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Bloomington Avenue rising amid blight
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The transformation of Bloomington Ave., between Franklin Ave., and Lake Street includes Mark Welna's new hardware store. (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
There's a renaissance underway along one of south Minneapolis' most rundown, crime-infested thoroughfares. A new hardware store and dozens of units of new housing are going up on a blighted stretch of Bloomington Ave. But signs of renewal haven't stopped drug sellers and prostitutes from doing business there. Neighbors say they are frustrated with a justice system that doesn't deal with the criminals on their sidewalks.

St. Paul, Minn. — The transformation of Bloomington Ave., between Franklin Ave., and Lake Street includes Mark Welna's new hardware store. He's betting $1 million a new building with wider aisles and parking will pay off for the three-generation hardware store family. "We've had other businesses that have moved out to the suburbs and different things like that," Welna says, "And they told us 20 years ago we should have done it too, but we've kind of stuck it out with my grandparents and my parents, and this is a wonderful community, and I think things are going to get better in the next three to four to five years.

Down Bloomington Avenue, closer to Lake Street, workers at Gesco Building craft cabinets for a local lumber yard. Owner Jason Gescwhind grew up in the neighborhood. His family has branched out into housing and real estate. His company's new townhouses are rising on nearby vacant lots. Geschwind says the housing and the jobs at his cabinet making business will help stabilize a neighborhood that has been in a decades-long slump.

"People of color and women and people who live in poverty need to own homes, have jobs, have simple jobs that are easy to get into like our cabinet shop or construction," he says, "Where you can learn while you are on the job, where college isn't a hurdle or a big tuition bill isn't a hurdle.

The visual impact of new housing rising next to decaying and boarded up structures on Bloomington Avenue is striking. Neighbors have devoted countless volunteer hours at community meetings to lobby for the projects.

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Image Bloomington between Franklin and Lake is in Minneapolis council member Dean Zimmerman's ward

They've also taken on the avenue's most visible blight - drug sellers. Nearly two years ago residents formed a citizens safety patrol after a drug-related murder. Two other drug-related killings have happened since then.

Every weekday citizen safety patrol members arm themselves with two-way radios and notepads. They stand at a Bloomington Avenue corner and shoo away drug sellers so children can board buses safely. Other safety patrol members in cars watch for drug deals. They jot down car license numbers, trace addresses and fire off letters to owners saying someone in the vehicle is suspected of buying drugs from one of the sidewalk sellers.

Citizen patrol member Shirley Heyer encountered a driver who didn't appreciate the attention. "I slowly started to drive away and he turned back and fired twice at me from the back," she says.

The bullets struck Heyer's van. She was unhurt, but shaken. Another time a drug seller smashed her van's windows. Other members of the neighborhood's citizen patrol have had their cars sideswiped or have been threatened.

Heyer says the crime on Bloomington between Franklin and Lake would not be tolerated in the city's more upscale neighborhoods. "This wouldn't happen in southwest Minneapolis or around Lake Harriet or around Lake Nokomis. It does happen here every day, and the police take care of it and the courts take care of it out there, they don't here," she says.

Residents praise the quick response by police to their calls. Suspected dealers vanish. A few are arrested. The police raid drug houses. However, the sellers inevitably return.

Residents criticize judges and a justice system that doesn't charge and try suspects or releases those convicted after a short time.

Neighborhood resident Jana Metge recently walked into a corner convenience store on Bloomington Avenue and saw the man convicted six years ago of trashing her house. The crime occurred while she was on vacation. Interlopers took over her home and used it as a base for drug selling and prostitution and did thousands of dollars in damage. The perpetrator Metge ran into was probationed after a two-year jail sentence. "He had fled his probation person. In a couple of days he was found. Since then I've run into him twice, once he was flashing money to the north side of my house," she says, "kind of as a way to show me he was back out on the street. Shortly after that he was busted again and a third time he got out he was busted again and I ran into him on Lake and Bloomington and now I think he's out again."

Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak says the city is spending a lot of time and money to address the crime on Bloomington Avenue. "It's exactly why we put as many police resources into this as we have, it's exactly why I continue to work with the courts to get the reform we need, it's exactly why we need to look at our arrest strategy on that. The citizens have done a great job, but they are not in this alone," he says.

Officials say they're talking with judges to encourage assigning street crimes to a core group of prosecutors and judges. Minneapolis City Councilmember Dean Zimmerman whose ward includes Bloomington Avenue says that strategy will help people in the justice system keep track of repeat offenders. "If you continue to put them in front of the same judges and same prosecutors then they know this is the tenth time you've hear in the last three months," he says, "Then they understand exactly who are the people we need to go after and who are perhaps young kids caught up in the whirlwind in all of this and aren't really the central core."

Mark Welna predicts most of Bloomington Avenue's crime will be gone soon. He says his new hardware store and the new houses on Bloomington Avenue will fill gaps where the criminals do business. "More home ownership and me moving across the street, the townhouses being built and that's really going to help our block a lot," he says "Because the drug dealers and prostitutes seem to hang around abandoned lots or really run down buildings and things like that too, so I think this all will really help stabilize the neighborhood."

However residents aren't waiting for development to rid the street of crime. They're trying to find money for more street lighting, and they're working with elected officials to tighten language in state and city ordinances aimed at stiffening penalties for loitering and possessing drug paraphernalia.

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