Photos by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.
Like many residents of Minneapolis, the people who live off Lake Street in South Minneapolis had to learn to live without a lot of basics this summer. The pandemic and the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd either closed or destroyed many neighborhood stores the community had come to rely on.
In the hardest hit areas, there were a few weeks when you couldn’t get food delivered. Ride services weren’t picking up, and the buses weren’t running.
But one material good was not in short supply on the Lake Street corridor this summer: plywood. After the first night of fires following Floyd’s killing, businesses that weren’t burned out were quickly boarded up, their windows covered by thick panels like they were being prepped for an incoming hurricane.
And sometimes it felt like they’d been hit with one. The city — and then the state, the nation and the world — were undergoing a racial justice reckoning. Everything was on the table, including how people interact with each other and with the civil authorities, especially the police. In turn, the Minneapolis Police Department felt unfairly targeted by what officers said was the hostility of the City Council. Police pulled back, crime rose.
But in the weeks and months that followed the fires and unrest, construction crews cleared the rubble, the neighborhood slowly came back to life, and the plywood started to come down.
Business owners no longer had use for their discarded wood, but high school art teacher Mina Leierwood certainly did.
In August, Leierwood collected plywood from a shop near 18th Avenue, between 29th Street and Lake Street, where she had started a free community art class. She took the wood sheets home and cut them into 16-by-16 inch squares, which she then painted white.
Then a few times a week in August, usually on Thursdays or Saturdays, Leierwood led an art class attended by a wide range of kids — from pre-K to high school seniors. The white squares became blank canvases, and they quickly filled them with color.
The group worked on the pavement in the middle of the street, a convenience only made possible because — as part of an effort to keep the block safe with violence rising throughout Minneapolis — residents put barricades up at each end and formed a community watch group.
“This block is a little community because of everything that they’ve been through, and also it’s easy to paint here because we can just work in the street. There’s no cars, and the parents are nice,” Leierwood said as she oversaw a class.
In one of their first classes, Leierwood and her students decided to give the block a mascot. A few animals were suggested, but then one of the younger kids had a bright idea that went something like this: “You know what the strongest thing out there is now, the thing that everyone’s afraid of now? Coronavirus. That’s what we should be.”
Leierwood intervened with a small but important suggestion: Instead of going with “Coronavirus” they just call it “Crown.” Among her students, the name stuck, and Leierwood has no doubt who runs things in the Crown these days
“If you’ve ever had a block party on your street and blocked it off, that’s what they have every day. They’re playing soccer in the street. They’ve got their bikes and their scooters. They’re in and out of different yards. They rule the roost,” she said.
The barricades on 18th Avenue were put up thanks to a community effort led by a 40-year old Somali immigrant and father of four named Abi Hussan. Like a lot of people in the Twin Cities, Hussan got a hands-on lesson in public safety this summer, and one he didn’t ask for.
For years the block has been the site of an ongoing struggle between drug dealers seeking to exploit its close proximity to a gas station and a steady flow of potential customers. Residents say the problem worsened this summer as the police presence dwindled following the civil unrest.
As violence surged in Minneapolis, Hussan experienced it first hand: On June 15, his wife was robbed at gunpoint in their backyard.
He ran inside the house to grab his handgun as his wife and the would-be thief struggled for her purse. He was headed back into the yard when he heard a shot.
“The minute I grabbed my gun, I heard a pop. And now I’m thinking, ‘OK, who got shot? Is it my wife?’”
The man’s gun had fired into the air, and he fled, leaving Hussan’s wife and their family shaken. That night, he started an informal night watch with family members. Neighbors soon joined in, and it eventually grew to become a community watch group, like others that have emerged across the city.
Hussan said that their efforts — along with the barricades — improved the situation, but as summer turned to fall, he still felt uneasy. He spoke with the police officers who came to take his report the day his wife was assaulted, and they told him that their “hands had been tied” — by the City Council.
Like many of his neighbors, Hussan was mistakenly convinced that the council had already made “defund the police” a reality and slashed the police budget.
“I don’t see what I used to see anymore,” he said, referring to the open air drug market that once flourished. He had previously sought help from the police to help end the local drug trade, but felt he never got it, he said during an interview in his backyard. “And I had to take matters into my own hands to have what I have, I’m happy with it, but I don’t feel safe.”
Graham Faulkner, a policy aide for Councilmember Alondra Cano, who represents the area, said that they are aware of the public perception of a lack of police responsiveness. Their office analyzed police calls from the block in August, however, and found a response rate above 90%.
Faulkner said the city’s Public Works Department had developed a new traffic plan for the street. They were proceeding slowly to win support of the neighborhood if the street barricades ever have to come down.
“We think that community working together to try and increase safety on the block is valuable. It increases solidarity between communities and neighbors get to know each other better, that’s definitely important, but at the same time, we need people to know that they can, and if they feel comfortable, they should call be calling MPD,” he said.
The Minneapolis Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
While things improved toward the end of the summer on 18th Avenue, it was a very different story just a block over, on 17th Avenue between Lake Street and 29th Street, where residents gathered on the sidewalk for a meeting one evening in August.
Some had helped man the barricades on 18th Avenue, but now they were concerned that many of the same drug dealers — and the problems they brought with them — had shifted their activities over to their street.
With a crowd of about 15 people gathered — Black, white and Latino — Dabby Dobbins, a middle aged Black woman, said the worsening conditions on the block made her wish she could move, like some of the more well-off white residents were planning to do. But she and her family had no way out.
Standing on the street as she spoke, Dobbins explained that as the guardian of five young children, she no longer felt comfortable letting them play outside.
“If you live in a community with children, we should all enjoy the laughter of children. That’s healthy for us, and they’ve taken that away,” Dobbins said.
After the meeting ended, Dobbins explained that one of the children in her care is a 13-year-old boy. He was staying up nearly all night so he could watch what was happening on the street from his bedroom window on the second floor. Sometimes, he would run to tell her about what he’d seen: fights, women getting beaten up, or addicts getting their fix.
“It’s a mess. They’re all having one big party out there. The drug dealers, the crackheads, prostitutes, the meth heads. I don’t know where they all came from,” she said.
She had tried calling the police but said they took hours to respond, if they came at all — and she didn’t blame them. Like Hussan, she was also convinced that the police had reduced their presence because the city had already defunded the department, and she wanted to see more officers on patrol.
“I want them to continue to protect me and my family. When they do something wrong they should be punished, but right now, I need them,” she said.
As the meeting ended, Stacey and Tony Wellman, two white residents in their late 40s, walked down the sidewalk to their home. Sitting on their porch and trying to keep mosquitoes at bay, they explained that inside, most of their things were already packed up and in cardboard boxes.
During the civil unrest, they left the neighborhood for a week. Now, after living in the same home for 20 years, they planned on moving out for good. They put their house on the market so they could move to a suburb south of the city.
There were both “push and pull” factors at play, they said. Tony had a job opportunity as a minister at a church near where they planned to move, and they also wanted someplace safer for their three children — two boys and a 17-year old daughter, Aaleyiah, who had been helping Leierwood with the community art classes.
Stacey Wellman has multiple sclerosis and was reluctant to move at first, but changed her mind as the situation on their block grew worse.
“I was so resistant to moving for the longest time, but Tony and the three kids wanted to move for a while. My support system is here. It’s close to my work, close to my medical support system, close to my friends, five minutes from the kids’ school. It’s so convenient,” she said. “But I think it was the George Floyd riots and stuff that happened and then realizing that this is not OK for our children.”
Like Abdi Hussan, Tony Wellman described conversations he’d had with police on his street in which they told him their “hands were tied.” And like both Hussan and Dobbins, he was convinced that the department had already been defunded. He was largely sympathetic to the police. “I don’t agree with the political agenda of Black Lives Matters, but I believe that black lives matter,” he said.
Back on 18th Avenue, a middle aged Latino couple were wearing matching blue t-shirts with Marvel characters — Captain América, Hulk, Wolverine and others — as they cleaned up in their backyard on a Saturday night in August. It had been their 9-year old daughter’s birthday party, and she loved Marvel, so everyone who came to the party got one of the shirts.
The couple, originally from Mexico, spoke in a mix of English and Spanish as they described how the block had long had challenges. But it had become more dangerous over the summer, before the barricades and the community watch pushed the dealers away. Still, they were uneasy, and said they didn’t want their names to be published because a neighbor had been beaten up recently and they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.
They said the community watch had dwindled in the past few weeks — a lawn chair placed under a blue tarp that had once been a kind of outlook post sat empty in the street as they spoke — but neighbors got to know each other better in the process. As has become the norm in many neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, a WhatsApp group now serves as their main means of group communication, allowing residents to alert one another when they spot trouble.
“It’s a little better because they are noticing that we’re watching at night, so they do try to come in, but as soon as they see us they withdraw. They back down,” the woman said. They expressed frustration at Cano’s office for not addressing the needs of their block, like better street lighting and speed bumps.
Faulkner, Cano’s aide, said that Public Works staff visited the block and concluded that the current lighting met city guidelines. He also said that temporary dirt speed bumps had been installed, but would have to be removed in winter to make room for snow plows.
Like many of their neighbors, the couple said they have given up calling the police.
“When we call the police now, they don’t come here. Before, when we called the police they would at least come sometimes, but not anymore. They’re not going to say it publicly, but they don’t come at all,” the man said.
The man reasoned that the police had stopped coming after their council member, Alondra Cano, had joined calls to defund the Police Department. Asked if he was frustrated by the lack of police presence, his answer was short: “No, porque estamos cuidando nosotros,”
Or “No, because we take care of ourselves.”