When considering park encampments, consider the neighborhood and its people, too

A picnic table is chained to a tree in Peavey Park Tuesday, September 29, 2020

As with Powderhorn Park and others around Minneapolis, the encampment at Peavey Park was portrayed as a “sanctuary” for the homeless, and there was some hoopla when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board evicted some tents out of the park recently.


Some real talk on Peavey Park:

The protest about evicting the tents out of the park was woefully misguided.

People may have been right to complain about how Minneapolis Park and Recreation handled removing the homeless from Powderhorn Park, throwing everyone out, even those behaving themselves and just hanging on until they could get a leg up.

At Peavey Park, it was an entirely different story. All those tents did was make things more comfortable for drug dealers and the sex trade.

It’s my neighborhood, and I can tell you: The tent encampment model made a bad problem worse.

For years, even as parks in other parts of the city have come to embody neighborhood revival, Peavey Park stayed an open air drug and sex market. Violence has followed.

Despite those nice, pretty tents courtesy of well intended outreach to the homeless, the park didn’t change.

During recent construction to renovate Peavey Park, portable toilets already doubled as places for the sex trade.

When the encampment emerged, “Porta-potties” returned, and, along with the tents, served as a place for the sex trade. When all three stalls were in use, there was always a nearby alley or backyard — day or night.

Dealers do a lazy job of selling on the sly. Considering the conspicuous traffic — customers calling out to them from down the block or across the street — they might as well set up sidewalk stands.

It was all within a stone’s throw of Hope Academy and chemical dependency treatment and support center Avivo, over on Chicago and Columbus Avenues.

LaTrisha Vetaw, vice president of the Park Board, was right to put out this statement: “We need to begin healing as a city. Cleaning up this park is needed for these kids and all kids in this community. Our children have been through a lot of trauma and they need a place to play.”

We can feel compassion for the people who lived there. The federal government along with the state and city need to invest more in chemical dependency treatment, health care, violence prevention and affordable housing.

The mere existence of the Peavey Park encampment illustrates numerous failures of our society for which addiction and violence are also symptoms.

It’s admirable how so many people were moved by the sight of encampments that they donated food and clothes and volunteered their time to help people living in Peavey, Powderhorn and other parks.

Pushing people around with nowhere else to go is not a solution.

But neither is letting people permanently take-over a park and make it unsafe for everyone else in the neighborhood.

We need to be clear-eyed about the damage encampments can cause to neighborhoods that are already suffering from higher-than-average crime and unemployment.

Of late, Minneapolis Police have taken to putting in a perfunctory appearance, a squad car sitting in the park for maybe a half-hour. During which the area clears out. Soon as the cruiser pulls off, everybody’s back without skipping a beat.

I’ve lived here long enough to remember one brief period worth commemorating on the calendar. July 26, 2011, Third Precinct Commander Lucy Gerold supervised a lightning strike. Literally overnight and into the next afternoon, arrests swept the streets. To the gratitude of low income moms a block over, who finally had somewhere safe to take their children for a nice time. Say, a picnic in the park.

It lasted until September. Gerold is long gone, now, the pestilence having again taken root.

It’s not as if the city hasn’t managed to clean up some neighborhoods and make them finer places to live, replete with a nice park.

In South Minneapolis, around 2007, the epidemic was wiped out at Elliot Park. North Central University threw its wallet around, building dormitories and turning Lee’s Liquor Store into the school’s radio station. East Village Apartments gentrified the block across from the park, and all of a sudden the police selectively protected and served their tails off — you looked up one day and, just like that, the bad element was gone. Not long after, the illegal activity from 11th Avenue to Bloomington on Franklin Avenue disappeared.

Now it’s time for the Park Board to ensure Peavey Park becomes the “quiet urban playland” it says it is. That’s what the neighborhood deserves.