Good luck with that

The police officer asked “You seriously want to buy property in this bad neighborhood?” while I was in North Minneapolis.

In an empty storefront of Penn Plymouth Shopping Center, in a messy, gutted space which used to be the site of a barbeque joint, one interior wall still features a colorful, elaborate mural of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

The image of King, with his wife at his side, is set against a colorful animated backdrop, including the Minneapolis skyline. The hand of the artist strikes me as young, perhaps even an adolescent, but talented.

I hope the mural is not trashed when the University of Minnesota turns the Penn Plymouth Shopping Center into the site of a new Urban Outreach/Engagement Center.

News of the University’s acquisition of Penn Plymouth coincided perfectly with my weekend plans to go house hunting on the north side. I decided to check out the University’s new million dollar digs while looking for something a lot less costly for myself several blocks away on Penn Avenue North.

A young man standing on a corner nodded at me as I parked, his head making a jerky, beckoning motion as if to say, “Come on, let’s do some business.” He continued to beckon passersbyers from the street corner for the entire half hour I was looking over the humble house at 2631 Penn Ave. N.

A few other young men joined him, quite briefly, but quickly left.

My country boy aesthetic sensibilities appreciated the make-do décor of the neighborhood, including car seats used as lawn furniture. I noticed a bus stop within a short walking distance, and thought how convenient that was.

Exploring the immediate area to get a feel for the neighborhood – since critics will point out you have to be specific, you can’t just say “north side” because there is a lot of variation in neighborhoods, or even blocks – I used my windup powered flashlight to examine another vacant building, some kind of old auto repair place.

A police car pulled up. The officer rolled down his window and locked his gaze on me, jerking his head in a “come over here” motion. I walked over to explain myself, glad I was still wearing “casual dressy” clothes from an event I had attended earlier at the Minneapolis Hilton.

He asked, “You seriously want to buy property in this bad neighborhood?”

“Well, officer,” I said. “That’s exactly why I want to buy a house here. I think by being here I could help make it better.”

“Ha, good luck with that.” he laughed, rolling his eyes and then rolling up his window. As I entered my vehicle to drive to the University’s most recent real estate acquisition, the young man was still on the corner, slyly beckoning passing cars. Even the presence of the police hadn’t jarred him from his spot.

It wasn’t hard to find the Penn Plymouth Shopping Center at 2001 Plymouth Ave. N. even though “2001” is a property designation and all the individual store street addresses are different. None of the street lights in the parking lot appear to work, so the building hides in a big puddle of darkness.

Some in the neighborhood don’t trust the motives of the University in its plan for “urban outreach,” calling the U of M “a white institution experimenting on black children.” But other groups, including the Minneapolis Urban League, support the University’s plan.

A manager at Snow Food seemed resigned about the need to relocate. He sold me a notebook, which for some reason was not stocked in the aisles but securely stashed away behind a little desk along with items like phone cards to call overseas.

The aisles in Snow Food are wide, as though trying to use up some leftover space. The words “Fresh Produce” painted on a wall in gigantic letters are almost bigger than the produce section itself, and the dreary meat section had similar issues. A hand-lettered sign on the front door of the store said, “Only 4 teenagers allowed at a time!”

Signs made it clear that “Penn Plymouth Corp bans guns on these premises.” One storefront at 2009 1/2 advertised “gentle adjustments” and had a notification posted of the chiropractor’s new address. The store called “Dollar Shops” was still doing business, displaying posters of cheesecake models and Dr. Dre in its front window.

The business at 2009 was empty, but an old poster on the door advertised an event which promised to be “a multi-media, poly-racial-gender, corpus delecti of poetry, performance and artistic experimentation.”

At 2013, yellow hand-painted letters in the window advertised “Bar-B-Q-Ribs, Chicken and Fish.” The lights were on, but nobody was inside. The floor was yellow from the remnants of glue where somebody had ripped out tile or carpeting. The colorful mural of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. hovered over the ravaged interior, a utopian vision of possibilities, tolerance, love and brotherhood.

I wondered what would happen to that mural when the University unleashed its plan to dump $2.1 million into property renovations, whoosh.

Clearly, the University has work ahead of it. My view continues to be a need for dramatically increased volunteer security forces, not pretty words about the “spirit” of the north side while (apparent) drug dealers do business in plain sight.

And, I might add, the frank observations of one columnist in a college paper can hardly hurt the reputation of the north side as well as the north side manages to create a bad rep all on its own.

A 4-year-old child killed and stuffed in a garbage bag, the first murder of 2008. A taxi driver attacked with a hatchet. A 70-year-old woman stabbed to death, apparently for her credit cards, the suspects hardly old enough to shave. That pretty much covers the past few weeks on the north side.

But in addition to the pressing, crying, desperate need for a large influx of “security minded” persons into the neighborhood to take over empty houses, I have one more small suggestion:

Don’t destroy that inspiring mural in the former barbeque restaurant.

A vision like that is sorely needed to work on a common goal of improving life on the north side.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]