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Neighborhood friction is a sign of the times
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Alternating political yard signs on Juliet Avenue in St. Paul. Many people on this block say they're having more trouble than ever finding common ground with neighbors who support the opposing presidential candidate. (MPR photo/Chris Roberts)
Political yard signs are the primary way average citizens advertise their preference as voters. In this divisive election year, however, they've become markers on a battlefield. In some Minnesota neighborhoods, the signs alternate between Kerry/Edwards and Bush/Cheney from house to house, sometimes for an entire block. How does this battleground challenge neighborly ties?

St. Paul, Minn. — With its canopy of trees and quaint '20s-era bungalows and tudors, the 1900 block of Juliet Avenue in St. Paul's Macalaster Groveland neighborhood is a postcard of middle-class America. It's inhabited by a mixture of predominantly-white, two-income families; families with stay-at-home moms, and retirees.

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Image John Arens.

Retired Minneapolis police officer John Arens has lived on this block for 37 years. Arens describes himself as "an ex-DFLer turned Republican." He says he's often felt like a "voice in the wind" on what used to be a heavily Democratic street, but this year he's not alone anymore.

"I don't think there's anybody that admitted to being a Republican; now you're seeing some signs going up," he says. "Maybe they had the sentiments and now they're just making them known."

Arens supports President Bush. He strongly favors the war in Iraq, strongly opposes abortion, and is a vocal proponent of smaller government and lower taxes. He understands Democrats on his block are equally adamant about their beliefs. In fact, Arens believes this election year is distinguished from all others he's witnessed by the level of polarization. He himself admits to feeling an amused disdain for neighbors who've planted Kerry/Edwards signs in their yards.

"Kind of smugly I think, 'oh those poor dolts,'" he says. "Don't they think? I don't say anything to them but I wonder how they can have this tendency to endorse that party. It's not Kerry so much; it's the party's gotten so crazy."

Arens could be referring to his neighbor across the street, Kathy Braga. Braga's a stay-at-home mom with two young adopted daughters from China. She's also a staunch John Kerry supporter. Braga says George Bush's misguided policies and mistakes transformed her from an armchair Democrat into an active one.

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Image The "1900" block of Juliet Avenue.

"I never thought I'd be putting a sign in my yard, much less doing things, volunteering, going to protests," she says. "I just think it's so important this year."

Most of the people on this block will tell you they're having more trouble than ever finding any common ground with supporters of the opposing presidential candidate. They're also aghast at the vehemence and animosity with which some people are expressing their views.

Gene Baum, 61, who restores old homes for a living, is a die-hard conservative and is solidly in the Bush/Cheney camp.

"I'm surprised at the out and out hate that people have for President Bush," he says. "There's no reason for it. I didn't like President Clinton, but he was a master politician. I just didn't like some of the things he did, both in the office and out of the office, if you will."

Some, like Kathy Braga, have felt threatened by those who disagree with them. Braga recalls going to the post office one day with her daughter, and being accosted by a man in a black sports car who was, to put it mildly, displeased with her John Kerry advocacy.

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Image Jim Willenbring and Kelly Kirk Willenbring.

"He's an older man," Braga says, "I'd say maybe mid-40s, something like that, black driving gloves on, black clothes, it's like 'get a life,boy,' you know, but here he was just reaming me right in front of my daughter, because I was for Kerry. And he was telling me how stupid I was."

"And then it got to the point where I was scared he was going to attack my daughter because she is Asian," she says. "And I was afraid. And then after he had his say he wouldn't let me say a word. And then he just peeled out of there like a young kid."

The Willenbring family lives a house down from Braga. Jim Willenbring is a marketing director for a Twin Cities medical company and his wife, Kelly, watches their five-year-old son at home. Both are John Kerry supporters, although Jim Willenbring says he used to vote Republican or Independent in the past.

They decided against putting a sign in their yard for fear of causing a rift in their neighborhood. Willenbring says he's been thinking a lot about why political divisiveness in America has reached, in some cases, the level of road rage.

"I think we're at this place now, because of the depth of the conversations that are happening," he says. "They're trying to appeal to people's emotions at the top level and I don't think they're getting into anything substantial underneath that allows a nice healthy dialogue, I shouldn't say is free of emotions but has the right level of emotional involvement in it."

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Image Street sign.

So far, the only manifestation of extreme polarization on this block of Juliet has been a silent political sign war. All the neighbors we spoke to say they respect each other's beliefs and right to disagree. Gene Baum says without a diversity of opinion in the world, life wouldn't be interesting.

"In fact I had a conversation with a retired pastor I know who's very liberal," Baum says. "I was doing work on his house and we were out on the deck having coffee and lunch, he says, 'you know, we're on opposite ends of the political spectrum but I really like you,' and I says 'well the feeling's mutual.'"

Others, such as Kelly Willenbring, believe there's a political calm in their neighborhood because everyone has clammed up.

"I think we're getting along because we don't talk," she says. "We don't talk about the deeper issues; we stay on a surface level."

All the neighbors quiver at the thought of the opposing candidate winning the White House. Kerry supporters say a Bush victory virtually guarantees what they describe as more military misadventures and ineffective economic policies. Bush supporters fear another terrorist attack if Kerry's elected. But barring a repeat of the 2000 election, come November 3, the political signs will start to disappear, and the neighbors on Juliet Avenue will have to live with the country's decision.

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