Don’t all stampede at once

The north side needs a “first wave” of home buyers who see lack of security as a thrilling challenge.

by John Hoff

If you’re planning to get a degree from this University, then the city of Minneapolis would like you to consider living on the lovely north side.

Does the very thought fill you with excitement? Are you glad somebody in the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development is thinking about your future?

An article in last Monday’s Daily by reporter Joy Peterson outlines CPED’s plan, but so far there doesn’t seem to be much of a stampede by grads to buy homes on the north side despite an abundance of affordably priced houses.

And, I’d like to point out, not all those homes are missing their copper plumbing, carted off by thieves who not only sell stolen scrap metal but sometimes even used toilets and kitchen sinks.

Hoping to transform this long-suffering neighborhood from vacant buildings and crime-ridden streets to something else (anything else) city planners understandably want to encourage young, educated people to consider north side home ownership as opposed to, for example, buying a home in Uptown.

As somebody who has been actively seeking to buy a fixer-upper on the north side and has been researching the area for months, I believe CPED and some of the neighborhood associations should use a slightly different approach.

Looking for anybody with a college degree to buy north side houses is a rather broad tactic. To transform the north side into a utopia of college-educated neighborhood transformers, CPED needs to focus on a very specific group of graduates to form the “first wave” of home buyers and create a new, pleasant and safe vibe in the neighborhood.

Then subsequent waves of college grads will follow.

Who should be in this first wave? The phrase which best describes these grads would be “security conscious.” They might be students who have served in the military to earn their Montgomery GI Bill benefits, held jobs with campus security, or have other relevant experience.

Like a peacekeeping force assisting a troubled nation, this first wave will need to create order and safety through activities like Neighborhood Watch.

I’ll never forget my first exposure to the north side while looking for a house. After a couple years of riding the No. 16 bus and making St. Paul’s notorious Frog Town neighborhood my second home, I thought the north side couldn’t be so bad, particularly if a bargain could be found there. But the north side was even rougher than I had pictured.

The first house I visited had a homeless squatter living inside who had been repeatedly breaking down the front door, according to a real estate agent. The squatter wasn’t there when I dropped by, but his or her sleeping bag and assorted paraphernalia left tantalizing clues about a troubled life.

On that particular block, more houses were vacant than occupied and many showed evidence of people frequently breaking inside to sleep, including an overturned shopping cart partially concealed on a porch. On nearby street corners, groups of as many as 20 young men appeared to have nothing better to do than stand around, drinking directly from bottles of what appeared to be gin.

If I walked past, would they offer me a swig from their beverage and invite me to join their socializing? Or would they hurt me for making eye contact? For wearing the wrong color? For pure amusement?

Planning to attend a grad student party later that week, I purchased some bottles of wine at the massive corner liquor store, where customer service ranged from surly to downright rude and paranoid. While I was inside, somebody tried to run out the door with a jug of booze, only to be apprehended by an alert security guard.

“Welcome to the north side,” I thought, walking past as a couple of police officers questioned the suspect, his face on the hood of their squad car.

None of this discouraged me, however. I was not only eager to transform one house, but to help make the whole block secure, figuring I could install a number of locks and possibly buy a weapon for self-defense. Then I would encourage friends to purchase the nearby houses.

As somebody exposed early in life to the “security sciences,” I can understand a “security conscious” way of thinking and also poke a little fun at it. Most times working various kinds of security jobs is very boring. You stand for hours thinking, “Oh, please, somebody get rowdy. Pull a weapon. Shoplift. Anything.”

After a while, your attention wanders to pastry, preferably the kind with delicious jelly-filled centers. Mmmmmm.

Providing security can be an ugly affair, but if the north side wants transformation it must first clean up its image of being crazy, chaotic and unsafe. Waves of art majors, business majors, nursing and social work majors may very well start buying homes on the north side, but not until there is the widespread perception of increased security.

Clearly, tactics like community policing and crowing loudly about minor fluctuations in crime statistics aren’t enough to start a home-buying stampede.

The north side needs a few good grads who perceive the lack of security as a thrilling challenge to overcome, rather than a rational, understandable reason to completely avoid this neighborhood because, as somebody in Peterson’s article put it, they’re not feeling a “good vibe.”

To accomplish its goal, CPED should first focus on “security conscious” grads willing to accept the inherent risks, and to reap the eventual rewards of transforming a troubled neighborhood into something close to an urban utopia.

If there is one thing I learned from being a soldier and a rent-a-cop, it is this: inside every “security conscious” person is a potential hero longing to be revealed, if only circumstances will provide an opportunity to put down the pastry and spring into action.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].