A Town Turned Mean: What happened to downtown Minneapolis?

Chris Juhn Photography

Chris Juhn Photography

Corey Schmidt made his acquaintance with the city from a window seat of a party bus.

A boyhood friend from the plains of western Minnesota was about to get married. A dozen friends rented a coach and stocked it with booze. Next stop: downtown Minneapolis.

As the bus chugged along Hennepin Avenue, Schmidt, a 21-year-old from Redwood Falls, gawked at the kaleidoscope of lights. He couldn’t help but feel goose bumps from the chaotic panorama.

“The energy was nothing like I had ever experienced,” he says. “It was electric, but at the same time I felt uncomfortable. It was overwhelming.”

Fifteen years later, Minneapolis police officer Corey Schmidt surveys a Friday night near City Center. Passersby converse in a multitude of languages. Some acknowledge him with polite nods, others with uncertain smiles.

As Schmidt zigzags toward Target Center, he is witness to another generation staking its claim to party central.

The Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Joan Vorderbruggen fell in love with the strip as a punk-rock teen.

The Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Joan Vorderbruggen fell in love with the strip as a punk-rock teen. Colin Michael Simmons

A woman in masochistic platform pumps exits an Uber, dressed ankle to big hair in black rubber, save for the leather strap keeping her gag ball in place. A prospective bride in veil and jean shorts hustles to a strip club as her rowdy girlfriends give chase. College guys roam in packs while two women pound on Mayo Clinic Square’s glass doors, demanding entry.

“Let me in, bitch!” they shout.

“It’s still got the lights,” says Schmidt. “It’s still got all the people. The energy is electric, just like 15 years ago. When I look at downtown, I see different kinds of people coming here to have a good time. What I see is lots of people having fun.”

Except for the woman he encounters near First Avenue.

She lives in Willmar, likely in town for the Keith Sweat concert that ended an hour before. Between cocktails, she’s misplaced her boyfriend somewhere on the confusing canvas of strange faces and loud noises. Her Zamboni-resurfaced eyes say she’s somewhere between the munchies and puking.

“Please don’t arrest my boyfriend,” she pleads repeatedly, though boyfriend has yet to make an appearance. “Please, officer.” Schmidt plays babysitter, convincing her it best that she go back to her room at the Hampton Inn.

If downtown is the heartbeat of Minneapolis, then its collective soul resides on Hennepin Avenue, the corridor that’s long served as its cultural, commercial, and entertainment epicenter. But these days, visitors aren’t seeing the intoxicating glimmer Schmidt beheld so long ago.

Talk to civic leaders, downtown workers, and couples descending from Burnsville, and they’ll tell you to drive down Hennepin with the windows open once the sun has called it day. If you watch and listen, the feeling isn’t one of good vibrations. It’s energy with a serrated edge, the vibe that comes from a city turning mean.

Apocalypse now

The harbinger that something was wrong came via letter in December. Among the four authors of the missive to Mayor Betsy Hodges was Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a business group with more than 400 members (including City Pages and its corporate parent, the Star Tribune).

The letter spoke of a new kind of peril threatening downtown. Unlike years past, when a spike in violent crime cast the city in an uncomfortable light, this cause for alarm was more elusive. The problem wasn’t necessarily crime in the technical sense. It was more of a belligerence, a creeping sense of depravity.

People shouting, dropping F-bombs for all to hear. Groups running up and down sidewalks, steamrolling whomever and getting into confrontations. Men urinating on the front doors of businesses, day and night.

“Our growing numbers of workers, visitors, and residents are frequently not experiencing a feeling of safety downtown,” the letter said. “Our concerns are fueled by the prevalence of unchecked flagrant, aggressive, and sometimes criminal behavior in highly visible and heavily traveled parts of downtown Minneapolis.”

Cramer saw the situation getting worse last summer. People were reporting similar stories from all parts of downtown. It was a change in energy. Whereas Hennepin had long possessed a certain trademark grit, it was now being described as peculiarly base, in flagrant violation of decency and respect.

One incident stood out as a demarcation point. A company had moved its headquarters from a suburb to LaSalle Avenue, requiring employees to park in a ramp north of Hennepin.

Photo by Renee Jones Schneider

Photo by Renee Jones Schneider

One morning last year, a female employee was walking on the avenue when she was sucker-punched by a stranger. Just because.

“The person didn’t take her purse or anything. It was just a random act,” says Cramer. “When I’m hearing stories like this one and others... when it’s from a group of people who come forward with all sincerity and say something is different and it’s not good, that made me personally take notice.”

Tim Balfanz, manager of the Saloon, recalls the watershed event for him. One of the bar’s longtime patrons, a man in his 60s, had his wallet picked by a young woman “literally three feet from our front door, and it wasn’t like it happened at bar close. There was daylight.”

The man pursued the thief down the block. Unbeknownst to the victim, she wasn’t working alone. He eventually caught the woman on a busy sidewalk. Two men appeared in an instant.

“They knocked him to the ground and basically beat the shit of him,” says Balfanz. “I mean, they hurt him.

“I’ve lived and worked and been around downtown for 20 years. When this happened, that’s what made me start to think something was different. It was like [the perpetrators] had become more blatant. They didn’t give a fuck anymore who was around or what time it was.”

It’s been months since Colleen, who only wants her first name used, went downtown. She was a regular, arriving with her husband to sample restaurants different from those near their Lake Minnetonka home.

There are those who believe Hennepin remains a great asset to the city. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

There are those who believe Hennepin remains a great asset to the city. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

But on one Thursday night before 9 p.m., a group of young men made lewd remarks as she and her hubby walked from a restaurant to a parking ramp. Their comments escalated from “you look nice” to “skinny bitch wanting some of this.”

The couple found themselves on a lonesome block, save for the four men now following them. Ignoring them didn’t work. The couple quickened their gait. Colleen’s husband finally stopped and spoke firmly, appealing to their sense of honor.

“They laughed at him,” says Colleen, who was scared and veering toward panic. “They laughed like it was hysterical, and I mean they were sincere.”

The men continued to follow until the couple turned a corner and two cops came into sight. The men evaporated into the night.

“I didn’t know what to expect next. That’s what really scared me most,” she says. “It felt like they were enjoying making us feel fearful.”

The naked city

Hennepin Avenue is no stranger to a dubious limelight. In 1978, WCCO-TV legend Dave Moore told the story of “a kind of a Midwestern Times Square,” the strip where “fights, drunks, gamblers, prostitutes, car thieves, and traffic accidents are all in a night’s work.”

This time around, there’s no need for TV crews. The Hennepin Theatre Trust’s three venues — the State, Orpheum, and Pantages — form an imperfect triangle on the avenue. For Joan Vorderbruggen, the Trust’s director of public art, the awakening to a rude dawn wasn’t a single incident, but a compendium of moments.

Vorderbruggen spends her lunch hours on Hennepin, if only to learn about the people who frequent the strip. Rare is the unmolested meal. If it isn’t an older man suffering from mental illness, it’s a young mother in an equally bad predicament, asking Vorderbruggen to share her food.

“You go there and eat your lunch and you’ll go crazy from all the people begging you for the food you’re eating,” she says. “You’re going to see a lot of pain and hurt, and it’s generally going to be very uncomfortable and very unpleasant.”

Last year, Vorderbruggen staged an art project on a five-block stretch of Hennepin. What was designed to be “a vibrant destination for everyone to enjoy” deteriorated into episode after episode of a poorly produced reality show.

“People were pissing in the alleys,” she says. “They were drunk. They were high. They were falling over. There were fights. It was scary. It was gritty. And it was emotional.”

But Vorgerbruggen keeps advocating for the avenue. The Theatre Trust’s 5 to 10 on Hennepin seeks to make it into a gathering place for art, music, and activities.

John Sweeney, owner of the Brave New Workshop, has witnessed similar scenes, created by those in the throes of mental illness and others with no such excuse. He calls it “jerkism.”

The behavior ranges from intimidating catcalls to the woman “with the hot ass,” to urinating on building doors.

“Most of the things are not anything horribly dangerous,” says Sweeney. “We’re talking about stuff that are basic societal norms about being kind and civil to each other, behavior from people acting outside the norms. Most of it is the kind of things I would ground my 11- and 14-year-old kids for.”

Sweeney has hundreds of reasons for concern. He moved his operation — 118 employees and 234 shows annually — from Uptown to its location on Hennepin six years ago.

“It just makes you wonder why someone can’t be civil,” he says. “Unfortunately, there seems to be a population of people who come from wherever, who come down there and somehow think it’s okay to be jerks to people.”

And they often come wielding righteousness, elevating their game from jerks to bastards.

“What seems to have happened in the last three or five years,” he says, “is that when they are acting like jerks and someone tries to call them on it, there’s a sense of almost entitlement from them. It’s like they’re entitled to behave without any consequence or responsibility to the greater community.

“You ask, ‘Can you please not litter?’ And they act like you’ve imposed upon their right to litter.”

Whether the metastasis of boorish behavior stems from a kind of burgeoning, arrogant criminality or vice versa, it matters nil.

“It’s become a level of menace that we have many people reporting they’re having a different kind of downtown experience than ever before... which cannot be accepted,” says the Downtown Council’s Cramer.

Especially when Minneapolis is about to host the X Games in July, the Super Bowl in February, and the NCAA Final Four in 2019.

“We knew we had to try and get out in front of this thing,” Cramer says. “We couldn’t let it go unchecked.”

The business community’s plea meant pressure on Mayor Hodges to do something. The city announced a new safety initiative in April.

It was regally titled “Minneapolis Partnership to Create a Safe and Inviting Hennepin Avenue Spring/Summer 2017 Plan,” involving conversations with youths, added police, and “Pianos on Parade,” allowing people to tickle the ivories.

Whether it will achieve anything remains to be seen.

Historian and author Larry Millett, who’s written various books about Minneapolis, is unapologetic about playing the buzzkill. Putting more boots on the ground via outreach workers and police officers won’t stamp out wayward behavior, he argues.

“It’s like playing whack-a-mole,” Millett says. “Knock it down in one place and it’ll pop back up in another area. In that sense cities — and Minneapolis is no different — are kind of like growing wild plants that you cannot entirely control.”

He also believes the situation can be manipulated by certain parties, such as business interests who want to protect their investments by ensuring downtown has all the appearance of friendliness.

“My sense of the situation is there are those people who are more sensitive to the dangers, perceived or otherwise, than others. People’s perceptions don’t always align with reality.”

City of blinding lights

Scott Kolber feels unease the moment he rolls his wheelchair out of the Salvation Army on Currie Avenue and into the morning light. A blood clot claimed one of his legs. And there’s not much work for a 47-year-old construction laborer missing a limb.

He’s also bipolar and possibly suffering from PTSD from his stint as a Marine, so Kolber kills most of his time traveling along Hennepin and Nicollet avenues.

“This city changes as it gets closer to nighttime,” he says. “The dealers and the users come out. Crack, pot, mostly. I’ve been robbed four times on either Hennepin or Nicollet. They take whatever money I have.... They threaten to beat me up or pull a knife.”

Thomas Cramer (no relation to Steve Cramer) is unemployed and can be found downtown almost daily, asking for strangers’ spare change. The South High grad has sweet memories of a different downtown. “My grandma used to bring me downtown on my birthday for the soda fountain at the old Walgreen’s, a visit to the Foshay Tower, and a movie at the Skyway Theater,” he recalls fondly.

Those memories have faded.

“Right now, I’m hoping someone gives me five dollars because five bucks would change my day.”

A bus ferries the 56-year-old from his North Side apartment to downtown. It’s been his routine since fall.

On this day, he’s parked his rolling walker on a Nicollet Mall sidewalk in the throes of construction hell. Cramer won’t specify his medical condition. He moves as if each body part requires mental prodding before it can take action. The walker’s handlebars are pointed outward so it can double as a seat. With a cardboard sign propped on his knees, Cramer asks strangers to spare a buck, yet he’s praying for a bill with Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m not panhandling. I’m signing,” he says. “Panhandling is when someone says give me something. Signing is more civil.”

He’s especially low on funds since being mugged a second time two weeks ago on Hennepin. He thinks one person, maybe more, blindsided him. Cramer crashed on the sidewalk. Someone ripped off his backpack and bolted. It happened one late afternoon.

Cramer holds up swollen hands and fingers. Dried blood on a kneecap is exposed when he shifts his seat, the rip in his jeans yawning wider.

Both incidents took place as evening approached. There are those downtown, Cramer says, who cuss out the disabled for not getting out of their way fast enough. They makes threats if he won’t hand over his backpack, or what’s left of his Newports.

“There’s always them few that don’t give a damn about nobody,” he says.

These are the stubborn symptoms of an unhealthy ecosystem, according to the Theatre Trust’s Vorderbruggen. “The truth of the matter is Hennepin Avenue... is diseased.

“We have the largest homeless shelter in the state one block from the Orpheum, in addition to the other shelters. For the people who are experiencing homelessness, they have nowhere to go and nothing to do, and many, if not most, suffer from mental illness. It’s fucked up. It’s so fucked up I can’t even believe it.”

The long road

Until a day of reckoning arrives, Minneapolis Police are in charge of keeping the peace, delivering a downtown that looks and feels like a good time.

Tonight has been cooperative for Officer Schmidt and the other 40 or so cops on duty, from foot patrols to mounted police to the Bicycle Rapid Response Team.

But there’s still “San” from Prior Lake.

He got into a fight with two men on Hennepin. They took his phone and wallet, leaving San without the means to order more beers, which is the first thing he wants and the last thing he needs.

“They just jumped me,” he tells Schmidt. “These two dudes right here at this corner. Two of ’em.”

Within minutes, San will mutate from mildly jarred assault victim to cocky, jocular douchebag. With the assailants long gone and intoxication mitigating any pain, San becomes determined to give Schmidt a hug. When that’s not happening, San barks to everyone in a half-block radius that he “ain’t nobody’s bitch.”

He is somebody’s husband. San borrows a cell to call his wife, who’s downtown somewhere. They agree to meet nearby, outside of O’Donovan’s Pub.

Schmidt gets how the game is played. Moneyed interests and the city’s election-year politics raise the ante. Police are thrown into the middle. He points to crime stats as evidence that downtown hasn’t changed, naysayers be damned.

The numbers support him. The First Precinct, which covers downtown, reports that while incidents of robbery, assault, and burglary are creeping higher, the overall stats aren’t much different than they were four years ago.

The business community’s “opinion counts,” Schmidt says. “And it’s important as a police department we listen and take into account what they’re saying, and we show them this is what we’re doing.... Our goal is make it that everyone who comes downtown feels safe.

“But I think it’s unfair for anyone to say downtown is unsafe. For anybody coming here, I think what it’s about is there has to be a level of personal responsibility that comes with being downtown.”

Balfanz disagrees. At the Saloon, he and his closing staff will accompany one another to their cars. They used to not think twice about leaving the bar alone at the end of their shifts. But employees began to say they’d been followed. Groups were forming in front of parking garages.

“I honestly feel less safe now than I ever have, and I’m hearing about it more from people and our customers, where they’ve started complaining about being harassed coming to or leaving the bar,” he says. “Yes, people have always been mugged, their wallet has been taken. It’s downtown, right? I don’t know if it’s a feeling or what. It’s hard to put into words. But something has definitely changed.”