hipster factor. Grab a spot at one of the tables overlooking the traffic on 28th Avenue, and don't forget to look over the selection of bikes on display. The $5,000 rides might put your junker to shame, but at least potholes won't put a dent in your pocketbook when you cruise home.
Well, the secret is out. As Uptown hopelessly gentrifies and St. Paul remains a great place to get some sleeping done, Northeast is emerging as the new spot for good beer, good music, good art, and good living. Once a place best known for its townie bars and roughneck atmosphere, the area has undergone a revision that manages to, for the time being, retain its staunchly residential attitude while getting spiked in all the right places with top-flight bars, art galleries, scenic walks, and eateries. The downside? No Eden goes unspoiled. And while it's hard to imagine good ol' Nordeast ripping out Jimmy's and putting in a Victoria's Secret, close your eyes and remember what Lyndale Avenue looked like two years ago. The moral? Get it while the gettin's good.