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North Side Story

Michael Dvorak

As soon as the weather turned warm this spring, the 3200 block of Bryant Avenue North crackled with activity. Teenage drug dealers worked the corners, stashing their dope in two vacant, dilapidated houses on the south end of the block. Prostitutes turned tricks inside the abandoned dwellings. Scofflaws of all sorts swarmed around the Star Foods convenience store at the busy intersection of Lowry and Bryant.

In June, the residential street erupted in violence. An ice-cream man was shot during a botched robbery involving just $40. Later that month, a teenager involved in gang activity was shot three times in the leg. In July, a woman pregnant with twins who was living at a notorious drug house was stabbed multiple times. One resident who dared to confront the teenagers slinging dope on the block got a bullet through her living room window.

On the night that the ice-cream man was shot, Sherman Patterson Jr. was sitting on his front porch meditating. He thought the gunshot was a firecracker until a half-dozen squad cars showed up on the scene. A 40-year-old retired Army sergeant, Patterson has lived in the Folwell neighborhood with his wife and son for two years. The spate of criminal activity spurred him to take action. Patterson and his neighbors organized litter patrols, barbecues, and prayer vigils. They got the two abandoned houses boarded up. They called the cops repeatedly and spent as much time as possible simply hanging out on the block. "This summer was just a new awakening," says Patterson.

The positive results are tangible on a recent weekday afternoon. There's not a corner boy in sight and trash is noticeably absent. But Patterson and another area activist, Warren Edwards, then lead a tour of the surrounding blocks that quickly dispels any sense of hopefulness. At 36th and Lyndale, teenage dope dealers conduct business as openly as if operating a lemonade stand. Over on the corner of 30th

and Colfax, the yard of a ramshackle drug house is littered with scores of Phillies Blunt wrappers and small plastic baggies. "That house is hot," says Edwards, noting that the operation is run "old-school, by a highly organized gang."

He should know. Raised in Harlem, Edwards became a Gangster Disciple in the mid-1970s. By the early 1990s, he was running heroin and cocaine on the North Side, near the very house he's walking past. Edwards left the thug life eight years ago, he says, after he realized how out of hand things had become. "From 1974 to 1994, it was like night and day," Edwards recalls. "Things got nasty, and things got violent. It all happened during the 1980s, when crack cocaine came in. Then all the focus was about money."

Edwards, who began selling drugs at age 13, spends much of his time trying to steer kids of a similar age toward jobs. He believes that most of the violence now is coming from the splinter groups, the wannabe gangsters. "The Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords, they cool right now," he says, insisting that there is a code among older gang members that's become largely irrelevant. "Ain't nothing but a bunch of young thugs, looking for a rite of passage. I tell them [dealing] can be lucrative work, but not at the expense of killing people."

At the corner of 34th and Bryant, just a block and a half from Patterson's house, a pair of blue Converse high-tops dangle from the electrical wire crossing the street, an indicator that dope can be purchased at the intersection. On the southwest corner two kids, around 14 years old by Patterson's estimate, are flagging down cars.

"They used to be down on my block all the time," he sighs. This is the kind of victory that vigilance and action tend to buy you in the North Side's more troubled neighborhoods: You push the drug dealing a block away, and it becomes your neighbors' problem.

 

Opinions vary as to whether the routine violence of life in the most destitute pockets of north Minneapolis is really escalating. But the area's murder rate has seen a striking spike this year. Homicides in the city of Minneapolis are down overall from 32 at this time last year to 25 in 2004 through last weekend. However, the North Side has been the site of 17 of them--more than double the number at this point last summer. Since May alone, 14 people have been killed in the Fourth Precinct, which includes the entire portion of north Minneapolis to the west of I-94. The victims were mostly young African American males with rap sheets and alleged gang ties. All but three of the murders have occurred in the blocks between West Broadway Avenue and 39th Avenue North.

 

In the early morning hours of June 13, for instance, 20-year-old Derrick Turnage, a notorious neighborhood troublemaker who'd had nearly 100 run-ins with the police over the years, was gunned down in the 3300 block of Logan Avenue North. A month later, 19-year-old Tony Wiley's body was discovered in front of a house on the 2700 block of Queens Avenue North, dead from a gunshot wound to the thigh that apparently severed his femoral artery and caused to him to bleed out. Later that same evening, Darrell Humphrey's bullet-riddled corpse was found slumped on a bus bench in front of a White Castle on West Broadway Avenue. And less than a week after that incident, an assailant chased down 20-year-old Akeen Brown and shot him execution-style in the back office of Big Stop Foods in the Jordan neighborhood. (Of the 17 murders, 10 remain unsolved.)

The north Minneapolis murder figures are striking in part because they run counter to all other crime trends in the city--including the number of violent crimes reported on the North Side. For instance, through July, burglaries are down 11 percent while assaults have dropped by 5 percent. But the statistic may be misleading. "That's reported [crimes]," cautions one cop. "People are tired of reporting them."

As for the murders, police and most neighborhood activists believe that the vast majority are at least peripherally related to gangs and turf struggles. It's a familiar story, but with a twist. This time it's not a matter of the older, more dominant gangs--on the North Side, that means mainly the Crips, Vice Lords, and the Gangster Disciples--fighting with each other. Instead, cops and residents report that they're encountering a younger generation that is splintering off into smaller posses like the Emerson Murder Boys, the One-Nines, and the Young Thugs.

"We're seeing pocket gangs, named after blocks and intersections," acknowledges MPD Deputy Chief Tim Dolan. "They're more ruthless and violent. There used to be some discipline within gangs, like shooting below the waist. Now they just shoot to kill."

More than that, Dolan explains that the prevalence of these smaller factions has to do with a changing drug-distribution network. "With marijuana and crack cocaine, the Hispanics control almost all the traffic now. It's way too easy to get this stuff, because where it comes from is so much more fragmented," he says. Traditionally, according to Dolan, the local drug pipeline came almost exclusively from Chicago. "The more structured, organized gangs have been decentralized, and the old system of the big gangs doesn't work as well. They tend to draw the attention of the feds."

"The kids are carrying guns, and things that would have been fistfights now escalate into shootings," adds Mike Martin, metro region commander for the Minnesota Gang Strike Force. "Because you have a larger number of gangs, and the members seem to be younger and less experienced, it just kind of ratchets up the level of violence. You have these younger people who are trying to make a name for themselves."

Some area residents doubt that anything has really changed. "I don't think it's any worse," says Dennis Plante, a neighborhood activist who's lived in Jordan since 2000. "I just think people are tired of it."

 

Not that anyone disputes that the streets can still be plenty mean. One of the first things you notice as a visitor to the area is the astonishing number of very large, very territorial dogs. Signs saying Beware of Dog or No Trespassing dot fences and front windows. Rottweilers and pit bulls seem to outnumber all other breeds combined, and the reason is less one of faddishness than utility: No matter which side of the law you operate on, the protection of property and personal space is a first order of business.

The composition of North Side neighborhoods often changes from block to block. Finely maintained homes with manicured lawns and fresh paint jobs often sit next to decrepit rental properties. Along 26th Avenue, from Emerson to Penn, dope dealers stand on corners and spill over one block to the north. The Hawthorne neighborhood sees the deepest penetration of drug dealing into the residential areas: Pretty much any street east of Lyndale, between 36th Avenue North and Broadway, can see some action. The rest of the hot spots are near main traffic corridors: Penn, Lyndale, Lowry, and Broadway avenues.

James and Knox avenues in Jordan, north of 26th, bear the marks of high-level drug trafficking. While certainly there are places where you can purchase crystal meth or crack, the vast majority of dealing here involves pot. There is more foot traffic than most residential neighborhoods ever see. And on the corners where dealers gather, broken glass and trash are deliberately strewn about the curbsides and sidewalks to make it easier to drop drug stashes among the litter and retrieve them later. Not all dealing happens on street corners, however. "Problem houses" are easy to spot for the traffic-worn yards and groups gathered on the stoops. Long-term residents and police officers believe the bulk of the problems on the North Side stem from dilapidated rental properties, many of them owned by landlords who live in the suburbs and pay little heed to what is going on in their units. Tenants tend to change as often as the seasons.

 

According to census figures, just over a third of the properties in the area are occupied by renters. In Hawthorne, arguably the most beleaguered of the neighborhoods in north Minneapolis, just 36 percent of the residents own their homes. And Roberta Englund, director of the Folwell Neighborhood Association, claims that nearly half of all the Section 8 vouchers in Minneapolis are found in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth wards, encompassing all of north and part of northeast Minneapolis.

The hot spots for dealing move around to an extent, but wherever they happen, the open-air drug trade is as visible as any farmers' market. Take a Saturday afternoon drive along 26th Avenue North, on what has become the main traffic corridor for much of the street dealing, and you can't miss it. Turn onto any side street in the heart of Jordan--Knox, Irving, or James Avenues--and your car will likely be flagged down by any number of sellers. Counting wads of cash is commonplace. If a squad rolls by, the clusters of kids barely disperse--they just "float" a while before resuming their commerce.

"This is a business center," says Jordan resident Plante. "It's no different from the whole concept behind a mall."

Keeping a steady presence at busy corners is important, because much of the customer base is not from around here. One reason the drug trade is so intractable is "geographic," in the words of Roberta Englund. Pointing to a map, she notes that most of north Minneapolis is laid out in a "clean, concise, prefect grid system." Main thoroughfares run straight through, making it easy to get in and out of the area quickly and conveniently.

"These people coming through here are not crackheads walking around, or prostitutes on a stroll, like on Lake Street," Englund explains. "These streets run into the suburbs, or you can easily get on the interstate. If you want to come in and get your drugs or your prostitute kick, there's a dozen ways to come in and get out unnoticed." Police and residents say many of the dealers, for that matter, are not from the area either. The North Side is to some extent a storefront for dealers who commute in from elsewhere, including the suburbs of Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park to the north. Some even take the bus in, as became evident when the transit strike began this spring. For the first week or two, dealer traffic was noticeably diminished in some neighborhoods--until the sellers managed to put together ad hoc car pools for the trip.

 

For more than two years, Steve Manhood was a CCP/SAFE officer--the MPD's name for its community cops--in the Hawthorne neighborhood. One of Chief Bill McManus's first moves upon taking office was to deploy all the department's CCP/SAFE officers back to squad patrol, covering mostly the Fourth Precinct on the north and the Third Precinct on the south. Now Manhood rides patrol on the North Side.

Wearing the requisite mustache and wraparound shades, along with a sandy, round buzz cut, he gives a brief soliloquy on the difference between being a community cop and a patrol cop. The chief believes there should be essentially no difference between the two--that every officer should be ingrained in the neighborhoods as a benevolent presence, attending meetings, learning names, cultivating sources. (Theoretically, Manhood agrees, but notes that "street cops are busy and are not always going to have the time to follow up.")

During a Monday night patrol, Manhood offers a thumbnail sketch of crime on the North Side. "It's mostly young black men shooting young black men," he says. Drugs and gangs are symptoms. "They are in a low socioeconomic situation," Manhood says. "These people are hurting."

Sam Garrett, a 26-year-old Jordan resident, estimates that kids can make $500 on a good weekend selling weed--the kind of fast money that's tough for a 15-year-old to turn down. "There's nothing here to grab your attention," says Garrett, who himself did a stint in prison for manslaughter in the late '90s. "There's nothing out here for teenagers to do."

Near 22nd and Lyndale, Manhood points out an array of problem properties in the Hawthorne neighborhood. He notes some graffiti on the back of a stop sign, the words "GD" next to an image of a pitchfork, in blue spray paint: Gangster Disciples. Five men and one woman mill about in a front yard. He points to the woman. "She lives there," he says. "Lets them sell weed from her property, and they pay her--in money or in drugs, I don't know which. We'll get an 'unwanted' call there at some point, when they get disrespectful. They'll call her names, use too much profanity, have too many buddies over."

 

The streets between Lowry and Plymouth, around either side of Lyndale, are full of people scurrying around, hanging out. They are all black, and strikingly young--some not even teenagers, by Manhood's estimates. And he knows most of them. "Arrested him last week," he'll say. Or, "I've arrested him five times, and his sister twice. Know his brothers."

In fact, most scenes play out in a sort of cat-and-mouse game that both sides find amusing, if not absurd. "Every day I'm going to come across these people," Manhood says. "I'm going to have some kind of influence on somebody, positive or negative. But we all know at some point we'll have an interaction."

Manhood pulls up curbside at a number of properties and just sits there with his window down, greeting everyone. He gets mostly blank looks, but no one is scared by his presence. There's occasional laughter, but what's really going on is not funny at all. Manhood later admits that he has a strategy: Look them in the eye so they don't shoot you.

"Here, I'll take you to where they stash all the drugs," Manhood says, heading toward a blue-gray multiple-unit building. There is a slight, landscaped hill in front, supported by long wooden beams with gaps in the seams between posts. There's a group of three men, a woman, and a little girl. One man has a cast on his right forearm. Manhood answered a domestic call here days earlier when the arm got broken. He trades pleasantries with them and looks at the woman. "I heard you did that to him," Manhood says. "Uh huh," comes the reply. "He deserved it." They all chuckle.

"She hit him with a baseball bat," Manhood explains as he pulls away and waves from his squad car window. "All the holes in these beams are usually filled with bags of pot."

So far tonight, Manhood has responded to nearly 10 calls. One was a suspected burglary, where he stepped out of the car in a back alley with his 9-millimeter Beretta drawn. The perp was "GOA"--gone on arrival. But he returned to the car a little breathless, with beads of sweat on his forehead. He responded to two "shots fired" calls, which were also GOA. Three were for roaming fights among neighborhood teenage girls, also GOA. One was about a girl, three years old, playing naked in an alley. The address was one where prostitution calls have come before, so Manhood knocked on the door and found the girl. It's 6:00 p.m., less than two hours since he hit the street.

His current call is to one of the problem houses he pointed out earlier. He pulls up at a house near Wafana's, a market on 24th and Lyndale avenues North that has fresh bullet holes in its front windows and facade. The residence has a "No Trespassing" sign, which means Manhood can arrest anyone on the property who doesn't live there--whether or not they're doing anything else illegal. Manhood walks through the chain-link fence where a gate would normally be and addresses two young black males, a fortyish black man who is drunk, and a girl who looks to be about 15. "Do you live here?" Manhood asks them. He knows the older man and the girl, but there's no response from the other two. "Do you live here?" he says again, his pitch rising slightly. "Who lives here? Do you have state ID?"

One of them, lean, fit, shaved bald, and about 5' 9", says he left his ID at home. He gets on a cell and calls his wife to come and bring it. The other young man stands up. He's about 6' 5", 260. He searches through his pockets and fishes out an ID that's sandwiched between crumpled paper and about 10 empty plastic baggies, each the size of maybe two postage stamps. These are sometimes referred to as jewelry bags. When you fill them with pot, they become dime bags, $10 a pop.

"You got any weed on you?" Manhood asks the kid. No, he replies. Manhood tells the kid he's going to search him, that's all, and asks him to turn around and put his hands behind his head. The cop handcuffs him while the guy on the cell phone describes all of this to whoever's on the other end. The search yields no pot. Manhood takes pains to explain to the kid that he's not being arrested, he's not being booked, and he's not being detained. (Manhood says later, "I had to sweet-talk him into the car. I'm 45 years old, and I'm not going to get in a fight with a 260-pound 20-year-old.") He's just putting him in the back of the squad until the other guy produces an ID. He gives them his no-trespassing speech.

 

After the first man's wife and ID show up a few minutes later, Manhood helps the other kid out of the car and uncuffs him.

"We cool?" he asks the big kid afterward. "Yeah, it's all right," comes the response.

 

Kelly Phillips and Aaron Brewer moved to the Jordan neighborhood in May 2001, attracted by the racial diversity and cheap, well-preserved housing stock. The couple, both of whom are white, purchased a two-story home on the 2600 block of James Avenue North.

"At the time I didn't realize why [people] were hanging out on the corner and running up to cars," Phillips recalls, seated at the couple's dining room table on a recent weekday afternoon. But even once that reality settled in, she says that she felt safe walking the streets. No one had any reason to get in her face. But a series of violent incidents in recent months has made Phillips and Brewer rethink their view.

In April, Deb Wagner, a real estate agent who has lived in the area for two decades, was attacked by a local dealer after she dialed 911 to report that he was selling drugs. He responded by cracking her over the head with a landscaping rock and punching her multiple times. "Deb getting beat up kind of marked a point where it seemed like they weren't leaving anyone alone," Phillips notes.

Then, in May, while she was waiting for the bus on 26th Avenue North in the early afternoon, Phillips got into a confrontation with a local street dealer. After she informed the kid that she didn't like him selling drugs in the neighborhood, he lifted up his shirt to reveal a gun tucked into his pants. "You have a problem?" Phillips says he asked her. She alerted the police, and the dealer, a 15-year-old Brooklyn Center resident, was eventually convicted of making terrorist threats.

Finally, on the Fourth of July, while Phillips was working on her computer upstairs, she heard a commotion coming from the back of the house. When Brewer went outside to investigate, he came across four black guys and a white guy in the alley. The white guy--whom Brewer recognized as a neighborhood dealer--was being ordered into the trunk of an idling car. "Do you guys need any help here?" Brewer remembers asking. The response: "Get back in your yard."

He watched as the white guy climbed into the trunk and the car took off down the alley, and then called the cops. The perpetrators were eventually arrested, and now Brewer worries about the prospect of having to testify in court. The final straw came when Brewer got shot with a pellet gun one day while skateboarding down 26th Avenue. The couple is now looking to move out of Jordan, though they say they intend to stay on the North Side.

Not all residents of the 2600 block of James Avenue have that option. Kenya Benson, for instance, has been trying to move for the better part of a year. She lives just two doors down from Aaron Brewer and Kelly Phillips, and across the street from Sam Garrett. She's a black, 30-year-old single mother of four. Benson's 17-year-old brother also lives in the house. Even though the house was the best she could get for the money, she says, "I would love to leave."

But she adds that every time she tries to sell her house, prospective buyers are scared away by the bands of drug dealers circulating out front. Earlier this year she had the two-story home on the market for five months. Now she's decided to wait until the weather turns colder, in the hope that some of the dealers will go into hibernation then.

"I'm just tired of the hanging out," Benson sighs, sitting on her front stoop on a recent weekday evening as three of her children play nearby. She's dressed in rolled-up blue jeans and a white blouse. The yard is strewn with toys: a foam football, a Frisbee, a plastic basketball hoop. "I'm tired of the gunshots. I don't even let my kids outside when I'm not here."

 

Since buying the house two years ago, the Illinois native's been engaged in a running battle with local pot peddlers over the turf in front of her property. She arrived in Jordan right before the infamous riot on Knox , which started after a police bullet ricocheted and hit a boy in the arm. It happened just behind her house, but already seems like a distant memory.

Last summer, her repeated requests that the teenagers ply their trade elsewhere--Benson understands the allure of fast money--went largely unheeded. At one point she got into a fight with an older woman who was dealing on the corner and refused to move along. The cops had to be called and the woman was eventually arrested on an outstanding warrant. Benson got a bloody lip for her trouble.

Each morning Benson leaves the house at 4:00 a.m. to work as a driver for Metro Transit. "Lately I've been kind of spooked," she admits, "so I've been carrying a knife with me."

As if on cue, four distinct pops that sound like firecrackers fill the air. They come from behind the house directly across the street. A few seconds later, a black male dressed all in black runs down the alley behind the place. "Those weren't fireworks," Benson says, visibly tightening. She sits pat on the stoop, but her eyes keep darting toward her kids. Her brother comes outside and offers a detailed description of some of the smaller turf battles going on.

About five minutes later, a lone officer rolls up in a squad. On his second trip down the block, he cracks his window and asks no one in particular, "Did you call?" When Benson says no, he rolls up the window and drives away.


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