A scary stop along the light-rail line

The letters have faded to nothingness, like blood briefly colors a sidewalk but then runs away in the rain.

John Hoff

The Hiawatha light-rail line is a modern wonder and a glory of urban civilization, capable of zipping you from downtown Minneapolis to Mall of America quickly and cheaply.

But the most logical point for University students to use the light rail is a stop called Cedar-Riverside on the West Bank. And, of all the stops along the line, Cedar-Riverside is the scariest.

A white wall of degrading masonry greets riders on one side of the rails. On the other side, a brown brick building once known as the Baja Riverside Bar & Grill features boarded up windows and creeping graffiti. An ancient drink special is featured in one window, like the accidental fossil of some creature that briefly ate and drank, but then slipped into a black pool of tar and perished, leaving its pathetic remains to tell the story of an earlier, happier time. In the parking lot, tall weeds are trying hard to establish their own small patch of prairie.

The fact that Baja Riverside Bar & Grill is closed is very significant because so little is open or lit up at night near this stop along the light rail. Walking toward the campus, a pedestrian leaving the train at Cedar-Riverside is greeted by sights like an overflowing trash container decorated with graffiti and a blue short bus with some of its rear windows smashed.

If you had a knife sticking out of your chest and wanted to stagger somewhere and call 911, or have a helpful bystander put direct pressure on the wound with, say, a wadded-up T-shirt or linen table napkins, where would you go?

The Riverside Plaza apartment complex is a long way from the light rail. Furthermore, given the housing density, there’s a very significant statistical probability that anybody who might threaten your life at the Cedar-Riverside light-rail train station might actually reside in the Riverside Plaza apartment complex.

So is Riverside Plaza a place where a University student would feel like running for help? Probably not.

With Baja Riverside Bar & Grill closed, there is the feeling at this stop along the light-rail line of no place to go, nowhere to run.

Unsavory characters hang out at the Cedar-Riverside light-rail stop, sometimes asking for spare change, a bus transfer, or requesting information about the time of day with such urgency you would think this knowledge is so valuable you can put it

in a plastic bag and sell it by the ounce. This kind of thing happens at the other stops, as well, but the scariness is magnified at lonely, decrepit Cedar-Riverside.

A clue to the demise of Baja Riverside Bar & Grill is affixed to a window near the door, an official notice in heavy black letters that says “Unlicensed Business. The further operation of this business is a criminal offense and subject to criminal complaint and/or arrest.”

Once there was more information on the notice, handwritten in black marker, but the letters have faded to nothingness, like blood briefly colors a sidewalk but then runs away in the rain.

I wanted to know why Baja Riverside Bar & Grill was closed down. You might say I was “Driven to Discover,” like the advertising campaign all around campus. But my question was small, nothing momentous like whether dance can change the world or if our nation can end its dependence on foreign oil. No, I just want to know why a nightclub sitting at a prime location along the light-rail line can’t manage to keep itself open and, by its presence, make the area more safe?

My search didn’t turn up definitive answers, but, it seemed, random artifacts telling a story of struggle. In 2002, there were allegations in a chat room discussion that “Jim Bartlett (a property owner) has played every angle he could think of to coerce Raul Sacta (who owned Baja Riverside Bar & Grill) to sell his parking lot to Bartlett and Sherman, by playing the Muslim-alcohol-prohibition card, by attempts including physical assault to intimidate those who support Sacta, with the goal of denying Sacta a Class B liquor license.”

However, in 2004, the Baja was open and mention was made of its grilled veggies which were “just divine.” In June 2005, the Baja was still operating, and a dark chapter in Minneapolis history played out there when a City Council member named Dean Zimmermann had lunch with a guy named Carlson, who slipped Zimmerman an envelope containing $5,000 in $50 bills. Though Zimmerman was convicted of criminal wrongdoing, many say he was wrongfully targeted and set up.

So much for my search. Driven to Discover, can I even find answers about how University students can be safe at a light-rail train station?

Why don’t University and city officials seem to care about this bleak, scary stop along the Hiawatha light-rail line?

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]