Inconvenient Youths

Ali Hassan Meshjell says city officials drove him out of business

Ali Hassan Meshjell says city officials drove him out of business

Sitting on the front stoop of her home in north Minneapolis, Barb shares a mid-afternoon smoke with her friend, Latasha, and glares balefully across 26th Avenue at the boarded-up Big Stop convenience store.

Where there was once a thriving trade—both inside the store and out on the street—now nothing moves, save for a plastic bag that blows lazily along the curb like an urban tumbleweed. On June 1, the city flexed its bureaucratic muscles and shut down the establishment, citing drug deals taking place in its parking lot.

"Part of me wishes it was still open," says Barb, who asked that her last name not be used. "Now I have to walk all the way up to Broadway if I need milk."

"What we need are more police up in here," Latasha says. "Closing that store only goes so far. The niggas are going to be right back here."

Eight stores—five on the North Side and three on the South Side—have been shut down as part of the city's ongoing effort to deal with so-called "problem properties." Eleven more are operating under conditional licenses, which means proprietors have to sweep out the riff-raff or face closure.

"These stores have been natural hangouts for criminals and gangs," explains Fifth Ward Council member Don Samuels. "It's been an escalating problem. So we're looking to put pressure on grocery-store owners to control the environment of their businesses."

In January 2006, Samuels spearheaded the Grocery Task Force, a multi-department project that includes the Police Department, the City Council, and the City Attorney's Office. City officials allege that the targeted stores fail to keep loiterers at bay, neglect to keep their premises clean, and sell "drug paraphernalia"—rolling papers, blunts, and tiny glass vases used as crack vials.

"We'll continue down this path until the industry realizes that the benefits of running these kinds of stores are outweighed by the liability of being permanently closed," pledges Samuels.

But critics say City Hall's heavy-handed approach unjustly penalizes law-abiding store owners.

"It's just ridiculous that they're blaming the owners," says Charlie Disney, executive director of the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. "The owners aren't the criminals. The criminals are the criminals. But it's easier for the city to go after business owners than it is for them to go after actual crime."

Property rights advocates point to one case in particular as a poignant example of what they consider to be the Task Force's less-than-upfront motives.

Ali Hassan Meshjell, an Iraqi immigrant, opened Uncle Bill's in January 2006. Just three weeks later, the city sent him a letter threatening to revoke his business license, citing neighborhood complaints. But the city was unable to gather sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, despite stationing an undercover investigator at the store for 45 days.

Undeterred, the city moved forward to close Uncle Bill's. Last April, former City Council president and current real estate lobbyist Jackie Cherryhomes approached Meshjell's lawyers about establishing a buy-out for the property. Meshjell's lawyers put the price at $250,000.

Two weeks later, gunshots rang out a few blocks away from the store. No one was hurt, but the frightened neighborhood organized a block meeting to address concerns. At the meeting, Cherryhomes—a longtime political ally of Samuels—tried to whip up opposition to Uncle Bill's, Meshjell says. "She was there with Mayor [R.T.] Rybak and Councilman Samuels talking about how my store was responsible for the shooting. They handed out fliers saying, 'Vote to Condemn Uncle Bill's.' The whole point of the rally was to unite the community against me. I couldn't believe it."

Meshjell contends that Cherryhomes's interest in his property has less to do with combating crime than with personal gain. Master Development, a real estate firm associated with Cherryhomes, has long been eyeing the property as a sight for future development.

But Cherryhomes denies any ulterior motive.

"I'm supporting their plans as a concerned neighborhood resident and private citizen," she says, when asked about her relationship with the firm, adding, "I'm not going to get into a he-said-she-said type of thing with [Meshjell]."

Records from a January 23 Economic Development Committee meeting suggest the city would go to any length to put Uncle Bill's out of business. The committee recommended enacting tougher sanctions and fines, noting that there would be "more pressure to sell if he is losing income" and if he "need[ed] to spend several thousand dollars to take care of violations."

On June 1, the city got its wish and closed Uncle Bill's by citing fire-code violations. Meshjell claims the fire department and inspectors acted as political pawns for Samuels and Cherryhomes. Samuels did nothing to ease these suspicions when he wrote in a June newsletter to Fifth Ward constituents, "Special thanks go to the David Dewall and Jim Dahl of the Minneapolis Fire Department," and that the effort to close the store "has been a long hard struggle with a well deserved outcome."

Dewall claims there was no political pressure. "I was not necessarily approached by Samuels, no," he says. Yet when asked to describe the store's code violations in specific detail, he doesn't have an answer. "To be honest with you, I don't know if I can," Dewall says. "It's all-encompassing when it comes to structural integrity. The main concern came from the overall impact of the structure as a whole."

Meshjell hasn't given up hope of reopening. Last week, he received a letter from the fire department informing him that his request for appeal was accepted. His court date is set for July 24.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get my business back," Meshjell says. "If this happened back in Iraq, I would not be surprised. But this is America!"