That burning sensation: northside edition

class=img_thumbleft>What's the hottest spot in Minneapolis? For night clubbers, foodies, and bar hoppers, that can be a matter of endless debate. But for the literal-minded, there is no question. The 2100 block of Bryant Avenue North is, for the moment at least, the undisputed arson capital of Minneapolis.

Since the afternoon of October 8, when a blaze broke out in a garage located behind a vacant property at 2117 Bryant, five houses on the block have been either completely or partially destroyed by fire. Sean McKenna, who has been an arson investigator with the Minneapolis Police Department since 1997, says he's never seen such a concentration of house fires over such a short period of time.

So far, there have been no arrests and, McKenna says, no evidence to suggest that a single firebug is responsible for the block's woes. He suspects the first fire--the only one that didn't occur late at night--was probably a "child's play" incident.

McKenna has suspicions about two of the other blazes. "One of the fires looks to be an attempt to defraud an insurance company. One of the others seems to be a case of where somebody was maybe drunk and just decided to do something stupid," he postulates.

But three of the houses that burned were vacant, which makes narrowing the list of potential suspects far more complex. At the end of 2005, according to city records, there were a total of 22 boarded houses in the Hawthorne neighborhood--a disproportionate share by city standards. Tait Danielson-Castillo, the executive director of the Hawthorne Community Council, says that skyrocketing foreclosure rates have exacerbated the problem, thus leaving more homes in the neighborhood vulnerable to break-ins and, consequently, arson.

"Keeping these abandoned houses secure is a huge issue. What often happens is that the boards get torn down because people want to squat or sell drugs." Danielson-Castillo observes. "Or they want to steal the metal out of the house."

Indeed, with the prices of copper and aluminum at record levels, vacant houses have become a favorite target of scrappers. Hawthorne, with its close proximity to the north side scrap yards, is an especially attractive neighborhood for anyone unscrupulous enough to break into an empty home in search of copper gas pipes.

According to McKenna, none of the October blazes was directly attributable to metal theft. But, he adds, there was a close call on Halloween when an unknown person stripped the pipes from an empty building at 2105 Bryant. That led to a gas leak and forced the temporary evacuation of five nearby residences. In September, McKenna adds, a home on the 2700 block of Colfax Avenue North exploded from a gas leak, evidently after a thief cut the copper pipe.

Still, in McKenna's view, the scrap-theft issue is probably a less significant than the larger problem of simply having too many boarded buildings in the city. "When nobody's home," McKenna says, "trouble comes knocking."

The rash of fires has left Hawthorne residents like Collier White both alarmed and more than a little exasperated. White, who lives two blocks away, lays some of the blame at the feet of city pols. In White's view, that's because the city's crackdown on north side housing code violations has made it more difficult for some financially stressed homeowners to avoid foreclosure.

Predatory lenders, whose practices have also contributed to the number of boarded buildings, also deserve some blame, he says. "I don't know what the answer is," White adds. "But the city needs to make this neighborhood work better. It seems to me like these fires are a sign."

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